The United Nations has welcomed as an “important milestone” the release of 833 children in Northeast Nigeria by the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).
The CJTF is a group formed in 2013 to protect communities and support Nigerian security forces against Boko Haram extremists.
“This is an important development for boys and girls of Northeast Nigeria whose lives have been deeply affected by violence and insecurity.
“I also want to highlight that today’s release of children is the result of months of productive work and collaboration between the CJTF and the United Nations.
“We expect more children to be separated from the CJTF soon,” the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba said.
For almost 10 years, Nigeria’s Northeast has been in the grip of a brutal conflict between various non-state armed groups, including Boko Haram, and the Nigerian military.
This has resulted in the recruitment of thousands of children by the various militias, the UN said.
This release by the CJTF came after it was named in the UN Secretary-General’s Annual Report for Children and Armed Conflict and an action plan was subsequently developed and signed in September 2017.
In the agreement with CJTF, the group committed to ending and preventing the recruitment of children and agreed to release all children from its ranks,’’ Gamba said.
She said the United Nations had supported this process by providing training and awareness raising sessions to members of the CJTF and the communities.
The Special Representative noted that the Nigerian authorities would be providing reintegration services to all children released, with support from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other child protection organisations.
“We have an opportunity to help these children heal and rebuild their lives,” Gamba said adding, “I call on all those who can support this process to work with us to ensure they have access to the best possible services”.
This is the first formal release since the agreement, but UNICEF estimated that another 600 boys and girls remain within the ranks of the CJTF in the city of Maiduguri.
The UN children’s agency added that many more youngsters remain in other armed groups, either in combat or support roles.
“The release of these children from CJTF shows commitment to implement the provisions of the Action Plan and to uphold international humanitarian law, human rights laws as well as other regional and national legislations, protecting children’s rights,” said Pernille Ironside, Deputy Representative of UNICEF in Nigeria.
Since 2017, UNICEF and its partners have supported the Nigeria authorities in its efforts to reintegrate more than 8,700 children released by parties to the conflict.
This work has involved tracing their families, getting them home and offering psychological and economic support, an education, vocational training, as well as helping them overcome the stigma they face from their association with armed groups.
Gamba said while Friday’s release of children is an “important milestone” for the protection of children in Nigeria, she regretted that children in the country’s northeast continue to be subjected to grave violations.
During the first six months of 2018 alone, 37 children, the majority of whom were girls, were used as ‘human bombs’ to harm civilians, she said.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General added that during the same period, 349 children were killed or maimed, and another 140 children were abducted.
She also expressed concern over children detained by the authorities for their – or their parents’ – alleged association with non-state armed groups.
Calling on the Nigerian Government to consider these children primarily as victims, Gamba appealed for a handover of these children to civilian care “without delay”.