Rape, child soldiers at Boko Haram’s new frontier

When they heard gunshots on 1 April 2022, the Kurebe people of Shiroro in Niger State ran out of their homes. They saw menacing men emerging from Hudawa, a thick forest in the neighbouring Kaduna State, and marching along the community’s untarred roads.

Wearing black shaws and blank faces, the invaders ordered the villagers to face down, witnesses said. “We’re Boko Haram,” a villager PREMIUM TIMES interviewed recalled them saying. The terrorists then raided homes, kidnapped innocent girls and boys, commandeered their camouflaged van and took them off.

The girls abducted in Kurebe were forced to marry the jihadists, a euphemism for rape and sexual slavery. Rumasau Husaini, 11, was one of them. On the first day of Muslims’ fasting month this year, her father, Haruna Husaini, began searching for his daughter when he realised she had been abducted during the terror raid in the community earlier.

“After 3 days, they called and informed us that they had kidnapped her,” Mr Husaini recalled. “We asked them to return her but they told us it was impossible to do so because she has already been taken to their place.”

Mr Husaini said he pleaded with the terrorists to pay a ransom but they declined, offering to pay him the girl’s bride price instead.

“They said we should talk about her dowry but I refused to collect it. I told them I just want my daughter,” he said.

But Rumasau’s situation is not unique. While Rumasau’s parents rejected the forceful marriage of their daughter, Zainab Abu, 17, another girl abducted by the jihadist soldiers, was ceremoniously married to a terrorist, who persuaded her father. Zainab’s dowry was paid during a snappy wedding ceremony in the village after the terrorist suitor convinced her father that she would be “treated with honour” in their camp, witnesses told PREMIUM TIMES.

With Zainab’s marriage to a Boko Haram fighter, the villagers said they are scared the terrorists might normalise marrying their girls forcefully and radicalising them. They are more worried that the attack and the events that followed mirrored a similar kidnapping and raping of girls by Boko Haram in the North-east. But the tragedy has failed to resonate around the country because their community is hard to reach.

The Boko Haram plague

In 2020, the Boko Haram terrorists infiltrated the ungoverned spaces of Niger, ruling over the people’s affairs. They camp in a deep forest in the neighbouring Kaduna State and from there, they spread radical Islamist ideologies betraying the fundamental human rights of the people.

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Boko Haram, a violent extremist group notorious for preaching against western education and lifeways, is spreading its gospel and tentacles across Nigeria and the southern edges of the Sahel. Deeply rooted in north-east Nigeria, its birthplace, the Islamic extremists have infiltrated the north-west and north-central states to further spread their campaigns of terror and radicalism.

At the peak of its operations in 2015, the terror group was ranked above the Islamic State group (ISIS) — an international terror sect — as the deadliest terror group in the world, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

Boko Haram, literally meaning “western education is forbidden,” has killed tens of thousands of innocent citizens and displaced over two million people. When these terrorists infiltrated communities in Niger, a state neighbouring Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Governor Abubakar Bello raised the alarm, urging President Muhammadu Buhari to come to his aid.

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“I am confirming that there are Boko Haram elements here in Niger State,” Mr Bello said, publicly fretting and lamenting that the terrorists had displaced over 3000 persons and killed hundreds of others. “I am confirming that they have hoisted their flags here.”

Upholding Boko Haram’s mantra in Niger

Pulling up on a convoy of motorcycles, arm-wielding Boko Haram terrorists invaded Kurebe in August 2021 to enforce their schooling-is-forbidden ideology. Black smoke emerged from the fore of the community as the terrorists razed the only primary school in the landscape.

Pictures of the newly built school destroyed by terrorists in Kurebe Niger State.
Pictures of the newly built school destroyed by terrorists in Kurebe Niger State.

Before then, the terrorists had warned the villagers to stop sending their children to school. The villagers defied the warning. Henceforth, the punishment for sending kids to school would be death and destruction, some of the villagers recalled the terrorists saying.

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“They issued threats to us that they would kill us and our children if we send them to school,” Yusuf Saidu, a chieftain of the community, told PREMIUM TIMES. “Since then, no parent in that village has enrolled their kids.”

Yusuf Saidu the Kurebe district head deposed by terrorists.
Yusuf Saidu the Kurebe district head deposed by terrorists.

When Boko Haram first took root in Niger State, the Shiroro sect commander, Mallam Sadiqu, announced one chilling evening via the community mosque that all girls must be married or they would be forcefully betrothed to the terrorists.

“Any female child that is up to 12 years old should be married off,” the jihadist was quoted to have said.

Then, parents who could not tolerate the ruling of terrorists relocated their girls while some were asked to stay in displacement camps.

As jihadist Sadiqu took over the political and social life of the people, he began to back orders promoting the beliefs of his sect. He had banned schooling in the community and threatened to eliminate anyone who violated his orders. Therefore, children in the community are engaged in hawking, farming and other menial jobs instead of going to school.

During school time on Wednesday, 13 April, six out-of-school girls sent to fetch water in the nearby Kurebe stream were, apparently, mistaken for armed terrorists by the Nigerian military. In an air raid, the military ended up killing children who had already been terrorised and denied access to basic education and other needs of life, a PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed.

But the Boko Haram fighters would not retreat. After ensuring that schooling activities were grounded in the community, they began to abduct some of the children they had denied western education. They married the girls and recruited the boys into their radical terrorism schools in the interior forests of Hudawa.

“Up till now, some of our boys and girls are still missing,” Yusuf Saidu, Kurebe’s district head, told PREMIUM TIMES. “They marry the girls and sometimes even come to pay dowries to their parents.”

‘They abduct our children and put them in their terror schools’

Mr Saidu had been ruling by proxy since he was uprooted from the community by the terrorists. When PREMIUM TIMES tracked him down earlier this year for an interview, he gave testimonies of tears on how Boko Haram terrorists were recruiting their boys and raping their girls, including his granddaughter.

“They abduct our children and say they are putting them in their schools,” he said. “We don’t know where the school is but we know they said we shouldn’t take our children to the school here in Kurebe; anyone that wants his children to go to school must take them outside the village.”

The Kurebe delapidating school before it was rebuilt
The Kurebe delapidating school before it was rebuilt

But what are these children being taught in Boko Haram’s schools?

In Borno and other Boko Haram strongholds, boys and girls are recruited as child soldiers. Over 8,000 girls and boys have been recruited and used as child soldiers in different roles by armed Nigerian groups, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

As the sect grew stronger in the region, they expanded their indoctrination methods by kidnapping folks at their younger ages and brainwashing them. The terror teachers taught boys how to shoot a gun and aim targets to kill; they also brainwashed girls into believing that jihad against civilians was godly, using them to execute deadly suicide bombings in the region.

When asked, Mr Saidu said he suspects the boys enrolled in the Boko Haram’s schools were trained to kill and become deadly terrorists. “What we observed and think is that the school they are talking about will be to teach our children how to bear arms,” he said.

A frustrated rescue mission

In the heart of Minna, the state capital, however, Umar Kurebe, a social activist in Niger, had advocated the reintegration of schooling activities. Still, his efforts have yielded no results, he said.

When the terrorists set ablaze the only school in Kurebe last year, Mr Umar said he was bitter because the community had been devoid of basic amenities such as public healthcare.

He had led a group of other youths who demanded the reconstruction of the dilapidating primary school in Kurebe after which state authorities danced to their tune. But a few months after the school was rebuilt, the terrorists invaded the community, razing it.

“It was really painful when we learnt that the terrorists had burnt the community school that had just been rebuilt,” he told PREMIUM TIMES. “Since then, all schooling activities were suspended in Kurebe up till now.”

PREMIUM TIMES has obtained pictures showing the Kurebe dilapidating school and when it was newly rebuilt before the terrorists finally burnt it into ashes. Six residents whom this reporter interviewed lamented the abandonment of the community by the state authorities since the terrorists took over the governance and economy of the area.

However, like in Kurebe, nearly 5,000 classrooms have been razed in the protracted armed conflict, the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a statement earlier this year.

Local activists in the state said they had written to the government on several occasions about the security situations in the area but their efforts have proven unyielding due to neglect by the authorities.

The community is said to be entirely disconnected from the basic realities of life, according to interviews with residents. There are no good roads, no hospitals, no schools, and no good telecommunication network to connect with the people conveniently.

A forgotten community

When the schooling-is-forbidden Boko Haram policy in Kurebe was mentioned to Idris Kolo of Niger’s State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), he asked to be contacted later for details about the community. A few minutes later, he called back saying, “nobody lives in that community anymore”.

“Due to the insurgency in that area, the villagers have been displaced,” he added.

Sadly, the Kurebe community had been forgotten by the authorities, a PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed. Mr Kolo was relying on the narrative pushed by Emmanuel Umar, Niger State’s commissioner for chieftaincy affairs and internal security, who claimed only terrorists were occupying the Kurebe landscape.

“To the best knowledge of the state government, there are no civilians resident in these areas for some time now due to the infiltrations and activities of the terrorists which forced the locals to seek shelter as IDPs in other parts of the state,” Mr Umar said in a statement. “While the state government appreciates the victories recorded during these operations, it also looks forward to sustained operations to eradicate bandits from the state.”

But his claim had since been declared as falsehood in an earlier on-the-ground investigation by PREMIUM TIMES. The Niger State authority is failing to take responsibility for the insurgency in Kurebe because the community is very hard to reach, our investigation showed. The security commissioner had declared Kurebe a terror camp to deny the aerial bombing of innocent school girls in the community. He did not respond to PREMIUM TIMES’ inquiries on matters relating to Kurebe’s insecurity.

The Kurebe children have joined hundreds of others sent out of schools by damning insecurity in the northern region. In September, Save the Children, an international think-tank, in a statement, showed concern over the impact of insecurity on children in the region. The organisation urged the authorities to emerge with practicable security measures to secure children in their schools.

The organisation’s country director, Mercy Gichuhi, said abandoning out-of-school kids may affect the future of Nigeria.

“When education is under attack, a generation is attacked,” she said. “With the total or partial closure of schools in Zamfara, Katsina, Adamawa, Kaduna, Niger and other states due to kidnapping and abduction of school children, the number of children that would be prevented from accessing education in Nigeria could be on the increase.”

But Maryam Abdulmalik, a child rights enthusiast and primary education analyst in Niger, said the state government could still ensure children are educated despite insecurity. “The lasting solution to this problem is that the government should ensure that peace returns to this community,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview. “But alternatively, the government could mobilise volunteer teachers to displacement camps to engage these children in academic activities.”

The reporting for this story is supported by YouthHub Africa in collaboration with Malala Fund. The next of this reporting series on basic education in northern Nigeria explores how Kaduna displaced children find new hope in schooling despite insecurity.

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