HART Prize 2020-2021 Intermediate Essay Winner: Amadea Hoffman’s A Child Soldier’s Dilemma: How Nigerian Children Suffer at the Hands of Boko Haram and the Military 

13 May 2021


Political instability, economic turmoil and social tensions have plagued Nigeria for decades. Nigeria’s volatile state provided fertile ground for the rise of Boko Haram, a jihadist terrorist organisation notorious for its suicide bombings, kidnappings, and property destruction. In its pursuit of establishing an Islamic state, Boko Haram’s insurgency has displaced millions, killed thousands, jeopardised education and health services, stalled humanitarian aid efforts and undercut the Nigerian government’s authority.(1) Perhaps their most despicable crime is the recruitment of child soldiers, whose roles range from suicide bombers to sex slaves. The United Nations reported that between January 2017 and December 2019, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the most significant number of verified violations, with a total of 3,601 affected.(2) Some children were abducted and held captive, while others joined. Many children enlist as a matter of survival, not ideology. Joining Boko Haram is a way to escape poverty or simply survive in a region controlled by the terrorist group. Although children generally join because of hardship rather than faith, the Nigerian government unlawfully imprisons suspected child soldiers and subjects them to inhumane conditions.

There is a tendency to attribute child involvement in armed forces to them “becoming radicalised and swept up in this violent ideology.”(3) In reality, a nexus of poverty and conflict drastically limits opportunity, positioning joining a terrorist group as the only alternative. Anne-Lynn Dudenhoefer describes two types of factors that inform a child’s decision to enlist. There are “push factors,” such as poverty, lack of education and employment, and “pull factors” such as security in armed groups, provision of food and a sense of belonging.(4) Economic gain can be a huge incentive, especially considering Nigeria is one of the world’s poorest countries. Nigeria’s government reported that 40% of the total population, or almost 83 million people, live below the country’s poverty line of $381.75 per year.(5) Often, terrorist organisations like Boko Haram appeal to children because they offer a sense of community and a feeling of order amid chaos. If the appeal of money or community is not convincing enough, the survival instinct is. In a war zone, it is virtually impossible for children to remain unaffiliated. Boko Haram has seized control of regions in Northeast Nigeria, meaning that joining them may be the only realistic way to survive.(6) Although voluntary enlistment implies free will, children often do not have a choice. Given Nigeria’s political and social conditions, joining Boko Haram might be the most attractive way to stay alive. 

Children who escape Boko Haram territory are often unlawfully detained by Nigerian authorities and subsequently subjected to horrifying human rights violations. The United Nations reported that between January 2013 and March 2019, the Nigerian armed forces arrested over 3,600 children for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups.(7) Most of these detentions are unlawful; children are never charged or prosecuted for any crime and are denied the rights to access a lawyer, appear before a judge, or communicate with their families.(8) The Human Rights Watch also reported that imprisoned children are subjected to beatings, torture and sexual violence by adult inmates. A 14-year-old boy whom Boko Haram abducted as a young child before he fled and was placed in detention by the Nigerian military said: “The conditions [in prison] are horrible. They could make you die. (…) nobody has told me why I was taken there, what I did, why I was in detention. I wonder, why did I run from [Boko Haram]?”(9) It is appalling that children would be so violated by the very authorities charged to protect them. 

The recruitment of child soldiers is a hugely complex issue; every child has a different upbringing and motivations. But regardless of the circumstance, Nigerian child soldiers are undoubtedly victims of a brutal conflict. At best, they end up displaced, struggling for survival and with little or no access to education. At worst, they are arbitrarily detained for years, in conditions infringing on their fundamental human rights. As Joanne Mariner observed, the “bitter conflict between Nigeria’s military and Boko Haram has been an assault on childhood itself in Northeast Nigeria. The Nigerian authorities risk creating a lost generation unless they urgently address how the war has targeted and traumatised thousands of children.”(10) We need to shift our approach if we want to combat the recruitment of child soldiers effectively. Instead of focusing on punishment, the Nigerian government needs to create mechanisms that foster child soldiers’ rehabilitation and reintegration. This political conflict has stolen the childhood of countless children—we need to ensure their future. 

By Amadea Hoffman



  1. Felter, Claire. 2018. “Nigeria’s Battle with Boko Haram.” Council on Foreign Relations. 2018.
  2. “Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria.” 2020. United Nations. July 6, 2020. 
  3. O’Neil, Siobhan, and Kato van Broeckhoven. 2018. “Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict.” United Nations University. 
  4. Dudenhoefer, Anne-Lynn. 2016. “Understanding the Recruitment of Child Soldiers in Africa.” ACCORD. 2016. 
  5. “Nigeria Releases New Report on Poverty and Inequality in Country.” 2020. World Bank. May 28, 2020. 
  6. O’Neil, Siobhan, and Kato van Broeckhoven. 2018. “Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict.” United Nations University. 
  7. “‘They Didn’t Know If I Was Alive or Dead’ | Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria.” 2019. Human Rights Watch. September 10, 2019. 
  8. “‘We Dried Our Tears’: Addressing the Toll on Children of Northeast Nigeria’s Conflict.” 2020. Amnesty International. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. “Nigeria Faces a Lost Generation of Children amid the Conflict with Boko Haram.” 2020. Amnesty International. May 27, 2020. 
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