This is a guest post by Sherrie Russell-Brown. Sherrie is an international lawyer, who writes about issues of gender, security, international justice and humanitarian law, with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. She also coordinates a collaborative group of experts dedicated to promoting research and analysis on the Sahel, and, in particular, the Boko Haram insurgency.
Ahead of an all-important international donor conference, on February 24, in Oslo, Norway to mobilize greater international involvement and increased funding for the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Nigeria’s Defense Headquarters (DHQ) has warned the public of an alleged “new tactic” by Boko Haram. The movement is already known for using more women and girls to carry out suicide operations than any other terrorist group. However, in a statement on Friday, January 27, Director of Defense Information Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar said that “female suicide bombers are now evading detection from security operatives by carrying babies on their back.” In earlier reports, he had speculated that the bombers may have only disguised their IEDs as infants. The intention in either case is the same: to enable them to pass as nursing mothers and cross a security checkpoint. Nigerian authorities who confirmed the January 13 attacks in Madagali “saw two women detonate their devices, killing themselves, two babies and four others.”
Last month, the Associated Press also reported “[i]n a particularly horrific instance, a woman suicide bomber carrying a baby on her back was shot by soldiers at a checkpoint on Nov. 28. The shot detonated her explosives, killing the woman and the baby. The BBC noted that “officials” have said that the use of babies by Boko Haram, signals a dangerous “trend”. King’s College London researcher Elizabeth Pearson notes an associated trend affecting women and girls in northeast Nigeria. Reports of averted attacks indicate that the Civilian Joint Task Force and military have shot and killed more than twenty suspected female bombers in the past year.
If this disturbing news of Boko Haram using babies in female suicide attacks were not enough of a wakeup call about the deepening crisis in Nigeria, Toby Lanzer, outgoing United Nations (UN) assistant secretary-general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, has been tirelessly raising the alarm about the grave humanitarian situation, faced, in particular, by children, in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
Lanzer reported that in the Lake Chad region ten million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid and that 7.1 million of them face severe food insecurity surviving on one meal a day, if that. Over five-hundred thousand children are severely and acutely malnourished and will die this year if aid does not reach them urgently. At an International Peace Institute event, Lanzer recalled a trip to Bama, Borno State, Nigeria in April 2016, a town he said was completely devoid of children aged two, three, and four. When he asked where the children were, the response was that “they had died, they had starved.” Mausi Segun at Human Rights Watch, similarly reported on the new victims of the Boko Haram conflict, starving children. Only last week, the New York Times reported that “starvation in northern Nigeria’s Borno State is so bad that a whole slice of the population—children under five—appears to have died.”
There is action at the grassroots level to confront this crisis. Nigerian women this week convened a Peace Summit in Yola, Adamawa to discuss gender equality and the security situation. Many were reportedly widows, or had lost children to the Boko Haram insurgency. At the January 12, UN Security Council (UNSC) session on the Lake Chad region, the former U.S.- ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, expressed her gratitude to Fatima Askira, director of the Borno Women Development Initiative and youth programs coordinator at Search for Common Ground Nigeria, “for sharing the vital voice from the ground.” Nigeria’s representative to the UN, Ambassador Anthony Bosah, advised the UNSC that it was working hard to ensure the release of all Nigerians held captive by Boko Haram, including the Chibok schoolgirls who remained in the country’s “national consciousness” (shortly after the UNSC session members of the #BringBackOurGirls movement team including Dr. Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu participated in a guided tour of the Sambisa General Area War Zone hosted by the Nigeria Air Force).
But action requires resources, and this is a key challenge. At a high level dialogue, January 24, at the UN, titled Building Sustainable Peace for All, Joy Onyesoh, president of WILPF Nigeria put out a call to donors, that investing in peace and investing in women are critical to the transformation sought in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Other national measures to complement humanitarian intervention in northeastern Nigeria, include the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative and the Emergency Coordination Centre led by the Chief Humanitarian Coordinator Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija. There is growing awareness not just of the severe regional implications, but also the global consequences of Nigeria’s humanitarian crisis—Nigeria was the third largest source of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in 2016.
It remains to be seen whether the use of babies by Boko Haram in female suicide attacks marks a “trend.” What is clear is that hundreds of thousands of children are suffering as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, in many other ways. Both the Oslo pledging conference in February and the UN Security Council mission to the Lake Chad region in March, should seek to ensure the role of women in building sustainable peace. As concluded by The Fund for Peace report Confronting the Unthinkable: Suicide Bombers in Northern Nigeria which used data generated by the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Program , the Violence Against Women and Girls Observatory Platform, and The Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker. More dedicated research, funding, and support is needed to address the complexity of the issue of female and child suicide bombers. It must also be used to tackle those urgent issues less likely to make global headlines, such as the starvation of children in northeastern Nigeria, and the towns like Bama, where their faces are no longer seen.