Former child detainees at various military detention facilities have described to Amnesty International (AI) the inhuman conditions in which they were kept and how their rights to a fair hearing were routinely violated by the Nigerian Army.
Drawing from interviews with 48 people who were detained as children, the international organisation captured these experiences in a report released on Wednesday titled, ‘We Dried Our Tears’: Addressing The Toll On Children of Northeast Nigeria’s Conflict‘.
AI said, “The Nigerian military has detained thousands of boys and girls coming out of Boko Haram territory, often with no evidence the child was affiliated with Boko Haram, much less committed crimes against civilians.
“In the vast majority of cases, no charges are brought, even as children are held for months or years.
“Due process is routinely flouted. And while the military has released several large groups of children between July 2018 and March 2020, its unlawful detention of children has continued through this report’s writing,” the report said.
The United Nations documented the detention of over 3,600 children, almost half of them female, between January 2013 and March 2019 for alleged personal or family affiliation with Boko Haram, but AI believes “the real number is likely significantly higher”.
This, it said, is especially because access to the facilities has repeatedly been denied to independent observers.
Summarising its findings, Amnesty International said in the report, “The conditions are universally deplorable in military detention facilities, with severe overcrowding and poor sanitation; insufficient food and water; sexual violence; and, in some cases, beatings by either soldiers or designated cell ‘chairmen’.
“The overcrowding, poor sanitation, and insufficient water have often led to serious illness and disease and, in many cases, death—including of both younger and older children,” it added.
AI deduced from interviews with recently released detainees that at least 200 boys are still held at the infamous Giwa Barracks even after significant releases in November 2019 and March.
Children are detained not only at Giwa but also the Maiduguri Maximum Prison, military bases in Kainji, Bama, and Damboa.
How they are treated is often in breach of local laws including the Child Rights Act and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.
However, many state governments in the Northeast are yet to domesticate the legislations after many years.
The international organisation discovered that the screening process of people who leave or escape from Boko Haram territories to determine their level of involvement is often vague and allows even “victims of circumstances” to be detained for months or years.
Some people have described experiences of torture during such interrogations.
“CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force] men were the ones beating us, while the soldiers sat and watched. My legs and hands were bound together at the back and I was hung from a tree, head facing down,” a 19-year-old man recounted how he and his younger brother were tortured at Bama Prison after fleeing his village as a child.
“When they untied me, I couldn’t feel my legs and hands and could barely walk. The same thing was done to my younger brother. They did that to us because we refused to accept that we were Boko Haram, during interrogation,” he added.
“The interrogation was done by soldiers and CJTF. They said it wasn’t possible we would live for years with Boko Haram and not join them, so they said we were lying… My younger brother was beaten so badly that he could not eat with his hands.”
Amnesty International noted that none of the people it interviewed for the report had access to a lawyer or was ever arraigned before a court during the entire detention which lasted between three months and for as long as six years.
“The only children interviewed who ever saw a lawyer were five who were transferred from the Kainji barracks to Kuje Prison, a federal prison near Abuja, following the process of the sham ‘mass trials’ in Kainji in 2018; even those children’s access to counsel came only after three to five years of detention,” it said.
Former detainees also unanimously described the conditions of their detention as inhumane with such qualities as extreme overcrowding, invasion of parasites, lack of ventilation amid stinging heat, inadequate sanitary facilities causing inmates to pass excreta on the floor, and an inability to bathe.
“When they opened the cell, the odour that came out—I started regretting leaving [Boko Haram],” someone who was detained at the age of 15 or 16 recalled his first day at the facility.
“There was no place to sit. Someone was in your lap… The heat was so much, it was unbearable, everyone was sweating so much that you could see water everywhere on the cell floor.”
Others talked about how they would defecate inside bags used to package food and place it by the cell door for pickup and also how they urinated in buckets.
One person who detained at Giwa in 2017 when he was only 16 said there was only one toilet for all the cells.
“Even at night, there was a queue… Sometimes, when people were sick, they would defecate or urinate on their own body. The military would just give a [1-litre] bottle of water and say, ‘Clean yourself.’ They wouldn’t [give new clothes]. They’d just say, ‘Wash your body, wash yourself’ [with the water] … I got sick. All of my body had rashes,” he narrated.
There was also a gross shortage of food and water at the facilities. One detainee said people died of dehydration and huger all the time and, at times, he got so desperate and would drink his urine to keep his body somewhat refreshed.
The inconducive conditions led to many deaths in custody estimated to be over 10,000 in total since the conflict started. Even though the rate of deaths has reduced over the years, it has not stopped.
“The conditions were worse than being beaten. People were dying all the time, because of hunger. We saw all the bodies being taken,” a 17-year-old boy who was detained at Kainji for three years said.
“The soldiers brought a car—sometimes two cars, an ambulance and a Helix—and they’d put the bodies in and take them away.”
He said tuberculosis was rampant. Another boy held in Kainji for around four years similarly described bodies being brought from cells daily in the first year, as soldiers grabbed the legs and dragged the body out. He said he sometimes counted more than 10 bodies a day.”
Amnesty International recommended that the Nigerian government immediately release all children held at the various detention facilities and make sure all detainees are arraigned before independent, civilian courts, with access to legal representation.
It should further “ensure that conditions of detention in all places where people, and especially children, are deprived of liberty are humane, and in strict adherence with international law and standards”.
It also urged the government to improve access to health care, food, and water at the facilities, and establish a centralised, constantly updated register of all people arrested and detained in connection to the conflict.