Northeastern Nigeria has been of significant interest to the research community for one obvious reason: to study the decade-long insurgency ravaging the region. Scholarly inquiries into the phenomenon have produced useful findings, which border on a multitude of issues including the socio-economic and political origins of the conflict; state and international responses; impacts of the conflict on human security; religious and ideological dimensions of the conflict; gender relations; and civil society engagements. As an ardent researcher of the conflict since its emergence in 2009, with many research outputs on the topic, and considerably familiar with the literature, The gap concerns studies on the perspectives of children impacted by the conflict, despite the daily reports of attacks on children and images increasingly demonstrating their active involvement in the conflict. The policy approach of the government regarding deradicalization and reintegration also shows some gaps with regards to deliberate inclusion of children associated with the conflict. After the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014, and the brutal killing of high school boys at their dormitory in Yobe State by the deadly Boko Haram insurgents, I expected more focus on how children are directly impacted by the phenomenon. Most studies I saw concerning children were focused on the girl-child and offering a gender-based analysis of the situation.1

I thought paying attention to children in Boko Haram studies would be of significance to peacebuilding initiatives in the area. Indeed, the “children voice” would be useful for both state and non-state actors aiming for a holistic peacebuilding intervention that acknowledges both the diversity and complexities of actors and victims in the conflict.

I ventured into researching the children perspective of the insurgency by firstly doing a general survey of how children are affected by the conflict, validating the need for the incorporation of children into the analyses of the conflict.2 Having read reports about the increased rate of recruitment of children by the armed groups, including the state-backed groups such as Civilian Joint Task Force, Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN), and Professional Hunters Association, I developed an interest in studying the phenomenon of child soldiering in the conflict in northeastern Nigeria. I found a few works on the topic, including those of Yakubu3  and Bloom4 , on child or youth recruitment by the terrorist groups—but there was no proof of direct engagement with the child soldiers themselves. Relying on third parties or secondary data to analyze the phenomenon would not give an in-depth understanding of the issue.

There was need for more compelling empirical work that would involve direct engagement of the child soldiers to have rich data on the recruitment, radicalization, and reintegration processes. With the support of the APN-SSRC, I embarked on fieldwork with support from research assistants in the states most affected by insurgency in northeastern Nigeria: Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY) States. We were able to interview 14 ex-child soldiers who were between the ages of 12 and 17 years during their active participation with the insurgent groups. I consider this a good number for such research. It is important to note that most of them were undergoing rehabilitation at different camps, while others had already undergone rehabilitation and completely reintegrated into their home communities. At the point of interviews, most of them were already above 18 years and could not be treated as a child-subject in research. Besides, consent was duly sought from both the participants and the authorities in charge of their care.

The rate of child recruitment

Based on my engagement with the communities involved, I observed that child recruitment by armed groups in northeastern Nigeria is widespread. The overwhelming majority of the participants were familiar with cases of child recruitment by the armed groups in their surroundings, and admitted to having known child soldiers around them. There is no official data as to number of child soldiers recruited by armed groups, but from the findings of the interviews conducted, participants revealed that one or two of their children, or brothers or sisters, had been recruited as child soldier by Boko Haram between 2011-2020. However, a UN special report in 2017 indicated that about 8,000 children had been recruited by the armed groups.

Drivers of recruitment

The interviews conducted provided insights into the various reasons that contribute to the recruitment of children as combatants. These reasons are consistent with the Three P’s (Push, Pull and Personal) factors for radicalization introduced by Matteo Vergani, Muhammed Iqbal, Ekin Ilbahar and Greg Barton.5 I found evidence of socio-economic factors especially poverty, poor education (both in modern and religious contexts), and the failure of the state to provide security and welfare for the children. There were also personal reasons, including revenge for brutal killing of family members and the drive for monetary benefits. The findings indicate that some children are attracted to the armed group due to the strategies employed by them. Various tactics  armed groups employ include the utilization of monetary resources, dissemination of religious propaganda, coercive recruitment methods, charismatic persuasion, and even the administration of illicit substances. The study also revealed that certain individuals were recruited through interpersonal connections, while others willingly joined armed groups in order to seek retribution for the violent deaths of their innocent family members at the hands of Nigerian state security authorities.

The following are excerpts from the responses of the participants from the interviews:

R.1: I was forced to join the group at the age of 13 years. I, along with my brothers and sisters, was captured by the Boko Haram when they invaded our village. The two of my brothers and sisters were killed during the fight between the army and Boko Haram.

R.2: I joined the group voluntarily to take revenge for brutal killing of my father by the army around 2015.

R.3: Honestly, I joined the sect initially in the name of religion. I was taught fighting for the group is a gateway to paradise.

R.4: I found myself within the group at the age of 12 years. I did nothing to the group. It happened at that time I was seriously sick, but I know some of my age-mates were given bombs to detonate while some were used for gathering information.

R.5: I was captured forcefully by the group.

R.6: I was introduced to the group by my father, who believed that fighting for the group is an act of Ibadat.

R.7: I was introduced to the group through a friend using money. I was paid 50,000 Naira to join the group.

R.8: I was forcefully taken away from my community at Buni Yadi when the Boko Haram members came and attacked our village.

R.9: Most of the members are from my town and they used to offer me money, and sometimes threaten me. So, I had to join because almost all of my friends were part of it.

R.10: I joined because at that time, many of my friends in Maiduguri were members of the group and they advised me to join.

R.11: Because at that time in our place, if you are a youth and you didn’t join, you may be killed because they will say you will expose them.

 R.12: There was a day our village “NguroSoye” was attacked in the night, and then they said, whoever that doesn’t want to be killed should follow them. They took many of us, young boys and girls. I also followed them fearing that if I run or didn’t follow them, they would kill me.

R.13: I joined because of money.

R.14: “I found myself in the midst of the Boko Haram because they invaded our village and captured me, and other people including my sister, and forced me to join the group. If we attempted to escape, they would kill us.”

Implications for Peacebuilding in North East Nigeria

The above findings are very instructive towards understanding the extent of the problem of insurgency in Northeastern Nigeria. The rate of the recruitment of child soldiers by the armed group is alarming, and a deliberate strategy to produce the next generation of fighters to prolong the conflict. The prevailing socio-economic and political environment has made it more convenient for the armed groups to achieve this agenda. Unfortunately, I have not seen sufficient efforts to address the problem in terms of prevention and rehabilitation programmes for children exposed to the conflict from my engagements with the communities. Existing programs mainly target adults who defected from the armed groups. No matter the number of conflict resolutions and peacebuilding initiatives, failure to pay adequate attention to the growing problem of child soldiering in Northeastern Nigeria will render peacebuilding activities in the area ineffective. I recommend the inclusion of specialized existing government peacebuilding strategies (both at the national and state levels) in order to prevent child recruitment by armed groups, deradicalize former child soldiers, provide them with viable alternative livelihoods, and reintegrate them into their home communities. While the UNICEF has played significant roles in offering child-centered programs, there is need for more collaboration between the government and the NGOs to comprehensively address the problem of child soldiers in the area.


  1. Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, “Women, Gender and the Evolving Tactics of Boko Haram,” Journal of Terrorism Research 5, no. 1 (2014): 46-57; Temitope B. Oriola, “Unwilling Cocoons”: Boko Haram’s War Against Women,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 40, no. 2 (2017): 99-121
  2. Onapajo, Hakeem. “Children in Boko Haram conflict: The neglected facet of a decade of terror in Nigeria.” African Security13.2 (2020): 195-211.
  3. Yakubu, Moses Joseph. “Child insurgents in West Africa: The Boko Haram example In Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.” African Journal of Governance and Development5.2 (2016): 34-49
  4. Bloom, Mia. “Child Soldiers in Armed Conflict.” Armed Conflict Survey4.1 (2018): 36-50
  5. Vergani, Matteo, et al. “The three Ps of radicalization: Push, pull and personal. A systematic scoping review of the scientific evidence about radicalization into violent extremism.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism43.10 (2020): 854-854.