DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A volunteer vigilante group which formed to support Nigerian forces in the fight against Boko Haram signed a U.N.-backed agreement on Friday to root out any children from its ranks.
The 30,000-strong “Civilian Joint Task Force” (CJTF) has helped the military to push the Islamists from towns across the northeast since 2013, and has also provided security for camps hosting people uprooted by Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency.
Yet the CJTF has drawn criticism from activists who accuse its members of abuses ranging from extortion to rape, and a U.N. report last year said the group had recruited and used children.
Under the agreement, which was backed by the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) and the Nigerian government, the CJTF has vowed to stop children joining or fighting for the group, and to identify and release any members who are under the age of 18.
“We want the CJTF to be seen as a clean organization ... working in the interest of the people in northeast Nigeria,” the group’s legal advisor, Jibrin Gunda, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.
Yet Gunda said the group did not allow anyone under 18 to join, and that he was not aware of any children in their ranks.
UNICEF said it would work with the government to help any children released by the CJTF to reintegrate back into society.
“We have seen too many childhoods destroyed by the crisis in the northeast, Mohamed Fall, UNICEF’s representative in Nigeria, said in a statement. “Today’s agreement ... paves the way for a brighter future for children caught up in the conflict.”
Boko Haram has gained notoriety for using children, mainly young girls, to carry out suicide bombings in northeast Nigeria.
The militants have deployed four times as many child suicide bombers this year - at least 83 - as they used in all of 2016, according to a UNICEF report published last month.
Boko Haram’s campaign to create an Islamic state has killed at least 20,000 people, uprooted 2.7 million and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, with tens of thousands already in famine-like conditions, aid agencies say.
A regional offensive last year wrested back large swathes of territory from the Islamist insurgents. But they have struck back with renewed zeal recently, targeting civilians and camps sheltering the displaced with raids and suicide bombings.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org