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Revealed: Boko Haram’s child army

Revealed: Boko Haram’s child army

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Nigeria’s government has belatedly woken up to the dangers posed by the almajiri system, aware that it also puts children at risk from other criminal influences: street gangs, sex abusers and slave traders. Yet little real progress has been made. Nigeria’s previous president, Goodluck Jonathan, pledged hundreds of new schools for the almajiri, noting that many had become ‘cannon fodder’ for the terrorists. However, many of the new facilities have either crumbled into disrepair or have never been properly used. Aid agencies are wary of speaking out about the problem for fear of being seen as anti-Islamic. This is where Boko Haram comes in. Having millions of alienated, half-starved young boys on the streets provides the Islamists with a potentially limitless recruitment pool. Many already come half–indoctrinated, thanks to the hardline, Saudi-influenced religious dogmas peddled in the madrassas.

Father John Bakeni, a Christian pastor, has seen how quickly youngsters can turn semi-feral. A few years ago, he was posted to Gashua, a town close to Nigeria’s northern border with Niger, where most of the 3,000-strong Christian community had fled because of Boko Haram attacks. During his time there, he buried four murdered parishioners, and saw his flock dwindle to just 200. What made the experience a real test of his faith, though, was the constant harassment from gangs of almajiri, who would hurl stones and dead animals into his compound, and shout: ‘Infidel, we will kill you.’

‘It was very tough psychologically — someone was clearly putting them up to it to try to drive us out,’ says Father Bakeni, who is now based in Maiduguri. ‘Unfortunately, the almajiri system has become a way for parents to relieve themselves of their responsibility for their children. A lot of the kids, if you asked them where home was, they couldn’t even tell you.’ Once again, this is a taboo that western aid agencies are ill-equipped to address. Most do not feel comfortable lecturing Africans, especially Muslims, on family responsibility. Nor are they likely to tell local Muslim men to stop taking multiple wives, a practice which is blamed for creating large numbers of children whom they cannot afford to look after