Children in Boko Haram: Exploitation? Agency? Both?

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In the heartland of Northeastern Nigeria, a violent conflict rages on. This strife, a clash between the Nigerian government and the insurgent group Boko Haram, has wreaked untold havoc and instigated displacement of over 2.2 million people in the region, wrenching families from their homes and fracturing communities.  As part of their brutal conflict, Boko Haram has initiated a distressingly effective recruitment drive targeting children. According to estimates, nearly 10,000 children were co-opted into the group’s ranks from 2009 to 2019, though the actual numbers may be higher due to data limitations. This grim reality underscores the far-reaching impact of Boko Haram’s activities, casting a long shadow over a generation’s future.

But, how are children involved with and impacted by Boko Haram? 

In my research with children and adults formerly associated with Boko Haram across the Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawe, and Yobe, I found that the narratives about these children frequently portray oversimplified images of either victimhood or villainy, bypassing the intricate realities shaping their experiences. In this blog post, I aim to illuminate the intertwined dynamics of exploitation and agency of children’s experiences in contexts of violence and armed-conflict.

Child Recruitment: Unpacking the Complexity

Boko Haram’s genesis could be linked to the Maitatsine uprisings in 1979. There is no consensus on the group’s formation, but it is purported to have existed since 1995, albeit under various names. The group re-emerged with a more violent agenda after the death of its original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in police custody in 2009, subsequently fracturing into different factions such as JAS, ISWAP, and Bakura.

Children have been severely impacted by Boko Haram’s violence. The Boko Haram insurgency and its dependency on child recruitment have attracted significant media attention. For instance, the kidnapping of 276 girls from a government secondary school in Chibok on 14 April 2014 triggered widespread indignation both within and beyond Nigeria, facilitating the emergence of the groups as a “globally acknowledged terrorist organization.”

The indiscriminate nature of this crisis is emphasized by the fact that Boko Haram’s recruitment of children spans across all ethnic and religious boundaries. The paths that lead these children into the group’s hold are varied and often non-linear.  Children may be forcefully abducted from their homes and schools, pressured through intimidation, or in some cases, they may ‘voluntarily’ enlist themselves. These recruitment methods have evolved with the escalating violence between the group and the Nigerian government, growing increasingly coercive over time.

What is important to understand, however, is that the line between coercion and free choice is often blurred in these children’s trajectories into Boko Haram. Living conditions in northeastern Nigeria are marked by protracted instability and vulnerability. Boko Haram capitalizes on these conditions, enticing children through religious preaching, deception, and the promise of material goods such as food, clothing, and business support. For children grappling with precarity, joining the group can become a coping mechanism, a means to acquire both material welfare and social status.

However, incentives driving children to join Boko Haram extend beyond material benefits. Socio-political dynamics, including social marginalization, perceived or actual injustice, and the desire for revenge, are potent motivators. Interestingly, the widespread rejection of the Nigerian state among local communities, stemming from experiences of state repression, neglect, and violence, feeds into Boko Haram’s narrative. Counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency measures intended to curb the group’s influence have ironically bred considerable sympathy for Boko Haram in local communities, ultimately driving recruitment.

Life within Boko Haram: Diverse Roles and Experiences

Upon becoming part of Boko Haram, children’s roles are manifold, spanning from farming, cooking, teaching, and performing domestic chores, to acting as spies, couriers, porters, and even combatants. Life within Boko Haram is characterized by extreme living conditions, intense traumatic experiences, a lack of parental care, and medical aid, along with forced labor and physical and psychosocial abuses. The trauma is particularly acute for children born and raised in conflict zones, thereby amplifying the violence they endure.

Paradoxically, some children have reported that their affiliation with Boko Haram provided them with better access to food, money, and material goods than they had before joining the group. Others, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, experienced upward social mobility by advancing through the ranks and assuming leadership positions. It’s crucial to understand that these experiences are not simply centered around the fulfillment of opportunistic goals. I learned that these children, especially adolescents, often view their participation in the group as a form of social belonging and an opportunity to serve a cause larger than themselves.

In this context, violence emerges as a critical tool for Boko Haram to foster group cohesion and enforce certain behaviors. The group administers severe corporal punishments, including public lashings and, in some cases, even stoning for various transgressions. However, children within Boko Haram are not only victims of this violence but also perpetrators. My research has found that the trauma and suffering these children endure and inflict serve to establish social status within Boko Haram, nurturing a dysfunctional sense of community among its child members.

In a striking recounting, a former female associate narrated how children as young as three years old, both boys and girls, would often be taken in the evenings to an open space they referred to as the “gallery” during the evenings to witness executions. She explained that the purpose was to desensitize them and make them feel as part of the group.

The horrors and suffering that children both endure and perpetrate generate social status within Boko Haram and the very sense of community that these children strive for. This transformative process is succinctly captured in the words of a young man who – recruited by the group when he was in his early teens – reflects on his own experience: “Boko Haram changes us. They turn your fear into power. You are given a weapon, you are valued for the number of people you kill. They make you believe you are part of a family”

The Interplay of Exploitation and Agency: the only way toward healing

In conclusion, the experiences of children associated with Boko Haram offer a vivid example of how exploitation and agency can interplay within coercive environments:

  1. Firstly, group bonding and prosocial experiences occur concurrently with the performance of violence and other traumatic experiences within the group. The two facets of association—exploitation and agency—are deeply interconnected.
  2. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, children, who bear the brunt of the abuses and violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, are also made complicit in reproducing a system that perpetuates their own exploitation and vilification.

This interplay underscores the importance of recognizing the complexities inherent in these experiences when contemplating children’s reintegration and community healing processes; only by acknowledging the full breadth of their experiences can we hope to address the deep-seated damage inflicted by Boko Haram and start to chart a course towards a more hopeful future for these children and their communities.


The author acknowledges support from the project “War and Fun: Reconceptualizing Warfare and Its Experience (WARFUN)”, funded by the European Research Council and led by Antonio De Lauri at the Chr. Michelsen Institute

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