“The structure of our society itself promotes a lot of abuses and stress that can led to psychological breakdown. most of which we, as a people, have spiritualized”
By Gbenga-Isaac Oni
Society keeps measuring the effects of war mostly in the physical destruction on properties and people. Especially in Africa and Nigeria to be specific we have not invested efforts to empirically study or intervene in the psychological effects of all the conflicts we have been through (and are still facing) right from the civil war to ethno-religious conflicts in the northern region of the country for over 20 years.
The structure of our society itself promotes a lot of abuses and stress that can led to psychological breakdown, most of which we, as a people, have spiritualized. Unfortunately, we are burdened again with the issue of real-time data on many national issues to inform sound social policy or even help to checkmate social ills. The inclusion of violent conflict makes it a triple burden on a nation. Conflict is a curse and an obstacle to accountable and legitimate government. The curse side shows in the form of the destruction it leaves behind.
It is an obstacle to good governance, because it invites an arrogant assumption that government is there to rule rather than serve. Though there are many groups that suffer from violent conflict, children are most vulnerable, and this research work explored the exposure and effects of armed groups on children in north-Eastern Nigeria — with focus on Maiduguri and Yola. It sought to know who is speaking for the human rights concern for the children of the region, beyond provision of nutritional support as is presently happening in the region, which is also very much important — thanks to the support of the Search for Common Ground — Nigeria Office small grant for human right project. The key question of the research was what the psychological effects of the conflict on these children and their future security is.
From UNICEF data (2015), over 1 million children have been forced to flee their homes because of the Boko Haram conflict in north-eastern Nigeria. Some of these kids were either raped, killed or drafted to fight alongside this terrorist group.
Nigeria as a society seems not to be aware of the severe psychological reaction of armed conflict or group especially in north-eastern Nigeria on children. Unfortunately, this research was not designed due to limited resources to take an in-depth view of various social factors affecting children in northern Nigeria or the north-east to be precise. It was not also a detailed clinical review of psychological effects of war experiences on children. Other research works have proven beyond doubt that children in conflict areas have high risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other psychopathology signs.
Looking at the exposure to firearms, majority of the respondents in both location, had their exposure post 2011, which is crucial for government or relevant to take into consideration in planning any psycho-social support programme in the regions. It is crucial to intervene to help these children so that it does not become a normal experience for them because silence might beget a cycle of violent behaviour by the children.
All the children that were surveyed were exposed to various levels of war experiences from the 12 identified war experiences. Witness to shooting seems to be the most frequent experience across locations, followed by forced to leave home, witnessed torture, escaped death, death of parents and siblings.
A huge percentage of the children were forced to fight in Maiduguri as against Yola — again it might be, because Maiduguri was the epicentre. A significant number had to hide to protect themselves or family members from being raped or killed. Exposure to rape seems small, with less than 2%, however the culture of silence in the region might have been responsible for people not willing to share.
Seventy percent of the CSOs interviewed have comprehensive a list of the number of children affected by conflict in the area they work in. The other 30% do not have individual records of children, as they reach them via their caregivers. Only 30% have trauma-healing programmes targeted at children. This shows a huge gap in both locations.
There is a huge intervention in emergency education, mostly peace building, nutritional needs and sometimes social activities. With the high exposure of these children to various psychological experiences, it is crucial that organization and groups carry out a detailed trauma and depression analysis to help them find peace indeed.
In conclusion, no serious efforts are being made to help children of north-eastern Nigeria overcome traumatic experiences from the over seven years war in the region. Interventions so far have been honest in providing educational and nutritional needs of these children. Unknown to us, we are leaving a cycle of violence and trauma that would be passed down through generations. It is a known fact that hurting people hurt others, and most perpetrators of violence were mostly abused as children.
Though the conflict in the region can be traced to religious extremism, insurgents recruit victims from vulnerable and unstable young people. Enough research supports the finding of this research that trauma is passed down through generations.
We must no longer see children as passive actors in conflict but see them as active victims and begin to fight on their behalf. We must take the effect of war on children as human right concerns. If we really want to break the cycle of violence, then we must also invest more in trauma healing programs for children.
As a researcher I would also call on development partners in the north-east of Nigeria to partner more with The National Human Right Commission and other relevant agencies to create massive campaign, especially in Yola, Adamawa State. Educational intervention is great for these children, but can we add more psycho-social educational programmes into it. I think more investments in research about the psychological effects of conflict in Nigeria are needed, and they should take into consideration the cultural context — because therapeutic intervention is still foreign to our culture.
As we wait for this massive change, we must all ensure we pursue children’s rights and issues as human rights issues. Therefore, the children of war, in north-eastern Nigeria must not be left to the community support and religious coping mechanisms as it is now in the region.
Gbenga-Isaac Oni is a development researcher/Social policy expert.
The research was supported by Search for Common Ground Small Grant for Journalism on Human Rights. Opinion expressed here are not that of the Organisation but of the research team.
If you wish to get the full copy of the research, email Gbenga Oni omojomi@gmail.