By Lisa Vives
U.S. security assistance and cooperation programs with Nigeria are facing a review after an investigation by a Reuters news team found evidence of a secret illegal abortion program carried out by the Nigerian military during its war against an insurgency in the largely Muslim northeast since at least 2013.
It was estimated that thousands of illegal abortions were carried out by soldiers in the belief that the women had been kidnapped and raped by the militants.
Six soldiers and guards confirmed that forced abortions took place at Giwa Barracks. Two of those witnesses, as well as a woman who said she had an abortion last year at the detention centre, recalled a room where the terminations were performed: a bad-smelling, grey-walled space like a hallway, where women lay on floor mats amid cockroaches and mosquitos.
Most of the women Reuters interviewed said they were given no explanation for the injections and pills they received. Others said medics and soldiers passed off injections and pills as cures for weakness or disease.
In reality, the medications were intended to terminate their pregnancies, according to documentation from hospitals and military facilities.
In the report titled “The Abortion Assault” that appeared in the New York Times, the news team alleged that the Nigerian Army and allied security forces slaughtered children during their gruelling 13-year war against Islamist extremists in the country’s northeast.
Babies fathered by fighters, young boys who were fighters, or those perceived to be fighters became victims of intentional killing. The Reuters reports alleged that children were smothered, poisoned, or shot.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Nigerian Army has long been implicated in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and sexual violence, among other abuses.
Authorities have made some flawed efforts to win justice for Boko Haram victims, HRW observed, but little to nothing has been done concerning crimes by the security forces. A judicial panel was set up in 2017 to investigate humanitarian and human rights violations in the conflict, but its report was never made public.
Following a 2019 HRW report on military detention of children for suspected Boko Haram involvement, over 300 schoolboys were released from detention in December 2020.
Jim Risch, a Republican Senator from Idaho, in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken seen by Reuters, called for the U.S. State Department to examine the potential use of sanctions in addition to an expeditious review of U.S. security assistance and cooperation.
Nigerian military leaders deny the army has ever targeted children for killing. They called the reporting in the article an insult to Nigerians and part of a foreign effort to undermine the country’s fight against the insurgents.
“The Nigerian authorities should deepen this commitment to uphold the rights of victims of atrocities in the conflict by taking genuine and impartial steps to investigate all allegations of abuse, publish their findings and hold all perpetrators accountable, and provide full redress for victims,” declared HRW in December 2022.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric added: “The Secretary-General takes note with concern of the allegations of systemic and coerced abortions reportedly perpetrated by the Nigerian army against women and girls who had already been victimized by Boko Haram.
“We call on the Nigerian authorities to fully investigate these allegations and make sure there’s accountability.”