The militant group Boko Haram continues to recruit children and use them in battlefields across Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, officials and experts say.
While it has suffered major military losses in the Lake Chad Basin, the extremist group seems to be adopting new strategies to revive its influence in the region, according to the experts.
Officials with the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional military alliance fighting the Boko Haram insurgency, say one strategy of the group is to step up child recruitment.
"Information on this disturbing development was brought in by human intelligence sources and corroborated by concerned individuals and groups," said Colonel Timothy Antiga, a spokesman for the MNJTF.
"Boko Haram terrorists themselves further confirmed the atrocious acts when they posted pictures of children dressed in military fatigues and holding assault rifles in a video released during a celebration of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha," he told VOA in a recent interview.
The Nigerian military official added that the recruitment of child soldiers "is the latest in a retinue of brutal and inhuman tactics deployed by Boko Haram" since it began its insurgency a decade ago. Boko Haram has been fighting to create an Islamic caliphate based in Nigeria.
Boko Haram has long engaged in mass abduction of schoolgirls, sexual enslavement of women and the mass murder of innocent civilians, officials and rights groups say.
In July, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict presented a report to the U.N. Security Council in which it described "gruesome violations against children" in Nigeria's northeast, Boko Haram's main stronghold, and other countries where the militant group has an active presence.
"The children of Nigeria and neighboring countries continued to endure horrendous violations by Boko Haram, and the expansion of the group's activities across the Lake Chad Basin region is a serious concern for the secretary-general," said Virginia Gamba, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict.
According to the report, which documented violations between January 2017 and December 2019, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the greatest number of verified violations, with a total of 3,601 boys and girls affected.
Boko Haram was responsible for the recruitment and use of 1,385 children, mainly through abduction, used in direct combat and other support roles, including as sexual slaves, the report said.
In 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 female students from their school in the Borno state town of Chibok.
The kidnappings gained international attention when many world leaders campaigned for the release of the schoolgirls. Some of the girls escaped or were rescued by Nigerian military forces. Currently, the militants are believed to be holding about 112 of the girls.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently said Boko Haram militants used child suicide bombers in an early August attack on a site for displaced people in northern Cameroon, killing at least 17 civilians, including five children and six women.
"Using apparent children as suicide bombers to attack displaced people is a grossly repugnant war crime," Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at HRW, said in a statement.
Exploiting victims of conflict
John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says while Boko Haram has been using children between the ages of 5 and 8, the militant group has also relied on older children whose families have been killed during the conflict.
"The small children are being used as suicide bombers and having absolutely no idea whatsoever what is going on," he told VOA, "but if you take older children, 13, 14 and 15 years old, particularly girls, as far as we can tell they are very often orphans."
"They are very often promised immediate entrance into heaven as martyrs, and their position in this earthly life is pretty terrible," he added.
Campbell, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said, "We have to consider that in some cases what they're doing may be voluntary."
"Talking about older and female suicide bombers, there is also the question of the extent to which they are trying to avenge family members, spouses and so forth that have been killed by security services," he said.
Terrorism expert Mohammed Tukur Baba, who teaches at the Federal University of Birnin Kebbi in Nigeria, says while the use of child soldiers is nothing new in Africa, regional governments should increase their efforts to create better lives for children, in order to dissuade them from joining armed groups.
Tukur Baba added that such efforts "have to be regional so that we get these children out of the street and on to schools and meaningful activities."
VOA's Carol Guensburg contributed to this report from Washington.