Child soldiers in Africa
The plight of child soldiers, especially in Africa, has captured world attention through news reports and personal accounts. Last year, Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone, about his experiences in Sierra Leone, was a bestseller. Now a documentary by Paul Ndiho explores the psychological and social face of the problem, by telling the true stories of some young victims kidnapped into a rebel force.
This document assesses the extent of the military recruitment of African children and their use as soldiers in armed conflict. In particular, the documentary provides details of national legislation governing recruitment into the armed forces, national recruitment practice (which, sadly, does not always conform to the prevailing legislation), and, where armed conflict is ongoing, the extent of child participation in hostilities, whether as part of government armed forces, government-sponsored armed groups or militia, or non-governmental armed groups or militia. It also includes basic demographic data and information on the estimated size of governmental armed forces and non-governmental armed groups.
An attempt has been made to include relevant and accurate information on the situation in each African country.
More than 120,000 children under 18 years of age are currently participating in armed conflicts across Africa. Some of these children are no more than 7 or 8 years of age. The countries most affected by this problem are: Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda. Furthermore, Ethiopian government forces engaged in an armed conflict against Eritrea, and the clans in Somalia, have both included an unknown, though probably not substantial, number of under-18s in their ranks. In internal armed conflicts in the Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal, on the other hand, there has been little or no recorded use of under-18s by government or armed opposition forces, and there are almost certainly no under-15s participating in hostilities in these three situations.
In addition to the obvious risks to children of participation in armed conflict — which apply equally to adults — children are often at an added disadvantage as combatants. Their immaturity may lead them to take excessive risks — according Herbert Wise, a senior researcher at the Woodraw Wilson Center, a think tank based here in Washington, “[children] make good fighters because they’re young and want to show off. They think it’s all a game, so they’re fearless.” Moreover, and as a result of being widely perceived to be dispensable commodities, “they tend to receive little or no training before being thrust into the front line.”
Children may begin participating in conflict from as young as the age of seven. Some start as porters (carrying food or ammunition) or messengers, others as spies. A rebel commander I interviewed in the Congo in 2000 said, “They’re very good at getting information. You can send them across enemy lines and nobody suspects them [because] they’re so young.” And as soon as they are strong enough to handle an assault rifle or a semi-automatic weapon (normally at 10 years of age), children are used as soldiers. One former child soldier from Uganda stated that: “We spent sleepless nights watching for the enemy. My first role was to carry a torch for grown-up rebels. Later I was shown how to use hand grenades. Barely within a month or so, I was carrying an AK-47 rifle or even a G3.”
When they are not actively engaged in combat, they can often be seen manning checkpoints; adult soldiers can normally be seen standing a further 15 metres behind the barrier so that if bullets start flying, it is the children who are the first victims. And in any given conflict when even a few children are involved as soldiers, all children, civilian or combatant, come under suspicion.
Girls too are used as soldiers, though generally in much smaller numbers than boys. In Liberia, “about one per cent of the demobilised child soldiers in 1997 were girls or young women. But many more took part in one form or another in the war. Like many males, females joined one of the factions for their own protection. Un-willingly, they became the girlfriends or wives of rebel leaders or members: ‘wartime women’ is the term they themselves use.
The risks to these girls of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies are enormous.
Child soldiers, sometimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which they may be forced to take, have too frequently committed all atrocities. In Congo, for example, a journalist from the local television in Uganda claimed that most of the rebels are children not older than 14, who are under the effect of drugs and alcohol. He reported what one of them told him about torture they inflict on their victims.
Recruitment of Child Soldiers by governments
The overwhelming majority of African States set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, whether voluntary or through conscription. Indeed South Africa is in the process of increasing its minimum age for voluntary recruitment to 18 (conscription has already been abolished) and Mauritania may also be raising its minimum age from 16 to 18. In Angola, however, a country severely affected by the phenomenon of child soldiers, the government recently reduced the age of conscription to 17 years. Given the lack of systematic birth registration, even younger children are inevitably recruited even if the will to prevent underage recruitment existed. Moreover, reducing the minimum age of conscription to 17 is currently lawful since international law sets 15 as the international minimum age.
Burundi and Rwanda have the lowest legal recruitment ages on the African continent, seemingly 15 or 16 years for volunteers, although Uganda has formerly claimed to accept children with the apparent age of 13 to be enrolled with parental consent. In Chad, parental consent appears to allow the minimum age of 18 to be effectively reduced. Concerns also exist as to legislation in Botswana, Kenya, and Zambia where children with the ‘apparent age of 18’ can lawfully be recruited. Libya appears to accept volunteers at 17 years, if not younger. In South Africa, in a state of emergency, children of 15 years of age or above can be used directly in armed conflict by virtue of the Constitution. Finally, legislation in Mozambique, a country whose past has seen widespread use of child soldiers, specifically allows the armed forces to change the minimum conscription age — 18 — in time of war.
If only domestic legislation were always respected in practice, the problem of child soldiers in Africa would be significantly reduced. Many African States — Benin, Cameroon, Mali and Tunisia to name but a few — appear to follow appropriate recruitment procedures that prevent underage troops being recruited into the army. However, in Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda, children, some no more than seven or eight years of age, are recruited by government armed forces almost as a matter of course. Some children do volunteer to join the armed forces (though the true number will vary depending on how one interprets the word volunteer). In the DRC, for example, between 4,000 and 5,000 adolescents responded to a radio broadcast calling (in clear violation of international law) for 12-20 year olds to enrol to defend their country; most were street children.
Yet tens of thousands of children are forced to join up, sometimes at gunpoint. In Angola, forced recruitment of youth (‘Rusgas’) continues in some of the suburbs around the capital and throughout the country, especially in rural areas. It has been claimed that military commanders have paid police officers to find new recruits and Namibia has collaborated with Angola in catching Angolans who have fled to Namibia to avoid conscription. In Eritrea, a 17-year-old Ethiopian prisoner of war, Dowit Admas, interviewed by a British journalist claimed that he was playing football in Gondar High School when Ethiopian government soldiers rounded up 60 boys and sent them to a military training camp. In Uganda, there have been persistent reports that street children in Kampala have been approached by soldiers and forced to join the army in order to be sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in November 1998, parents protested against the forced recruitment by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces of 500 youths in Hoima.
In situations of armed conflict, wherever governments have recruited and used children as soldiers, so have armed opposition groups, and just as certain African governments have chosen to violate national laws, so opposition groups have flouted public declarations and pledges not to recruit and use children in combat.
In Sierra Leone, reports have clearly detailed the fact that rebel forces recruit children below 18 years of age and demonstrate that children as young as five are enrolled.
In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) systematically abducts children from their schools, communities and homes. Children who attempt to escape, resist, cannot keep up, or become ill are killed. Generally, the rebels take their captives across the border to an LRA camp in Sudan. There, these children are tortured, threatened and sexually abused. Latest reports suggest that the LRA has now turned to selling abducted children into slavery in exchange for arms.
Children enrolled by force into armed opposition groups often have little choice but to remain and fight. In Uganda, for example, if children abducted by the LRA do manage to escape or surrender, they may face the wrath of the Government. ####