Why Child Soldiering Persists in Africa


Child recruitment by armed militants and state governments is a persistent issue. Despite 196 countries having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and 172 having ratified the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of the Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC), children in conflict zones still face the serious threat of recruitment by state and non-state actors.

Recent research illustrates how vulnerable children have become over the past decade. In 2020, approximately 337 million children around the world resided within 50 kilometers of an ongoing conflict where at least one conflict actor was reported to have recruited children. In Africa specifically, some 118 million children were in such a position, meaning about one in six were vulnerable to recruitment. Such trends are alarming as Africa is the world’s youngest continent with roughly 40 percent of the population aged 15 or under.

The growing vulnerability of children coincides with increasing levels of violence in several countries across the continent. This trend is especially true in the Sahel, where Islamist insurgencies have proliferated over the past decade. A 2021 United Nations report identified West and Central Africa as the most recent epicenter of child soldier recruitment with the region having the highest number of verified cases of child recruitment between 2016 to 2020.

Countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso have been hit particularly hard, as they struggle to combat Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups. The U.N. Secretary General’s 2022 report on children and armed conflict in Mali, for instance, highlighted a continuous rise in child recruitment over several years. In Burkina Faso, at least a quarter of all schools were closed as of October 2023 due to armed groups’ “war against education.” Beyond the Sahel, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Somalia have all experienced persistent child soldier recruitment over the past decade.

Why does the problem persist?

Child recruitment is a global challenge, but the problem remains deep-rooted in several African states despite decades of efforts to combat the practice. Academic research frames the problem in supply- and demand-side terms, shedding light on structural problems in the society unique to young children as well as the conditions that make children desirable recruits.

On the supply side, child recruitment is a byproduct of adverse societal conditions, such as limited educational and employment opportunities, poverty, and displacement. These conditions can increase the pool of available children and, some argue, the likelihood of children joining armed groups voluntarily. Faced with disparate societal and economic prospects, children may see joining a militant group as a pathway to an improved living situation and enhanced personal security. The continent’s prospective demographics mean that children are likely to remain vulnerable targets moving forward: Africa’s population is projected to double by 2050, more than half of the population will be under the age of 25, and sub-Saharan Africa was recently identified as having the highest rates of educational exclusion globally.

On the demand side, children are recruited because they are seen as valuable resources. Militant groups may use children as “human bombs” because they attract less suspicion. They take advantage of children’s susceptibility to manipulation and loyalty because of their limited cognitive development and desire for social connections. Militants also use child soldiers to replace battlefield losses and assist in non-combat activities like resource extraction.

Combatting Child Soldiering in Africa

Combatting this issue necessitates action: identifying and resolving root causes, disincentivizing armed actors from pursuing children, and enhancing education in local communities. The U.N. and others have continued proactive efforts to address this difficult problem.

For instance, the U.N. has gone to great lengths to establish an international norm against child soldiering. Article 38 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child set an age threshold of 15 for individuals to participate in armed conflict. Slightly over a decade later, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the OPAC, raising the age threshold to 18. Like most international conventions, Article 6 of OPAC outlines the state’s responsibility to “take all necessary legal, administrative and other measures to ensure the effective implementation and enforcement of its provisions.” However, getting countries to reform domestic law to ensure compliance is difficult.

With its adoption of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1612  in July 2005, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) took an important step in combatting child recruitment. Resolution 1612 codified a formal monitoring and reporting mechanism (MRM) to track grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict, providing information about the recruitment location, perpetrators, and exploitation mechanisms. The MRM architecture consists of a country-level task force on monitoring and reporting (CTFMR) that works in collaboration with relevant U.N. entities and NGOs to gather and vet data on child recruitment and other grave violations against children. These task forces provide a critical link to the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) and the U.N. Secretary General, who track, evaluate, and publish annual reports on children in armed conflict. Though only providing a snapshot of the scale of recruitment in some cases, the MRM allows the U.N. and other IGOs and NGOs to more accurately deploy anti-recruitment resources.

However, monitoring and reporting alone are insufficient to end child soldier recruitment. The international community needs to also engage and educate armed groups on their responsibilities in armed conflicts, as many groups are unaware of or intentionally ignore their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

NGOs like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Call have worked directly with armed groups to inform these actors of their legal obligations under IHL and human rights law. The Geneva Call has even gotten armed groups to sign a “Deed of Commitment” to commit to stop child recruitment. The U.N. also engages with non-state armed groups via the development of “action plans,” similarly aiming to get them to commit to not recruiting children and releasing those in their ranks.

Disincentivizing and deterring armed groups from recruiting children in the first place is the most important, albeit most difficult, goal. The international community has used judicial means to hold recruiters accountable. Thomas Lubanga Dylio, the first person convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), was found guilty of the forcible recruitment of children in the DRC, among other actions. While the conviction was an important step, it is difficult to quantify the degree to which criminal accountability truly deters. Nonetheless, the ICC, along with domestic legal institutions, should continue to prosecute those who recruit child soldiers as a credible warning.

There also remains a critical need to dissuade children in conflict zones from enlisting. In places where the government is unable to project power across its territory, local communities need to be equipped to safeguard children by providing outlets and services that reduce their incentives to join armed groups. This requires international actors and donors to invest in community-based organizations like local small businesses or religious institutions that provide job opportunities or safe havens for local populations, which simultaneously also strengthens civil society. Investments in local NGOs that support children’s healthcare and education can ensure their basic needs are met, decreasing their susceptibility to recruitment. Lastly, educating children and their communities about their vulnerability to recruitment can also pay dividends. In a word, the local communities need to be resilient, which demands that states and international actors collaborate and invest consistently, including through bilateral and multilateral aid, philanthropic donations from charitable organizations, and support from U.N. funds like UNICEF or the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF).

Another key aspect of prevention is implementing robust reintegration campaigns that consider the full spectrum of children’s experiences with armed groups. Conflicts where children have been recruited are at an increased risk of recurrence due to a coalescence of factors, including economic disadvantages, a lack of education, and psychological scars, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is therefore critical that rehabilitation and reintegration programs consider the diverse experience of children as both victims and perpetrators of violence and offer economic, mental, and physical health services in the rehabilitation process. Such services should come from both international actors who can bring valuable resources and mental health practitioners, but, at the same time, they must also incorporate local actors and financial sources to ensure long-term accessibility. As the U.N. reported in 2021, reintegration programs have suffered from financing crises, and successful reintegration of children demands durable funding streams that ensure the delivery of care and resources well after the fighting stops.

Successful prevention also demands proactive efforts by IGOs and NGOs. NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International serve as important watchdog organizations that bring much-needed international attention to child recruitment. Their amplification and documentation on child recruitment will continue to be critical to successful convictions of war criminals in international forums. IGOs like the U.N. and specifically UNICEF must continue recent efforts that seek to establish and strengthen child protection systems. This includes working with national governments, local authorities, and local communities to ensure that a robust set of laws, policies, and services across all social sectors are established to mitigate child recruitment before it starts.

It is also vital to keep the pressure on those governments that continue to use child soldiers. It is unrealistic to expect armed non-state groups to respect norms when governments continue to violate them. State institutions and militaries must develop the capacity to faithfully verify recruit ages, work with the U.N. on best practices for monitoring potential blind spots in recruitment practices, criminalize child recruitment, and consistently prosecute violators. Recalling that the Organization for African Unity, the predecessor to the African Union, was a frontrunner in establishing norms against recruiting children under the age of 18 for armed conflict, African governments must hold each other accountable to the standards agreed upon over three decades ago. 

Overall, child soldier recruitment in Africa remains a serious problem. Given the difficulty of resolving the root causes, efforts focused on monitoring and accurately identifying cases of child recruitment, disincentivizing armed groups via diplomacy and deterrence, and rectifying deficiencies in rehabilitation and reintegration programs are amongst the best strategies for reducing child recruitment. The complexity of the issue demands a holistic approach, but the payoff of a world without child combatants is worth the investment.

Author Bio: Christopher M. Faulkner is an assistant professor of national security affairs in the College of Distance Education at the US Naval War College (NWC). His research focuses on militant recruitment, private military companies, and civil-military relations. He has been published widely in leading international security and relations journals, including International Studies Quarterly and the European Journal of International Relations, and has contributed to outlets such as War on the Rocks, Foreign Policy, and Lawfare, among others. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Naval War College, US Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government.


Image Credit: Flickr

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