More women describe enduring forced abortions in Nigerian Army programme

A Nigerian military officer talks with women and children who were freed from Boko Haram, in Yola state, in this April 29, 2015 handout imageReuters

As a Nigerian human rights commission holds hearings on reports of a mass, army-run forced abortion programme in the country’s war-torn northeast, two more women have told Reuters that they underwent abortions in military custody without their consent.

The accounts of the two women, who said they met by chance at a wedding outside Nigeria, buttress the testimony of more than 30 other women and girls who told Reuters they endured forced abortions during the government’s nearly 14-year war against Islamist insurgents. Their stories also align with accounts of soldiers and health workers involved in the clandestine army scheme. Reuters revealed in December that at least 10,000 pregnancies had been terminated among women and girls impregnated by Islamist insurgents since 2013.

Binta Yau and Rabi Ali, the two women who most recently spoke to Reuters, said they met about a year ago and soon discovered they had a painful experience in common: Both had been captured and impregnated by Islamist insurgents. And both lost their pregnancies after they were taken into custody by Nigerian soldiers and given unidentified pills and injections.

“I began to feel like we were sisters,” said Yau, who, like Ali, said she is about 30. She said she wants their stories to be told. “If the world hears what happened to us, and there is a possibility of human rights or other organisations stopping the bad things that the Nigerian military did to us, maybe it won’t happen again in the future.”

The women’s accounts are strikingly similar to those of the 33 Nigerian women and girls Reuters interviewed in the December report. Many of the abortions were done without the women’s consent or even their knowledge at the time. Some were as young as 12 years old. Some women and girls were tied down, drugged into submission or made to undergo the procedures at gunpoint, Reuters found.

The report also drew on military and hospital documents, as well as interviews with five civilian health workers and nine soldiers and other security officials who participated in the programme. Most of the witnesses spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution from the military. But Yau and Ali, who now live outside Nigeria, agreed to be named, as did two other women in the December story who had left the country.

The accounts of Yau and Ali are coming to light as a panel of the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) investigates a series of stories by Reuters that exposed the abortion programme and a pattern in the military of targeting and killing children, from infants to teens, in combat operations.

Among the rationales cited by soldiers who participated in these operations was the belief that children in the region were related to, or working with, Islamist insurgents. The abortion programme was driven, in part, by a notion within the military that children of insurgents were destined to one day take up arms against the Nigerian government.

Brigadier General Tukur Gusau, a spokesman for defence headquarters, declined to comment and directed all inquiries to the NHRC panel, citing the ongoing investigation. The NHRC did not respond to requests for comment.

Nigerian military leaders previously have adamantly denied the existence of the abortion programme and the deliberate killing of unarmed children.

“Not in Nigeria, not in Nigeria,” said Major General Christopher Musa, then the top commander of the counterinsurgency campaign in northeast Nigeria, in a November interview with Reuters that addressed the abortion programme. “We respect families. We respect women and children. We respect every living soul.”

Rabi Ali, a Nigerian woman who told Reuters she underwent an abortion in military custody without her consent, poses for a portrait in an undisclosed location, April 8, 2023

‘It happened to me’

Asked about the military’s comments on the programme, Yau replied: “This happened to me, and they are denying it. Honestly, I feel like they have some wickedness in their hearts, to be denying what they’ve done to us.”

Ali, who was interviewed separately, responded similarly. “I know the Nigerian military did these things, because it happened to me. I am sure that I lost my baby because of the abortion they gave me, and the treatment they gave me. Also to my friend Binta.”

Yau said her abortion was done about three years ago at Giwa Barracks, a detention centre in Maiduguri, the largest city in Nigeria’s northeast and the command centre of the government’s war on Islamist extremists. Three other women were forced to have abortions in the same room with her, Yau said.

Yau’s account is consistent with those of other women and health workers who told Reuters abortions were done in groups, from a handful to 50 or 60 at a time. Four of the almost three dozen women interviewed by Reuters said their abortions took place at Giwa Barracks.

The details of Yau’s abortion were corroborated by another woman who told Reuters that she was among those in the room with Yau at Giwa Barracks. She said army doctors gave Yau multiple injections.

Ali said her abortion occurred about five years ago, when she was about three months pregnant, in a Maiduguri hospital whose name she could not recall. She said she had been in too much pain to notice whether other women around her also had the procedures.

Initially, the military rejected calls to investigate the Reuters abortion and child killing reports. But amid a growing international outcry, including from U.S. and United Nations officials, Chief of Defence Staff Lucky Irabor relented later in December and agreed to cooperate with an inquiry by the NHRC.

The NHRC, described on its website as an “extra-judicial mechanism for the respect and enjoyment of human rights,” has a 16-member governing council nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate. The commission appointed a separate panel to look into the Reuters findings and make recommendations. The seven-member panel launched its inquiry in February; the timing of its determinations is unknown.

Earlier this year, eight people familiar with the history of the commission, including rights lawyers and researchers, told Reuters that they were unaware of any major cases in which the commission’s findings had led to the prosecution of senior Nigerian officials. That lack of accountability was underscored in past U.N. and U.S. State Department reports. The commission has, however, secured financial restitution for some victims of abuse.

Although the NHRC panel’s hearings on the Reuters findings are closed to the public, the commission has released summaries of testimony on Twitter and on its website. Military leaders and government officials are quoted in the posts as denying they participated in any abortion programme or that any such programme exists.

On 29 March, the commission posted on Twitter a statement referencing the Reuters reports under a headline saying that three ex-members of the militant group Boko Haram had “exonerate(d) soldiers.” That post drew criticism from some human rights advocates and an international expert on Nigeria, who noted the commission may be commenting prematurely on the proceedings or using witnesses who were not in a position to know of the events in question first-hand.

“I am a bit surprised that the panel is putting out comments on the go, as the investigation still takes place,” Vincent Foucher, a Nigeria expert who is a research fellow with the French National Science Research Centre, told Reuters. “It might have been more appropriate to wait to have gone through enough witnesses before putting out a barrage of statements that all clear the military.”

Yau said that she had not heard of the NHRC investigation, but that she would be willing to testify “at any time.”

Other women and girls who spoke to Reuters before the December series ran said they were traumatised and fearful of coming forward. Some said they had been threatened with beatings or death if they disclosed what happened to them. Abortion is against the law in Nigeria, for women and providers, except to save the life of the mother. In addition, the topic is taboo in many circles in the culturally conservative country. Some women kept their experiences secret even from family members.

Many women and girls who underwent abortions, as well as soldiers who participated in the programme, still live in parts of the northeast that are strictly controlled by the military. Humanitarian organisations that operate in the region regularly complain of restricted access to civilians in need.

‘I didn’t trust him’

Ali was at a wedding outside Nigeria last year and said she approached Yau after realising she too was from Nigeria because of the way she spoke Hausa, a regional language.

The women, both from Borno state, swapped stories and spoke of their shared trauma: Both had been abducted by Islamist militants, forced to marry and fallen pregnant while in captivity, according to their accounts, which they gave in separate interviews. The militants have kidnapped thousands of women and children over the course of the war, often forcing the women to become insurgent fighters’ “wives,” and sometimes using them or kidnapped children as suicide bombers.

Yau said she was about 25 when she was kidnapped and forced to marry a fighter named Abubakar. Ali said she had been happily married for 10 years and was raising two children when militants seized her about three years ago from her village and took her alone to Tumbun Gini, a town close to the borders with Chad and Niger.

There at the camp, Ali said, Islamist fighters gathered the women and told them that their husbands had been killed and they must remarry. She was forced to marry a fighter named Mustapha.

Both women escaped on foot during gun battles between the insurgents and Nigeria’s military, only to be taken into custody by Nigerian soldiers.

Both women said they were loaded into army vehicles and taken to places where they were given pills and injections.

The vast majority of the 33 women interviewed by Reuters for the series published in December said their procedures were done through medication. Hospital records reviewed by Reuters indicate surgical abortions were also performed. Many of the women also said they were given blood and urine tests before the abortions.

Before arriving at Giwa Barracks, Yau, who had known she was pregnant before she escaped, said she was given a health check inside a base in the town of Bama, 70 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri. The check included a blood and a urine test. She said she was with at least 10 other women. Some were visibly pregnant, she said. Others were not showing but told her they were pregnant.

The next day, the military drove them to Giwa. After she was put into a room with three other pregnant women, Yau said, army personnel gave her pills and more injections. Soon after, she said, she began to bleed heavily.

She asked the soldiers what was happening, and she said they told her she was suffering from the stress of her escape.

“I didn’t believe them,” said Yau. “I didn’t trust them.”

A soldier later told her she should be glad she lost the pregnancy because a child born from an insurgent father would have been a burden to her and her family.

“You have to be happy,” she recalled the soldier saying. “Be glad that you come clean, that you lost your unborn baby, because of the status of your family. You won’t experience any challenges within your family and within your community.”

Ali said she began feeling stomach pains during her escape from the insurgents. When she arrived at an army base in Monguno, about 130 km southwest of Maiduguri, she began bleeding “just a little bit.” She was given blood and urine tests. Then, she said, she was given pills and injections in her buttocks, which she said the soldiers told her was for her stomach pain.

Her bleeding continued and got a little bit heavier, she said. After two days, the soldiers brought her and a group of about 20 women to a military barracks in Maiduguri. Ali was taken to a hospital in town and given more medicine to swallow. Within an hour, she began to experience heavy bleeding and what she described as the worst stomach pain she had ever felt.

“I felt like I was dying,” she said.

The doctors told her that she was losing her pregnancy, perhaps because of the fear and anxiety she experienced while escaping the insurgents. Like Yau, she said she didn’t believe the explanation.

“I think they gave me an abortion,” she said. “It was deliberate.”

After she was released, Ali said, she received a visitor: her husband. He hadn’t been killed by the insurgents. But he wanted nothing to do with her, she said. He remarried and has refused to let her see her children.

“Maybe he thinks I inherited Boko Haram attitudes or something,” she said.

Reuters was unable to reach Ali’s former husband.

Both Yau and Ali reject the notion that women and children so easily absorb the beliefs of Islamist insurgents.

“If the baby had lived, I would have liked the baby, because it’s my blood, my daughter or my son,” Yau said. “I feel bad, and I feel like I hate the military, because even though I got the baby unwillingly, it’s my blood.”