A new report has revealed some startling activities carried out by the Nigerian military.
The report says the Nigerian military has aborted a minimum of 10,000 pregnancies since at least 2013 when it has conducted a secret, illegal abduction programme for women and girls in the northeast.
According to the report released by Reuters, many of the women and girls had been kidnapped and r*ped by Islamist militants.
Fati, who was kidnapped by terrorists and later rescued by the military, narrated her ordeal.
She lost contact with her family one night during an attack by insurgents on Monguno. She was later captured by the terrorists, whipped and shunted into one of two pickup trucks with the other women, she said. They drove through the night to the shores of the vast Lake Chad, where fighters loaded the women into canoes. As the sun rose, the captives were ferried out toward the lake’s myriad islands.
Fati said she was married off three times, forced to take a new husband whenever the previous one didn’t return from the war. The third, who impregnated her, “was the worst out of all of them,” she said. “He would hit me with the butt of his gun … He would beat me until I was sick.”
When the Nigerian soldiers came that day about three years ago, she welcomed them.
Now in her 20s, Fati said shortly after being rescued with four months of pregnancy, uniformed men gave her and five other women mysterious injections and pills in a dim room at a military barracks in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.
After about four hours, Fati, who said she was about four months pregnant, felt a searing pain in her stomach and black blood seeped out of her. The other women were bleeding as well, and writhing on the floor. “The soldiers want to kill us,” she thought.
According to her, the soldiers aborted the pregnancies without telling them. And she was warned: “If you share this with anyone, you will be seriously beaten.”
The abortions mostly were carried out without the person’s consent – and often without their prior knowledge, according to the witness accounts. The women and girls ranged from a few weeks to eight months pregnant, and some were as young as 12 years old, interviews and records showed.
This investigation is based on interviews with 33 women and girls who say they underwent abortions while in the custody of the Nigerian Army. Just one said she freely gave consent. Reporters also interviewed five civilian healthcare workers and nine security personnel involved in the programme, including soldiers and other government employees such as armed guards engaged in escorting pregnant women to abortion sites. In addition, Reuters reviewed copies of military documents and civilian hospital records describing or tallying thousands of abortion procedures.
Three soldiers and a guard said they commonly assured women, who often were debilitated from captivity in the bush, that the pills and injections given to them were to restore their health and fight diseases such as malaria. In some instances, women who resisted were beaten, caned, held at gunpoint or drugged into compliance. Others were tied or pinned down, as abortion drugs were inserted inside them, said a guard and a health worker.
Bintu Ibrahim, now in her late 20s, recounted how soldiers gave her two injections without her consent after picking her up with a group of other women who fled the insurgents about three years ago. When the blood came, and the terrifying pain, she knew she and the others had undergone abortions. The women protested and demanded to know why, she said, until the soldiers threatened to kill them.
“If they had left me with the baby, I would have wanted it,” said Ibrahim, whose account was confirmed by a fellow former captive, Yagana Bukar.
At military facilities and in the field, some abortions proved fatal. Although Reuters could not determine the full scope of the deaths in nearly 10 years of the programme, four soldiers and two security officers said they witnessed women die from abortions, or saw their corpses afterward.
Ibrahim said she also witnessed a woman die after an injection at the time of her own abortion near a small village in the bush – an event corroborated by her companion Bukar.
“That woman was more pregnant than the rest of us, almost six or seven months,” Ibrahim said. “She was crying, yelling, rolling around, and at long last she stopped rolling and shouting. She became so weak and traumatised, and then she stopped breathing.
“They just dug a hole, and they put sand over it and buried her.”
Reuters was unable to establish who created the abortion programme or determine who in the military or government ran it.
Nigerian military leaders denied the programme has ever existed and said Reuters reporting was part of a foreign effort to undermine the country’s fight against the insurgents.
“Not in Nigeria, not in Nigeria,” said Major General Christopher Musa, who heads the military’s counterinsurgency campaign in the northeast, in a November 24 interview with Reuters that addressed the abortion programme.
“Everybody respects life. We respect families. We respect women and children. We respect every living soul.”
General Lucky Irabor, Nigeria’s chief of defence staff, did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters. On December 2, a week after Reuters sought an interview with Irabor and shared detailed findings and questions with his office, the military's director of defence information released a five-page statement to reporters, and later posted it on Facebook and Twitter. Major General Jimmy Akpor said Reuters was motivated by “wickedness” and a “bullying” mentality, according to the statement.
“The fictitious series of stories actually constitute a body of insults on the Nigerian peoples and culture,” Akpor added. “Nigerian military personnel have been raised, bred and further trained to protect lives, even at their own risk, especially when it concerns the lives of children, women and the elderly.”
Central to the abortion programme is a notion widely held within the military and among some civilians in the northeast: that the children of insurgents are predestined, by the blood in their veins, to one day take up arms against the Nigerian government and society. Four soldiers and one guard said they were told by superiors that the programme was needed to destroy insurgent fighters before they could be born.
“It’s just like sanitising the society,” said a civilian health worker, one of seven people who acknowledged performing abortions under army orders.
Four of the health workers interviewed by Reuters also said that the programme was for the good of the women and any children they might bear, who would face the stigma of being associated with an insurgent father.
The army-run abortion programme has been in place since at least 2013, and procedures were being performed through at least November of last year, according to accounts from soldiers.
The procedures have occurred in at least five military facilities and five civilian hospitals in the region, according to witness accounts and documentation reviewed by Reuters. Many occurred in Maiduguri, the largest city in Nigeria’s northeast and the command centre of the government’s war on Islamist extremists.
The Maiduguri sites include the detention centre at Giwa Barracks, where Fati said she was forced to have an abortion. Other sites include the Maimalari Barracks, which is the city’s main military base, and two civilian hospitals – State Specialist and Umaru Shehu. The two hospitals did not comment on this story.
Forced abortions may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to four legal experts briefed by Reuters on its findings. Although forced abortions are not specifically criminalised under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the experts said, they could be construed as torture or other inhumane treatment and be prosecuted as such.
The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor found in 2020 that grounds existed to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by both Nigerian security forces and insurgents. But the court has not opened a probe.
The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor declined to comment on Reuters’ findings.
SaharaReporters had reported how in April 2014, Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok town in Borno, prompting the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. About 98 of the kidnapped girls are still missing.
Two young women, Felerin and Aisha, described undergoing abortions after being taken into custody by the Nigerian military.
Other women interviewed by Reuters offered similar accounts of captivity and rescue – including being r*ped by insurgents and escaping with the help of soldiers who took them into custody and transported them under armed guard to military facilities or civilian hospitals. Many said they were made to give urine or blood samples before receiving unspecified injections and pills.
Nigerian facilities often used misoprostol, which helps induce labour or contractions, according to the documentation reviewed by Reuters. The drug is also used to treat ulcers and post-partum hemorrhaging, and is widely available in Nigerian cities, including through unofficial abortion-drug distribution networks. Women sometimes were also given the progesterone-blocker called mifepristone, which in many countries is used in conjunction with misoprostol in medication abortions.
Also given was the drug oxytocin, which is widely used during labour to stimulate contractions and safe to use when under medical supervision. Though experts say it is not recommended for abortions, it was sometimes given at military bases to trigger terminations, said two soldiers who performed the procedures.
Using oxytocin to induce abortion is dangerous, several international medical experts told Reuters, particularly if it is injected intramuscularly, as soldiers involved in the Nigerian programme said it was. If the drug is administered too quickly, the results can be fatal, the experts said.
The medications misoprostol and mifepristone are considered safe for abortions when the standard medical protocol is used, according to the World Health Organization and other authorities.
Among those forced to undergo an abortion was a girl named Hafsat.
She arrived at an army base in March 2019, a skinny teen of 14 or 15, clad in a turquoise dress and covered in mosquito bites, according to a soldier present that day.
The soldier said he and other troops injected Hafsat and three others with oxytocin while they lay on the ground outside the army clinic.
Within an hour, the soldier said, he heard cries and turned to see Hafsat bleeding heavily from between her legs. He grabbed her a cloth to stanch the blood.
Hafsat began crying out for a man named Ali, and for her mother. “Half an hour later, maybe, she just went quiet,” he said. “She died.”
The soldier said he and his comrades wrapped her in her turquoise dress and buried her. The memory haunts him.
“I can’t forget her name,” he said.
The details of the soldier’s account were corroborated by a second soldier at the base, who said he also witnessed the girl’s abortion and death.
In all, eight sources, including four soldiers, said they witnessed deaths or saw corpses of women who died from abortions performed at military barracks or administered in the field.