Army-run Abortion Assault
There are those who, they open their thighs and they put something in there and twist it, like those things butchers use, like scissors, they push it inside and twist it. You’ll see her scream as they’re moving it inside of her.”
Since at least 2013, a Reuters investigation has found that the Nigerian military has conducted a clandestine, deliberate and illegal abortion programme in the country’s northeast, ending at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls. Many had been kidnapped and raped by Islamist militants. Resisters were beaten, held at gunpoint or drugged into compliance, witnesses say.
The long-read of Reuters Investigate stated that 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.
The investigation which was based on interviews with 33 women and girls who say they underwent abortions while in the custody of the Nigerian Army, has 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.
The existence of the army-run abortion programme hasn’t been previously reported. The campaign relied on deception and physical force against women who were kept in military custody for days or weeks. 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 been given 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 the Reuters investigation team 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 Nov. 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 Dec. 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.”
PIJAlance Research and Investigation Desk also confirmed the disproving statement of the Nigerian Defence on the Reuters investigation through their Twitter and Facebook pages.
Women and girls are trapped in a titanic struggle in northeast Nigeria between the federal government and Islamist extremists – a war that has raged for 13 years. At least 300,000 people have died since the conflict began, some due to violence, many more from starvation and disease, according to the United Nations and human rights groups. The northeast, a region of semi-arid savannahs, thick forest and floodplains, once was known as the breadbasket of the nation. But in the course of the war it has collapsed into economic devastation and widespread hunger, creating massive displacement and what the U.N. has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
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 enterprise has been elaborately engineered, the sources told Reuters, with pregnant former captives of insurgents transported regularly in trucks under armed guard, sometimes in convoys, to barracks or hospitals across the northeast for abortions.
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, who was one of the army-run abortion programme, 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 for this story.
The abortion programme which began during the presidency of Jonathan, continued under Buhari. Buratai led the army for nearly six years. An ex-subordinate, Irabor, is now defence chief. Boko Haram splintered and was overtaken by Islamic State’s local branch. Many Nigerians still refer to both groups as Boko Haram. The abortion programme has taken place in the northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa, where the Nigerian military has been fighting Islamist insurgents.
The programme is clandestine, said eight sources involved – sometimes kept secret even from colleagues in the same hospital. At certain civilian hospitals, women taken for abortions were held in separate wards from other patients or had their names entered into separate registers, some of the sources said.
Nigerian officials said that if such abuses existed, it would be impossible to hide them from the multitude of international and local aid groups, including U.N. agencies, that are engaged in humanitarian efforts in the northeast.
“Everybody has free access to what we’re doing,” said Major General Musa. “There is nothing hidden under the sun, nothing. Nobody has ever accused us of any of this. We have not done it. We will not do it. It is not in our character.”
Asked whether forced abortions could happen without the knowledge of aid groups, Matthias Schmale, the top U.N. official in Nigeria, said he was “at this moment not in a position to make public comments to the media on this sensitive and important matter.”
Aspects of the Nigerian Army’s abortion programme remain murky. Because of the secrecy involved, it is impossible to know precisely how many abortions were done. Interviews and documents suggest the count could be significantly higher than the tally of at least 10,000 cases that Reuters was able to establish. Patients at times were asked if they wanted an abortion, according to some sources, but Reuters could not determine how many were given a choice.
The war effort is run by a coalition of forces led by Musa. It has been spearheaded since 2013 by the Nigerian Army’s 7 Division, a unit created under then-President Goodluck Jonathan. The division remains the main counterinsurgency force under current President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general.
A spokesperson for Jonathan told Reuters that the former president had “no knowledge of any allegation of such heinous acts” by the Nigerian Army. “To the best of his knowledge, Dr. Jonathan never read or heard about such practices of the Nigerian military or its partnership, officially or unofficially,” the spokesman said.
Reuters did not receive responses to detailed questions sent to President Buhari’s office; the Ministry of Defence; the Nigerian Army headquarters in the capital, Abuja; and 7 Division’s commander in Maiduguri.
Some of the most powerful military leaders in Nigeria oversaw counterinsurgency operations in the northeast as the abortion programme grew. Among them were the much-decorated Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, who served as chief of army staff for nearly six years until he retired from the military in January 2021. Some of Buratai’s former subordinates in the northeast have since risen to national prominence, including defence chief Irabor; the late Ibrahim Attahiru, who briefly succeeded Buratai as army chief before a fatal plane crash in May 2021; and current army chief Faruk Yahaya.
Buratai and Yahaya did not respond to detailed requests for comment.
Soldiers said orders came from direct superiors on how to run and tally abortion transports, how to keep the programme under wraps and where to bury any casualties. Health workers at civilian hospitals said their orders to perform abortions came from army officers.
Generally, abortion is frowned upon in culturally conservative Nigeria, in both the Christian-dominated south and in the majority-Muslim north. It is also illegal except to save the life of the mother. In the north, any person found guilty of participating in an abortion, including the woman, can be charged with a felony and given up to 14 years in prison, and potentially a fine. Causing a woman’s death by performing an abortion without her consent is also punishable by life in prison in the north. Reuters could not determine how frequently abortions result in criminal prosecution.
Forced abortions may also violate the Nigerian military’s code of conduct. The most recent version publicly available, issued in 1967, states that “under no circumstances should pregnant women be ill-treated or killed.”
In his statement, Major General Akpor said the Nigerian military has rules of engagement and other guidelines that protect civilians, and thus would never “contemplate such evil of running a systematic and illegal abortion programme anywhere and anytime, and surely not on our own soil.”
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.
Melanie O’Brien, an associate professor of international law at the University of Western Australia, called the potential crimes “extremely grave,” citing the vulnerability of the women and the young age of the victims as possible aggravating factors.
“If these numbers are accurate, it’s horrific, really horrific,” she said.
Under a principle in international law called “command responsibility,” Nigeria’s top military commanders could be held accountable for crimes by troops under their supervision, even if the soldiers weren’t acting on orders, O’Brien said.
Other women interviewed by Reuters offered similar accounts of captivity and rescue – including being raped 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.
Six soldiers and guards confirmed that forced abortions took place at Giwa Barracks. Two of those witnesses, as well as a woman who said she had an abortion last year at the detention centre, also recalled a room where the terminations were performed that matched Fati’s description: a foetid, grey-walled space like a hallway, where women lay on floor mats amid cockroaches and mosquitos.
The site has come under scrutiny before: In 2016, Amnesty International cited Giwa’s detention centre for “horrendous conditions” that it said led to the deaths of 149 detainees. In 2018, the group alleged that hundreds of women who fled or were rescued from areas controlled by Boko Haram during counterinsurgency operations had been arbitrarily detained at Giwa Barracks, including five who died. Neither report made reference to abortions.
After Amnesty’s 2018 publication, Nigeria’s military accused the rights watchdog of “cooking reports from time to time to demoralise the entire military system and the nation as a whole.”
In interviews, soldiers and women described conditions in military encampments or facilities as squalid: Pregnant women sometimes were kept outside in tents or under tarps during their abortions, where they bled into the dirt.
Some women later told Reuters that had they been asked, they would have kept the babies. Despite the father’s brutality, “that child had done nothing wrong,” said Bintu Ibrahim.
Eight others, including Fati, said they had not wanted to give birth. But several said they resented being tricked or forced into a frightening and potentially dangerous abortion.
“They should ask for women’s opinions,” Fati said.
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.
Unhealthy or at-risk women, and those taking these drugs later in pregnancy, should be supervised, the medical experts said, because of the increased risk of developing serious complications such as uterine rupture, excessive bleeding and infection, all of which require immediate treatment.
Surgical abortions were done as well – by manual vacuum aspiration or dilation and curettage, according to multiple sources, hospital records and military lists of abortion procedures.
One woman rescued from an insurgent camp in 2018 said she underwent a surgical abortion without even knowing it.
The woman described herself as eight weeks pregnant at the time. She said soldiers took her to a civilian hospital for an abortion, but she refused to undergo the procedure.
Then the staff told her they would do some “tests,” she said. “They were just using some metal and plastic objects,” said the woman, in her mid-twenties, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Only later did staff tell her they’d terminated her pregnancy, she said. She was shaken, she said, because “someone can die in the process of abortion.” She ran away from the facility soon after.
The woman’s full name appears on an excerpt of a hospital abortion register reviewed by Reuters, which confirms she had a surgical abortion and that she absconded from the facility after the procedure. A second woman confirmed the authenticity of that same excerpt, saying it contained her own name and accurately described the procedure she had.
In all, four soldiers and guards and one healthcare worker said women were forced physically to take medication or undergo surgical abortions.
“We do this kind of procedure to them in order to save them from the stigma or the problem that will arise in the future” with a Boko Haram child, the health worker told Reuters. If women refuse to consent, “we normally leave them restrained by tying their legs and their hands on a bed.” And if “they’re restless on the bed, so that we cannot perform our procedure, we normally give them mild sedation so they will go to sleep,” the person said.
Some soldiers and guards said their colleagues beat women into submission.
“Slap, cane, gun – anything they could find,” recalled one soldier, who said he witnessed such violence.
One guard said he observed women crying out while having abortions forced on them. “There are those who are given pills,” he said. “There are those who, they open their thighs and they put something in there and twist it, like those things butchers use, like scissors, they push it inside and twist it. You’ll see her scream as they’re moving it inside of her.”
A woman, then 24, recalled being insulted and clubbed at the time of her medication abortion at a barracks in the northeast in 2018. “One of the soldiers beat me, saying that it’s a bastard child” from “a Boko Haram pregnancy,” she said. “He hit me with a gun.”
Her name appeared on a 2018 list, reviewed by Reuters, of patients at that location. Interviews and other military documentation indicate she was one of thousands to receive an abortion at that military base alone.
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