Child soldiering in Africa: A Fortress is not a Place for the Young

Sonia Nellie Samuel, Creative Director (2020/21)


1 min read


The prevalent use of child soldiers under the age of 18 serving in non-combatant roles and combatant roles have been increasing in Africa faster than any other continent in the world. More than 7 out of 14 countries in Africa use child soldiers in armed conflicts, and 120,000 children or 40 precent of global total of child soldiers are centred in Africa.

Abuses of Child Soldiers in Different Countries in Africa

Sierra Leone

The Sierra Leone Civil War started in 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) motivated by economic opportunities invaded Sierra Leone to overthrow Joseph Saidu Momoh's government.  This dreadful war ended in 2002 killing over 50000 people and recruiting about 10000-14000 children to participate in armed combat for both RUF and Sierra Leone government forces.

Children ages between 7 to 14 recruited were not only used as soldiers and sex slaves but also as used as human shields during combat. The Government justified its use of child soldiers as a "social-welfare program". ''A lot of these kids witnessed the slaughter of their parents and were so traumatized that they were living like beasts in the bush..... We had to catch them and bring them back into the fold as human beings.'' said Sam Hinga Norman, the Former Deputy Minister of Defence. 


Since 1987 the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has kidnapped over 30000 children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. Young girls were raped, enslaved, victimized daily by sexual violence and forcefully impregnated. In the 1990s over 800 children were born to the LRA.

Children abducted by LRA are often drugged, brainwashed and trained to participate in beheading, amputations, rape and burning victims alive and to be fearless killing machines. These children are initiated into gangs by stamping and biting their family members and friends to death and afterwards are forced to eat their flesh and drink their blood. The Lord’s Resistance Army also operates in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo.


The Hutu ethnic group recruited 14000-16000 children during the Burundian Civil War(1993-2005). These children have been tortured to extract confessions and imprisoned in dreadful conditions without food and water for years. Other children are used as "doriyas" (eye agents). Most of these children live in camps for displaced persons. To survive, they do chores like cooking and washing up for military personnel in exchange for food. 

Causes of the Use of Child Soldiers 

Voluntary Recruitment

The desire of children to join armed groups may be for a number of reasons. Some children have witnessed the brutal deaths of their loved ones, and want vengeance. Some join out of fear, Some join out of material needs. For others that have grown up in a country constantly at war, they join because they know no other way of life.

Aids and Orphans

Since 1981, more than 11 million people have died of AIDS. Ever since, about 40 million children in African lost their parents. These orphans are now easy prey for recruiters.

Economic Reasons 

Children are seen as cheap labour and expendable as they are obedient, quick to indoctrinate, easy to control, physically vulnerable and easily intimidated. Thus, it is economically beneficial for recruiters. “They are more effective for difficult and delicate missions like laying mines, acting as scouts or intelligence agents.” said Justin, representative of an armed group, DRC.

Testimonies of Former Child Soldiers 

K. E., 17 years old, male - "In August 2017, I was with my brother in my village in the east of the DRC. The members of an armed group were making all the inhabitants of the village pay a tax. My brother and I had no money to pay it, so we were captured and taken into the bush, where we were thrown into a cell. It was awful. We slept on small mattresses onto which water was dripping each evening. We had nothing to eat. My older brother managed to escape when we went to fetch water from the river. They accused me of being his accomplice, threatened to kill me and forced me to become a fighter."

W. Y ., 16 years old, male - "One day, an armed group attacked the village and killed my uncle. A few days later, they returned and killed my grandfather. Three of my friends had lost their parents in the attacks on our village. One day, we decided to go into the bush. When we got to the group's base, they taught us to handle a gun and we began to take part in night patrols. You had to be tough to live in the bush; we had no pay. If we wanted money, we had to detain a member of the community and accuse them of something, such as failure to participate in the compulsory community work that the group imposes on the villages. For food, we made the local people bring us produce from their land.I spent two and a half years in these conditions." 

L. O., 16 years old, female - "They locked us up for two days. They told us that we could choose between becoming soldiers and dying. We had no choice but to become soldiers. That same day, we were initiated by fetishes. When night came, fighting broke out, and we fought all night. One of my friends who had come with me was killed. I sometimes cry when I recall what I went through. I think a lot about a great friend of mine who was killed in the fighting; he was only 9. After he was recruited into our group, his mother came and begged for him to be released. She took three goats to the commander so that he would let her son leave the group. Eventually, he took pity on her and promised to hand him over to her the next day. That night, however, we were sent to fetch cassava flour from the villages. There were ten of us, but I was the only one with a gun; the others only had spears and knives. On the way, we met some armed men who shot at us and killed my friend. It wasn't easy being a girl in an armed group. The commanders took advantage of night patrols to sleep with the girls. They intimidated us, and if you refused to sleep with them, they would kill you" 

International Laws Surrounding Child Soldiering 


The first international agreement that addresses the legal rights of children, The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was passed. The convention states the minimum age required for recruitment of people to join armed forces was from 15 to 18 years old, which does not effectively protect children but appears to encourage child soldiering.


The Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182) was adopted, recognizing and predefining worse forms of child labour as well as placing an obligation on countries to eliminate practices that harm the health and safely of children. Efficient measures are to be taken to ensure effective enforcement of this convention, including criminal penalties.


In 2000, Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict treaty was adopted as a supplementary protocol to CRC. This treaty sets the minimum age to recruit at 18 years old.

Although such conventions exist, the execution of this convention is far from successful as child soldiering still exist and continues to increase in Africa. Furthermore, sentences laid by the ICC as per Art. 77(1) and 78(2) of the Rome Statute, seem to provide inadequate justice towards these victims. For instance ;

Germain Katanga was only sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. 

Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo was acquitted

Joseph Kony et al was indicted yet still at large 

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was sentenced  to 14 years imprisonment however was released after only serving 8 years

It appears that ICC in these cases do not fully appreciate the seriousness of child soldiering.