Power, Agency and Criminal Culpability of Nigerian Female Combatants and Suicide Bombers​

Boko Haram started off as an Islamic sect in Northern Nigeria that was opposed to western education and bad governance. Earlier attacks by Boko Haram focused largely on schools where students were encouraged to burn their books and certificates and join the sect. Over the years, Boko Haram has also modified its tactics to enable it unleash terror on more citizens with over tens of thousands recorded as casualties while over two million have been displaced.[1] Graduating from gunmen on motorcycle shooting sporadically at targets to planting bombs in high target areas, in 2011 Boko Haram’s leadership began using suicide bombers with male carriers as a terror strategy.[2]However, with the increasing abductions of women and girls, they soon earned the reputation of being the terrorist group that has used the highest number of female suicide bombers in history.[3] Within the first quarter of 2018, 469 female suicide bombers have been deployed or arrested in 240 incidents.[4] Sent out in pairs or as individual bombers, females are strapped with bombs and instructed to detonate it at military check points or in markets, schools, or religious worship buildings, all areas with the potential of there being high casualties. With over 1,200 people killed and about 3000 injured to date, female suicide bombers are the latest arsenal for Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria.[5] By examining the scholarly discourses on female suicide bombers, my studies in criminology and legal studies will involve the study of the representations of Boko Haram’s activities, especially as they relate to suicide bombers. This research explores the popular descriptions of female combatants and female suicide bombers and whether or when they are inter-related.

There are numerous media and organizational reports citing recruitment of female child soldiers, abduction of females as combatants, forced wives, domestic labour and more recently as arsenals, however there is a dearth of scholarly literature on female’s roles in the Boko Haram insurgency. This research contributes to the documentation of different states of dual victimhood and agency experienced by girls and women[8] in order to explore how female combatants move within legally and socially defined categories of “victim”, “perpetrator,” and “survivor” as well as how they engage in the mobilization change in their lives.


[1] Mausi Segun et al, “Those terrible weeks in their camp”: Boko Haram violence against women and girls in Northeast Nigeria, Human Rights Watch (Organization) (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2014).
[2] The Economist, “Why Boko Haram uses female suicide-bombers”, The Economist (23 October 2017), online: <https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/10/23/why-boko-haram-uses-female-suicide-bombers>.
[3] Dionne Searcey, “Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived.”, N Y Times (25 October 2017), online: <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/25/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-suicide-bomb.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/25/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-suicide-bomb.html>.
[4] Ibid; The Economist, supra note 2.
[5] Elizabeth Pearson, “Wilayat Shahidat: Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and the Question of the Female Suicide Bomber” in Jacob Zenn, ed, Boko Haram Headl Anal Afr Endur Insur (2018).
[6] International Crisis Group, Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, 242 (Belgium, 2016).
[7] A Barkindo & B Tyavkase, Our Bodies, Their Battle Ground. Boko Haram and Gender Based Violence Against Christian Women and Children in North Eastern Nigeria since 1999 (2013); “Boko Haram’s Violence Against Women and Girls Demands Justice”, online: Counc Foreign Relat <https://www.cfr.org/blog/boko-harams-violence-against-women-and-girls-demands-justice>.
[8] Erin K Baines, “‘Today, I Want to Speak Out the Truth’: Victim Agency, Responsibility, and Transitional Justice” (2015) 9:4 Int Polit Sociol 316.
[9] Global-Terrorism-Index-2018-1.pdf.
[10] https://allafrica.com/stories/202001080045.html ‘Nigeria: ICC Identifies Potential War Crimes by Nigerian Security Forces, Boko Haram’.