On December 7, Reuters published an investigative report into a clandestine programme run by the Nigerian military. “The Abortion Assault: Nigerian military ran secret mass abortion programme in war against Boko Haram”.

 For nearly ten years, Reuters alleges, the military had been forcing thousands of rescued girls and women to abort children conceived following rape or forced marriage to Islamist militants. The Reuters journalists say that they interviewed 33 women and girls, five civilian healthcare workers and nine security personnel, plus copies of documents from hospitals and the military.

Why? The captive women had done nothing wrong. Reuters explains:

Four health workers told Reuters the abortion programme was, on the whole, for the good of society. “This child is already sick from conception,” one health worker said, referring generally to the foetuses of women impregnated by insurgents. He also said people would keep insisting, “‘He is a terrorist, he is a terrorist.’ There is power in words. They tend to bounce back on the child.”

This was clearly illegal.

The report runs for nearly 8,000 sickening words, documenting sordid abuse after sordid abuse. It is almost unbelievable.

In fact, I am not sure how much I should trust it, due in part to the sheer brazenness of the alleged operation; the fact that it went on for so long, under the noses of both the Nigerian military’s foreign partners and its own top brass; as well the lack of substantial corroboration by local Nigerian media.

I am not alone in my disbelief.

The reaction of Nigerians on Twitter, who are second in madness only to their Kenyan counterparts, seemed to me to have been much more muted than it should have been. I reached out to two of my Nigerian friends (one a lecturer, the other a journalist), and asked them about the mood on the ground.

The journalist, who is understandably more cynical about his country’s government and military, believes the allegations. The lecturer, on the other hand, is much more sceptical. But neither believes that anything will come of the report, mainly because of general elections early next year. And none of the main presidential candidates has endorsed the report.

The Nigerian military has denied any wrongdoing in a flurry of statements and has refused to promise an investigation. This does not inspire much confidence either. In none of their statements have its leaders attempted to refute the allegations. Instead, they resorted to generic statements of their values. They childishly cast aspersions on the motives of the journalists, calling them “wicked” and “bullying”.

Major General Lucky Irabor, who is in charge of the operation against Boko Haram told reporters that the military “will not investigate what you know is not true … I don’t think I should waste my energy in such things.”

Observing all this in mortified confusion from the opposite side of the continent, I am left with no choice but to take the middle ground while I await further information, equally hoping the report is false as that it’s true. Although I’d much rather that Reuters lied than that 10,000 abortions did take place, I’d also want it to be a matter of public knowledge.

In any case, presuming its veracity, some aspects of the report do deserve comment.

The first is the scale of the catastrophe at the base of the allegation: for years tens of thousands of girls and women have been kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married by Islamic insurgents in Nigeria. An estimated 300,000 people have died in a war which has lasted 13 years. The United Nations describes it as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

The 10,000 who were forced to abort their babies were just a part of larger rescued groups, who were in turn part of even larger groups of victims, many of whom are still in the hands of their kidnappers. It is a crisis of immense proportions, a crime crying out to heaven. There is no saying when it will end.

The second aspect is the fact that many of the women who were forced to have abortions say they would not have aborted their children if they had the choice. Despite the circumstances under which they conceived, they still believed, as one of them is quoted saying, that “that child had done nothing wrong,” and didn’t deserve to be, essentially, punished for the sins of their fathers.

The third is the grounds the Nigerian military used to deny the report. Aside from the jabs at Reuters’ credibility, the head of the counterinsurgency campaign at the heart of the allegations, Major General Christopher Musa, also took cover under a professed pro-life position, saying “Everybody respects life. We respect families. We respect women and children. We respect every living soul.” Abortion is illegal in Nigeria because most Nigerians also believe this. Either Musa also believes it, or he and his military are great hypocrites.

The fourth aspect is that the programme mysteriously stopped at the end of 2021. I am certainly speculating here, but this likely points to the programme having been a project of junior officers, carried out with minimal involvement or support from above. If this is indeed the case, then 2021 could have been the point where the superiors discovered the full extent of the programme and quietly killed it.

The fifth and last remarkable fact I’ll comment on is that the Reuters reporters’ final takeaway is that the greatest crime in the whole saga is that the abortions were performed without the consent of the women, and that they were performed in clinically unsafe settings. Quoting experts and specialists, the reporters conclude the report by describing the standard of care in clinical abortions as a contrast. Abortion is ”a safe procedure turned dangerous,” they write.

This is a remarkable case of missing the point.

While it is true that the medical standard of care was not adhered to, exposing the women to dangers they would not have otherwise faced, the bigger crime here, surely, is the wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life, animated by the twisted belief of the Army that children of terrorists have no right to live. They believed this so deeply that they were willing to subject the women to the worst possible medical conditions just so they could kill these children.

Perhaps the Reuters reporters fail to see it this way because, fundamentally, they too hold the same position. The unborn children of terrorists can be killed, as long as their mothers give consent and the murder follows clinical norms.

To which all I can say is this: kettle, meet pot.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.