How journalists tallied the toll of Nigeria’s forced abortion programme

A Nigerian military officer talks with women and children freed from Boko Haram in Yola state.
A Nigerian military officer talks with women and children freed from Boko Haram in Yola state.
Image: Nigerian Army via Reuters/File photo

Reuters revealed in December that at least 10,000 abortions had been performed at military and civilian facilities under the auspices of the Nigerian Army since at least 2013.

The abortion programme was aimed at women and girls who were kidnapped and impregnated by Islamist insurgents during their long war against the government in the country’s northeast.

The figure is based on more than 50 interviews with soldiers, guards and health workers involved in the programme, women who underwent abortions and other civilian witnesses, as well as an examination of hospital registers and other documents.

Reuters took a conservative approach to tallying abortions, and the actual number of abortions in the northeast over the decade could be significantly higher. Some of the figures may overlap, as indicated below.

Sources and some locations are not named to protect the identity of the witnesses.

Thirty-five women and girls said they underwent abortions while in the custody of the Nigerian Army after escaping or being liberated from insurgent captivity.

Many described being transported by truck to abortion sites in groups of dozens of other women, some visibly pregnant and others with less advanced pregnancies that were later confirmed by urine or blood tests.

Eighteen said they had abortions in groups, ranging from a handful of people to 50 or 60 at a time, suggesting that each person’s experience represents a sliver of a larger total. Four other people said they witnessed abortions but did not have them.

Civilian hospital registers record 155 separate abortions. The documents include copies of registers and excerpts copied from them. The documents were reviewed by Reuters and authenticated by health workers and/or women whose abortions are recorded on the registers. The documents include the names of the women, and their ages, dates of admission, number of weeks pregnant and drugs/surgery administered to them.

The minimum number of abortions performed in the Maiduguri area between 2013 and 2021 was 7,000

The records are not complete accountings of abortions at the facilities, but snapshots in time. They describe abortions performed between 2017 and 2020 at two civilian hospitals in the city of Maiduguri and three other civilian hospitals outside of Borno state. The names of at least eight of the 35 women interviewed appear on the hospital registers. Five civilian health workers who participated in or witnessed the abortions were interviewed.

The minimum number of abortions performed at a single army base outside Maiduguri between 2016 and 2020 was 3,900. One soldier said he was involved in 3,900 abortions there during that time, based on programme records he reviewed for Reuters.

Another soldier, whose tenure at the base overlapped with the first, said he witnessed thousands more abortions during that period — recalling an average of about five per day.

In addition, documents show 5,200 abortions were performed at the same base between 2017 and 2019. The figures are noted on sheets of paper that bear the military base's letterhead and contain the signatures of two officers. The tallies were prepared for Nigerian Army headquarters in Abuja, in part to procure funding, according to the two soldiers.

Both soldiers said the total of 5,200 did not include women who died.

Reuters could not locate the officers named on the documents or confirm the authenticity of their signatures. As a result, we used the lowest number estimated by the soldiers: 3,900.

The minimum number of abortions performed in the Maiduguri area between 2013 and 2021 was 7,000. In separate interviews, three soldiers and one guard each provided estimates of the number of women and girls they transported to military facilities for abortions in the area. Their figures ranged from 7,000 to 8,600.

The soldiers said they were ordered to keep careful track of the pregnant women. The figures provided by the four sources may overlap, as some sources may have been involved in some of the same transports.

“We count them one after another, then write it on a paper to send to commanders,” one soldier said of the accounting method.

A set of detailed, contemporaneous notes was provided by a fifth source, a guard. From March 19 2013 to February 24 2019, he and a colleague recorded 15,197 women or girls transported to the Maiduguri area for abortions.

Reuters was unable to determine if this tally overlapped with others cited in its December story about the abortion programme.

In total, Reuters interviewed nine security personnel, including soldiers and other government employees such as guards, for the story.


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