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Apology Not Enough: Airstrike Victims Demand Compensation From Nigerian Air Force

Last year, faulty intelligence led to an air strike that killed dozens of civilians in central Nigeria. Analysts believe repeat incidents are likely if the military does not improve accountability and ensure the proper use of heavy equipment.

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On the night of Jan. 24, 2023, a military fighter jet bombarded the Rukubi community in Nasarawa, North-central Nigeria, killing 39 herders and injuring many others. Although the military first claimed that the victims of the attack were not innocent civilians, investigations by journalists and researchers revealed this to be false.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organisation, established that civilians were the victims of the flawed operation and challenged the military to own up to the killings.

“The Nigerian military should provide full accountability for their actions as well as financial compensation and livelihood assistance that commensurate with the needs of the victims and their families,” said Anietie Ewang, HRW’s African researcher.

One year after the tragic incident, the Air Force finally took the blame for the attack. On Jan. 26, the Chief of Air Staff, Hassan Abubakar, asked the Nasarawa government to forgive the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) for what he described as an “accidental air strike”.

He claimed they had received reports that terrorists were sighted in the village, leading to the air surveillance that killed unarmed civilians. He also noted that terrorists were infiltrating the community at the time, killing residents aimlessly and kidnapping them for ransom.

“The unfortunate incident of January 2023 was in no way deliberate as no military all over the world would intentionally kill those it is mandated to protect,” the Air Force chief said. “Therefore, our visit to you (Governor Sule) is to solicit your kind intervention in interfacing with the representatives of the victims of the accidental air strike at Rukubi. Our interest in initiating ways and means in reaching out to the victims, their families or their representatives is on the need to calm nerves and bring a close to the matter.”

The press conference at the Government House in Nasarawa moved some of the victims’ families who attended to tears.

In November 2023, Yahaya Bello, a relative to some of the victims, told HumAngle he had “given up on justice for those he had lost”. His five sons and four great-grandchildren were killed during the military raid.

Bello was worried that justice had not been served when a HumAngle reporter interviewed him last year. “Not even a word of condolence came from the government,” he said.

Barely two months later, the bereaved families watched as the Emir of Lafia, Sidi Bage, “wholeheartedly” accepted the Air Force’s apology on their behalf. “We say thank you to the Nigerian government. You have demonstrated something new that we have not seen much in this country,” the monarch said when NAF officials visited his palace.  

Abdullahi Sule, the Nasarawa state governor, commended the Air Force for following up on the matter after the long silence. “This is the first time I have seen that,” he re-echoed. “And I want to commend you for the human feelings you’re bringing into this profession.”

No compensation?

Not much was explicitly said about compensation for the victims.

In response to our inquiry on compensating the bereaved families, NAF spokesperson Edward Gabkwet said they are working with the Nasarawa state government to see where they can “come in and how we can ameliorate the situation.” He stressed that it is an ongoing process, and they are waiting for the state government to liaise with the community.

Shuaibu Hassan, the Chief Imam of Rukubi, where the strike happened, told HumAngle that neither the state government nor the Air Force had made any move to compensate them. He said they’ve had several meetings with the authorities and only received apologies.

“We demand compensation for those who died during the attack,” the cleric said. “According to the Islamic religion, they are expected to pay us almost ₦200 million for the deceased so that the orphans and the family of the dead ones will be supported. But since Nigeria is not using Sharia law, I believe our constitution says something about this kind of issue.” 

Hassan added some of the victims are survived by multiple wives and school-going children. 

When HumAngle contacted Ali Abare, the spokesperson to the Nassarawa state governor, he stressed that the government’s plan is not to directly pay relatives of the victims because no amount can be enough for the lives lost to the faulty air raid.

“The Air Force showed remorse that they were willing to take up some corporate social responsibility towards the people to show that the attack was actually in error,” Abare recounted. “The governor suggested that although it is not bad for the people to ask for compensation, it is a good thing that the Air Force wants to do the CSR, which could even be more than the amount they would spend on compensation.”

The Air Force spokesman failed to describe the kind of CSR they plan for the community and the timeline of its execution. Meanwhile, the chief Imam of Rukubi said they were not aware of this plan, as nothing related to it was mentioned in any of their meetings with both state and Air Force authorities.

Elderly man in a patterned cap and green shirt with a pensive expression, another elder blurred in the background.
Alhaji Yahaya Bello. Photo: Mahdi Garba/HumAngle.

A history of secret or no apologies

The Nigerian military has often been criticised for failing to publicly acknowledge or apologise whenever it made operational errors. The Air Force sometimes bombed civilian communities and denied it. 

In April 2019, for instance, NAF released a press statement about the military offensive it carried out in Zamfara, claiming to have neutralised several terrorists. It failed to acknowledge that in Tangaram, a community in the state, six civilians were wrongfully killed.

The Air Force had told the Tangaram villagers that they were trailing two bandits who ran into the village. “I asked them if it was fair to launch an attack on hundreds of villagers because of two bandits, but there was no answer,” Shua’ibu Abubakar, the village chief, told this reporter. He was angry that the air fighters apologised secretly, only to tell a different story to the public.

A similar incident happened in Niger state, where the Air Force declared a civilian community a terrorist zone after erroneously killing six children. While hunting down terrorists, the airmen misfired, killing half a dozen children, only to present a misleading narrative that every individual in the village was a terrorist. 

The locals disagreed, insisting that Kurebe was a civilian community bombarded due to the Air Force’s miscalculations or faulty intelligence. Experts say even if the intelligence was credible, children are not supposed to be targets in war situations.

“Up till now, the Air Force has refused to accept that civilians — and indeed children — were killed in Kurebe even after they were presented with evidence contrary to what they had claimed,” Muhammad Danjuma, a security specialist in Niger state, told HumAngle.

“How, then, do you want the people to trust the military?”

Man in traditional attire speaks to the press, flanked by military personnel.
Emir of Lafia, Sidi Bage, and NAF boss Air Marshal Hasan Abubakar, Jan. 26, 2024. Photo: Nigerian Air Force HQ.

Tackling future misfire

Jesse Attah, an intelligence specialist at Beacon Consulting Limited, says one factor that leads to military misfiring is misinformation from generally credible public sources. He describes such a situation as “intelligence errors,” citing the attack on herders in Nasarawa as an example.

“So, when bias comes from credible sources, it influences intelligence decisions. A source that has been giving you credible information later ended up giving you the wrong one. And then the intelligence gap comes into play when timely decisions have to be made,” he noted.

He asked military intelligence bodies to constantly scrutinise information passed to them. 

The narrative provided by a top intelligence military officer HumAngle contacted is that the Air Force was aware of the movement of some threat actors and was informed that these people (who turned out to be unarmed herders) were located in an area. According to the officer, the military thought it was right to act on this information.

Attah explained that the right step for NAF officers in such a situation was to double-check the intel before launching an operation.

“Confirmatory intelligence is incorporated in this kind of operation to identify figures on the ground,” he said, noting that “whosoever was in charge of the operation failed significantly.”

He added, “Another issue is the communication gap; they could easily call the head of the vigilante or the community head to confirm who is in a particular location at a particular time. So, indeed, the military would have to work on its intelligence gathering mechanisms and how it acts on the intelligence gathered over time.” 

‘Apology not enough’

Security and intelligence analysts believe repeat incidents are highly probable in the coming years. They urge the Nigerian forces to ensure the proper usage of their military equipment. 

In separate interviews, the experts recommended reevaluating the existing framework for acquiring fighter jets and drones to ensure that the war machines are operated safely and responsibly. 

“They need to be responsible for using this equipment because taxpayers’ money is used to purchase them. So, it makes no sense when the same money is used in killing them,” Attah said.

Security specialist Danjuma said accountability is lacking in many of these incidents and there will be recurrences when those responsible are not brought to book. 

Attah agreed on the need for transparency and accountability, saying this is necessary to gain civilians’ trust. He further described it as the biggest way to compensate victims of attacks.

“Your brothers, sisters, and fathers should not just die like that without any level of closure from the actors,” he said. “Apology is not enough. There needs to be a kind of accountability and closure for the victims to ensure that they are respected and to reduce the culture of these senseless killings.”

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Ibrahim Adeyemi

Deputy Investigations Editor at HumAngle. Ibrahim covers conflict and humanitarian crises with a special interest in terrorism financing. While his works have tackled the routine of criminality and injustice on many occasions, they have also earned him both local and international journalism accolades, including the One World Media Award, the Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism, the Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award, the Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Reporting, and recently the Kwame Karikari Fact-checking Award for African journalists.

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