Nigerian Air Force Bombardments Have In Its Wake Civilian Casualties: Is There An End In Sight?

Civilian casualties continue to pile up as air operations against terrorism and violent crime intensifies in Nigeria's volatile regions.

Civilian fatalities from airstrikes in conflict areas across Nigeria have become a recurring problem.  Since the infamous Air Force bombing of an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Rann community, northeastern Nigeria, which killed more than 100 IDPs and aid workers five years ago, more civilians have become victims of intensified air operations against terror groups in the Northwest and Northeast. 

This situation poses significant concerns for the safety of civilians and could undermine security, particularly by creating grievances that could push people towards joining terror groups. 

In April 2020, at least 17 people, mostly women and their children playing under mango trees were said to have been killed when a fighter jet belonging to the Nigerian Air Force ‘accidentally’ dropped a bomb on Sakotoku village in Damboa Local Government Area (LGA) of Borno State.

The supposed target was an area in Korongilum, a neighbouring village 12 km away from where suspected Boko Haram insurgents had gathered. “We don’t know if they didn’t communicate well with the land troops as the Air Force jet rained down bombs on the village,” the Cable Newspaper quoted a military source as saying.

The incident is not a one-off. Ground troops have also been victims of these ‘accidental’ bombings. In April 2021, some soldiers were killed after a fighter jet belonging to the Nigerian Air Force shelled a military truck in Mainok, Borno State. The Air Force hit the wrong coordinates while targeting Boko Haram insurgents following calls for air support by the land troops.

Another instance happened in Sept. 2021. Over a dozen civilians in Buhari village in Yunusari Local Government Area of Yobe State were bombed by a military aircraft, and more than 20 other residents suffered different degrees of injuries.

Two weeks after, 20 fishermen were killed when the Air Force targeted terrorist camps in Kwatar Daban Masara in the Lake Chad area. Although the targeted area was considered enemy territory as it’s under the control of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the fishermen were among those caught in the complex web of ISWAP resource exploitation.

Airstrikes from fighter jets targeting terrorists also claimed the lives of a woman and her four children at Sububu, Zamfara, Northwest Nigeria.

These operational errors are, however, much more pronounced in the Lake Chad region. An upsurge in counter-terrorism operations against terror groups in the vast region prompted the United Nations Refugee Agency to caution warring parties to protect civilians caught up in the violence.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes as security forces from Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon, launched offensives against terror groups in the border region, “the safety of the displaced population and their host communities must be a priority for all sides involved in this conflict,’’ said Aissatou Ndiaye, Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Bureau for West and Central Africa. “Too many civilians in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin have already paid a high price and should not be made to suffer more.’’

In the aftermath of one of these ‘accidents’, Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, expressed shock at the death of civilians and called for calm, he said: “I received with regret news that the Air Force, working to mop up Boko Haram insurgents, accidentally bombed a civilian community in Rann, Borno State…The Federal Government will fully support the Borno State Government in dealing with the situation and attending to the victims.”

Even at that, the statements barely effect change in these operational errors as they continue unabated.

According to Murtala Abdullahi,  Head of HumAngle’s Armed Violence Desk, these incidents are a result of “several factors working together or acting independently including issues with the intelligence used for the mission; lack of advanced targeting sensors for identifying targets, and precision airstrikes, particularly onboard older NAF aircraft and the mission evaluation.” 

Caught  in crossfire

International humanitarian law provides that combatants must take all feasible precautions to minimise harm to civilians unless they directly participate in hostilities. For instance, the Geneva Convention advocates for the protection of civilians caught in armed conflicts. Article III of the convention ensures the protection of “persons taking no active part in hostilities… And shall in all circumstances be treated humanely,”

Sadly, there are countless examples of violations of this provision. Civilians are increasingly becoming victims of war. 

In Mali, another West African country which has battled insurgency for nine years after Al-Qaeda affiliates seized control of the country’s north, airstrikes killing civilians have become a common feature.

At least 19 civilians died after French fighter jets, performing stabilisation missions in the country, dropped bombs on a gathering in central Mali. France’s defense ministry said it had targeted a group of extremists.

In the Niger Republic, an airstrike from the Nigerian Military fighter jet killed 12 locals, including four children, by accident on a Friday in mid-Feb this year in Nachambé near Garin Kaoura in the Madarounfa district.

The military authorities hardly recognise civilian casualties caused by airstrikes or provide information to support victims and the outcome of internal investigations and measures taken to prevent the recurrence of these incidents. This is in spite of the potential risks, including creating grievances that escalate the violence, says Murtala.

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Abiodun Jamiu

Abiodun is an investigations reporter at HumAngle. His works focus on the intersection of public policy and development, conflict and humanitarian crisis, climate and environment. He was a 2022 Solution Journalism Fellow with Nigeria Health Watch under its Solution Journalism Africa initiative project.

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