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In Nigeria's North West, a mass grave for the victims of a deadly Dec. 3 air raid carried out by the military (Adebayo Abdulrahman)

Anatomy of a Deadly Mistake: How Nigerian Military Strikes Have Killed Civilians

In Nigeria's North West zone, villagers have little hope that military investigations will be bring justice after deadly strikes.

Words: Adebayo Abdulrahman
Pictures: Adebayo Abdulrahman

Around 10 o’clock the night of Dec. 3, Yakubu Ridwan was a few blocks away from an open area where residents of Tudun Biri village in Kaduna State, located in Nigeria’s North West, had gathered for a procession to celebrate this year’s Mawlid, a Muslim religious event. Then, he heard a deafening blast.

The 45-year-old snatched his torchlight and stepped out to find out what was happening. Even though from the sound he knew immediately that it could only be a bomb blast, he was too scared to admit it at first, he said while standing at the same spot days later. But his fear was soon confirmed. 

“When I stepped out of my room, all I could see was the dead bodies of the Mawlid attendees and others injured spread across the venue of the procession,” he recalled. Recounting the details of that night, he spoke in Hausa, one of Nigeria’s most prominent indigenous languages. But the explosion was only the beginning of a night that will remain forever etched in local villagers’ memory — for reasons they never expected.

Yakubu and other villagers rushed around to identify injured victims who urgently needed medical attention. They placed the wounded on motorcycles, the fastest way to get them to the nearest medical facility. That was when tragedy struck again — another bomb blast. 

Shafi’u Yau lost two relatives to the bombing on Dec. 3. (Adebayo Abdulrahman)

As Yakubu placed an injured placed on a motorcycle, he explained, the second explosion hit. “It cut them into … pieces right in front of me,” he said. “I don’t know how I survived.”

When the second bomb struck, Yakubu and other survivors ran for their lives, forced to abandon their efforts to help injured victims until the next day. But by then, it was too late to save some who may have survived had they reached medical care in time.

Costly Mistakes

Even though Yakubu survived to tell the story of a night other survivors now dread to talk about, the airstrike killed at least 80 residents of Tudun Biri village. It was later learned that the attack had been carried out by the Nigerian military. Although the Nigerian Airforce denied its involvement, two days later, the Nigerian Army took responsibility for the incident, saying its officials “wrongly analyzed and misinterpreted their (the villagers’) pattern of activities to be similar to that of the bandits.”

Kaduna State, where the village is located, is one of four states heavily impacted by the conflict in Nigeria’s North West, a region home to widespread insecurity thanks to the presence of armed groups that operate in various communities, terrorizing residents and making life unbearable. 

The region’s crisis, which started a decade ago as pockets of violence over resources between farmers and herders has ballooned into a large-scale conflict over the years. Armed groups with thousands of militants now operate in the region. Throughout the last decade, more than 14,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the country’s North West, according to the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based policy and advocacy think tank.

Between January 2022 and March 2023, at least 1,266 persons were killed by bandits in Kaduna State alone, according to official government records. To confront this crisis, Nigeria’s defense apparatus has been enmeshed in an endless cycle of battles across multiple fronts.

It cut them into … pieces right in front of me.

– Yakubu Ridwan

But as armed forces carry out operations to confront insurgents, they have made costly mistakes that have led to the deaths of the very civilians they are meant to protect. Incidents like the recent case in Kaduna have decreased the level of trust in the military, which has prompted teenagers to pick up arms to protect themselves and overall questions about the effectiveness of armed forces’ defense strategy. 

“The most important component of intelligence is human intelligence,” said Abubakar Alhassan, a Nigerian security specialist and strategic intelligence analyst at US-based security firm, Riley Risk. “Human intelligence translates into open-source intelligence. If the Nigerian air force is striking the civilian population that they should have on their side, it means the entire intelligence and defense strategy needs a total rejig.”

Recurring Pattern

The costly mistake in Tudun Biri follows a pattern of similar occurrences where raids by officials of Nigeria’s Armed forces end up killing civilians they swore to protect across various conflict-prone communities in Northern Nigeria. 

The first of these mistakes occurred in February 2014, when a Nigerian military airstrike killed 20 civilians at Daglun in Borno State. Since 2017 alone, there have been several instances of the military carrying out similar attacks that hit innocent citizens, killing more than 400 people, according to Beacon Consulting, a security and risk management firm. 

Analysts worry these deadly attacks will further erode trust in the capacity of the Nigerian state to protect its citizens, a situation that could be exploited by armed groups hoping to expand their reach in the region.

Even though bandits in the North West are generally not ideologically driven like the jihadist groups in the North East, they have used propaganda exploiting existing social divisions to gain support among locals.

“These mistakes will help the terrorists’ recruitment strategy where they deploy the absence of government presence to recruit and radicalize citizens,” Abubakar said. He explained that the fact that the military keeps mistakenly striking civilians in the pattern that has now been established is only making the insurgents’ recruiting strategy easier. 

“This is actually one of the reasons why insurgency thrives in the region,” he added. 

Forever Scarred 

Sahifu Ya’u, 39, lives in Ugari, a village close to Tudun Buri. On Dec. 3, the moment the sound of the bomb blast reached his community, he immediately hurried down to see what happened. He had no idea that the tragedy he was going to witness would exact a cost on his own family. The blast killed two of his relatives: his younger brother and his uncle. 

Sulaiman Shuaibu, the village head of Tudun Biri, says he is confident those hit by the strike will get justice from the Nigerian government. (Adebayo Abdulrahman)

His brother, Habibu Ya’u, 35, had eight children, and his uncle, Aminu Saidu, 29, left behind two children. In their absence, he expects the responsibilities for their upkeep to fall on him and other close relatives.

“The Kaduna state government has mourned with us and supported us in different ways by giving us food, shelter and money,” Sahifu said. “The state government has also promised to build hospitals, construct roads and schools in the community.”

As Sahifu and other villagers begin to pick the pieces of what life now looks like for them, they remain hopeful that justice will be served. “We believe that the Nigerian government will serve us justice since the matter is still with them,” said Sulaiman Shuaibu, the village’s traditional head. He added that the government should “warn duty bearers to take their responsibilities seriously” in order to “avoid the recurrence of similar incidents.”

The villagers’ call for justice is only appropriate and, according to them, it’s the least they could hope for. In his reaction to the incident, the country’s President, Bola Tinubu ordered a “thorough and full-fledged investigation into the incident,” according to a press release from his office. But if history is anything to go by, nothing much will follow in terms of justice. 

Across the multiple instances where similar mishaps by the military have led to the loss of civilian lives, no one has ever been punished. In some cases, the incident may never be acknowledged and in others, such probes take up to six months.

But experts believe that the government must have clearly defined consequences for such incidents in order to effectively put an end to this pattern of costly mistakes. “Deterrence and punishments should be clearly defined for pilots who mistakenly strike civilian populations,” Alhassan said. 

“The government needs to improve on the training of pilots and intelligence gathering [as well as] fostering better civilian-military partnerships through well-thought-out initiatives,” he added.

Adebayo Abdulrahman

Adebayo Abdulrahman is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Context, and African Arguments, among others.

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