The accidental attack could be part of a dangerous trend
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
Late in the morning of Jan. 17, 2017, aid workers from the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders — also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontière, or MSF — began distributing food to internally displaced persons in the Rann refugee camp in Nigeria’s Borno State.
On the same day, the commander of Nigerian forces in the region, Gen. Lucky Irabor, received intelligence from a “foreign partner.” According to the alert, Boko Haram insurgents were assembling for another attack and he quickly approved an air strike on the supposed coordinates of the gathering.
But something had gone horribly wrong.
“The first bomb fell at 12:30 P.M. and landed just a few meters away from the Red Cross office,” Alfred Davis, one of MSF’s employees at Rann, recalled in an first hand account for Time. “The plane circled back around and it dropped a second bomb five minutes later.”
The Nigerian combat jet — either a Franco-German-designed Alpha Jet or a faster Chinese-made F-7NI — unleashed multiple bombs on the densely populated camp as innocent civilians queued up to receive food and measles vaccines.
Possibly for the first time in its fight against the brutal terrorist group, the Nigerian government admitted its air arm had killed civilians. “We acted based on intelligence on the enemy’s presence in Rann so as to strike and finish them,” Brig. Gen. Rabe Abubakar, a top Nigerian military spokesman, stated.
“But, unfortunately, it turned the other way round,” he continued. “We are in pains by this even though it has never happened throughout our engagement with this ungodly group.”
But, in spite of this statement, the tragedy might actually be part of a dangerous trend.
The issue of human rights abuses and civilian casualties in Abuja’s campaign to rid the country of Boko Haram has long been controversial and contentious. Since 2009, the brutal Islamic fundamentalist group has waged a campaign of terror in the the country’s northeastern regions.
In April 2014, the terrorists gained international infamy after kidnapping 276 girls from a village school in the village of Chibok, also in Borno State. The fighters subsequently forced many of them into unrecognized “marriages.”
The Nigerian armed forces, police and government-sanctioned militias fought back with mass arrests, ground offensives and air strikes. After Pres. Muhammadu Buhari reorganization Nigeria’s military in 2015, the country’s security forces finally seemed to make progress.
The next year, troops chased the insurgent group out of its stronghold in Borno’s Sambisa forest. In December 2016, Buhari announced the country’s army had taken Boko Haram’s “last enclave” and all that was left was a “final phase of mopping up insurgents in the north-east.”
The war’s end may not have seemed so close to the displaced persons in Rann. Located near the intersection of Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, approximately 43,000 of the roughly two million Nigerians fleeing the depredations of Boko Haram lived at the site as of January 2017.
Nigerian officials and humanitarian groups had only established the Rann camp in March 2016, when security forces reportedly “cleared” Boko Haram out of the town. The camp lay on open, arid ground with the occasional desiccated tree.
Making their living selling kindling they gathered outside the encampment, the displaced persons lived in ramshackle huts made of mud, brick and sack cloth and even an abandoned school house. Rough roads isolated the camp from both food and assistance.
Nigerian troops manned a security perimeter, controlling exit and entry. Aid workers didn’t arrive until December 2016 and found thousands suffering from severe malnutrition.
On top of that, despite reports that the area was secure, the insurgents continued to harass troops and locals in Rann and the surrounding areas. On Dec. 31, 2016, just days after Buhari’s statement, Boko Haram fighters launch a dawn assault on the Nigerian Army outpost in the town, only withdrawing after a three-hour firefight that left 15 insurgents dead.
Then on Jan. 16, 2017, Nigerian troops in the regional capital of Maiduguri shot and killed a 12-year-old girl carrying a suicide bomb as she climbed a security fence around the local university. They failed to spot a seven-year old boy who entered a campus mosque during morning prayers. He succeeded in detonating his explosives, killing himself and four others.
So, the botched air strike was simply the latest incident in the midst of an still fragile situation. As the bombs rained down, medical staff in the camp sprang into action to save as many of the injured as possible.
“There are no words to describe the chaos,” Davis explained. “Some people had broken bones and torn flesh; their intestines hung down to the floor.”
“I saw the bodies of children that had been cut in two,” he added. “I did not see the plane and I don’t know exactly what type of bomb it was.”
“We found small metal slivers on the bodies.”
Six Red Cross aid workers and three contractors from MSF responsible for providing water and sanitation services were among the dozens who died. The attack wounded at least 13 more aid workers, as well as two Nigerian soldiers providing security on the ground.
Doctors assembled a triage center and treated at least 317 injured, according to one count. Many victims needed surgery, but the nearest hospital lay a two hour drive way through more insecure territory.
Later on Jan. 17, 2017, a U.N. Humanitarian Aid Service helicopter dropped off four medics and 900 pounds of medical supplies and flew away with eight injured Red Cross personnel. By Jan. 18, 2017, military helicopters and three private Bell 412 choppers working for the U.N. World Food Program flew 98 seriously injured patients to Maidguri for surgery.
As the evacuations continued, Buhari apologized for a “regrettable operational mistake.” By then, contrary initial estimates, observers believed more than 50 people had died in the strike.
The chairman of the Kala Balge local area government, Bagana Malarima, reported that his constituents had buried 234 victims in total. Two more boys had died on route to Maidiguri.
“Lives and property have been lost. It is not enough to just bury the dead and pray for their souls,” Malarima added. “Their families should be supported as is done in other countries.”
“They should not be forgotten.”
In the meantime, there was more misery at the Rann refugee camp. On the night of Jan. 19, 2017, more than 100 Boko Haram fighters in jeeps and motorcycles attacked. The raiders kicking off a 30 minute firefight with government troops before falling back, leaving behind a vehicle and eight dead.
There was outrage in Nigeria and around the world that the Nigerian Air Force had somehow struck a refugee camp being guarded by its own troops. On Jan. 19, 2017, the Nigerian Air Force announced it was launching an investigation.
Air Vice Marshal Salihu Bala-Ribah, the service’s Chief of Standards and Evaluation, would chair the review. Nigerian officials said they would release the findings no later than Feb. 2, 2017.
On Feb. 2, Irabor gave the official figure of 112 killed in the accidental bombardment. “Extraneous forces” had pushed Malarima “to give a bogus figure” and the local politician had made an apology “on tape,” he said.
The BBC conversely claimed Malarima’s number erroneously combined the count of wounded with the dead. For its part, MSF’s last estimate was 170 dead.
But Nigerian officials still haven’t released the final investigation report. Human Rights Watch has criticized the all-military investigation.
“It should not be the Air Force alone, because indeed you cannot prosecute your own matter, should you?” Mausi Segun, the group’s senior researcher for Nigeria, said. “They’re not the only party involved.”
On Feb. 15, 2017, Nigeria’s air arm declared it had extended the period of the investigation, citing as progress a visit by the committee to the Rann camp to conduct interviews. For their investigation to be credible, the Nigerian team will need to shed light on at least two points of failure.
First of all, the Nigerian Air Force claimed it received the wrong coordinates for the air attack. Another possibility is that the pilot simply misjudged his location.
While it’s certainly not uncommon for intelligence to be inaccurate, why did those in charge not realize the coordinates corresponded to the location of a refugee camp guarded by Nigerian troops? Sending a separate observation plane to spy on the target before the attack — a tactic the Nigerian forces have used in the past — could have averted tragedy.
Still, regardless of the coordinates’ accuracy, the pilot failed to visually determine his assigned target was actually large civilian community rather than a rebel fighting force on the run. It’s possible he was flying fast and high in order to evade potential ground fire, limiting his ability to determine the situation on the ground.
Boko Haram possesses truck-mounted heavy machine guns, which shot down an Alpha Jet in 2014. Nonetheless, the country’s aviators should have training to distinguish a sprawling refugee camp from a military target.
Depending on the answers to those questions, it is possible this incident is indicative of broader issues rather than an isolated accident. Nigeria’s Alpha Jets, capable of acting as trainers or a light attack planes, played a similar role defeating vicious rebel armies in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s.
They also reportedly engaged in indiscriminate attacks that caused civilian casualties during those operations. In 2014, ProPublica and PBS Frontline included the following account of one of those operations as part of an investigation into the Firestone tire company’s relationship with long-time Liberian dictator Charles Taylor:
Dozens of Liberian workers had gathered at the soccer field near Harbel for a game. Men, women and children watched from the sidelines. In the homes surrounding the field, people played checkers and Scrabble — a favorite Liberian pastime.
Suddenly, several olive-green Alpha Jets streaked overhead. One loosed a bomb that exploded, flinging shrapnel, blood and body parts everywhere. People were screaming, dying. The planes passed by on a second run. They strafed survivors.
Welwean’s uncle was playing checkers with six other men. They were cut to pieces by the strafing. Julius Morlue, a Liberian who worked in Firestone’s accounting section, was summoned by his daughter. He raced with her toward the field. He found his wife between two houses, blood pouring from a fatal wound to her head.
When the attack ended, the Nigerian aircraft had killed 42 noncombatants in this incident and wounded 200. In the conflict with Boko Haram in Nigeria, there is mounting evidence of similar incidents.
Despite official denials, some air strikes have reportedly killed the terrorists’ hostages inadvertently. After security forces rescued some of the Chibok girls, the former captives stated aerial attacks had killed three of their number.
Unfortunately, when hostages and other non-combatants are in active combat zone, a pilot flying overhead would likely find it extremely difficult to determine whether civilians are present among the enemy forces. However, there have been more clear-cut errors in target identification.
Government jets strafed a Nigerian senator Ali Ndume’s six-vehicle convoy in January 2014, mistaking it for a Boko Haram raiding column — fortunately without any deaths. Two months later, warplanes on a night raid mistook the village of Kayamla in Borno State for a Boko Haram encampment and killed five villagers.
The most serious friendly fire incident prior to the bombing at the Rann refugee camp reportedly occurred on Feb. 17, 2015, when unidentified aircraft bombed and strafed a funeral party at Abadam-Niger, a short distance across the border in Niger.
The Nigerian Air Force publicly denied its planes were responsible for the attack, which killed 36 people. According to Vice News, sources within the Nigerian military privately conceded that one of its pilots had confused the gathering mourners for fleeing insurgents.
The situation became so serious that the United States apparently limited cooperation with the Nigerian military because of this abysmal record on human rights. In 2014, Washington declined to approve the sale of Cobra attack helicopters to Abuja, reportedly over these concerns.
More recently, American legislators blocked a new Nigerian request to purchase Super Tucano propeller attack planes. Those opposed to the sale argued the incident at Rann vindicated their concerns the Nigerian Air Force would use the additional firepower indiscriminately.
However, the Pentagon continues to operate various military assistance efforts with its Nigerian counterparts. American drones have played an important role in enhancing the ability of Nigeria’s pilots to find the right targets.
Of course, even the United States Air Force, with its vastly superior training and technology, has made the wrong call many times, with horrifying consequences. In July 19, 2016, American warplanes massacred around 70 Syrian refugees fleeing fighting near Manbij — the U.S. pilots believed at the time they were Islamic State fighters.
In 2015, a U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship unloaded more than 200 shells into an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in an attack that lasted 29 minutes and killed 42 patients and medical staff. A Pentagon investigation found human error compounded by technical difficulties led to the tragedy.
And there have been many more incidents in which warplanes bombed funerals and wedding parties. Recently, two Saudi air strikes slaughtered 155 guests at a funeral in Sana’a, Yemen using American-supplied aircraft and munitions.
Part of the problem is that a large, tightly clustered group of enemy personnel are the ideal target for an air attack. Unfortunately, from high above, often through the narrow lenses of videos cameras, clustered enemies are very hard to distinguish from groups of civilians traveling together or performing social functions.
The bottom line? Any extensive use of air power in areas with civilians is likely to result in civilian casualties, no matter how sophisticated the technology and training. If the fight against Boko Haram truly is now no more than a “mopping up operation,” than curtailing the use of air strikes in areas with civilian populations could save lives.
Unfortunately, despite important battlefield successes, it seems like the Nigerian government’s account of the group’s imminent defeat is optimistic. And a drought is now setting in on northern Nigeria, hitting the region hard.
On Feb. 16, 2017, Boko Haram killed seven Nigerian soldiers and wounded another 19 in an ambush on the Ajiri-Dikwa road. The following day, seven female suicide bombers infiltrated a refugee camp outside Maidiguri, the capital of Borno State.
They detonated themselves amidst buses waiting to take displaced persons back home. Unfortunately, between terrorist abuses, government operations and the weather, it looks like the ordeal of civilians in northeastern Nigeria is far from over.