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Nigeria’s military mistakes cost the country its civilians


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Nigeria’s military mistakes cost the country its civilians

Nigeria’s military mistakes cost the country its civilians

13th December 2023

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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Last week’s accidental bombing of Tudun Biri in Kaduna State by the Nigerian Army’s drone unit is the country’s most devastating military mishap in six years, with 120 casualties. Survivors say they were bombed twice in the 5 December incident, and one family said they lost 32 members.

Punch newspaper reports that over 425 people, including children and women, were killed by military accidental bombings between September 2017 and 2023.


Drawing from previous findings and the official response from the Nigerian Defence Headquarters on past airstrike mishaps, three main factors are needed to avoid accidental bombings. These are human intelligence (collection of information from human sources), signal intelligence (electronic transmissions that can be collected by air, military aircraft, ground sites, or satellites), and imagery intelligence (analysis and visual representation of security-related activities on the ground).

Other factors include not properly calibrated targeting instruments, inadequate standard operating procedures for confirmation of identification, fighter pilots’ poor judgement, errors in copying coordinates and marking targets, and a rush to achieve results.


Nigeria has witnessed soaring violence in recent years, primarily caused by the scale and spread of non-state armed groups. With distinct motives, goals, and methods, these groups encompass a range of actors. They include terrorists (Boko Haram) in the northeast; Niger Delta Avengers (rebels) in the south; separatist factions in the south-east; and criminal gangs (bandits) in ungoverned north-western areas.

While violence is the common denominator for these armed groups, their evolution, trajectory, scale, and operations differ. For example, Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed over 35 000 people and displaced at least 1.8-million in Adamawa, Yobe, and Borno states since 2009.

Bandits are a loose collection of different criminal groups involved in kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, cattle rustling, sexual violence, pillage and attacks on traders, farmers, and travellers in ungoverned spaces in Nigeria’s northwest. Illicit profit and ethnic grievances drive banditry rather than any ideological interest. Bandits indiscriminately target communities of various faiths and ethnicities across the region with the same level of brutality.

There are about 30 000 bandits in northwest Nigeria, spread across scores of groups ranging from 10 to over 1 000 fighters. As of December 2022, bandits had displaced over a million people in rural communities. There were almost 13 500 banditry-related deaths between 2010 and May 2023.

Amid rising insecurity, Nigeria deploys its military forces and assets for multi-domain operations in the conflict hotspots. Eighty per cent of Nigeria’s military is deployed nationwide, mainly for routine police duty, under various code names and yielding mixed results.

Soldiers – especially ground troops – have died at the hands of the militants. This has led to the state investing in aerial combat. The country has expanded its collection of air assets to enhance its air, land, and sea operations. These include tethered and untethered drones, helicopters, and different aircraft types.

The deployment of these assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as bombardments of forests where insurgents, terrorists, or bandits hide, have resulted in the death of some of these criminals. Others have surrendered to state forces.

In April 2022, a Nigerian airstrike reportedly killed over 70 Islamic State-affiliated fighters at Nigeria’s northern border with Niger. In August 2023, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) confirmed the air component of Operation Delta Safe and Operation Hadin Kai carried out successful air interdiction missions on some illegal refining sites and terrorist hideouts in the Niger Delta and North East regions. These are just some examples of many successful operations.

However, similar to last week’s tragedy in Tudun Biri, the military has made several deadly operational errors. On 17 January 2017, an NAF fighter jet accidentally bombed an internally displaced persons camp in Rann, Borno State, killing 112 and injuring 97. The public panel report on the incident set up by the Nigerian Defence Headquarters claimed the cause of the airstrike was a lack of appropriate marking of the area.

Punch reports that in Kurebe village, Niger State, an NAF fighter jet intended for terrorists killed six children in April 2022. Similarly, on 13 April 2020, in Damboa, Borno State, 17 people including children were killed in an NAF fighter jet’s bombing in Sakotoku village.

Another incident occurred in Kunkuna village, Katsina, in July 2022 when 13 residents were hurt and one person killed in an NAF strike. A bomb blast in the Doma Local Government Area of Nasarawa State in January this year killed 37 people, including 27 pastoralists, at the border connecting Benue and Nasarawa states.

Last week’s incident highlights the need for synchronising unmanned aerial vehicle procurement and standard operating procedures in military deployment to avoid exacerbating inter-service mistrust and rivalry in the country’s security operations. The NAF’s resistance to an Army Aviation unit reflects concerns over operational encroachment and resource allocation.

President Bola Tinubu should request an urgent investigation of last week’s incident and ensure adequate implementation of the findings. The military should review its internal process of identifying, confirming and authorising airstrikes to minimise the margin of error.

Operational tools such as maps, compasses, software, and rangefinders, among others, should be updated to enhance pilots’ accuracy in hitting targets. To minimise human error, pilots need to be trained and retrained.

Caution, and precaution, must be the basis of the nation’s airstrikes to avoid tragedy. This will also help ensure that when operational errors are minor, politicians and influential religious figures can’t use these incidents to trigger ethno-religious conflicts. These incidents in themselves are serious enough.


Written by Oluwole Ojewale, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ISS; Freedom Onuoha, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science and Coordinator Security, Violence and Conflict Research Group, University of Nigeria; and Idris Mohammed, Conflict Researcher, Department of Mass Communication, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto


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