By Kola King
Outrage, anger and shock have greeted the killing of 85 persons including women and children in Tudun Biri, Igabi Local Government Area of Kaduna State by Army drone strikes targeting suspected terrorists but which accidentally hit innocent persons celebrating Maulud, the birth of Prophet Mohammed. Death came in the daytime sending them to their untimely deaths and leaving scores injured and nursing their wounds. The drone strike was the equivalent of Nakbah, which is to say a catastrophe. Palestinians describe Nakbah as a catastrophe, mainly the death and destruction that accompanied the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, which led to the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. More than 10,000 Arab soldiers and civilians were killed in that war.
December 3, 2023, was Nakbah for the good people of Tudun Biri. That was a day of death and destruction. It was as though Armageddon came on visitation as drones rained fire and brimstone on the unsuspecting villagers. Yet this is not a war against the people but a war on terror. Regretably it was a war that picked the wrong target. According to recent reports, the death toll has climbed to 120. Initial reports claimed the Nigerian Air Force had carried out air strikes to neutralize suspect bandits. Later, NAF spokesperson Edward Gabkwet dismissed the claim, saying the agency had not carried out any air operations within Kaduna in the previous 24 hours.
“Also, note that the NAF is not the only organisation operating combat armed drones in the Northwestern region of Nigeria,” Gabkwet said.
Then, a statement from the Kaduna State government clarified that the Nigerian Army had claimed responsibility for the drone attack in a meeting with some stakeholders.
“The General Officer Commanding One Division Nigerian Army, Major General V.U Okoro, explained that the Nigerian Army was on a routine mission against terrorists but inadvertently affected community members,” said Samuel Aruwan, the state’s commissioner for internal security.
Well, it is a good thing the Army authorities have owned up to this tragic incident, admitting that the drone strike was ordered by the Army who received intelligence that terrorists were on the prowl in that location. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Taoreed Lagbaja has admitted the tragic error by the army and expressed grief and sadness over the unfortunate incident. Lagbaja has done the right thing by visiting Tudun Biri and commiserating with people while at the same time assuring them that there would be no recurrence of such an incident.
On his part, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen. Christopher Musa has apologised for the bombing of civilians at Tudun Biri. Musa said the army acted on intelligence but missed, and described the incident as highly regrettable.
Speaking on Arise Television, the defence chief noted that going forward, the military would fine-tune its operations and ensure that such incidents do not reoccur.
In a similar vein, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) explained that the targets hit by the military drone in the Kaduna bombing were acquired by air surveillance and subsequently eliminated, presuming that terrorists, who were in the habit of using civilians as shields, were operating at the time.
The DHQ regretted the civilian casualties and claimed it always did its best to distinguish between civilians and terrorists. It said the suspicious movement of the allegedly celebrating crowd, had posed a major threat in an area notorious for terrorist activities, thus propelling the drone attack.
Still, the accidental bombing has attracted widespread condemnation across the broad spectrum of society. There have been more condemnations from Civil Society organisations, Amnesty International and other socio-cultural organizations as well as the Christian Association of Nigeria. Expectedly the pan-Northern political and cultural association, the Arewa Consultative Forum, and the Jama’tu Nasril Islam have stressed that those found culpable should be punished.
Undoubtedly, the Nigerian Armed Forces have made supreme sacrifices in the battle against terrorism which has blighted most of the north in the last decade. The supreme sacrifices made by the military are widely acknowledged by all and sundry. Indeed scores of officers and men have paid the supreme price while in the line of duty.
However, the Tudun Biri incident is one accident too many. Since the war on terror started there have been several incidents where innocent civilians have ended up as collateral damage in the military‘s pursuit of terrorists. As President Bola Tinubu said while sympathising with the dead and injured, this accidental bombardment is disturbing and extremely worrying. Already Tinubu has ordered a probe into the unfortunate incident vowing that whoever was responsible for that tragic error will be reprimanded and punished.
A timeline of attacks on the civil populace compiled by Premium Times shows that the Kaduna attack was the second military airstrike on the civilian populace in the north this year.
The report indicates that like the attack in Nasarawa State in January, it was believed to be carried out by a drone. The police confirmed that at least 27 herders, mainly ethnic Fulani, were killed in the Nasarawa incident.
However, Fulani groups claim 40 people were killed and scores of other civilians were injured.
Another military airstrike claimed scores of civilian lives in December 2022 while soldiers were repelling attacks by non-state actors on some communities in the Dansadau District of Maru Local Government Area of Zamfara State.
Residents said armed bandits had targeted Malele, Yan Sawayu, Yan Awaki Maigoge, and Ruwan Tofa communities before the attacks were foiled by the air raids which forced the rampaging gunmen to flee into the neighbouring Mutunji community for safety.
However, the terrorists were not the only victims of the air raid in Mutunji. Civilians, including women and children, were also killed. The community leader of Mutunji, Umar Mutunji, put the civilian casualties at over 70.
The Zamfara State government confirmed the strike claimed several lives in the Mutumji community but did not state the number of casualties from the operations.
In July 2022, at least six people were reported killed by an Air Force jet in the Kunkunna community of Safana Local Government of Katsina State. Like in Zamfara, the victims of the Katsina attack, were hit by bombs targeted at bandits.
Again in April 2022, six children were killed when a Nigerian Air Force jet bombed their residence in Kurebe, Shiroro Local Government of the state. Ironically, the parents of two of the six children who were killed in the airstrike were killed by bandits in 2020.
Their families were left with the trauma of losing their loved ones to both state and non-state actors.
Salis Sabo, the spokesperson of the Coalition of Shiroro Association (COSA), said the incident happened on the morning of Wednesday 13 April, as the children were returning from a motorised borehole in the community where they had gone to fetch water.
In January 2017, the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) also known as Doctors Without Borders, said at least 52 people were killed after a Nigerian fighter jet ‘accidentally’ dropped a bomb on an internally displaced persons, IDP, camp in Rann, headquarters of Kala-Balge local government area, Borno State.
The international humanitarian organisation, whose officials were present at the Rann camp when the incident occurred, said another 120 people were injured from the incident.
Since 2017, military airstrikes on civilians have continued and the outcome of the investigations into them has never been published, reports Premium Times.
Meanwhile, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu has assured the nation that whoever is found culpable of the bombardments of Tudun Biri village that killed over 90 villagers will be punished accordingly.
Tinubu was represented by Vice President Kashim Shettima who made the statement on Thursday shortly after visiting the victims at Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital, Kaduna to condole them over the unfortunate incident.
He explained that the federal government remain committed to the fight against banditry across the region.
“The victims will be well taken care of under the Fulako Initiative which will commence by this month and this community will be the first to be rebuilt in the northwest zone.
“All measures will be taken to ensure that future occurrences are averted. Government will go to the root of the issue and anyone found culpable will be punished accordingly,” the Vice President said.
On the other hand, the pan-Northern socio-political organisation, ACF, and Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar-led Jama’atu Nasril Islam have condemned the bombardment of Tudun Biri and called for a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the military bombing. The Sultan of Sokoto called for justice over the death of more than 100 villagers of Tudun Biri.
Reacting to the incident, the ACF described it as “horrific”, noting that the northern organisation was highly disturbed that such an operation could be contemplated and executed in the densely populated area, “suggesting an inexcusable, scandalous and plausibly incompetent failure of intelligence.”
In a statement by the National Publicity Secretary, Prof. Tukur Muhammed-Baba, on Tuesday, the forum commiserated with the state government and families of victims, praying that “God grant the dead peace.”
The forum noted that efforts must be put in place to avert such “avoidable” loss of lives and property in the future, adding that communities in the Northern states had had enough problems with banditry and should not in any way be further inflicted with more pains.
Consequently, the ACF demanded an apology from the Nigerian Army as well as a full, thorough, honest, and open investigation of the incident, to establish what exactly happened.
According to the ACF, those found guilty of professional or operational incompetence must be severely disciplined, and transparently so.
All said, the horrific accidental bombardment of Tudun Biri remains a dark spot in the military’s campaign against terror. The Tudun Biri incident was a colossal failure of intelligence gathering. In short, it was an unmitigated disaster. This was a classic case of both man and machine gone awry. It is pertinent to state that it is far better for hundreds of terrorists to escape than to put innocent civilians in harm’s way. Still, the military should keep its eye on the ball and must not lose focus.
Going forward, it is quite reassuring that the military high command has declared that extraordinary care would be taken while targeting bandits and terrorists to avoid a recurrence of the Tudun Biri tragedy. The military should do everything possible to put an end to the accidental bombardment of civilians by ensuring that they train their guns on terrorists and not the civil populace. The military cannot afford to compound the pain of a harried and harassed populace. Yet the war on terror is not conventional warfare, hence the likelihood of wrong intel can not be ruled out, which explains why the military should apply utmost care and caution in the pursuit of terrorists. Besides the Army should concentrate on its area of core competence, leaving aerial bombardment for the Air Force.
Nevertheless, it is apt that President Tinubu has promised there would be an investigation into the Tudun Biri incident. It is our earnest hope that the investigation will be thorough and those found culpable appropriately sanctioned. The findings should not be swept under the carpet. Once appropriate measures are taken to curb this cycle of accidental bombardment, then this will signal to the military that from now on there will be consequences for any act of omission or commission.
In conclusion, the deterrent effect of official sanctions and the eventual serving of justice to the people could go a long way to start the healing process and possibly bring closure to the tragic incident arising from the gaping wound created by the accidental bombardment of Tudun Biri. May the souls of the departed rest in perfect peace.