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Shadow War: Military airstrikes that killed, injured unarmed civilians in Zamfara

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FOR over seven years, the Nigerian military has embarked on offensive airstrikes at insurgents’ hideouts in Zamfara State and provided support for ground troops to rid out criminals from the North East region. Investigations by The ICIR reveals that some of these airstrikes, which were unreported by the military, had killed and injured civilians in several villages, leading to the forced displacement of hundreds of residents. 


NUHU Umaru is deaf in his left ear and struggles to hear with his right. He wasn’t born like this. But after a bombing incident in his village in 2019, unless you speak to him at the top of your voice  from the direction of his right ear, he is unable to hear.

The eight-year-old boy wore a shy smile on his face, as he spoke to The ICIR after he finished playing football with his friends at the Internally Displaced Peoples, IDP, camp in Anka, Zamfara State.

His family had fled from Tangaram in Wuya ward of Anka LG of Zamfara State to escape attacks by military jets conducting bombing raids on their community.

“We were on our way from the farm when we saw a soldier (sic) plane flying, and my sister and I were waving at the plane until we got home. I went to get water to drink before I realised the house was falling while my left ear was bleeding from a piece of iron that pierced through it,” he told The ICIR.

Yet life in the IDP camp is not any less bearable for thousands of children like Nuhu who were forced out of their home by insurgency.

Exodus from home

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Surajo Umaru, Nuhu’s father who hails from Tangaram  described his life as simple until his village was bombed, then life took a new course.

One Friday afternoon in November 2019, Umaru had just returned from the farm with his wife and six children and as he hurriedly unpacked bags of millet they had harvested so he could join worshippers in time at the mosque for the afternoon prayers, two bomb dropped from a military jet, striking his home. Surajo was knocked unconscious and suffered multiple cuts and burns from the shrapnel of the bombs.

“I don’t know how I found myself at the mosque close to my house covered in blood, lying close to the bodies of two children, and that was the last thing I remembered. I was later rushed to the hospital where I recovered, but the events of that day are still in my head,” he said.

Nuhu at Anka IDP camp. Credit: Amos Abba

Nuhu and his elder sister Hassana 16, were in the house when the bomb hit their home, and neighbours searched through the rubble before they could be rescued.

Ruquyat Umaru, 6, Nuhu’s sister also had minor injuries when a plank fell on her left arm. But Hassana died from the injuries she sustained hours later, while Nuhu, who suffered a concussion to his head. He was unconscious for two days before he recovered weeks later.

According to witnesses who spoke to The ICIR, six people died from the two bombs dropped in Tangaram that fateful day. Among the people killed were two adults and four children, while seventeen people had varying degrees of skin burns.

The Nigerian Airforce regularly posts videos of its jets conducting bombing raids on terrorists and armed insurgents on Twitter and Facebook without a close-up view of its casualties from its airstrikes’ videos.


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Investigations by The ICIR reveal that Tangaram village was not listed publicly by the Nigerian Airforce as the location for any of its airstrikes neither did the military publicly acknowledge there were civilian casualties in the February 2020 airstrike.

Three weeks after the bombing incident, Nuhu was discharged from Usman Danfodio University Teaching Hospital, UDUTH, Sokoto, where he was treated, but his parents noticed that Nuhu had lost hearing in his left ear as he started having fainting spells and seizures which he never had before the attack.

“He would sometimes just collapse without warning, I don’t know why it happens but when it happens, we pour water to revive him.”

Umaru said he unable to take his son to the hospital yet since the family cannot afford additional hospital bills.

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“I wish I could show you some of the hospital records but I left them in the village and we can’t go there now because it has become bandit’s territory,” Umaru said.

Umaru had stayed with some of his relatives in Tangaram for a few weeks after the airstrike destroyed his home, his village was also attacked by armed insurgents a week later,  and bandits carted away what was left of his harvested crops and cattle.

The armed bandits levied every household in the village to pay a tax of cow and compelled residents at gunpoint to divide their harvested crops into two equal parts and give them a portion.

Umaru and his family fled in the middle of the night of January 2020 to the IDP camp in Anka where the Nigerian military was stationed because it was safer for his family.

His family now lives with thousands of other displaced people in an uncompleted building, one of the two officially recognised camps for displaced persons in the state.

Bloody strikes in Dumburum

Dumbourou in Zurmi LG is one of the worst-hit communities.

Abubakar Magaji, 38, was sitting under a mango tree in front of his home in Dumbourou when the first bomb from a military jet hit a house on the opposite side which sent him running for safety, but hearing the screams of the injured he turned back to help.

He told The ICIR, that the initial blast had killed eight people, injuring several others. A second strike which landed a few meters away sent him stumbling into the house of another resident who suffered a heart attack after hearing the explosions of the bomb.

“As I entered into my friend’s house Mai Daji Barau, his wife was dragging him to the ground. When I asked her what happened, she told me immediately he heard the sound of the bomb blast he held his chest and collapsed,” he said.

He doesn’t remember the exact time of the strikes but recalls that at least 11 people in total were killed from six airstrikes launched that Tuesday evening on April 9, 2019, while 20 other civilians were injured.

“I went to primary health care in the village where I met four injured people brought in with broken legs, others whose intestines were out. At the first house that was bombed, there were eight people who died instantly so we had to put their body parts into a sack,and buried them according to the Islamic rites,” he said.

The pattern of strikes that happened in Dumburum is typical with any military aerial operation where the NAF fighter jet dropped bombs on its selected targets and a helicopter gunship arrived minutes later to shell moving targets.

He listed the names of the people who died from the airstrikes that day as follows: Maryam Shafiu, Dahe Malan Sule, Buhari Dan Kurma, Zaliha na Dumburum, Aisha Akilu, Mai Daji Barau, Na Dumburum, Suwaiba Alka, Yar Guru Na Dumburum, Alamin Alka and Fati ‘Yar Gum.

After the bombing, Abubakar moved away from Dumbourou to Zurmi where he currently resides with his family of six in a rented apartment.  He has abandoned farming for selling groceries.

When The ICIR reporter visited Dumburum, the village was a ghost town and farms overgrown with weeds.

Most villages in Zamfara State are deserted as residents have re-located to IDP camps in their local government headquarters where there is a military presence.

Abubakar said the livelihoods of people in the community who are predominantly farmers and cattle rearers have been affected drastically by the airstrikes.

“We cannot estimate the number of livestock that were lost  because they are many. In one instance, I saw a cow divided into two by a bomb.”

He said most of the people  killed and injured did not have any affiliation with the bandits. “They were known residents of this village.”

Seven airstrikes by the military were recorded to have hit Dumbourou between January 2019 and May 2020, but the areas hit were designated as forest enclaves of the armed insurgents, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) which was analysed by the Centre for Advanced Defence Studies (C4ADS).

Using coordinates obtained from the videos of NAF’s airstrikes on Youtube, The ICIR discovered that the strikes conducted by NAF did not match the GPS coordinates of Abubakar’s town rather they were described as Dumburum forest areas. This raises the question of who launched the airstrikes in Dumburum, a settlement with an estimated population of over 1,000 residents?

Secret strikes without records

The Nigerian Airforce, NAF, spearheads the air component of “Operation Hadarin Daji”, a military operation launched by President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2019 to provide increased air support for ground troops in a bid to intensify the air raids against bandits and other criminal elements in North-West Nigeria, especially Zamfara State.

At the 2018 NAF International Air Power Seminar held in Abuja, Sadique Abubakar former Chief of the Air Staff informed the nation that NAF had embarked on 39,807 combat missions within the span of four years.

“Between June 1, 2015, and Oct0ber 31, 2018, NAF flew a total of 51,582 hours 15 minutes in 39,807 sorties to deliver the airpower that has helped to keep the insurgents at bay,” he said at the event.

In military aviation, a sortie is a combat mission of an individual aircraft, starting when the aircraft takes off, for instance, one mission involving six aircraft would tally six sorties.

However, the details of most of these missions are sketchy as the incidents of bombing released publicly did not match the total number of airstrikes Abubakar announced publicly. As of March 15, the YouTube channel of NAF hosted 205 videos of which 115 were combat-related while the others were ceremonial videos.

Rakkiya Yusuf, hoping to return to her home soon. Credit: Amos Abba

The ICIR examined tweets of the Defence Headquarters, DHQ, a coalition of Nigeria’s military forces and NAF which revealed that 33 airstrikes were carried out against insurgents by NAF, in Zamfara, between April 2019 and January 18, 2021, without any mention of civilian casualties.

However, this represents a fraction of the airstrikes carried out by the Nigerian military that was made public through its press briefings or videos on social media, but it does not portray a clear picture of Nigeria’s military air campaign against armed insurgents in North-West Nigeria, especially Zamfara State, according to findings by The ICIR.

Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, former NAF spokesperson in a media report admitted that the Air component of Operation HADARIN DAJI destroyed 7 camps occupied by armed bandits and neutralised nearly 100 armed bandits during its air interdiction missions within four days.

He said NAF carried out 18 missions in 82 sorties (combat missions), flying over 100 operational hours with about 36,000 litres of Jet A1 fuel during the operation which took place specifically within Dumburum and Kwiambana Forests as well as at Dutse Asola and Dutsen Bagai of Zamfara and Katsina states.

Apart from this public admission of 18 missions which is more than half of the strikes publicly announced in two years, it is hard to verify if civilian casualties were involved or the locations struck by the bombs were insurgents camps, considering that military operations were often conducted secretly.

On September 17, 2020, a Twitter user with the user name @ankaboy in a tweet called the attention of NAF to a bombing incident by the military which he claimed dropped on unarmed herders. It had happened a day earlier at Chediya District in Tsafe LG of Zamfara State.

The Nigerian military neither denied nor confirmed this claim.

Yusuf Anka’s tweet.

The military also never publicly announced launching airstrikes within that vicinity as of September 2020, while its only mention of Tsafe in a public report last year was on July 18, 2020, when ground troops in Danjibga recovered over 121 cows and 37 sheep from cattle rustlers.

Philip Olayoku, a senior researcher at the University of Ibadan, Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies said the Nigerian military’s non-disclosure of its targets to the public could be attributed to a lack of synergy in its information dissemination architecture.

“There are several reasons why the military would try to hide its airstrike from the public especially in cases where there is a disjuncture in the military’s dissemination system. It could be that the military did not follow proper procedure when launching these attacks at the targets which involved civilians.

“Also sometimes they rarely carry out a post-assessment analysis of their airstrikes, maybe because they don’t have the exact details of the intelligence at their disposal or they may know there are civilian casualties but they don’t have the resources to track it,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reporters, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw in their book, “ The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls,” which was published in March, revealed that in August 2016, a Nigerian military Alpha fighter jet launched an airstrike on a target believed to be Boko Haram headquarters but the rocket strike left at least 40 of the Chibok schoolgirls dead or wounded.

The authors highlighted that the attack did not make the Nigerian military’s public press briefings rather it was kept under wraps and the civilian’s death did not elicit questions.

Nigeria recorded 11,352 deaths between 2011 to 2019 from explosive violence of which 85 per cent are civilian casualties with the worst year with the highest record for civilian casualties in 2015, according to UK-based charity Action on Armed Violence, AOAV.

A distant hope for older citizens

Abubakar Shuaib, 66, another survivor of the bomb strikes by the military in Tangaram considers himself lucky as he escaped the attack by whiskers.

The village head of the community lost his childhood friend, Sule Abdullahi after a wall of his house fell on him from the reverberations of the twin blasts which sank the walls.

“Some houses just collapsed from the sound of the bombs that day. The wall fell on Sule, and a friend of mine in his own house; they didn’t survive. The house of Sarkin Norma, a chief in the community also fell but he escaped before he later took his family out of the town,” he said.

Abubakar Shuaib believes the military airstrikes deliberately targets civilians. Credit: Amos Abba

A section of Shuaib’s house collapsed but no one was injured. Unfortunately, armed insurgents came calling days after the bombing and he was kidnapped. His captors demanded a ransom of N1.1 million which was paid after he spent six days in the forest with his captors. They also took over 100 cows from him.

‘I realised the bandits will keep kidnapping residents of the community for ransom and would not stop until they had taken everything from us,” he said.

Shuaib arrived at the IDP camp in Anka alone, after dividing his family of ten into two groups led by each of his wives. They carried little possessions to avoid suspicion and he arrived at the camp days after the second group arrived.

He still grieves over the loss of his source of livelihood left behind in Tangaram. Now he has to fend for his family in spite of the deplorable condition at the IDP camp where residents rely on voluntary donations.

“The bandits stay in the forests, and their camps are not hidden, but the army will destroy our homes in the name of chasing bandits and leave the bandits’ camps untouched.

“There is little hope for us without any form of intervention to assist people like us to get back on our feet, for we can’t continue to live in an IDP camp forever,” he said.

Rakkiya Yusuf, 80, said she lost her grandson Shehu to the hands of armed insurgents. When she counted 20 bodies that night including two of her nephews, fear gripped her as she joined other residents of the community to leave for a safer area.

Rakkiya hails from Bawandaji in Maru LG where she had lived all her life until October 2020 when armed insurgents attacked her village to raid their food barns, abduct residents and steal their livestock.

“When the bandits attacked our village that night, they killed most of the men as immediately after the attack we started moving out that night and arrived at Dangulbi primary school in the morning. My nephews Usman and Murtala were killed, including my grandson who was shot at the hand of his mother while his mother was seriously injured,” she said.

Official response

Samuel Oyeloye, lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Federal University Oye-Ekiti, told The ICIR, that the international humanitarian law protects the lives of civilians from unwarranted bombing but in cases where bandits are huddled together with civilians and the number of bandits is higher then such an attack is warranted.

“Under international humanitarian law, it is legal to kill civilians in the war when they are not specifically targeted, so long as “indiscriminate attacks” are not applied and the number of civilian deaths is not disproportionate to the military advantage gained.

“For example, if there are two civilians in an area where there are fifty armed insurgents then it not exactly a crime,” he said.

Mohammed Yarima, a brigadier general and spokesperson of the Nigerian Army said he recently assumed office as the army’s spokesperson, promising to look into the details of the airstrikes when The ICIR presented its findings.

“I am just hearing this from you for the first time and so I don’t know much about these airstrikes you are talking about. Like you know I just came into office. However, I might check during office hours to ascertain these airstrikes you are talking about,” he said.

Efforts to get Onyema Nwachukwu, a major general and acting spokesperson of the DHQ to respond to enquiries were futile because he did not respond to calls, text messages and WhatsApp messages.

Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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