© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Two years after Air Force bombing, thousands are still fleeing from Rann
An attack by Boko Haram, nearly two years to the January 17, 2017, bombing of Rann by the Nigerian Air Force, has again sent thousands of residents fleeing. To date, no one has been held accountable for the Airforce bombing.
EXACTLY two years after the Nigerian Air Force bombed Rann, Borno State, killing over 160 people and injuring scores, thousands of residents are again fleeing the beleaguered town.
By Wednesday, more than 8,000 of the residents, according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, had fled across the border to Bodo, in Cameroon – without food, water or shelter.
Unlike two years ago, the residents now flee from ceaseless attacks by the Boko Haram insurgency group, that has attacked Rann three times since March 2018.
Fourteen people, among them three soldiers, were killed in the Monday attack, according to MSF team that went to access situation in the town.
By the accounts of fleeing residents, Boko Haram fighters launched the attack on the town on Monday at about 4:00 pm shooting indiscriminately and burning down houses and other properties. They also carted away not fewer than 800 head of cattle.
Sadiq Bwala, an MSF nurse who went to Rann on Tuesday said the attackers did not only burn many houses to the ground but also looted the town market and offices of humanitarian organisations in the town, including MSF and the International Organisation for Migration, IOM.
“What struck me when we arrived was the silence. Usually Rann bustles with life, but yesterday it was eerie and quiet, like a graveyard. Usually, kids run around and play, but yesterday the only ones I saw were standing around quietly, looking anxious. The town has been devastated and I was devastated to see it. Many parts of the town have been burnt. There was still smoke drifting in the sky and the fires were still burning in places.
“I saw a long line of people leaving for Cameroon—women, children, and men, of all ages. Some had donkeys but many were just carrying their belongings. The ones I spoke to said they were leaving because they were too afraid to stay. There is not much left for them to stay for anyway: their homes are gone, and I don’t know what they would live on. The market was burnt and looted—food stores also. There is nowhere to get food from. People who don’t have any food at home will not be able to get any more,” Bwala said.
As at Wednesday, it was estimated that some 8,000 residents of Rann had fled across the border into Bodo in Cameroon, about 6 kilometres away, many of them in a state of shock, apparently distressed by what they had witnessed during the attack.
Humanitarian workers say that thousands more are expected to flee to Bodo and surrounding communities in the coming days. Those who had arrived as at Tuesday, many of them children and women, including breastfeeding mothers, were said to have spent the night in the open as there were no shelters to accommodate them, raising concerns about their health.
For these residents of Rann, the saying that lightning does not strike in the same place twice is a misnormer; for, for many of them, lightning has struck multiple times, each time bringing suffering and death.
Before the Monday attack by the insurgents, Rann had suffered three previous deadly attacks by Boko Haram in the last 9 months, the last being in December 2018.
The main target of these attacks has been the military unit, situated right beside the Internally Displaced Persons, IDP, camp in the town.
However, by far the most devastating attack on the town so far has been the bombing of the town by Air Force planes on January 17, 2017, an incident that the military authorities said was an accident, arising from wrong or misleading intelligence.
The ICIR was planning a commemorative report on two years of the airforce debacle and had spoken to some residents of Rann, many of them IDPs who had been displaced from their original homes, before the latest attack on the town on Monday. Many of those who spoke to us for the report have been unreachable since the attack.
Those who spoke to The ICIR expressed disappointment with the federal government and military authorities for abandoning them and also for failing to compensate families of victims of the attack for their loss. They also worry that nobody has been held accountable for the blunder that led to the death of 167 persons.
Two years after the Nigerian air force bombed an IDP camp in Rann, Borno State, housing at least 45,000 people, little are known about the cause, the victims and the steps taken by the government to prevent such a tragedy occur again.
On that fateful day, the military was very quick to admit that the bombing happened and that there were many casualties.
While the army acknowledged that 112 people died in Rann and 97 were wounded, local officials claimed that the number of deaths could be as high as 236. The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, which lost six of its own staff in the attack, said it performed surgeries on 78 persons, treated 98 persons and evacuated about 100 seriously injured persons to Maiduguri for urgent treatment
National and international condemnation and disbelief followed.
“Nigerian authorities should conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the January 17, 2017 airstrikes that hit a settlement for displaced people who had fled Boko Haram, killing at least 70 people, including nine aid workers, and wounding at least 120”, Human Rights Watch, HRW, said, two days after the bombing.
The international human rights advocacy group also demanded that “government, which has stated that the Nigerian Air Force accidentally carried out the strikes, should compensate those who were injured and the families of those killed as a result of any violation of international humanitarian law or the right to life.”
The House of Representatives announced they would investigate. Various UN bodies put pressure on Nigeria; the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on IDPs and even the UN Security Council called on Nigeria to investigate.
Likewise, Nigeria’s main military partners involved in the training urged the country to investigate. The USA even offered its expertise in assisting with the investigation.
Three days after the bombing, the air force announced its own internal investigation. Defence Headquarters (DHQ) also announced its own investigation.
However, in July 2017 the defence headquarters in a statement blamed the bombing on “lack of appropriate marking”, meaning Rann IDP camp was not known to exist. The statement highlighted the cause of the incident being the “lack of appropriate marking of the area” and recommended appropriate marking of IDP camps.
The findings of the DHQ effectively passed the blame for the bombing on the IDP camp on the rationale that “people were not expected to amass at that location” and that “it appeared as a place that could equally be used for enemy activities”.
That position, to many international organisations, was an unacceptable defence by the Nigerian military aimed at covering up the truth.
Many human rights and humanitarian organisations operating in the region rejected both claims by Airforce and military authorities that it was an accident and that the military did not know of the existence of a camp there.
Human Rights Watch, for example, observed that tents in the IDP camp “are easily visible from the air”, adding it is “difficult to understand how an accident of this nature could have occurred.”
“The presence of what appears to be a large Nigerian military compound on the edge of town, 100 meters from one of the impact sites, raises further questions, as the military would have been expected to know that the area was filled with civilians and to take adequate precautions not to harm them during any operation targeting Boko Haram fighters who might have been in the area,” HRW stated further.
There are, indeed, clear indication that the military did know about the camp and was actually in charge of it. Many residents of the IDP camps who spoke to The ICIR said that the military had asked them to move to Rann for security after their communities by Boko Haram insurgents.
Besides, in December 2016, international humanitarian organisations carried out an assessment of the IDP camp in Rann, and observed that the military set up the camp in April 2016 that the Nigerian army provided security and that humanitarian agencies liaised with the military about access to Rann.
Also, on the day of the bombing, staff of international humanitarian organisations were in the camp for food distribution, vaccinations and to ensure water supply. They could not have arranged that without the approval and cooperation of the military.
Another sore point for victims is that no compensation has so far been paid to any of the or their families. In fact, one resident, Pate Maite (not real names) complained that no government official has visited to condole with them, insisting that the government does not care for them.
“There was no response. There was one army officer who came by helicopter, but nobody else. No one came to see us. Nobody interviewed us. Not face to face, nothing. Even his excellency (Borno State Governor) or House of Assembly didn’t come to us for condolence. We didn’t see anyone on behalf of our nation to offer condolences,” he lamented.
Continuing, Marte queried, “Did Government not know about us? Did they not see us as a citizen? Or did they forget us? What have we done to deserve this? People have died, they became disabled, but nobody came to say they are sorry. Maybe they forgot us? Or we are no citizens?”
Contrary to Marte’s claim, however, The ICIR confirmed that the Senate and House of Rep members paid a condolence visit to the victims. The Senate, in fact, donated N7000 to each family that had lost loved ones.
Mausi Segun HRW country manager in Nigeria expressed worry that victims of the 2017 attack were abandoned and left without compensation.
“We are concerned that despite the military’s admission of responsibility for that unfortunate raid, most of the injured victims have been abandoned to bear the cost of treatment unassisted,” she said.
She states further: “The late-night attack on Rann by Boko Haram fighters just yesterday, almost 2 years to the date of the 2017 raid reinforces the vulnerability of civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and the insurgents.”
The 2017 air force bombing put Rann on the map; it received international attention. But things have not improved at all since then.
In January 2017, victims described life-threatening circumstances in Rann as people died daily due to lack of adequate food. Today, life continues to be very difficult in Rann.
The town is still cut off from the world as there are no roads. During raining season, with no roads, humanitarian workers find it difficult to offer assistance.
People continue to die of malnutrition, especially during the rainy season, on some days there were 15 to 20 deaths.
Aba Lamido (not real names) who spoke to The ICIR on January 14, shortly before the latest attack on Rann, said at the worst times, up to 20 people die in the town daily.
“There is no improvement. During rain season, 10 to 16 were dying on daily basis because of hunger and malnourishment, mostly small children. Now, the situation has improved. On daily basis, 2 or 3 or 1 are dying.”
He said there are few medical staff in Rann as many who left after the 2017 attack did not return.
“Many people working in the hospital have left because of fear of the BH. It is unfair. After the second attack, some staff of NGOs / UNICEF didn’t come again. The medical facilities are down.”
The condition is unfair, because anyone who gets something from WFP, maybe 6 kg guinea-corn per person for a month, and that is not enough. Cooking oil is not up to 1litre. Maybe 1.5kg beans with salt. There are no condiments. There is an NGO, called Care, they do the distributions.
Before the latest attack, Rann is believed to have hosted about 18,000 IDP households and some 60,000 displaced persons, mostly children and women, especially widows who lost their husbands to the insurgency.
The whereabouts of most of these residents are uncertain as MSF staff who went to Rann after Monday’s attack say that the town is now desolate.
Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, spokesperson of the Nigerian Air Force, who spoke to The ICIR on Wednesday night said that the Air Force was still expecting the report of the special investigation panel set up by the federal government before it can do anything.
Daramola said that the DHQ and Nigerian Air Force had handed over the results of their own investigations to the federal government panel.
Noting that the panel had submitted its report to the presidency and the Attorney General of the federation, Adesanya said that “the ball is not with the Air Force any more” adding that “office of the Attorney general is the right organ of government to comment on the findings of the investigation into the attack.”
“In terms of compensation, that responsibility is with the federal government. We are not empowered to do that even if we had wanted to. The issue of compensation is supposed to be part of the recommendations of that panel’s work,” he said.