Anka, Nigeria – Aina’u Umaru, 35, held her nine-year-old son Nuhu to her chest outside the mud hut they call home in the Anka community in Zamfara, northwestern Nigeria, and breathed in deeply, fighting to hide her pain as she spoke to Al Jazeera on a Sunday afternoon this June.
In April 2019, a military air raid hit her village, Tangaram, during an offensive against armed groups in the region. The air raid killed Sakinah, one of her six children, left Nuhu with ear injuries, and destroyed her home.
“It is one sad incident that will continue to haunt me,” 35-year-old Umaru told Al Jazeera.
She had been 135km (84 miles) away in Gusau the state capital, to enrol in a state welfare programme when she received news of the tragedy.
“Before I got home, she had been buried,” she said. “What could be more devastating for a mother than not seeing her daughter in her last moments?”
That Friday in April 2019, Nuhu and his sister Sakinah had joined other children in the village to cheer the aircraft as it passed over the village. It was providing air support for ground troops in the fight against a spate of kidnappings and killings across northwestern Nigeria, part of Operation Hadarin Daji (Hausa for “storming the forest”), launched by President Muhammadu Buhari to dispel the armed groups accused of those crimes.
The sight of the fighter jet sparked hope in the residents of Tangaram that the armed groups were receiving deserved attention.
But the jet shelled the village of just over 1,000 residents instead, blasting away several houses, injuring 17 civilians and leaving six children dead.
Since 2011, an estimated 12,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced across the northwestern states of Kaduna, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara due to the conflict, according to an October 2021 report by Abuja-based think-tank Centre For Democracy and Development (CDD).
‘Incapable of introspection’
Military air raids in conflict areas across northern Nigeria often cause civilian fatalities as security forces have bombed camps for people already displaced by violence, killed civilians and wounded more in attacks against “terror groups”.
For years, these armed groups have made Nigeria’s largely ungoverned forests in the north their operational base, from where they launch attacks and keep kidnapped victims hostage.
Since February 2014 when a Nigerian military aircraft dropped a bomb on Daglun, a village in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno, killing 20 civilians, there have been at least 14 documented incidences of the air force bombing residential villages.
That was an offensive against Boko Haram, which had a base in the infamous Sambisa forest in Borno. The rebel group operates in the northeast and has been at war with the state since 2009.
At least 200 civilians have been killed and hundreds of others injured in these erroneous attacks. But there has been practically no admissions of guilt from military authorities or provision of support for survivors.
In September 2021, after an air raid killed 10 people and wounded 20 others in Buhari village of Yobe state in the northeast, the army initially denied the attack saying “no bomb or missile was even expended”.
Less than 24 hours later, it admitted to the attack, saying it would set up a “board of inquiry” to investigate.
Nothing has been heard of that since.
Leena Hoffmann, an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera that Nigeria’s security forces have not really learned any lessons from fighting Boko Haram to apply to the evolving security situation across the northwest.
“It shows that the Nigerian military is incapable of introspection; of holding itself accountable, and reforming itself to be a civilian protection force,” she said.
“As much as territorial integrity is essential,” Hoffmann said, “the prioritisation of land over people is a troubling approach to any kind of counterterrorism operations.”
For years, US lawmakers had vetoed the sale of ammunition to Nigeria over concerns about possible human rights abuses in its war against rebels. But in April, Abuja received a boost after Washington approved a $997m arms deal to buy 12 AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters.
‘I had to restart my life’
Meanwhile, Umaru now lives in a camp for displaced people in Anka, along with many other villagers who have fled their homes because of government air raids or bandit attacks.
“Life has been difficult since then,” she told Al Jazeera. “There is no support whatsoever; we have to rely on food aid at the camp here in Anka, which doesn’t even come often.”
Mani Dantsishi, a 40-year-old farmer who also lives at the camp after his house was destroyed by the air raid, found his sons Dahiru 10, and Sulaiman, 20, trapped under the rubble.
The younger boy’s belly had been split open. He died soon after.
“I had to restart my life with nothing just because they (Nigeria Air Force) claimed there were bandits in the village,” said Dantsishi who now hauls firewood and occasionally works as a labourer in a block-making factory after spending his savings on medical bills to save Sulaiman.
Umaru talked about wanting the government to admit what they did, not just compensate the survivors. It has been more than two years, and there have been no statements from the Nigerian military.
“The Nigerian air force said they followed bandits who ran to our village,” she said.
“These bandits stay in the bush, and their camps are known to them [military]. If it was confirmed that bandits ran into the town, is it appropriate to bomb a village of thousands of people?”
Air force spokesman Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comments.
Civilians turning away from the government
In some parts of northern Nigeria, armed groups are setting up courts where they hold territory -and some people are finding that they dispense justice faster than Nigeria’s overburdened judiciary can.
Security operations carried out by the military with no concern for the safety of civilians, could lead to that becoming even more common, Hoffmann said.
“These incidents … drive populations to non-state actors because if the state cannot guarantee protection, they can easily lean towards non-state actors that can provide them protection, justice or revenge,” she added.
Idayat Hassan, director of CDD, said the armed groups are also finding willing recruits among the townspeople as a result of the general distrust of the government.
The authorities, she said, have to “reduce civilian casualties to the barest minimum” and try a different approach.
“Emphasis should be to win the heart and mind of the citizenry so they can collaboratively deal with the criminals instead of the current grievance-driven recruitment drawing on narratives of innocent killed during air raids,” she told Al Jazeera.
But the military would have a long, hard road ahead of them if they were to work to convince the grieving survivors that they have their best interests at heart.
“Whenever I remember her [Sakinah], I tell myself it’s deliberate,” Umaru said. “Why would they drop a bomb in a village because they’re chasing bandits? It ruined us. We were left to deal with their mistakes.”