Not a few Nigerians were thrown into suspense when the Nigerian Air Force NAF denied involvement in the bomb attack penultimate Sunday that killed scores of villagers in the Tudun Biri community of Kaduna state. This apprehension was a consequence of public perception of the statutory role of that organization and its record in similar bombing activities in the fight against insecurity that held the country down for some years now.
Public anxiety was further activated when NAF spokesman, Edward Gabkwet clarified that they were not the only organization operating combat armed drones in the North West region of the country. Who could then have been responsible for the bomb attacks that killed and wounded dozens of villagers performing their private religious obligations?
The question remained largely unanswered until the Kaduna state government told the media after a security meeting that troops of the Nigerian Army who were on routine operation against terrorists dropped the bombs. The sketchy information did not indicate the circumstance of the misadventure and what targets they saw on ground before the attack.
The situation remained tense and cloudy until the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt. Gen. Tao reed Lagbaja visited the scene of the attack last Tuesday. A statement by the army at the end of the visit indicated that troops were carrying out aerial patrols when they observed a group of people wrongly analyzed and misinterpreted their pattern of activities to be similar to that of bandits before the drone strike.
Lagbaja expressed sincere regret and apology for the incident and promised thorough enquiry to identify lapses and deficiencies in the human and artificial intelligence variables to forestall future occurrences. A couple of issues are manifest from the COAS explanations.
First, the area in question and adjoining villages had been a hotbed of armed banditry. Secondly, an aerial survey intercepted images of a gathering of people and when it was analyzed, it bore semblance of the activities of bandits. Then a drone was dispatched to neutralize the supposed bandits.
Whatever the images were, they all turned out a fatal error as the event was a religious gathering. It is unclear what semblance the religious gathering had with the pattern of activities of the bandits to warrant the drone attack.
It was a miscalculation, a failure of intelligence both human and artificial. Human intelligence failed in the analyses and interpretation of data obtained through aerial survey. It also failed for its inability to establish human contact with people on ground before the drone attack.
For an attack that killed more than 80 people and left several others wounded, it would have made better sense to have established some measure of contact with sister agencies and independent people in and around the area for confirmation before the attack. It does appear nothing of sort happened to crosscheck the information from technology.
Lapses may have also come from artificial intelligence. The environments in which some of these devices were configured are substantially different from our local situations. Activities and images that easily suggest possible threat to law and order or security compromise in advanced countries may turn out different in our own setting. This should not be surprising given the socio-cultural, religious and developmental disparities they present.
Lagbaja must have had this in mind when he promised investigations to identify lapses in human and artificial intelligence variables that brought about that sad pass to forestall future occurrences. The imperative of that inquisition cannot be overstated. Good a thing, President Tinubu has ordered full scale probe of the unfortunate incident.
Perhaps, this is the first time the army is getting involved in miscalculated bombing of innocent civilians. It came as a surprise when the NAF absolved itself of culpability in the incident because much of such accidental bombs have in the past, been traced to that organisation. We are now faced with the expansion of organisations operating combat armed drones in the country. It presents new challenges.
Going forward, it may now be risky to ascribe any and every bomb incident to the NAF as had been the case. Before now, the NAF had borne the responsibility for the serial accidental bombing of wrong coordinates in the war against insecurity across the country leading to avoidable loss of lives.
In 2017, an air force fighter jet on a mission against Boko Haram extremists mistakenly bombed an Internally Displaced Persons IDP’s camp in Rann, Borno state. More than 100 refugees and aid workers were killed.
Some soldiers were fatally wounded in the enclave that lies on Nigeria’s border with Cameroun. The scene was so devastating that an international aid agency dubbed it “an emergency within emergency”
The military blamed the attack on what they called, ‘lack of appropriate marking’. A fighter jet of the NAF in 2021 bombed Genu town in Niger state. Among the dead were wedding guests in Argida village and a horde of civilians.
The same year, NAF fighter jet killed many soldiers and civilians after it dropped bombs on ground troops in Mainok, Borno state. The pilot accidentally hit the wrong coordinates while targeting Boko Haram insurgents on military fatigue who had encircled ground troops.
Yet, NAF bombed Kunkuna village in the Safana local government area of Katsina state killing an unidentified number of villagers. The pilot accidentally hit the wrong coordinates while targeting bandits’ camps. These are just a tip of the iceberg in the miscalculated bombings by the air force in the course of the war against the festering armed insurgency.
The Kaduna bomb attack is therefore a sad reminder to the unfortunate pattern of accidental bomb attacks that have left sorrow, shock and awe on innocent citizens since the war against insecurity began. Public indignation and condemnation of the latest incident can be understood.
They stem from loss of patience with the frequency of such error bombings and the avoidable calamity they wrought on helpless and hapless citizens who have been at the mercy of this cycle of insecurity. They remind us of the inability of the Nigerian military to develop sufficient capacities to protect civilians during and after armed conflicts. Civilian confidence and safety are vital in the war against armed insurgency. The cycle of violence can be broken if the military gains the trust of the local populace.
But where the communities feel victimized, they may work to obstruct the operations of the military or even show some measure of inclination to rebellion. That is the danger in the recurring error bomb attacks that inflict mortal harm on the civilian population.
These have left the affected communities suffer double jeopardy. They are victims of attacks from an assortment of armed non-state actors and miscalculated bombs from the Nigerian military. A situation where the civilian population is wittingly or unwittingly made to suffer for the sins of the insurgents adds complications to the war against insecurity.
The probe ordered by the presidency may get at the circumstances that led to the accidental bombing. It could also serve as a useful guide to future operations to forestall such mishaps. But it has no way of bringing to life again all those that died on account of the calamity.
Even as no amount of compensation will atone for a single life lost, the government has to work out some compensation to the families of the bereaved to ameliorate their unfortunate situation. Heads of families and breadwinners have been lost. Many are also in hospitals nursing varying degrees of injuries. The cost of their treatment should be borne by the government.
The message served by this unfortunate incident is the primacy of civilian protection in any calculations to attack the enemy real or perceived. Credible intelligence from people in and around the scene of the proposed attack is the surest way to avoid future mistakes. We can do with less of these miscalculated bombs.