On the morning of January 17 (8 AM GMT), a Nigerian military jet bombed a refugee camp in the northeastern part of the country. According to reports, the jet mistakenly believed that the camp was a stronghold of Boko Haram. On Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) claimed the attack killed at least 50 and wounded another 120. The New York Times reports which, as of Saturday the 21st, the death toll has risen to at least 90, including a number of aid workers. “They were part of a team that had brought in desperately needed food for over 25,000 displaced persons,” spokesman Jason Straziuso said of the Red Cross. Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross have since condemned the attack.” This large-scale attack on vulnerable people who have already fled from extreme violence is shocking and unacceptable,” said Dr. Jean-Clément Cabrol, the aid group’s director of operations. “The safety of civilians must be respected. We are urgently calling on all parties to ensure the facilitation of medical evacuations by air or road for survivors who are in need of emergency care.”
In an unprecedented act, the Nigerian government has acknowledged the mistake, with the President calling it a ‘regrettable operational mistake.’ This is not the first report of civilian casualties in the Nigerian strikes against Boko Haram, but it is the first acknowledged by the government. Aid groups question how such a mistake could be made, and continue to criticize the use of wide-spread violent bombing as a counterinsurgency measure. History tells us that violence only begets more violence. The camp was government run and next door to a large Nigerian army base. Human Right’s Watch, citing satellite imagery, assert that the government should have been well aware of the presence of civilians in the area. Furthermore, they claim the attack may be a violation of international humanitarian law—while the attack on civilians was not deliberate, it was indiscriminate. The attack raises a number of questions. As the security analyst, Manji Cheto, points out, “The timing is rather unfortunate as well because this is coming on the back of the government actually facing a lot of criticism for doing too little for the internally displaced camps.” Maj Gen Lucky Irabor, a commander of the Nigerian military’s counterinsurgency operations in northeast Nigeria, told the Associated Press he had ordered the mission based on information that Boko Haram insurgents were gathering, along with geographic coordinates. He later admitted the attack was ‘disturbing.’
Either the attack was the result of monumental intelligence failures on the part of the Nigerian government or an intentional act. Either explanation highlights the problem with violent airstrike campaigns as counterinsurgency tactics. Boko Haram is certainly a problem in Nigeria: the conflict has uprooted over 2,000,000 people; this week two suicide bombing occurred, despite statements from the government insisting the group had been defeated. The act speaks to the dangers of using intelligence reports to plan and command actions without verification and the proper scouting of locations. Civilians cannot be considered collateral damage in the fight against insurgency—if the government won’t protect them, who will? Violent counterinsurgency actions inevitably result in the escalation of violence and a rising death toll. There has been no case in history where counterinsurgency or counterterrorism has succeeded through government endorsed violence. It is the innocent who pay the deplorable price.