The only thing Ibrahim Muazu remembers is “hearing a noise from the sky.”
“After that,” the 27-year-old Nigerian herder told Reuters, “I woke up lying in my own blood. There were so many dead.”
Dozens of ethnic Fulani herders were killed in a 24 January aerial bombing in the central Nigerian state of Nasarawa as they were unloading cattle retrieved from authorities in a neighbouring state, according to witnesses, local leaders and detailed complaints describing the day’s events. The livestock had been seized days earlier after the herders allegedly violated local grazing restrictions.
Images from social media and local news reports at the time show the bodies of young men, some mutilated, lined up on a white sheet awaiting burial. The attack took place far from any active conflict, said witnesses, including two who said they were there at the time and two who arrived afterward.
The airstrike near the village of Akwanaja provides a stark example of a broader trend: The nation’s military, which is backed by the United States, the UK and other non-Western allies in a long war against Islamist insurgents in the northeast, has been unleashing deadly aerial assaults for years in other parts of the country.
Beyond the warzone in the northeast, the Air Force has been called on to tackle the growing threat in Nigeria’s northwest and central region posed by armed criminal gangs that spray villages with bullets and carry out mass kidnappings. The aircraft have repeatedly killed civilians and people not actively engaged in armed conflict.
A Reuters analysis of violent incidents documented by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a US-based crisis monitoring group, found that more than 2,600 people had been killed in the last five years in 248 air strikes by the Nigerian Air Force outside the three northeastern states engulfed in war. Most victims are identified in the database as belonging to “communal militia,” a broad term that in Nigeria can include anyone from community self-defence groups to criminal gangs known locally as bandits. The incidents documented in the database were not independently confirmed by Reuters.
More than 90 of the victims were civilians, according to the ACLED data, which is based on reports from sources including news organisations, human rights groups and local authorities. That tally does not include those killed in the 24 January attack, because, drawing on initial information contained in news reports, ACLED listed the attack as caused by a landmine, remotely detonated explosive or improvised device.
But witnesses and community leaders have said the herdsmen were hit from the sky, either from a plane or drone.
On Tuesday, the US-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch reported that in response to its own investigation of the incident, the Nigerian Air Force for the first time acknowledged responsibility for the attack.
According to the report, Air Commodore D.D. Pwajok explained in a 17 May letter to the rights watchdog that it carried out the strike based “on credible intelligence,” specifically surveillance footage showing the movement of “suspected terrorists” who had converged around a vehicle.
The letter said the Nigerian Air Force is committed to human rights and “further deliberations” on the issue, according to the report.
The nonprofit said in its report that the air force did not reply to key questions, including how the information was verified and whether any measures had been taken to avoid civilian casualties.
“The absence of details raises the question of whether the air force carried out the air strike based on mere suspicion,” Human Rights Watch said.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm that finding. The Nigerian Air Force, defence headquarters and Ministry of Defence did not respond to the news agency’s requests for comment on the 24 January airstrike or its use of airpower generally outside the warzone.
The deadly airstrike came amid renewed worries among key US lawmakers about weapons deals in recent years in which hundreds of millions of dollars in military hardware has been approved for sale to Nigeria despite its tarnished human rights record.
“I remain concerned about the Nigerian Air Force’s record of civilian casualties – but particularly regarding the seeming lack of accountability for these incidents,” California Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, a Democrat and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday in a statement to Reuters. “I urge a full investigation of this strike and amends for those impacted.”
Reuters has no evidence that any US-supplied aircraft or weapons were used in the 24 January attack or any other involving noncombatant deaths.
At a regular news briefing to reporters on Tuesday, US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said that Washington was aware of the incident described in Reuters reporting.
“We take all reports of civilian casualties seriously,” he said. Patel added that such reports should be “throroughly and transparently investigated” and preventing them is “central to our security cooperation with the Nigerian miltary.”
He said he would let that country’s military speak to the specifics of the incident.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment for this story. The White House declined to comment.
In Nigeria itself, civilian deaths in airstrikes have come under scrutiny. Three months before the strike in Nasarawa, a statement from the chief of air staff, Air Marshal Oladayo Amao, said that a committee had been set up to “compile all allegations of accidental air strikes on civilians as well as review the circumstances leading to such strikes.”
The purpose, it said, was to “mitigate future instances of collateral damages on civilians.” Nonetheless, Amao credited airstrikes with curtailing the activity of “miscreants who want to destabilise the nation.”
Representatives of the administration of former President Muhammadu Buhari, under whose leadership the 24 January bombing occurred, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Nor did the administration of current President Bola Tinubu, who took office at the end of May.
Before now, neither the Nigerian government nor the military had provided any public explanation for what happened on 24 January. Outraged and bereaved community members said they have been left to speculate.
In interviews with Reuters, Muazu and another witness injured in the 24 January attack described the incident as an unprovoked assault on people peacefully going about their business.
“There was no fighting,” said Muazu, who specified his injuries as a broken leg and hand, a dislocated back and a “seriously wounded” neck.
Nine of his family members died, he said.
Lamido Sanusi, a Fulani and former emir of Kano, Nigeria’s second-highest Islamic authority, told Reuters the herdsmen and their advocates would not relent in pressuring the government for answers.
“We suspect there will be an attempt to sweep this under the carpet and have it forgotten,” said Sanusi, also Nigeria’s ex-central bank governor.
But the community, he said, “will push this matter as far as we can go for redress, within the bounds of the law.”
A Promise to Improve
The 24 January attack has drawn limited international attention, especially in the United States.
At least one previous airstrike caught the eye of US Congress members and human rights groups, however.
In 2017, Nigeria’s air force was heavily criticised for bombing a camp for displaced people while on a mission targeting Islamist insurgents in Rann, in the warzone near the Cameroonian border. The airstrike, which Nigerian officials described as a mistake, killed at least 90 people, the majority of them women and children, according to medical charity Medecins San Frontieres (MSF), which had teams in the camp at the time. Residents and community leaders said as many as 170 died.
The military promised to improve coordination between troops on the ground and in the air. The United States, which sees Nigeria’s military as a key ally in the fight against Islamist extremists, held up a $593 million sale of A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft and weapons to Nigeria, citing this incident and an army attack on the ground that killed hundreds of civilians.
“We recommend you make clear to President Buhari that the sale of these aircraft can proceed only if there is positive and measurable progress on reforming the security institutions,” US senators Rand Paul, a Republican, and Cory Booker, a Democrat, wrote in a June 2017 letter to then-Defense Secretary Rex Tillerson.
The deal proceeded. ACLED data show Nigerian Air Force strikes continued to claim the lives of noncombatants, inside and outside the northeast.
They include a 19 December, 2022, airstrike in the Mutumji community of northwestern Zamfara state, which killed at least 64 people. Residents and officials quoted in local news reports said the strike targeted armed bandits who had attacked nearby communities but also killed civilians. Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed expressed regret for the “unfortunate collateral deaths” at a 21 December news conference, Punch newspaper reported.
As Reuters reported in December, the United States and UK have consistently prioritised security in Nigeria – Africa’s biggest economy, its most populous nation and a military powerhouse in the region – over human rights issues.
In April 2022, the US government approved the sale of nearly $1 billion in military hardware, including 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and 2,000 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, to the Nigerian military. Again, the deal was cleared after being paused over human rights concerns.
The main justification provided by the US government for the Super Tucano deal was fighting Islamist militants in the northeast.
Earlier this year, three US Congress members, Jacobs and Republicans Jim Risch and Chris Smith, called for reviews or scuttling of the Viper deal, citing Reuters reports in December of army abuses of women and children in the northeast.
“I look forward to hearing more about the Department’s planned response to the serious and abhorrent allegations levied against a long-standing beneficiary of US security assistance and cooperation,” said Risch, in a 16 December letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for a review and possible sanctions.
The Biden administration has not publicly responded to the Congress members’ concerns. No changes in the deal have been annouced.
“I still have not received any indication that the administration has fulfilled this request” for a review, Risch told Reuters. “This airstrike is one of many examples where there remain more questions than answers.”
‘They were all dead’
The 24 January massacre came after a commonplace pastoral dispute.
Shortly before the airstrike – witnesses say between five days and two weeks prior – authorities in Benue state impounded 1,254 cows owned by the Fulani herders near the border of Benue and Nasarawa states, accusing the herders of violating the anti-open grazing law.
Herders’ representatives claimed to authorities after the airstrike that Benue state livestock guards brazenly “kidnapped” the cows and held them for “ransom.”
Benue state officials and livestock guards did not respond to requests for comment on the dispute.
It was only the latest episode in a long history of mutual grievance.
Clashes between farmers and semi-nomadic herders have killed more than 3,600 people since 2016 in parts of Nigeria, according to a report published by London-based Amnesty International in December 2018. The violence is often painted as ethnic or religious in nature: chiefly Muslim Fulani herders clashing with mainly Christian farmers. But many experts say climate change and expanding agriculture are creating competition – and conflicts – over access to water and land, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
Farmers complain of herders letting their cows stray onto their land to graze, while herdsmen say their cows are being stolen. Some former herders have turned to crime after losing their cows to cattle rustlers, forming gangs that have been blamed for surging violence in some areas, including armed robberies, mass kidnappings and killings. The conflicts have fueled what Fulani herders describe as discrimination against their nomadic way of life and violence against them.
Early on 24 January, however, the dispute between the Nasarawa herders and the Benue guards appeared to have been settled peacefully. The herders paid fines totalling 29 million Naira ($63,000) to the Benue livestock guards, according to two letters written by a prominent Fulani community organisation, the Fulbe Global Development and Rights Initiative (FGDRI), to Nigerian authorities.
A group of herders went, with hired trucks, to retrieve the cattle from the Benue state capital, Makurdi, and a holding facility in Naka, and transport them back to the Akwanaja area, in Nasarawa state.
“We paid the money the Benue State Livestock Guards asked us to pay,” said Muazu, who returned with the group to Nasarawa state that afternoon to begin the unloading.
The bombing occurred around nightfall. Muazu and another witness told Reuters they did not see who or what attacked them – they only heard an explosive sound from above.
People were scattered, he said. They “were crying. Calling for God to help them.”
Abubakar Bello Rukubi, who had sent his three brothers to collect the family’s cows that day, recalled receiving a torrent of calls at once. After talking to a neighbour, he biked 45 minutes to the scene. He saw smoke, scorched cows, and people “covered in blood, dead bodies.”
“I recognized my brothers,” he said. “They were all dead.”
Nearly 40 people were killed in all, according to the Fulani organisation and Human Rights Watch.
At least 22 bodies wrapped in white shrouds were buried in a mass grave behind a government secondary school on 25 January, in accordance with Muslim rites, according to multiple witnesses, photographs and videos verified by Reuters.
In the days following the airstrike, tension spiked and high-level political figures travelled to Nasarawa.
“This is a very terrible and tragic thing indeed,” Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said on 27 January during a visit, according to Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper. He was in the area in part to pay respects to the Nasarawa governor on the death of his son, which was unrelated to the bombing.
“I pray that the almighty God will comfort this state even as we await the outcome of the investigation going on,” he said. He did not say what investigation he was referring to.
Demands have grown for an explanation and for justice.
On 30 January, the Fulani community organisation, the FGDRI, wrote to Buhari with details of the bombing and other alleged attacks by the government or military on herders. The group pleaded with the president, himself a Fulani, to take action to stop further violence.
“That this extreme violence will be repeatedly committed by agents of government on its own citizens under your leadership is beyond our comprehension,” said the letter, signed by 76 prominent leaders and residents and accompanied by grisly photos of the dead. Reuters has reviewed a copy of the letter, which was verified by four signatories, including Sanusi, the former central bank governor.
The FGDRI also wrote to Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission on 24 February seeking an inquiry. That letter, cc’d to the US State Department and other international governments, as well as human rights agencies, complained there had been no official acknowledgement of responsibility by the federal government or military.
It’s as though the herders “never existed,” said the letter, also reviewed by Reuters.
In the absence of anyone publicly acknowledging culpability, suspicions abound.
Some victims and relatives of those injured and killed say they believe that Benue state authorities must have called in the strike, as retribution for herders’ allowing their cows to graze in Benue in the past. They provided no evidence to back the claim.
Then-Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom was quoted by Nigeria’s Channels Television at the time as saying neither he nor the state government had the capacity to deploy military assets. Reuters could not reach Ortom for comment.
Muazu, the herder injured in the strike, says he is mystified as to why he and his fellow herders would be targets.
“We didn’t do anything,” Muazu said. “I don’t see why they should do this. Maybe they want to kill us and take our animals.”
His animals are gone. His father had to sell what cattle survived the airstrike to pay his medical bills, Muazu said.
“My life has come to an end, as they have destroyed all the sources of our livelihood,” he said of the bombers. “They have taken us back to zero.”