Airstrike on camp once again raises questions about Nigeria's ability to defeat Boko Haram
But the tragic error also suggests Nigeria's military is taking the fight to the terror group
The admission by Nigeria that its air force accidentally targeted a camp for people who have been internally displaced represents a significant change in attitude by the forces fighting the terrorist insurgency known as Boko Haram.
In what the Nigerian officials have described as a “regrettable operational mistake,” fighter jets on Tuesday bombed the camp as part of an operation against Boko Haram in Rann in the northeastern Borno state.
Mistakenly believing that a gathering of Boko Haram terrorists was in Borno, Nigerian Maj. Gen. Lucky Irabor says his forces “got the coordinates and I directed that the air (force) should go and address the problem.”
As we now know, the jets hit innocent civilians who had been fleeing Boko Haram attacks, killing at least 70 – including some members of Red Cross staff – and injuring many more.
The airstrike has once again raised questions about Nigeria’s ability to defeat the terrorists. The conflict to date has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 2 million people in the northeast of the country, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
This admission of error from Nigerian officials feels a world away from four years ago when the very same military was being accused of abusing the people it was meant to protect – and was being accused of corruptly looting billions of dollars meant to aid the fight against terrorism.
For three years, the United States refused to sell arms to Nigeria over these abuse and corruption allegations. The lack of faith in Nigeria’s ability to fight Boko Haram is likely to continue into the next US administration: Trump’s transition team recently asked the State Department why the United States was bothering to fight Boko Haram, and why the Chibok girls had not yet been found, according to a report in The New York Times.
The skepticism is in some respects understandable. As Boko Haram wreaked carnage in northeast Nigeria, there was a palpable sense of defeatism among the local population. As village after village was attacked, the armed forces that were supposed to defend civilians instead reportedly dropped their weapons and fled.
Announcements have been made about the death or capture of Boko Haram leaders, only for those same leaders to pop up in angry videos, trashing the government claims.
Much of the criticism and pessimism is fair – there certainly have been a number of catastrophic military decisions if Nigeria’s seven-year fight with Boko Haram is taken as a whole. But President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in May 2015 on the promise of taking the fight to Boko Haram. As odd it may seem, the tragic error in Rann suggests that this may be happening.
Since Buhari’s election, Nigerian forces have been able to clear Boko Haram out of areas such as Rann.
This action has allowed aid groups such as the Red Cross – which tragically lost some of its staff in this week’s attack – to access these places for the first time.
They were once off-limits to all but military personnel – and these deaths are a grim reminder that the fight is far from over: As these areas open up to aid organizations, the sheer scale and scope of the humanitarian disaster is becoming apparent for the first time.
But the notion that the Nigerian military does not know what it is doing does not stand up to impartial scrutiny, and those quick to blame it ignore the massive changes that this fight has recently seen.
As the scale of the tragedy in Rann became clear, Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of the Red Cross, told me from Geneva, Switzerland: “These armies, wherever they may be, will track their enemy and occasionally they will make mistakes and strike the wrong people.”
Boko Haram is no different from Al-Shabaab, ISIS, the Malian jihadists who set off a car bomb Wednesday in northern Mali – they are certainly no more beatable.
Buhari has moved his military command from Abuja to the epicenter of the Boko Haram world in Maiduguri, capital of Borno. The move has isolated Boko Haram from the population it had frightened for so long, pushing the militants deeper into impenetrable forests and away from the northeast.
In June, his air force bought three Alpha Jets and three M1F7 fighter jets to flash out Boko Haram from the Sambisa Forest, on the edge of the Cameroon, Chad and Niger borders. These countries have now also been dragged into the fight against the terror group.
It will get messy, this war, but the fight back has well and truly begun.