Security agencies should do more to avoid costly mistakes and uncertain results during combat operations

Nigeria’s epidemic of insecurity has necessitated a war-like response. In most troubled places, the military has routinely mounted spirited combat operations against armed adversarial non-state actors. Predictably, these aerial bombardments and battlefield ground assaults have led to unintended casualties in several instances. The most recent one is the gruesome murder of innocent herdsmen in Doma local government area of Nasarawa State. According to reports, they were returning from Benue (where they had gone to retrieve their herds of cattle seized by authorities there for infractions against the state’s anti-open grazing regime) when they were struck by an Air Force combat aircraft on a security operation in the area.  

Available reports indicate that about 37 persons died, and scores of others were injured, some severely. The dead include nine members of one family. Sadly, there has not been an official federal government statement on the incident. Tragedies such as the Nasarawa experience have become frequent in the troubled parts of the country with the involvement of the air force in the ongoing counter terrorism and anti-bandit security operations. Meanwhile, the bereaved have buried their dead and the nation seems to have moved on.  

About the same time as the Nasarawa killings, a similar incident occurred in the Shiroro area of Niger State leading to numerous fatalities and the displacement of over a thousand innocent citizens. Quite curiously, neither the federal government nor the military has been forthcoming with full accountability or the necessary show of compassion for those unfairly affected by these accidents. Yet, it is a minimum requirement that in all such cases, the authorities need to show full responsibility, especially when innocent lives are lost.  

While such avoidable mistakes and accidents cannot be ruled out in situations of general insecurity, the compassionate component of government must never be in doubt. Even in a situation of desperate insecurity, government must not abandon its primary role of protector of the people. If in the honest and legitimate course of protecting lives and property accidents occur, it behoves government to investigate such incidents and ensure they do not recur. Such investigation should be followed by remedial recourse including discipline of erring service personnel and palliatives towards victims.  

To the extent that such security operations are not directed at an external enemy, they primarily remain police operations. But where the intensity of adversarial force is beyond what the civil police can handle, involvement of the military becomes inevitable. And there comes the risk of unintended collateral casualties. Indeed, the nature of our insecurity has created an environment for such accidents of mistaken targets and identity to occur. A military operation waged against undefined enemies in the forest can lead to imprecise targeting and unintended consequences.  

When an internal security operation graduates into a limited war, the military walks into an uncertain terrain. There are no formal battle lines. The enemy has neither a distinguishing uniform nor defining insignia. Enemy territory is everywhere and nowhere. The enemy is himself anonymous and undifferentiated from the common run of innocent humanity in farmlands, urban streets, or village squares. Only a very high level of training and the application of precise targeting equipment and foolproof techniques can prevent routine security operation from degenerating into periodic massacres of innocent people.   

However, while military accidents leading to numerous civilian casualties may not be totally avoidable in internal security operations, when they occur ever so frequently, there is cause for concern. It calls for an urgent revision of training manuals and standard operating procedures. It is also time to revise the rules of engagement. But whatever happens, the military and security forces must be held to standards of rigorous accountability when their actions involve the loss of innocent lives.  

When adversity and loss of lives result from even the best intentions, the compassion of the state is urgently needed while those entrusted with the instruments of state coercion must be held to account.  

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