How Nigeria’s Air Campaign Against Boko Haram Could Backfire

By Kyle Dietrich, Center for Civilians in Conflict

On June 17, the Nigerian Air Force announced it was escalating its air campaign against Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria. But the new phase of its counter-insurgency operations, called ‘Operation Gama-Aiki’ (“Finish the Job” in Hausa), could be deeply problematic, raising the likelihood of increased civilian casualties, decreased trust between the government and the people, and practically handing militants more ammunition against the government.

Nigeria has conducted hundreds of air strikes against potential Boko Haram militants since President Muhammadu Buhari took office a year ago. While these air strikes and regional military operations have been successful at dislodging militants from the Sambisa Forest and other insurgent strongholds, reports show that because the Nigerian military often lacks precision-guided weapons, air strikes cause significant civilian harm and often create more distrust and fuel radicalization.

According to one report, 92 percent of all civilian deaths and injuries were thanks to explosive weapons used in populated areas, with 28 percent attributable to air-launched weaponry. In 2015, Nigeria was the fourth most harmful conflict (after Syria, Iraq, and Yemen) for civilians because of explosive weapons, which includes aircraft launched bombs and rockets.

Although there is a general lack of public reporting from remote areas where Boko Haram operates, we know insurgents often live among local populations, forcibly marry women and recruit men to fight, and use civilians including abducted persons as human shields. The likelihood of civilian harm as a result of an air strike remains high, as we saw in 2015 when an air strike accidentally killed more than 35 people at a funeral gathering in a Niger border town.

To address allegations and counter widespread local distrust of the military’s air operations, Nigerian military leaders must ensure that ongoing operations avoid harming civilian men, women, and children and do more to protect them from Boko Haram.

To do this, the Nigerian Air Force needs to develop stronger local intelligence, robust pre-strike assessments, and rapid post-strike battle damage assessment capabilities. If, despite all precautionary measures, the military harms civilians, it should appropriately address such harm by making amends in the form of public apologies, monetary payments, or other assistance to victims or their families. CIVIC is currently calling on the Nigerian military to create a civilian harm tracking capability, which would bolster the military’s capacity to prevent and respond to allegations of civilian harm caused by their operations.

All this is no easy feat, but one concrete step the Nigerian Air Force could take immediately would be to avoid using cluster bombs or similar munitions. (Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions but has not ratified the treaty.) Not only are cluster bombs a dangerous and imprecise weapon of war, but there are reports that Boko Haram uses the military’s unexploded ordnance, including cluster bomblets, in IEDs against civilian and military targets.

Ultimately, air strikes against Boko Haram are a blunt instrument against an often-unseen enemy, when what the current phase of the conflict requires is a surgical approach. Air operations need to be balanced with longer-term military and non-military approaches that stabilize communities and restore security.

It should be a strategic imperative for Nigeria to do more than avoid causing harm to civilians; the government and security forces should re-focus their mission on improving the physical protection of civilians from Boko Haram. By preventing accidental harm and protecting civilians from violence, the Nigerian military will be better placed to break the cycle of violence and rebuild trust and damaged relations between affected communities and security forces.

Kyle Dietrich is the Senior Program Manager for Africa and Peacekeeping.