Nigeria’s air force confirmed that there was an airstrike targeting a branch of the Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeast part of the country where civilians were reported to have been killed, a spokesman said Thursday.
The incident comes amid debate about the Nigerian government’s counterterrorism tactics, which critics say too often claim the lives of innocent people. Separatists in Nigeria recently sued two top Biden administration officials for clearing the sale of warplanes to the country in a deal initially greenlighted by the Trump administration.
Edward Gabkwet, the air force spokesman, said in a brief interview that he had received many reports that civilians were killed but could not say definitively.
“We are investigating,” he said. “We have to be sure. That environment is highly infested with terrorists.”
Mohammed Goje, a doctor who is the executive secretary of the Yobe State Emergency Management Agency, said that nine civilians, including three children, were killed in the strike on a rural community near the border with Niger. He said the dead were in their homes when the strike occurred and came from multiple families.
Those killed and the 23 people injured were farmers or children, he said. The injured were taken to hospitals and are in stable condition, Goje said.
“For us as an emergency management agency, the life of civilians is a priority,” he said. “They were children, they were farmers, they are people, and we must give them the treatment they deserve free.”
The governor of Yobe instructed hospitals to provide free care to the injured and said his office would work with the military to determine what had gone wrong.
“Government will work closely with the security forces especially the Nigeria Air Force to establish what actually happened,” Gov. Mai Mala Buni said in a statement.
Gabkwet initially denied that the air force was involved. But on Thursday, after Buni called for an investigation, the spokesman released a statement saying one of the air force pilots fired shots after observing “suspicious movement consistent with Boko Haram terrorists behavior.”
“Unfortunately reports reaching Nigerian Air Force (NAF) Headquarters alleged that some civilians were erroneously killed while others were injured,” he said in the statement.
The Nigerian government has used airstrikes in the northeast to target Boko Haram and an offshoot loyal to the Islamic State. The two groups have killed more than 30,000 people in 12 years. In 2017, a Nigerian air force fighter jet mistakenly bombed a town crowded with people who had fled Islamist militants, killing more than 50 and injuring more than 100.
Matthew Page, an associate fellow with the Africa Program at Chatham House, said civilian casualties in the fight against Boko Haram are common but rarely acknowledged by the government. The combat aircraft that Nigeria and Niger are using to fight the group, Page said, are “not effective counterinsurgency tools.”
“You’re using a meat cleaver rather than a surgeon’s scalpel,” he said.
The Nigerian air force has said it will use A-29 Super Tucano planes from the United States to conduct some of those airstrikes. Six of the planes arrived in Nigeria in July, after the Trump administration’s controversial decision to clear the nearly $600 million Super Tucano deal, ending an Obama-era ban on selling weapons to Nigeria.
Asked Thursday whether Super Tucano planes were involved in this airstrike, Gabkwet said he did not believe so but added, “All of these things will come out when the investigation is done.”
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