At least 35 people were killed by the Nigerian military’s air raids on villages last month, according to the human rights organisation Amnesty International.
Witnesses described Nigerian air force jets bombing houses and targeting civilians trying to hide in five villages in raids that a military spokesman said at the time had a “positive effect” in tackling communal violence.
Launching the attacks in December, the military said that it was targeting “hideouts of miscreants” in the villages, referring to herdsmen whom it said were armed.
Thousands of people have died in a bloody conflict between herdsmen and farmers that has intensified in Nigeria’s middle belt over the past 10 years.
“Launching air raids is not a legitimate law enforcement method by anyone’s standard,” said Amnesty’s Osai Ojigho. “Such reckless use of deadly force is unlawful, outrageous and lays bare the Nigerian military’s shocking disregard for the lives of those it supposedly exists to protect.”
A farmer from the village of Shafaron said a helicopter and a jet launched their air raid just after the herdsmen arrived. “The helicopter and the jet started releasing bombs,” he said. “Houses started burning. Children started running for their lives. Mothers packed up their children and escaped with them. We men were unable to fight back and we started running too. This jet burnt our houses and properties to ashes.”
A traditional ruler of one of the villages, whose house was destroyed in the air raid, also described how the aircraft arrived shortly after the herdsmen. He said: “As we were trying to hide we saw a helicopter and a jet arrive and start shooting and bombing houses. When they saw somebody trying to hide, the jet would just blast them with bombs.”
Several Nigerian states have passed legislation banning the open grazing of cattle, in an attempt to stop the clashes that result from pastoralists’ animals trampling agriculturalists’ crops.
In November, as the new law came into force in Benue state, the governor told Nigerian media it was necessary because “for close to five years, herdsmen have killed thousands of Benue people and it was almost becoming a pogrom.”
But others see the legislation as discriminating against the Fulani, a minority west African group who are traditionally herders – and to which the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, belongs.
The federal government has not approved of these laws. Last week, Nigeria’s defence minister Mansur Dan Ali said that a major reason for the clashes was that traditional grazing routes no longer existed.
“If those routes are blocked, what do you expect will happen?” he asked. “It is just like one going to block the shoreline, does that make sense to you? These are the remote causes of the crisis. But the immediate cause is the grazing law.”
“These people are Nigerians and we must learn to live together,” he added. “Communities and other people must learn how to accept foreigners within their enclave.”
Earlier this month Buhari ordered the inspector general of police to relocate to Benue, following intense criticism within Nigeria that the presidency had been passive in dealing with an escalating crisis. Several units of police forces and counter-terrorism officers have been deployed to Benue this month following the attacks.
Last week the Department for State Security claimed to have uncovered a network of Islamic State militants in Benue and other Nigerian states, explaining that they were also behind the recent killings.