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Thursday, 07 December 2023 05:25

[OPINION] Yet Another Tragic Bombing Error - Olusegun Adeniyi

On 17 January 2017, a Nigerian Air Force (NAF) fighter jet mistakenly dropped bombs on settlements harbouring Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs) in Rann, Kala Balge local government area of Borno State.  Fifty-three persons died on the spot while no fewer than 200 others, including humanitarian aid workers of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), were seriously injured. President Muhammadu Buhari made the usual pledge at the time to investigate “this regrettable operational mistake”. But nothing happened in the aftermath. And apparently no sufficient lessons were learnt by military authorities because we continue to witness these avoidable tragedies. 

Last Sunday night in Tudun Biri, Igabi Local Government Area of Kaduna State, dozens of people were killed, and hundreds of others injured when a military drone bombed a gathering of residents who were reportedly celebrating Maulud. I commiserate with people of the affected Kaduna community even as we continue to hear heartrending stories about the plights of the survivors. The federal government has issued the usual ‘call for probe’ statement, but I strongly urge President Bola Tinubu to demonstrate how he will be different from his predecessor who was characteristically aloof in moments of national grief such as this. I also call on federal and state authorities as well as public-spirited individuals to come to the aid of those who sustained injuries to help mitigate their sufferings. Given that we are dealing with people on the lower rung of the social ladder, the tendency is to quickly forget about them and move on in a nation where the lives of ordinary citizens count for little.

Let me be very clear here. Anywhere there are military operations, there are usually collateral damages. And we must commend our armed forces for their sacrifice over the years as we confront insurgency, banditry and sundry other criminal cartels who work against the peace and progress of Nigeria. The concern is that this is a recurring tragedy, and no explanation has been made, even though hundreds of lives have been lost in the past decade. That is where accountability by the military comes in. In its report on Monday, ‘Daily Trust’ newspaper documented 15 military air strikes on civilian populations between 2014 and 2023, that have led to hundreds of fatalities.  

Perhaps more revealing is the ‘Special Report’ by Reuters (one of the largest news agencies in the world) in June this year. Authored by David Lewis and Reade Levinson, the report highlighted what was described as a pattern of deadly aerial assaults by the military on civilian populations in Nigeria. “An airstrike near the village of Akwanaja earlier this year (January 2023) shows how Nigeria’s military, which is backed by the United States and other powers, has repeatedly conducted attacks from the air that have killed civilians. Engaged in a war with Islamist insurgents in the northeast, the air force is often called on to tackle criminal activity like banditry in areas far from the conflict zone,” the report claimed in the introduction. “A Reuters analysis of violent incidents documented by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a U.S.-based crisis monitoring group, found that more than 2,600 people had been killed in the last five years in 248 air strikes by the Nigerian Air Force outside the three northeastern states engulfed in war…Most victims are identified in the database as belonging to ‘communal militia,’ a broad term that in Nigeria can include anyone from community self-defence groups to criminal gangs known locally as bandits. The incidents documented in the database were not independently confirmed by Reuters.”

Military authorities are aware of these challenges. In October last year, the immediate past Chief of Air Staff, Oladayo Amao disclosed during the opening of the 2022 Air Operations Seminar in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, that a committee had been established to compile all allegations of accidental air strikes on civilians in recent years. The investigation, he said, was aimed at proffering far-reaching measures that would mitigate future incidences of collateral damage to civilians during such operations. While no one knows the status of that investigation, assuming there is one, the Reuters’ report was ignored by Nigerian authorities. But the American State Department deputy spokesman, Vedant Patel said in August that they were aware of the issues raised by Reuters. “We take all reports of civilian casualties seriously, and they should be thoroughly and transparently investigated.” Preventing them, Patel added, is “central to our security cooperation with the Nigerian military.”  

The Kaduna bombing is indeed one too many. I am delighted that many religious and traditional leaders in the North have waded in to prevent a misreading of the situation and the danger such portends for the health of our country. As painful as this tragedy is, it was a mistake on the part of the military. But in calling for adequate compensation for victims, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) has summed up what the real issue is. “Communities in the northern states have enough problems with banditry to have to again worry about becoming hapless victims of the misbegotten strategies of those who should be helping to wipe out the scourge of banditry and terrorism,” ACF National Publicity Secretary, Professor Tukur Muhammad-Baba said on Tuesday. 

This then brings me to the issue of how traumatized victims are almost always abandoned after every tragedy. In January 2019, two years after the Rann bombing, Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, called on the federal government to compensate victims. “While soliciting the understanding and support of all Nigerians and members of the international community regarding the tragic incident, the panel of inquiry and the NAF Authorities have failed to address the payment of compensation to the people who were injured and the families of those who were killed in the bombing incident”, Falana wrote in a letter directed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). There is nothing on record that he got any response to his letter or that the victims have been compensated. 

Indeed, if there is anything to take from the statement by Dr Shuaibu Musa, the Deputy Chief Medical Director of the Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital, it is the absence of any structure to take care of victims who are often abandoned to their fate. While updating the media about the number of casualties brought to the hospital, Shuaibu said that the Chief of Defence Staff, General Christopher Musa, had promised to give the victims “something” for feeding and laundry. The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. General Taoheed Lagbaja also reportedly ‘donated’ N10 million at the hospital. Such an ad hoc arrangement is unacceptable for people whose lives have been turned upside down due to no fault of theirs. Not only should the federal government foot the medical bills of all the victims, but compensations should also be paid for these collateral damages, as being demanded by many stakeholders. 

Meanwhile, I understand that the general area where the incident occurred is heavily infested with bandits and terrorists who carry out attacks on the Kaduna-Birnin Gwari Road and other locations in Igabi, Chikun, Giwa and Birnin Gwari local governments. It is the same location that respected retired federal permanent secretary, Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed, who is currently an adviser to Vice President Kashim Shettima, once described as a bandit territory. “For almost 400 square kilometers, from Abuja to Kaduna, Zaria and Birnin Gwari, there is hardly any farm with cattle [left],” he once wrote. “A huge swathe of the north is now bandit territory. Most of us know where our cattle are, but we cannot retrieve them. Abducted women and young girls hardly ever return…”  

The fact that this has long been a dangerous territory was also confirmed in a March 2014 interview in ‘Daily Trust’ newspaper by the Emir of Birnin Gwari who spoke about criminality in his domain and the activities of cattle rustlers. “They are in control of one village called Jan Birni. You can’t go there now if you are not a thief. If they don’t know you, they may kill you,” said the Emir who then advocated self-defence by his subjects at the time. “These rustlers don’t care whether you put fire on your cattle, they will whisk them away. If your cattle are branded, they will slaughter them, cut them up and sell them in pieces. If you go to Birnin Gwari-Funtua axis, they are gradually taking over all villages and towns along the roads. They come out on market days and brandish their weapons without a care…”  

We do not have the exact details of what led to the latest catastrophic error that claimed several lives in Kaduna State, but what is not in dispute is that the intelligence relied upon for the attack was wrong. From the little information I have been able to pierce together from military and political sources in Kaduna, most of the area where the tragedy occurred had practically been taken over by criminal overlords. But I have also been told that some of the military theatre commanders are either confused or have not mastered the new equipment at their disposal. For instance, there are reports that the army did not double check the ‘unusual movement’ picked up in the area by their Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAE) before the attack last Sunday night. That should never happen. Besides, there is a doctrinal deficit in fighting banditry and related crimes from the air with either drones or combat aircraft. Even in advance societies, such targeting can be imprecise as it is often difficult to sift the bad guys from innocent civilian populations from the air. 

I sympathise with the Nigerian Army on this issue, because of the challenges they have had to grapple with by combining internal security with defending the nation’s territorial integrity. But it is not enough for them to just own up to the Kaduna killings, apologise and move on. They owe Nigerians an explanation as to what exactly happened. At all times and in all circumstances, people in uniform and under authorized orders are accountable for lives, even in combat zones. It is therefore imperative that the Defence Headquarters investigate this and other accidental mass killings of innocents in recent times with a view to ensuring they do not happen again.

Metro Bakery and Restaurant: A Remarkable Story 

Come Saturday, Mrs Sandra Adio will open her Metro Restaurant in Abuja: “A culinary haven where flavours and passion converge”. Built on the same plot (then rented but now bought) where they started just as a bakery nine years ago, the story of Metro Bakery and Restaurant is one of resilience and entrepreneurship. It is heartwarming to see that she dared and ultimately won, even in an environment as hostile to small businesses as ours. It also speaks to the power of social media for those who deploy it for worthwhile causes. I was at the site for the new restaurant yesterday to watch as Mrs Adio put finishing touches to the elegant building ahead of the opening ceremony and I could not hide my admiration. 

As an aside, in the interest of the future ‘shares’ to which I feel entitled, I have never allowed Mrs Adio to forget that on Saturday 13 December 2014, I had the rare honour and privilege to ‘declare the bakery open’ with a prayer. From that humble and unsure beginning, the food company now boasts of three distinct arms: a bakery, a pastry, and now a full-fledged restaurant. And from just three initial staff, the company now has 98 workers with an additional 10 expected next week.  

The last of nine children, Mrs Adio grew up close to her enterprising mother who died just four months ago. It was from her mom, late Mrs. Kate Odigue, that Mrs Adio learned all aspects of cooking. But while that has proved to be an asset, it was more by accident than by design that she is today the proprietor of the go-to place for food lovers in Abuja. 

As Mrs Adio told me yesterday, it was her husband, Waziri, who suggested to her to venture into baking and this led her to attend the prestigious International Culinary Centre for Arts in Dubai, after taking a short course at the Entrepreneurship Development Centre of the Lagos Business School. “As it would happen, the demand for Metro bread exploded, especially when I decided to put it on Instagram,” she said. “And then people started asking whether we also do meat pie, puff puff, etc. That was how we went into pastry.” But the more interesting story came with the addition of household food. “One Sunday afternoon in 2018, after I had prepared Jollof rice for the family, one of my daughters suggested posting it on Instagram. It’s one of those things you do for fun. And then requests started coming from some of our customers.”  

With the assistance of her children, Mrs Adio started to prepare food to meet the small orders. And then something happened. “One day I got a call from Mrs Pat Ofilli who said she had eaten my food somewhere. She asked that I prepare food for 200 birthday guests. Not only was I shocked but I instantly told her I had no capacity to do it,” Mrs Adio said of what turned out to be the big break. “Auntie (as she now addresses Mrs Ofili who has indeed played the role of a sister to her) encouraged me that I could do it and I did. It was not long after pulling that off that I got another call from someone at an agency who said she had heard about Metro from her colleagues. She requested 600 packs of food for a training programme.” 

Since then, from birthday ceremonies to burials and religious events, requests for food have not stopped coming the way of Metro, whose main line of business remains bread sold in FCT and five nearby states and now produced at a purpose-built factory a stone-throw from the restaurant, the latest venture. According to Mrs Adio, the game-changer in her food business has been Instagram. “That is where most of our customers first heard about Metro.” But running the business has had its challenges. She said: “Despite the fact that you get no support from the government and must provide your own electricity and water, what you get every day is harassment from the different government agencies. You pay all manner of charges that you wonder whether the whole idea is to force business owners to close.” 

Ordinarily, a government that is interested in job creation and economic growth should be providing incentives and creating the enabling environment for more businesses like Metro Bakery and Restaurant to thrive, not striving to drive them underground or to tax them to death. Businesses that employ tens and hundreds of workers are the real engines of growth in even developed economies. Such businesses will be critical to Nigeria’s capacity to sustainably address its unemployment crisis and slow growth. The earlier the government gets this, the better for all of us. For now, a well-deserved congratulations to Madam Metro. Here’s to even greater heights!

 

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