A helicopter’s alleged involvement in Kaduna terrorist attacks could mean one of two things

5 June brought with it familiar agony for four villages in southern Kaduna state, Nigeria. According to local reports, attackers of Fulani ethnicity are said to have descended on the villages of Dogon Noma, Maikori, Ungwan Gamu and Ungwan Sarki at around noon, with violence continuing for approximately six hours.

In consistency with previous reports of militia attacks in the region, the assailants were reportedly grouped three to a motorcycle, with one man to drive, and two others to shoot to the right and left respectively.

At least 32 people were killed across the four villages, while an unknown number remain missing following the latest attack to specifically target the Adara people, who have suffered violence at the hands of Fulani assailants for several years now.

Perhaps one of the most concerning reports to emerge in the aftermath of the attack was the allegation that a white helicopter had reportedly joined in the attack and opened fire on villagers who had initially proven successful in resisting the terrorists.

Again, this comes with something of a precedent. As far back as early 2016, eyewitnesses in Benue state claimed that a helicopter was spotted in the skies during attacks on the Agatu community.  Later, survivors of several attacks in southern Kaduna alleged that helicopters would appear moments before an attack would begin, with CSW’s sources reporting that when they had visited camps for victims of violence and displacement in Kajuru LGA, children would often begin shaking and would run away at the sound of a passing helicopter, saying the sound often preceded an attack. 

What is different here, however, is that this incident marks the first in which a helicopter is alleged to have opened fire on victim communities on behalf of militia men. If accurate, then this has extremely concerning implications, and could indicate of one of two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Terrorist strategies have become more sophisticated

The current trend of violence in central Nigeria has been ongoing for over a decade now. Largescale attacks by well-armed assailants of Fulani origin, many of whom are reportedly part of an ongoing  influx from other West African countries, were first reported in Plateau state (southeast of Kaduna) in March 2010, and spread across the Middlebelt, commencing in Kaduna state in 2011 and increasing exponentially from 2015 onwards.

Since then, this militia’s arsenal and tactics have become increasingly sophisticated and well-coordinated, with reports emerging of the use of RPGs and even chemicals.

More recently, it has become clear that the militia has established links with other terrorist groups operating in the region, including the notorious Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the al Qaeda affiliate Ansaru.

Alongside this, the terrorists have also focused their efforts further south, as indicated by the recent attack on St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Ondo state, in which at least 50 people were killed and over 70 were injured, and the abductions of the Anglican Bishop of Jebba Diocese, his wife and driver on 12 June in Ogun state, and of the Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria and two other clergy from 29-30 May.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church

After his abduction, the Prelate related that the Fulani men who had kidnapped him and his colleagues  had told him: “we are waiting for the slightest signal; we will finish you people and take over this land.”

In such a scenario the alleged use of a helicopter could be seen as part of a wider strategy to lay claim to the entirety of Nigeria, serving at the very least as a reminder of the militia’s mission to further expand their arsenal with a view to inflicting even greater misery on communities like those of Dogon Noma, Maikori, Ungwan Gamu and Ungwan Sarki.

Scenario 2: Terrorists have infiltrated the armed forces

Alternatively, concerns and allegations about military collusion with armed non-state actors have also circulated since the violence first began in 2010. Victims regularly report that attacks have been permitted to continue for hours without security intervention, despite often taking place in broad daylight, or in areas where there is a significant military presence.

For example, prior to the attack on 15 October on Nkie Doworo village in the Irigwe Chiefdom of Plateau State, soldiers from the 3rd Armoured Division of the Nigeria Army, whose barracks are a 10 minute drive away, descended on the village due to rumours of an imminent attack.  They are alleged to have disarmed villagers of every means of self-defence, and to have advised them to gather in a schoolroom so they could defend them.  Twenty-one people took up the offer, and as they were locked inside the room, the soldiers are alleged to have seized their mobile phones.  However, according to survivors who declined the offer and secreted themselves nearby, the soldiers left after firing a shot in the air, and militia men emerged from nearby fields, reportedly dressed in military fatigues, who celebrated before opening the classroom and shooting, then mutilating, every villager who had sheltered.

Allegations of complicity are lent a greater appearance of credibility by the Nigerian authorities’ persistent failure to address the security threats posed by armed non-state actors such as these in an effective manner, with vulnerable communities left to fend for themselves even after widespread international reporting on the issue.

For example, the recent attacks on the villages in Kaduna state occurred nearly two years to the day since the release of a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief in the UK, which warned of a potential unfolding genocide in the region. This is not the only such warning that has emerged in relation to the violence, and yet attacks continue unabated.

This therefore raises unfortunate concerns regarding whether elements within Nigeria’s security structure or authorities may have been compromised in some manner, and if the answer is no, then why do they appear to lack the ability or competence to address this violence with any form of co-ordinated or effective response?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle

In reality, it seems likely that both of these scenarios may be accurate to a certain extent. The Fulani militia is clearly growing more sophisticated, more well-resourced and more confident in its campaign of violence, and the current administration and security forces appear ill-equipped to address this.

Taken together, this offers little hope for villages like those attacked on 5 June, and the need for urgent international intervention remains vital. Without it, terrorist groups will tighten their grip on the lives of the citizens of Nigeria and continue destabilising this strategic African nation to the detriment of the region, the continent, and ultimately, the world.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley