Nigerian Christian villagers claim military helicopter fired on them, not bandits

Residents of predominantly Christian villages in north-central Nigeria that came under attack from Fulani bandits on motorcycles June 5 maintain that a government helicopter fired on the villages’ defenders, but authorities have denied the charge, saying the crew targeted the assailants.

The fighting, which lasted for several hours, took place in a group of villages about 30 miles south of Kaduna City, the capital of Kaduna. The raid left 32 villagers dead and 29 others, chiefly women, kidnapped, according to media reports and security authorities.

In its aftermath, authorities have sought to reassure residents that the government is on their side in the bloody conflict with Fulani bandits.

“An air force helicopter (under operation whirl punch) dispatched to the area, intercepted the bandits at the last location (Ungwan Maikori) and engaged them as they retreated, before the arrival of ground troops to the general area,” Samuel Aruwan, the state commissioner for internal security, said in a June 7 statement posted on Facebook.

But eyewitnesses and others who spoke to CNA say perhaps hundreds of villagers saw the helicopter fired on armed locals who were trying to ward off more than 200 invaders.

“The whole village saw the helicopter firing at the residents,” said Jonathan Asake, the head of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU) who coordinated a meeting of villagers two days after the attack. 

In addition, Rev. Denis Sani, head of the local Evangelical Church Winning All as well as an elder advisor to volunteer neighborhood watchmen, told the conflict reporter Masara Kim that no ground troops arrived to rescue residents in Makori, one of the villages that came under attack.

Sani told CNA that the helicopter fired with a submachine gun toward him and his fellow civilian guards, forcing him and his assistant, Jonah Greece, to withdraw toward the forest to gain cover. 

“We pulled back to avoid getting killed, allowing the terrorists to enter the village,” Greece told CNA.

Defending their homes

“The attack started as we were ending our church services on Sunday around noon,” said Greece, a community medical practitioner in Maikori. 

Since the village had suffered a massacre by terrorists in March 2019 and an attack earlier this year, the able-bodied men formed a defensive perimeter around the approaches to Maikori.

“There were no military or police in the village, but about 40 to 50 men gathered up their hunting rifles,” Greece explained.

Sani called for the men of the village of Maikori to position themselves behind trees and tall grass. The attackers were mounted on 70 motorbikes, three fighters on each bike.

Greece said the attackers first swarmed through the neighboring village of Dogon Noma, burning houses and firing at villagers fleeing into the forest. Then they mounted their bikes and headed into Maikori where Sani and the defenders ambushed them with their homemade hunting rifles and pump shotguns, Greece said.

At approximately 1 p.m. the villagers noticed a helicopter variously described as white or “silver” hovering over Maikori and firing vertically down at the defenders, Greece said.

Claims denied

Nigerian media have reported that the claim that the helicopter fired on village defenders has been debunked. Villagers, however, are standing by their account.

To clear the air on disputed versions of the incident seven heads of state police agencies met with village leaders on June 20 in Kufana. 

“Aruwan said while the Government had not totally succeeded in its primary assignment, it was however doing its best to ensure that they had come also to clarify some lingering ‘misrepresentations’ being championed by some enemies of progress and of the government,” Stingo Usman, a Christian community leader in Maraban Kajuru who attended the meeting, told CNA.

The service chiefs at the meeting asserted that “it was impossible that the army helicopter had fired on the residents,” Usman said. None of the service chiefs who spoke were present during the attack, he added.

According to Stingo Usman, Ibrahim Usman, the village head of Dogon Noma, contradicted Aruwan’s account. The village head told the authorities at the meeting that “a helicopter arrived and the locals thought relief had come to them until they realized that they were being attacked by both the helicopter and the bandits,” Stingo Usman related to CNA in a text message.

“The youth then had to run for their lives and from that point, the armed Fulani bandits got access to the village and burned the whole village down, and also killed two people there,” Stingo Usman wrote, recounting Ibrahim Usman’s statements at the meeting.

The representative of Kajuru County in the Nigerian House of Representatives, Yakubu Umar Barde, has called for an investigation of possible complicity between the Nigerian military and the terrorists.  

In addition, calls for an internationally led forensic investigation of complicity between Muslim terrorists and rogue military units have come from Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, and Gregory Stanton, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and the founder of Genocide Watch.

Security officials drew criticism for failing to stop the blasphemy murder of college student Deborah Emmanuel on the campus of Shehu Shegari teachers’ college in Sokoto on May 12.

There have been additional complaints lodged against the lax response by the military and police to other attacks blamed on radicalized Fulani Islamists, including a massacre Jan. 11 in Te’Egbe, in Plateau State, and on March 20 in Kagoro in southern Kaduna.

The inactivity and in some cases complicity of the military in terrorist attacks in the past has been noted by the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International.

“Amnesty International found evidence showing that security forces received information about impending attacks and in some cases, came in contact with attackers but did nothing to stop or prevent the attacks,” the organization said in a 2018 report

“Many attacks lasted for hours, in some cases days, even in communities where security forces were not far away,” the report said.