Amnesty International has accused the Nigerian military of killing dozens in villages affected by herdsmen attacks, stressing that the response of the federal government to communal violence is totally inadequate, too slow and ineffective, and in some cases unlawful.
The human rights group has also stated that clashes between herdsmen and farmers in Adamawa, Benue, Taraba, Ondo and Kaduna States have resulted in 168 deaths in January 2018 alone with the killers getting away with murder.
"The government must totally overturn its response to these deadly clashes to avoid this crisis getting out of control. They need to investigate and bring suspects to justice," said Director Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho.
"Hundreds of people lost their lives last year, and the government is still not doing enough to protect communities from these violent clashes. Worse, the killers are getting away with murder. In some cases where the Nigerian security agencies did respond to communal violence, they used excessive or unlawful force resulting in even more deaths and destruction," Ojigho explained.
The human rights watchdog recalled that on December 4, 2017, the Nigerian Air Force sent fighter jets to fire rockets at villages as a "warning" to deter spiralling communal violence, as hundreds of herdsmen attacked at least five villages in Adamawa State to avenge the massacre of up to 51 members of their community, mostly children, the previous month in Kikan.
Amnesty stated that when its team visited the villages in the aftermath of the air raids, the team gathered witness testimony from residents who described being attacked by a fighter jet and a military helicopter as they attempted to flee.
"Launching air raids is not a legitimate law enforcement method by anyone's standard. 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," said Ojigho.
The Nigerian Air Force's (NAF) Director of Public Relations, Air Commodore Olatokunbo Adesanya, was quoted in local media describing the air raids as "warning shots - not shots to kill." He said they prompted people to flee the area, and that they had had a "positive effect."
Amnesty International added that two weeks after the incident, Adesanya revised the account, adding that the herdsmen had opened fire on the aircraft.
Adesanya was also quoted as saying that the air force recorded video footage of the operations, which involved an Alpha Jet and an EC 135 helicopter.
Amnesty International called on NAF- which has received intensive training from the UK and US militaries in recent years -to hand over the footage of the incident and all relevant information to the authorities, including the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice for investigation.
"This is unlawful and excessive force on a catastrophic scale. It is yet another tragic example where Nigeria's armed forces are found applying deadly military tactics to law enforcement situations," Ojigho said.
"The Nigerian authorities must investigate these attacks and, where these investigations indicate criminal responsibility, prosecute those responsible and bring them to justice," Amnesty added.
According to the rights group, the air raids occurred in the villages of Lawaru, Dong, Kodomti, Shafaron and Nzuruwei, where Amnesty International interviewed a total of 15 witnesses.
"Locals in each village also provided Amnesty International with lists of the dead, which totalled 86 names. As the herdsmen shot people and torched homes, and the air raid resulted in fire, it was not possible to establish how much of the death and destruction was a direct result of the air attacks or attributable to the attack by herdsmen," Amnesty said.
"Based on witness testimony, field observations, determination of the nature of weapons used as well as analysis of photographic and satellite images Amnesty International believes that the air raids caused significant destruction, and estimates that they were responsible for at least 35 deaths and numerous injuries. Witnesses involved in the identification and burial of the victims said that 51 had gunshot or machete wounds, while the remaining 35 died as a result of the airstrikes in Dong, Shafaron, Lawaru and Kodomti," Amnesty said.