An aerial picture taken on February 14, 2017 at Monguno district of Borno State shows a camp for internally displaced people.
An aerial picture taken on February 14, 2017 at Monguno district of Borno State shows a camp for internally displaced people. Photo: FLORIAN PLAUCHEUR/AFP via Getty Images

‘They Just Shoot and Burn’: Civilians Targeted in Nigeria’s War on Boko Haram

An investigation by VICE News and The New Humanitarian has gathered evidence and testimonies from villagers who claim the military is destroying entire communities and killing civilians in its fight against militants.

Editor’s note: The reporters and researchers who worked on this investigation have close links to Nigeria. Conscious of the risk of retaliation, The New Humanitarian has chosen not to byline this story. This article was edited by Paisley Dodds and Obi Anyadike for the New Humanitarian and Dipo Faloyin for VICE News in London.


BAMA, Nigeria - At the first sound of gunfire from the approaching vehicles, Falmata and the rest of her village scattered into the bush behind their homes – they knew what was coming.

The Nigerian military had destroyed Bula Ali village three times before, she recalled. 

This time, the patrol arrived on a December morning in 2021 and began shooting. The uniformed soldiers then dismounted, and while some torched houses and stores of food, others rounded up livestock and loaded them onto their vehicles.

According to Falmata, eight civilians died that day, including two children, aged 10 and 15, alongside their mother, Bintu. An elderly man, Ba Modu, was also killed – too frail to run, he died when his home was set on fire while he was still inside.


Bula Ali is no anomaly. In the 13-year war against jihadist groups in the northeast – collectively referred to as Boko Haram – the Nigerian military routinely launches what it terms “clearance” operations against communities it describes as insurgent strongholds. Entire villages are set alight, crops and livestock destroyed, and inhabitants scattered.

During a year-long investigation, The New Humanitarian and VICE News gathered satellite imagery, photographs, and videos – as well as dozens of testimonies from local and international aid workers, military experts, witnesses, and soldiers – that all support allegations of international humanitarian law (IHL) violations by the military. Some alleged violations occurred as recently as May this year. 


HumAngle, a news outlet covering conflict and humanitarian issues in Africa, estimated that more than 200 villages had been destroyed since 2010 in the northern Lake Chad region alone.

Reporting and satellite imagery analysis from The New Humanitarian and VICE News, however, indicates that the total number of villages destroyed by a combination of the Nigerian military, local Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) militia, and foreign military units deployed as part of a regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) that includes Chad, Cameroon, and Niger could stretch well into the high hundreds. 

“The soldiers think everyone living in the villages are Boko Haram, but there’s no Boko Haram staying in Bula Ali,” Falmata told The New Humanitarian and VICE News late last year in one of a series of interviews with survivors, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing reprisals. “We’re just caught in the middle.” 


According to UN figures, the counter-insurgency war has directly and indirectly killed 350,000 people and uprooted 2.5 million more – 1.9 million of them in the northeastern state of Borno, the epicentre of the conflict.


It has also targeted a region in Nigeria where aid agencies are currently running a $1.3 billion humanitarian operation to try and reach 8.3 million people in need. 

“There have always been rumours of atrocities, but we have never been granted the type of access [by the army] to check, let alone provide humanitarian assistance to people trapped behind the lines,” said Fred Eno, spokesperson for Matthias Schmale, the top UN official in Nigeria. “That’s why we need the international community to demand a thorough investigation.” 

Many villagers interviewed by The New Humanitarian and VICE News said they were forced from their homes in clearance operations by the military, which failed to distinguish between civilians and jihadists who operate in the area.

Falmata, and many of the other villagers, are now homeless, stuck in a badly overcrowded camp for displaced people in Bama, the nearest town. Their once-productive farms abandoned, they are dependent on humanitarian aid.

“When the soldiers come, they don’t ask questions, they don’t listen. They just shoot and burn houses,” said Yusuf from Abbaram village. 

The new findings add to a growing body of evidence – including earlier work by Reuters, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch – which suggests rights violations by the Nigerian military are both ongoing and systematic. 


Such violations include the use of disproportionate force in airstrikes that used unguided munitions on villages, as well as the destruction of civilian food stocks, according to villagers and analysts. 

Wounded combatants have also likely been executed, in clear contravention of international humanitarian law.  

The Nigerian military did not respond to questions at the time of publication, but have previously denied rights violations

“The Nigerian authorities must thoroughly and promptly investigate the findings of this report,” said Amnesty International’s acting Nigeria director, Isa Sanusi, referring to the findings of this investigation by The New Humanitarian and VICE News, which were shared with the group in advance of publication.

The alleged violations have persisted under two presidents – Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. Newly elected President Bola Tinubu, who was sworn in on 29 May after winning disputed elections earlier this year, replaced his predecessors’ military commanders earlier this month – a normal practice for an incoming head of state. But he has provided few clues if the security policy will change.


“The best thing [Tinubu] can do is to address the issue of IHL violations frontally,” said Idayat Hassan – the director of the Abuja-based think tank Centre for Democracy and Development, and an expert on the conflict in the northeast. 

“Nigeria needs international support given the scale of its humanitarian problems, and these allegations damage that relationship.”

For years, there has been an uneasy relationship between humanitarian workers and the Nigerian military, which has challenged whether aid groups are truly neutral in the conflict – a core principle in humanitarian operations. 

In 2019, Nigerian authorities temporarily closed the offices of Mercy Corps and Action Against Hunger in the northeast, accusing the relief agencies of aiding Boko Haram – an allegation repeatedly brandished against the broader humanitarian system, and denied by the two groups. Nigeria’s anti-terrorism law criminalises any contact with Boko Haram. 

The killing of an aid worker by a soldier in the northeastern town of Damboa in November last year has had a further chilling effect.


“Humanitarians are just scared to get into any confrontation with the military,” an aid manager in the northeast told The New Humanitarian and VICE News. “What they do is very opaque. And we don’t have the bandwidth. We’re overwhelmed by the number of people we’re trying to help.”

A single, overcrowded camp in the centre of Bama shelters around 50,000 displaced people. Conditions are difficult; those with friends and relations in the town move out as soon as they can. 

Bama, 70 kilometres south of the regional capital, Maiduguri, is the second largest town in the northeast and close to Sambisa forest, a longstanding base of Boko Haram.

In 2014, Bama was captured by the jihadists, who massacred hundreds of townspeople before it was finally retaken by the Nigerian army a year later. 

As the town has slowly recovered, there has been an influx of people from the countryside, attracted by the aid agencies and the relief they provide, and the growing trading opportunities.

Bama is also where the 21 Armoured Brigade, led by Brigadier General Adewale Adekeye, is based. Like other garrison towns, a five-kilometre-deep security perimeter – known as “the trench” – surrounds Bama.

Hardly any aid agencies work outside “the trench” – the only exception being the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been granted special permission.

“They say that ‘if you’re outside the trench, you’re on your own… we won’t distinguish between you and the enemy’,” the director of one international NGO told The New Humanitarian and VICE News, recalling conversations with soldiers. The director spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. 


The displaced people interviewed described a precarious existence in the countryside, trying to manage the violence and intimidation of both the jihadists and military. 

But whereas Boko Haram largely just tax people’s harvests at gunpoint and demand whatever they want, the military tends to regard every villager as a potential target. 

Asked by reporters who they fear most, the universal answer was “the military”.

“They are both wicked, but I can say the soldiers are worse,” said Abubakar from Anbara village, about 50 kilometres south of Bama. “They killed my two children [who had been returning from their farms]. Boko Haram took all my belongings, my cows, everything we made from farming, but the military killed my children.”

“They can easily kill you, destroy your house and everything that you have,” said Ali, who described how his village of Dauleri had been burnt almost every year over the past six years. 

All the villagers interviewed said the military should have known it was attacking farmers, not jihadists.

“Nobody challenged the army when they came – nobody shot at them,” said Fatima, from Bula Chinguwa, 45 kilometres from Bama. “If Boko Haram had really been there, there would have been a fight.”  

Nigeria, with a population of 220 million, is a major market and Western partner in the battle against jihadist expansion in Sahelian West Africa. 

Once a mainstay of UN and regional peacekeeping operations, the reputation of the Nigerian military – both internationally and domestically – has crumbled over the course of the northeastern war. 


Not only has the military’s professionalism been questioned, but it is also accused of being institutionally corrupt, overly politicised, and hamstrung by turf wars.

It also has a long history of alleged human rights violations. 

In the northeast, it has repeatedly been accused of extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, detentions without trial and, most recently, conducting forced abortions on women made pregnant by the insurgents, as well as the targeted killing of male children. 

A special panel of the National Human Rights Commission was launched in February this year to investigate a Reuters report in December 2022 on forced abortions. But the government-funded commission does not have a track record of holding powerful institutions like the military to account.


“There have been several panels investigating allegations of violations by Nigeria's military and other security agents, but there has been no meaningful accountability,” said Amnesty International’s Sanusi.

The Nigerian military is not alone in struggling to distinguish between armed combatants and civilians in counter-insurgency operations. From Afghanistan to Iraq, even the most sophisticated of Western armies have been accused of serious breaches of IHL.

The provisions of IHL are part of the training for Nigerian officers. 

“But intellectually and consciously, they reject the concept,” said one humanitarian official who interacts with the military high command in Maiduguri. “They say: ‘It’s good for the books and for academics, but this is the field’.”

Soldiers in Bama admit they are deeply distrustful of rural communities. 

“They are all Boko Haram,” noted a sergeant and four-year veteran of the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak about operations. “We set fire to their houses, and they rebuild. You cannot stay there if you are not Boko Haram; it means they have that way of thinking in them.” 

Failure to move to Bama is seen by the military as almost proof of allegiance to the jihadists. “When an attack is on, it’s their chance to find a way to come out. Those that don’t leave are with them,” said another corporal. “There are no innocent people left in the bush.”


“Western governments don’t say it publicly, but they accept civilian casualties as collateral damage in their [counter-insurgency operations] around the world,” said the director of one international NGO, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the friction between the military and NGOs. “The Nigerian military doesn’t feel any pressure to do things differently.”

The Nigerian air force has also been accused of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on villages and civilian locations that are in direct violation of the rules of war.

However, a scorched earth culture is deeply ingrained within the Nigerian military, according to a former soldier and now security expert who spoke to researchers. 

“There are no official orders. It’s more an attitude than a policy thing,” he noted, asking to remain anonymous so he could speak freely. “In every single theatre the military operates in, they burn – it’s just what they do.”

Due to the remoteness of rural villages, and the lack of communications, non-combatant casualties have typically gone unreported.

The army also routinely reports that the majority of the alleged insurgents have been killed outright or managed to escape capture – language that suggests that wounded combatants are rarely captured alive.


Combatants in non-state armed groups like Boko Haram – incapacitated or otherwise incapable of fighting due to injuries – are legally protected under IHL as a person ‘hors de combat’.

A corporal, based in Bama, said soldiers are governed by a strict military code. But in reality – and especially for surrendering combatants – “if there are no phones or anything around, you just ‘clear’ that person”. 

No other soldiers, out of eight interviewed by The New Humanitarian, admitted to unlawful killings.

The original Boko Haram, Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād (JAS), was led by Abubakar Shekau. 

A split in 2016 saw the emergence of the so-called Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), which has developed into a far more potent – and politically savvy force – operating in northern Borno. 

In 2018, a string of isolated forward operating bases along the fringes of Lake Chad were being overrun by ISWAP, enabling the group to develop a supply route to neighbouring Niger. 

It was then that the military abandoned its tactic of maintaining such bases and launched a so-called “super camp” strategy, with troops concentrated in more easily defendable garrison towns. 

Now, it’s from towns like Bama that aid agencies access those in need.


While critics argue that the strategy has abandoned the countryside and rural population to the jihadists, the military counters that it now mounts regular long-range patrols, often backed by air cover, to “dominate” the territory. 

A senior member of the CJTF militia in Bama – which often accompanies the military on operations as the local “eyes and ears” – explained what that can entail.

“There are two types of operations: You can go for a day or two and come back, or you can spend two to three weeks,” he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive military operations. “If it’s a day or two, our trucks carry the food and animals away [from the villages attacked] back to Bama.” 

“But if the target is ahead, you set the village on fire and move on. On these missions, we kill all the animals. If there are food items, burn it. If there’s a farm, we enter with our vehicles and scatter the farm, so hunger will make [the villagers] come to Bama.”

Since the split within the jihadist movement in 2021, the Nigerian government has welcomed the defection of former fighters – accompanied by family members and villagers under their control who fled with them. 

They undergo “screening” and a rudimentary “deradicalisation” in three reception centres in Maiduguri.

Separately, hundreds of other ex-insurgents have gone through a more formal and much older initiative known as Operation Safe Corridor. 

The military describes those sent to this programme as “low-risk” Boko Haram. But in reality, the majority of those enrolled are said not to be fighters – another indication of the military’s difficulty in distinguishing between civilians and combatants. 

Still, by inviting defectors into rehabilitation schemes that could allow them to eventually return safely to civilian life, the military has recognised the strategic value of disarming its adversaries by guile rather than slugging it out on the battlefield.

Nigeria’s war in the northeast is not only a military contest but also a political battle. 

Jihadist propaganda portrays the military as vicious killers, and promises “a better life” for Muslims who join them, noted another Nigerian analyst, who writes extensively on the conflict in the northeast and asked that his name not be used because of his continuing research. The challenge for the Nigerian state is to prove that is false, he added. 

Yet the rights violations and intimidation of the local population in the zones of military operations in the northeast runs counter to any “hearts and minds” goal – generally recognised as a key component of any counterinsurgency strategy.

A number of analysts have pointed to the need for security sector reform in Nigeria.

However, for Hassan, director of the Abuja-based think tank, “it’s less about training and much more about ending impunity”.

“When people are held to account – not just a few officers, but the topmost hierarchy – that’s what will deter IHL violations.”

Additional research and satellite imagery analysis by Josh Lyons.

Tagged:Boko Haram