Many of the victims were women and children gathered for a religious celebration. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu described the attack as a “bombing mishap.”
Idris Dahiru was hosting some guests at a religious celebration in his village in northern Nigeria on Sunday night, when a piercing sound streaked through the air, followed by an explosion and countless screams.
A drone strike had hit Mr. Dahiru’s village of Tudun Biri, and on Tuesday, Nigeria’s military said that it was responsible. At least 85 people were killed, including children, women and older people, and at least 66 more injured, said Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency. The search for more bodies is continuing.
“It shattered our entire lives as a community,” Mr. Dahiru said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. He said he had lost 34 relatives in the strike on the village, which is in the state of Kaduna.
As Nigeria, a West African nation, has been fighting extremist groups and armed gangs for more than a decade, its military has increasingly resorted to airstrikes, with accidental bombings becoming far too common, security analysts and human rights experts say.
But Sunday’s strike was by far the deadliest. Amnesty International said the death toll was closer to 120 people.
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu called on Tuesday for “a thorough and full-fledged investigation” into what he called a “bombing mishap.” Mr. Tinubu, who is in the United Arab Emirates for the COP 28 climate conference, said in a statement that the accident was “very unfortunate, disturbing and painful.”
Nigeria’s chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Taoreed Lagbaja, who visited the village on Tuesday, admitted the army was responsible and offered his condolences to the families of victims. He said that aerial patrols had “observed a group of people and wrongly analyzed and misinterpreted their pattern of activities to be similar to that of the bandits.”
Many of the victims were gathered for a Muslim celebration on Sunday night, which Mr. Dahiru, a farmer, described as harmonious, family-oriented and nonviolent.
Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, has been plagued by multiple security crises that Mr. Tinubu vowed to tackle when he was sworn in as president in May.
The country’s northeast is beset by militants from the extremist group Boko Haram and local affiliates of the Islamic State. In the northwest and northern center, armed gangs locally referred to as bandits steal cattle and carry out widespread killings and abductions of people including priests, teachers, schoolchildren and commuters.
Nigeria’s security forces have struggled to contain the violence, and Mr. Tinubu’s administration has yet to publish a comprehensive national security strategy. Nigeria’s military, the largest in West Africa and a major recipient of American security assistance, has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including forced abortions and indiscriminate killings.
Last year, the Biden administration approved a nearly $1 billion weapons deal with Nigeria, the largest ever made to the country. But several U.S. lawmakers have since called for a review of the U.S. security partnership with Nigeria in light of human rights abuses.
“Despite reports of civilian casualties from Nigerian Armed Forces airstrikes and other concerns, the flow of U.S. weapons into Nigeria has not slowed,” said researchers at Brown University and the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit group, in a report published last year.
Yet any change of attitude from the United States is unlikely, analysts say, because Nigeria is seen as a reliable security partner in a region riddled with coups and Islamist insurgencies.
Isa Sanusi, the country director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, said not one, but two strikes had killed at least 120 civilians, according to his organization’s own tally. Mr. Dahiru also said that two strikes had hit the village — a claim that The New York Times could not immediately confirm.
“The Nigerian military is used to not being held to account and getting away with these atrocities,” said Mr. Sanusi. “That is making them less diligent and more reckless.”
Before the strike on Sunday, more than 300 people had been killed in airstrikes carried out by the Nigerian Air Force since 2017, according to a tally by SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian risk consultancy.
While the number of accidental bombings has soared over the past two years, there have been no comprehensive investigations or compensation to the victims’ families, according to the consultancy.
And these accidental killings of civilians have long ceased to cause outrage.
“Sadly, we’ve had a long line of incidents,” said Ikemesit Effiong, a partner at SBM Intelligence. “To many Nigerians, they have become normalized.”