In Tudun Biri, meetings happen under a large mango tree in a clearing in the center of the village. The bark on its trunk has peeled back in places, leaking sap — it has become a place of mourning.

Why did we write this story?

The proliferation of cheap and effective drones has made aerial warfare accessible to militaries around the world. But the checks and balances aren’t there to prevent civilian casualties.

Nearby is a shallow ditch where, on December 3, a bomb struck the ground while the villagers were celebrating the Maolud, an Islamic festival commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

Solomon John, 28, was in a nearby building when the first bomb dropped. After the blast, John rushed outside to find dismembered bodies strewn across the ground. The bomb had struck next to the tree, where mostly women and children were gathered at the time for the festival.

“We were crying and crying,” John said, “when after about 30 minutes the second bomb came down.”

The bombs were dropped by a Nigerian army drone, which struck the village, which is in Kaduna state, in error after what the army has admitted was an intelligence failure. Reportedly, soldiers had called for air support during a confrontation with militants operating in the area, but the drone operator was given the wrong grid reference. At least 85 people have been confirmed dead by the government’s official count. The human rights group Amnesty International says the number is closer to 120 people, with more than 80 hospitalized.

It’s not the first deadly mistake of its kind. In January 2023, a drone strike killed 27 people in Nasarawa, in the north of Nigeria. In April 2023, six children were killed by an airstrike in Niger state, also in the north of the country. In December 2022, 64 civilians were killed by an air strike in Zamfara, in northwestern Nigeria.

Behind these catastrophes, analysts say, is the rapid expansion of drone warfare without enough investment in intelligence and operational safeguards. Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have become cheap and accessible thanks to Chinese and Turkish manufacturers, bringing them into the reach of militaries all over the world. When this proliferation of drones intersects with structural flaws in intelligence gathering and the lack of regulation, disasters like that in Tudun Biri are inevitable.

“Drones cause disasters when there’s a fault in the intelligence pipeline,” said Murtala Abdullahi, an independent intelligence consultant based in northern Nigeria.

Tudun Biri translates as the hill of monkeys, named for the animals that brought the first hunters to the area 400 years ago. To reach it today means a 25-minute motorbike ride from the edge of the state capital of Kaduna. The village is one of many scattered across the state, and made up of only around 40 houses, most of them at least partly built with clay. 

Kaduna state has been riven with conflict for decades. Today, a patchwork of bandit groups — some of them the remnants of the militant organizations Boko Haram and the Islamic State group in West Africa — operate across the region, terrorizing, robbing and extorting communities, and kidnapping people for ransom. 

Tudun Biri and its neighboring villages have often been targeted by bandits. To defend themselves, they have formed an informal security force to fight off attackers. Most of the population of Tudun Biri and its neighbors are Muslims, but there’s a small local church that hosts a congregation of less than a hundred serving Tudun Biri and three surrounding villages. During Muslim festivals, Christians stand guard, and vice versa. 

John is one of the few Christians in Tudun Biri village. He’s 6-foot tall, lean and muscular from manual labor. He keeps a neat high-top (called “punk” by Nigerians) for which he braves the long motorbike journey into Kaduna city to get trimmed. “I was there [at the Maolud celebration] providing security because, during our celebrations, the community also provides security for us,” John said.

When the second blast happened, John and other young men were working to help the victims of the first strike. Women and the elderly were instructed to stay inside to prevent them from witnessing the horrific scene — a usual practice in the village during bandit attacks. When the second bomb landed, “everyone ran away,” John said. And they stayed away,  afraid they might be hit again. It wasn’t until the police arrived the following day that people returned to sort through the carnage. 

“We gathered the bodies of men in one heap and women in another,” said a farmer, who lost his wife and three brothers in the strike. He spoke on condition of anonymity as villagers were instructed by the army not to talk to journalists.

Ahmed, a 45-year-old blacksmith, lost his wife and three children in the strike. He recalled leaving the mango tree just moments before the first bomb dropped. When he came back, he found his wife’s lifeless body with their 8-month-old son still tied — alive — on her back. “I untied him from her back and cradled him, nothing had happened to him,” Ahmed, who asked to be identified using a pseudonym, said. 

People gathered all the remains they could find and buried the dead in two mass graves — one for men and boys, one for women and girls.

The Tuesday after the blasts, the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Taoreed Lagbaja, visited Tudun Biri in person to pay his condolences and apologize for the “mistake.” He said the troops were carrying out aerial patrols and wrongly analyzed the celebrations as bandit activity.

In some regards, the theater of conflict in Kaduna lends itself to drone warfare. The area presents a challenge that’s typical across West Africa. The terrain is difficult, distances are long and under-resourced militaries can’t afford to operate traditional air forces. Drones can solve both problems. “They stay active for longer and cannot fatigue,” Abdullahi, the intelligence consultant, said.

Chinese-made Wing Loong drones reportedly cost around a million dollars per unit. Bayraktars, from Turkey, sell for $5-6 million. Unlike more expensive U.S.-made Reaper or Predator drones, Chinese or Turkish manufacturers face fewer export restrictions. “Drones like Wing Loong and Bayraktar cost a very small fraction of their U.S and Israeli counterparts,” said Abdullahi. “Unlike the U.S, these countries do not have any regulations that the buyers meet certain metrics or have a credible history.”

Nigeria’s military has acquired Wing Loong and Bayraktar drones. It’s not alone: A study by Stellenbosch University’s Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa says over a third of African governments have acquired some form of military drones.

These drones aren’t just cheap — they’re effective and increasingly advanced. “HD cameras, bigger memory spaces, powerful processing cores and proliferation of faster bandwidth like 4G and 5G have led to drones that can send, receive and process more data than was possible,” Nate Allen, associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank funded by the U.S government, said. “Most of these drones are produced from off-shelf spare parts and custom software.”

The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated how effective these tools can be. Drones controlled via virtual reality headsets have been widely used by both sides with devastating impact.

But relying on drones in areas like Tudun Biri presents enormous risks as well. Bandits and insurgent groups occupy spaces that are near to and sometimes overlapping with civilian areas. Moreover, insurgents in rural northern Nigeria often come from the same communities that they terrorize. From the air, it’s not obvious who is a combatant and who isn’t. 

Almost anywhere in the world where drones have been deployed, civilians have died. The U.S. in particular has come under fire for a long history of botched drone strikes that have killed ordinary people. American drones have been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths across Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. As recently as August 2021, a strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed three adults and seven children. 

In Libya, where drones have become a feature of a long-running conflict, rebel forces supported by the United Arab Emirates have used Wing Loong drones, while the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord have deployed Bayraktar drones. In 2019, a Wing Loong drone belonging to the UAE fired guided missiles that killed eight civilians and injured many more in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. 

And in November, drone strikes by the Malian armed forces killed at least 12 civilians in Mali.

“It’s not just Africa. There’s currently little to no conversation on how intel pipelines can be made better to prevent issues like this,” Allen said. “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no consensus or policy around drone production, sales or use. It’s a new tech and like others [it] just needs all these regulations and ethical considerations to work better.”

After the strikes in Tudun Biri, the Nigerian military took the unusual step of admitting it had made a mistake. The president of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, has also condemned the incident and ordered an investigation. That, Allen said, would be a step in the right direction if it results in the military changing its policies. 

Since the bombing, Tudun Biri has received financial aid and been promised much more. The governor of Kaduna and the vice president of Nigeria have both visited to pay their condolences and give money, along with former presidential candidate and businessman Peter Obi. Villagers said that politicians have promised to build a tarred road from the airport to the village, a large mosque where the villagers can hold Friday prayers, houses and even a modern school.

But for now, the village is still in mourning. Relics of all that has happened are scattered across the village. Shrapnel is embedded in the walls of a mudhouse. Scraps of victims’ clothing hang on the mango tree like tiny flags. There’s the crater and the mass grave. Everyone lost someone, and that is unusual for Tudun Biri. “We lose our crops and cattle to the bandits, we don’t lose people,” said Garba, an old man who lost his son and four grandchildren. “They came inside and said, ‘Baba, your son is among the dead,’ and said I cannot see him because elders were not permitted to come outside.”

After an eternity of arguing, they allowed Garba to see his dead son’s body. “When I came out I saw him lying on the ground, dead. He was my breadwinner and they killed him,” Garba said. “These people have wronged us and they are asking us to keep quiet about it.”