20 April 2017

Nigeria: How Safe Is Sambisa Forest Now?

Photo: Premium Times
(file photo).

Sambisa forest occupies parts of Borno, Yobe, Gombe State and Bauchi State as a game reserve for safaris -- cross country expeditions.

It is bounded in the south by Askira Local Government area, south-west by Danboa and in the west by Konduga and Jere local government areas while its name is derived from a village called Sambisa.

Larger than 518 square kilometres in size, Sambisa forest has a large population of leopards, lions, elephants and hyenas that tourists can observe from cabins or safari lodges.

In 1991, the Borno government incorporated it as the national park of the Lake Chad Basin but the Boko Haram insurgents took over the forest in 2013, resulting in the gradual disappearance of the animals and other facilities.

Before 2015 when the Nigerian Army started an offensive against Boko Haram in the forest, it has been a key stronghold for Boko Haram insurgents and a place to be dreaded by the residents of the area and other visitors.

With the military offensive, no fewer than 17 Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa forest were overrun by the Nigerian military between April 28 and April 30, 2015 in which more than 500 persons were freed.

Further to this feat, the Nigerian Army dislodged the terrorists from their last stronghold in the forest and took over it.

Prior to the military intervention, the terrorists had found the forest as a safe refuge forcefully occupied in that region to launch attacks, kill and dehumanise people.

The terrorists were believed to have held majority of their captives in the Sambisa forest, including more than 200 girls kidnapped on April 14, 2014 at the Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno.

Because of this, even after the takeover of the forest, many Nigerians are asking whether or not it is safe for socio-commercial activities.

Convincing the public about the safety of the forest, the Federal Government insists that there will be no place for terrorists again in the area and the forest.

President Muhammadu Buhari said this when he declared open the 2017 Nigerian Army Small Arms Championship which took place in the forest between March 27 and March 31.

The president noted that holding the championship in the forest was an affirmation that the Federal Government had "resolved to stamp out all activities and operations of the Boko Haram insurgents from our territory.

"This championship is a showcase of the clear effect and degradation of the Boko Haram terrorist group with the destruction of Camp Zairo in the heart of the famous Sambisa forest.

"I can say categorically that never again will Boko Haram occupy any of our land again," he said.

Also, the military authorities pledged to always dominate the forest and make it a no-go zone for terrorists and other criminal elements.

Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, the Chief of Army Staff said the championship was held in the forest to consolidate on the gains achieved by troops in the forest so far.

"This championship is, therefore, held here in the heart of the Sambisa forest as part of Nigerian Army's plans to effectively dominate all hostile territories in the north east," Buratai said.

Dignitaries at the championship, including state governors, state and federal legislators and defence attaches of various foreign countries observed that the forest had been liberated.

As part of the ways to control the forest, Buratai directed that the army should hold exercises, including final exercises of passing out of cadets from the Nigerian Defence Academy and other trainings in the forest henceforth.

He observed that the army had also established a shooting range in the forest known as Lt.-Col. Abu Ali Shooting Range while it also set up Forward Operation Base; all in a bid to dominate and make Sambisa forest safe.

"This is to ensure that all entry and exist points to the forest are adequately controlled to prevent re-infiltration by the terrorists and other criminal minded elements.

"For the forest to be accessible to all and not be dreaded again after the fall of the terrorists, the army had embarked on a limited removal of mines from Sambisa.

"Deliberate effort to remove mines from the entire forest will require the assistance of the United Nations (UN), relevant non-governmental organisations and development partners.

"This is because such project requires much resources and effort that the country alone may not be able to finance.

"The army is currently doing a limited demining of routes in the forest to enable troops to move around for operations; strictly speaking, we have not started demining the Sambisa forest.

"The areas we are concentrating on are where we are working, where our troops will have to move from one point to the other.

"These are the efforts we are making to create safe lanes for troops to pass from one point to the other.

"But, for our deliberate demining efforts, it will require much, much resources, much more effort and we may even request for the civilian demining support in that regard.

"Demining is not restricted to the military only, there are several organisations that have been doing this, the UN is one and there are other non-governmental organisations that are involved which actually work under the umbrella of the UN.

"So, as comprehensive efforts, these bodies need to be invited to support what the military is doing right now in a limited capacity in that regard," he said.

Commending the efforts of the military personnel in making the forest safe, Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno said the fall of Sambisa was symbolic and memorable.

According to him, the state government will begin to declare every Dec. 22 as Sambisa Memorial Day; the day the terrorists were sacked from the forest.

"This day will be marked as a public holiday in Borno for the purpose of celebrating the strength and the victory of our Armed Forces.

"Very soon, the state government will request for partnership with the Ministry of Defence and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture to construct a museum and an international research centre in the forest.

Irrespective of this, observers insist that the Borno government ought to further assist the army to secure the forest to enable it to harness the resources in Sambisa.

They note that in parts of Borno, there are still sporadic attacks, while Maiduguri, the state capital, still records pockets of suicide bomb attacks.

They also commend the army for taking measures to address the attacks by deploying massive military sniffer dogs to some areas in the state.

But Buratai said Yobe and Adamawa were almost 100 per cent free of the terrorists and their activities.

He said the issue of suicide bombing was an issue of intelligence which required collaboration of all stakeholders.

"We still suspect that there are some sympathisers and collaborators or some members that have sneaked into town and they direct these would-be suicide bombers to targeted areas," he said.

Concerned citizens, therefore, appreciate the knowledge and tactics by which the military moved into the forest to dislodge the terrorists, noting that people living along the Sambisa corridor are relieved of the fear of insecurity.

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