Sambisa Forest: From game reserve to Boko Haram hideout

By Rafiu Ajakaye, Thursday, May 22, 2014

Covering an area approximately 60,000 square kilometers in Nigeria's northeast, Sambisa is three times the size of Israel

Covering an area approximately 60,000 square kilometers in Nigeria's northeast, Sambisa is three times the size of Israel

LAGOS – At every mention of the Sambisa Forest being the hideout of Nigeria's Boko Haram, one can be forgiven for asking what then stops the military from simply smoking the insurgents out of their lair and end their five-year reign of terror.

But it's not that easy.

Covering an area approximately 60,000 square kilometers in Nigeria's northeastern region, Sambisa is three times the size of Israel.

Designated a game reserve by British colonialists, it extends from the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, Bauchi and Gombe to northwestern Kano and down to Jigawa State.

Meshala Isaac, a teacher at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State, said wild animals – such as lions, leopards, elephants and hyenas – were once common in the vast forest.

In Borno State, from which the Sambisa Forest extends to adjoining states, it is bordered in the east by Gwoza local government, which is home to the notorious Gwoza Hills.

The hills, which rise some 1300 meters above sea level, are themselves a known Boko Haram stronghold.

The area has a range of mountains, nicknamed the "Great Mandara Mountains," which serve as a border between Nigeria and Cameroon.

"Sambisa Forest is named after a village called Sambisa in the Gwoza axis of the area," according to a Culture Ministry publication.

To the west of Sambisa is Konduga local government, and to its southwest is Damboa. To the south of the forest is Askira local government area of Borno.

Despite the common misperception that Nigeria's northeast is largely desert, Joe Unongo of Yobe State University said much of Sambisa Forest is arable land fit for growing plants and natural fruit.

He said the area's Fulani and Gamarabu tribes survive largely on fruits, including date palm and sugarcane.

"Sambisa Forest is conducive for growing rice, millet, wheat, sorghum, tomatoes, groundnuts, cow peas, and sweet potatoes," Unongo told AA.

"They grow cassava, Irish potato and even gum Arabic. So do you still wonder how people survive in an area you may call desert?" he asked.

The size of Sambisa Forest – and the fact that sizeable civilian populations who aren't in any way connected to the insurgency live there – make government counterinsurgency efforts in the area difficult.

"The insurgents have mastered the terrain. They are believed to have bunkers stretching many kilometers underground," a security source told AA.

Some believe these bunkers serve as Boko Haram's window to neighboring countries.

"That the military itself appears to lack tacticians with knowledge of the area compounds the whole situation," Unongo said.

"This is where confidence building among locals – who can help with intelligence gathering – is vital," he added.

The military once claimed to have "liberated" the forest from the insurgents. But the ongoing search for scores of schoolgirls abducted last month by Boko Haram – and reportedly now held inside the forest – belies the claim.

Several foreign countries, including the U.S. and Britain, are now contributing to search and rescue efforts.

But with the forest having been inhabited by Boko Haram for years, and with the government having abandoned what is officially known as a game reserve, it remains to be seen how far they can go.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency