Boko Haram And The Legend of Sambisa Forest By Majeed Dahiru

January 19, 2017, 12:26 am

The Boko Haram insurgency is the greatest challenge to Nigeria’s internal security and national stability since the end of the civil war. The insurgency has succeeded and thrived because of a fundamental misinterpretation of the real motive of the terror group by the former administration of Goodluck Jonathan, a Nigerian of southern Christian origin and a denial of that motive by the current administration of Muhammadu Buhari, a Nigerian of northern Muslim origin. 

Since 2010, when the insurgency escalated, the Nigerian state has not been able to identify the root cause of the deadly terror group with the ultimate aim of bringing a lasting solution to it because of the ignorance of some and the living in denial of the informed. 




The Goodluck Jonathan administration demonstrated its ignorance of this crisis when it muddled up the Boko Haram insurgency with the spontaneous break out of post-election violence in some northern Nigeria cities and towns following the loss of Muhammadu Buhari by presenting it as one and the same. Goodluck Jonathan, his political advisers and by extension, his security advisers viewed the Boko Haram insurgency through the narrow prism of partisan politics. The impression among the members of his administration was that the insurgency was primarily targeted at him as the North’s reaction to their loss of power. 

This narrow perception of the Boko Haram insurgency impacted negatively on the policy and strategy adopted by the security and defence forces, whose actions were nonchalant or indifferent  to the crisis, which was believed to be self-inflicted by the people of northern Nigeria.

Working with a security strategy that was based on a false assumption, the insurgents had a good time and quickly spread out, sacking towns and military security outposts, taking hostages and capturing territories. The response to such surprising militant advancement was a combination of scorched-earth policy of collective punishment of the civilian population and excuses after excuses for its failure to act pro-actively.

The security agencies became politicized in their approach to tackling the insurgency. They blamed the political leaders of the affected area for their complicity in the crisis. They blamed state governors of affected states; Kashim Shettima of Borno state was partly blamed for the abduction of over 200 girls from Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, rather than failure of intelligence. By far the biggest excuse advanced by security agencies for the intractability of the Boko Haram insurgency, is the Sambisa forest; an ecological myth created and believed by the security agencies, the government and people of Nigeria and the international community because the mainstream media propagated and still propagates this myth.

This mythical forest, which is presented as impregnable is also widely believed to be the operational headquarters of the deadly terror group. Therefore, when the Nigerian army made far reaching advances into the area known as the Sambisa forest and occupied the extent of that section, the Nigerian state unilaterally declared the defeat of the Boko Haram insurgency group.


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However, with the images released by the army and an elementary knowledge of the geography of the area, it has become pertinent to ask; where is the forest in Sambisa? This vegetative enclave, which is sandwiched between the arid Sahel and the semi-arid Sudan savannah vegetative belt of northern Nigeria, covering a total land area of 700 square kilometres from east to west across six states of Borno, Yobe,Gombe, Bauchi, Jigawa and  Kano is densely  populated by giant grasses, which have maximum heights of 1 metre  with regular intersections of the Gwoza hills with a sparse population of short trees and  ruddy shrubs with average heights of 2-3 metres.

 There are also rare occurrences of giant trees with residual and small leaves; an adaptive feature of the various plant species in the arid region to enable water conservation because the average annual rainfall measures just 190mm with the upper limit of atmospheric temperature during the peak of dry season going up as high as 48 degree Celsius. Under such environmental and atmospheric condition, it will be an ecological miracle to have a forest anywhere in the Sudan and Sahel vegetative belt.

The area currently referred to as Sambisa forest is not a forest but a large wasteland of thickly populated savannah grassland but with a sparse population of giant trees with small leaves, which is not impregnable for artillery and armoured units of the Nigerian army, to create inroads for the infantry units and its aerial visibility not as difficult as claimed for the Nigerian air force. By contrast, a tropical forest is densely populated with giant trees with broad leaves and average height of 30-60 metres, nurtured by all year round rainfall which measures average 3500 mm with average atmospheric temperature not exceeding 32 degree Celsius at the peak of dry season.

Under the pressure of the overbearing influence of the political leadership that perceived the Boko Haram insurgency as largely a self-inflicted crisis that is aimed at discrediting the Goodluck Jonathan administration and hence lacking the will to decisively tackle the problem, the legend of Sambisa forest became an alibi by the Nigerian security forces as a convenient escape route for its lack of equipment, motivated man power due to poor condition of service and a proper coordination of intelligence based on the real nature and  motives of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has unfortunately led to the intractability of the war.

That political influence continues today. The current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, which is in a hurry to succeed where the previous administration has failed to bring an end to the insurgency, has also continued on the path of the legend of Sambisa as the symbol of the insurgency. This was clearly demonstrated when the military proclaimed with palpable glee, the defeat of Boko Haram because of the capture of their operational base within the legendary Sambisa forest, known as camp zero.

The continuous deadly insurgency and suicide bombings on both military and civilian targets clearly show that Boko Haram is not restricted to the Savannah grasslands of Sambisa neither the operational headquarters Camp Zairo. Boko Haram is a practical expression of the doctrine of radical Islamic ideology, whose seeds were sown in mainstream Islam and continuously been nurtured by mainstream Islamic authorities.


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Boko Haram is in the hearts and minds of every radical Muslim all over Nigeria and the world. These individuals are found in every strata of the society, playing active role in all aspects of our national lives. The brutal killing of Brigdet Agbahime, in Kano over claims that she committed an act of blasphemy, the killing of Eunice Elisha, the Kubwa Christian evangelist, the disruption of Church service at a catholic in Madala as well as the frequent cases of forceful abduction, conversion and marriage without consent of their parents of under aged Christian girls are just a few examples similar activities of the Boko Haram group by some Muslims that are not members of the sect. Boko Haram does not represent true Islam but its ideals of a unified Muslim Ummah, under a unified Caliphacy, ruled under strict Islamic law, the Sharia, is one that is shared by millions of Muslims in Nigeria. Therefore, Muslims in Nigeria are caught up in the dilemma of a clear conflict between the ideals of a faith, which does not separate religion from state and the realities of a living in a multi-religious country, governed by a secular constitution where in state and religion are separated. It is this mind-set that has bestowed some form of legitimacy on the Boko Haram insurgent group, which makes easy recruitment of followers and candidates for suicide bombings possible.

The current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has made appreciable efforts in fighting the Boko Haram insurgency only if compared with the efforts of the Goodluck Jonathan administration.  Both administrations have failed largely to tackle religious extremism brought about by hate preaching and subversive doctrines. Only when the ideology of radical Islam is defeated ideologically by the light of Islam whose essence is peace to all of humanity, can we claim to have defeated Boko Haram. President Buhari, a highly respected and influential individual among the Muslim community in Nigeria is well positioned to start the systemic de-radicalization of millions of radicalized Muslim faithful by first demonstrating religious tolerance by personal example in private and public.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.


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