The Sambisa forest is a 66,000 sq km expanse of land that lies 70 km from Maiduguri. It was formerly Africa’s biggest game reserve but was abandoned after years of neglect. However in 2012 the Sambisa forest had become a haven for Boko Haram insurgents and arms smugglers.
Operation Lafya Dole, the Nigerian army’s assault was launched on 22 December 2015. Unlike before the outcome of this offensive was never really in doubt. Superior numbers, better tactics and an immense advantage in firepower ensured that the Sambisa forest would fall to the Nigerian army. The critical questions were, how much blood and treasure would it take to wrest the forest from the enemy? At 66,000 sqr kilometres the Sambisa forest is just too vast to be destroyed by airstrikes and artillery fire alone.
With an estimated 15,000 Boko Haram fighters (half of them on opiods and hard substances) dug in and ready to defend their last enclav, sending ground forces headlong will result in unacceptable losses as Boko Haram has had the luxury of several months to prepare their defense. An indirect attack plan was adopted by the theatre commander.
This carefully designed and skilfully executed attack employed Regiment Combat Teams attacking from three front to box in and crush the enemy in a classic pincer movement.
Combat units from the Nigerian army 7th Infanry Division the Western axis of Boko Harams enclave, troops from the 145 Task Force and 202 Battalion from Damasa in Borno state attacked 15 km east of the Western flank.
The Nigerian army mechanized infantry and calvary units attacked headlong from the centre and pushed south to link up and provide relief for Special Forces operations at Camp Zero. While Special forces troops from the 75 Mobile Strike Group and 101 Paratrooper Regiment were inserted behind enemy lines at night.
In the early hours of 22 December 2015, the theatre commander gave the order to the artillery units. Before the infanry asault there would be a 5 hour ceaseless rain of 122 mm rocket projectiles and high explosive shells on Boko Haram positions in a number of stages. Individual artillery units would fire in 2 hour periods, with a rest in between. The use of drones and artillery spotters gave the gunnery near pinpoint accuracy and precision. The primary objective was to eliminate major safe havens, defensive formations and trigger the explosion of thousands of land mines in advance of Nigerian ground forces.
The vast uninhabited featureless terrain meant the Nigerian army could employ the full range of their lethal weapons like its T-72 M and Vickers tanks, the steel rain of 155-mm high explosive shells and 122 mm rocket shells, Alpha light attack jets, F-7N fighter-bombers, and of course, Field Artillery guns —without fear of causing large collateral damage.
Thousands of shells are delivered in preparation for the most extensive artillery bombardment the Nigerian army has ever carried out against a foe.
During the cold, rainy morning of 22 December, two dozen camps and supply bases in the Sambisa forest came under a thunderous and sustained bombardment from artillery guns. Hundreds of 155-mm shells and 300 pound 122 mm rockets high-explosive bombs shook the earth across a 16 mile front, obliterating nearly a hundred Boko Haram settlements and camps
Nigerian soldiers from the 117 Field Artillery Brigade fire high explosive shells on Boko Haram positions with the Bofors 155 self propelled howitzer.
Troops from 35 Artillery Brigade rain down 122 mm rockets on Boko Haram positions.
After nearly five hours of sustained bombardment, an eerie silence followed. The cries of agony of the wounded reverberated for kilometres.
Suddenly two Regimental Combat Teams from the7th infantry and 21 armored battalions, about 4,000 men in all, crossed a major road embankment, and began to push south into Camp Zero proper.
Within hours the Nigerian advance was met with an avalanche of small arms and mortar fire from insurgents that seemingly came out of no where. The Boko Haram insurgents had spent the better part of half a year constructing bunkers, strong points, and laying out avenues of retreat, and ambush sites. This was going to be a long drawn out battle.
So began ten straight days of brutal, close-in fighting to sweep through this dozens of fortified camps and strongholds, north to south, and East and wrest it from the Jihadi group’s grasp.