MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA - For the first time in years, the Nigerian Army conducted military drills in the Sambisa Forest which previously had been a stronghold for Boko Haram. VOA was given rare access to the exercises.

Brigades of the Nigerian Army’s 7th Division performed their 2017 annual drill in a wooded area of Borno State, in northeast Nigeria.

The location in Sambisa Forest was no accident. The Nigerian army retook Sambisa late last year and moved its annual exercises here.
The event was attended by leaders from the military and the Nigerian government.

Sambisa Forest, northeastern Nigeria

Nigerian Minister of Defense Mansur Dan Ali said the army will keep training soldiers to ensure that its defense and strategies are up to date.
“I can categorically say that never again will Boko Haram territories occupy any of our land,” he said.

Nigeria’s army chief, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, thanked the public for its assistance in helping recapture the forest, though he warned the battle against Boko Haram is not over.
“Today Boko Haram are in hiding. Tomorrow you wake up, and the spate of attacks seem to continue.  This is what we can do to protect the people,” he said.
Boko Haram has killed at least 18,000 people since its insurgency began in 2009.  It isn’t known how many Nigerian soldiers and civilians who fought alongside them have lost their lives.
The governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima, said the state will dedicate December 27 of each year as a day of remembrance of Sambisa.  

December 27, 2016, was the day the military declared the forest free of Boko Haram.

“The whole idea is to preserve history and to keep memories alive so that we celebrate our heroes,” he said.

Leaders from different arms of government watched as soldiers took part in a shooting competition. The drills end Friday, March 31.

* Hussaina Muhammad reported from Maiduguri, Salem Solomon contributed to this report from Washington.