ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria’s army says it wants to turn the Sambisa forest into a tourist destination. The plan, however, has a catch: the area is home to a vicious insurgency.
At least 34,000 people have died in Boko Haram’s nine-year revolt, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
The Islamist militant group, which gained global notoriety in 2014 kidnapping more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, uses the forest in northeastern Nigeria as a stronghold.
Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, announced the plan and it was tweeted by a presidential aide on Wednesday.
“Nigerian Army to collaborate with National Park Service and Borno State Government to turn Sambisa forest to tourist centre to attract tourists into the country – Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai,” said Bashir Ahmad, President Muhammadu Buhari’s new media aide.
Ahmad did not say how the military plans to attract tourists to Sambisa while it shelters Boko Haram and a military spokesman did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Buhari and Buratai have said repeatedly the insurgency is defeated, but while the group has lost ground in recent years it continues to carry out attacks. Splinter group Islamic State in West Africa kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi in February. Most were released.
The army’s plan appears to reflect a disconnect between the perception of Nigeria’s leaders and the situation on the ground. The army has lost some recent clashes with the insurgents and civilians still face kidnapping, robbery and frequent suicide bombings.
The insurgency began in 2009 when police killed Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Before that, the northeastern state of Borno was popular with tourists. Sambisa itself was a game reserve under and after British colonial rule.
More recently, the thick vegetation which extends for hundred of square miles has provided a haven for the militancy and helped thwart army attempts to eradicate the group.
The 2018 blockbuster movie “Black Panther” gives a nod to Sambisa and Boko Haram as the superhero rescues kidnapped schoolgirls from a militant group in the forest.
Many of the actual Chibok girls were held in Sambisa. More than 100 remain unaccounted for, though investigative journalist Ahmad Salkida has said only 30 remain alive.
It is not the first time Nigerian authorities have mooted turning a Boko Haram site into an attraction.
Last year, Borno state officials discussed turning the group founder Yusuf’s house into a museum. This raised concern it could become a place of homage for Boko Haram’s sympathisers.
Reporting by Paul Carsten; Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg