NIGERIA’S military said it had cleared Boko Haram from the northeastern state of Yobe on Monday, while also claiming victory over the militants in the strategic town of Bama in neighbouring Borno state.
“We announced the reclaiming of (the town of) Goniri today,” defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said on his Twitter account @GENOlukolade. “That was the last stronghold of terrorists in Yobe… #YobeIsFree.”
Olukolade added in a later tweet that Nigerian troops had also ousted the insurgents from Bama, some 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri.
The announcement came as combined forces from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria in recent days tightened the noose on Boko Haram as the militants start to come unstuck at the hands of an alliance they helped birth after they regionalised the conflict with crossborder attacks.
As such, should the group be territorially routed, as the Nigeria military says it is, they will look back and rue their expansion from north-east Nigeria where they have wreaked havoc for the past six years, their recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State widely analysed as a sign of backs-against-the-wall weakness.
If they are vanquished, they will surely reflect on that early February day they crossed Nigerian borders and abducted French tourists in Cameroon as when their days became numbered.
They would also draw comfort from the fact that they are not the only insurgent group to be well beaten on the battlefield in Africa. But fights against rebels have often hinged on a specific phase of battle that became the turning point.
We look back at some key moments in battles against rebels that turned the fight:
1: M23, Democratic Republic of Congo
Also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army, the M23 operated mainly in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Its high point was in 2012 when it took control of Goma, a provincial capital with a population of one million, just seven months after its formation in protest against what it said was the reneging on a peace deal by the government signed three years earlier.
A new agreement was mooted, but the group degenerated into internal squabbles over its terms. The resulting instability forced the United Nations to authorise its first-ever offensive peacekeeping brigade, and with its air backing the Congolese army on the night of November 5, 2013 overrun the group after capturing Mbuzi, Runyonyi and Chanzu, the last three hilltop bases about 80km north Goma where M23 had made its last stand.
Squeezed, the group called for a truce but got no quarter from the government which had scented a battlefield victory, leading to its eventual surrender and its plumping for “purely political means”. M23 bit off more than it could chew, and erred in taking Goma when it did.
Clever rebels usually take the big city last, after conquering all else around it. That way it becomes a fait accompli, not a new battle front.
2: NPF, Liberia
Former Liberian leader and warlord Charles Taylor. (Photo, AFP)
On September 16, 1990 Ghanaian planes attacked rebel positions in Monrovia, marking a new offensive role for ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force in Liberia.
The targets were artillery installations in the strongholds of the National Patriotic Front, the main rebel group headed by Charles Taylor.
The peacekeeping force had been assembled by the leaders of five West African countries—but essentially headed by Nigeria— after their citizens were trapped in what started as an uprising against president Samuel Doe, but morphed into a rebel group-against-rebel group scramble for power.
This abandoning of neutrality helped ECOMOG prop up a weak interim government lead by lawyer Amos Sawyer, none more so than when it in December 1992 pushed back Taylor’s forces following a two-month siege, code named ‘Operation Octopus’, on Monrovia. This allowed the force to push for an elusive ceasefire that ended with 1997 elections, ironically won by Taylor.
It is always a mistake to internalise a conflict, unless you have the countries in the region as allies forming a protective wall around you. The Liberian rebels didn’t get that memo.
3: RUF, Sierra Leone
A May 17, 2007 firefight between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and British forces on the road to the main Lungi airport may not have seemed like a turning point in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war, but on the same day the feared leader of the rebels Foday Sankoh was captured, leaving the group in disarray.
The British forces were training Sierra Leone soldiers to fight the RUF, which was resisting disarmament despite being on the ropes. During one such training mission 11 British soldiers were taken hostage, and negotiations and a subsequent rescue were successful. This crucially kept the British forces in Sierra Leone, helping keep the rebels backed in a corner. Foday was later handed to British soldiers.
4: HSMF, Uganda
Alice Lakwena (Photo/ Getty)
Alice Auma’s mission to capture Kampala foundered in the sugarcane plantations of Jinja, an industrial town about 90 kilometres from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, in November 1987.
She had notched up a series of spectacular if unexpected victories that had gained her significant support from those who had grievances with President Yoweri Museveni’s new regime.
Auma was said to be possessed by a spirit called Lakwena, who led her to form the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (HSMF) which for a time were the most successful of all the groups fighting the National Resistance Army (NRA), the Ugandan government forces then.
Her methods were unorthodox, depending on on hymn singing unarmed men doused in supposed miracle shea butter oil, but they worked for a time as NRA soldiers were flummoxed by the nature of the enemy facing them. But when in 1987 as the 10,000 strong HSMF bore down on Kampala, the NRA realised the threat was real, stood its ground.
The HSMF were decimated using artillery and Auma fled, on a bicycle some say. Her biggest mistake was to mass in a pro-Museveni area, the sugarcane plantations reducing the chances of collateral damage. And she strayed too far from her social base in the north.
5: WNBF, Uganda
Another armed force in northern Uganda, the West Nile Bank Front’s campaign against Museveni begun in 1995, and fought in both the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It used similar tactics to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which was made up of the remnants of Lakwena’s defeated fighters, now under her relative Joseph Kony.
But arrayed against the group led by a former Cabinet minister under Idi Amin were armed groups from the Sudan, Uganda and DRC.
While it was a major battle in 1997 between Yei and Kaya in South Sudan that neutralised it decisively, the WNBF would look back at its lack of support from the local community for its demise.
Forced recruitment and tactics such as the use of land mines that claimed civilian lives ensured it was shorn of popular underwriting, allowing the government to work with local and traditional structures to undermine it.
6: UNITA, Angola
Jonas Savimbi (AFP)
The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) begun on the right popular footing by waging war against Portuguese colonisers. But after independence it turned its attentions to the ruling MPLA in a civil war that ended in 2002.
Led by the erudite US-supported Jonas Savimbi, UNITA at the height of its military might launched attacks at the capital Luanda in 1989/1990. He forced a national election in 1992 but withdrew from a run-off vote before signing a peace deal in 1994, which came apart four years later.
On February 22, 2002 Savimbi ran into contact with government troops along the Luvuei river in his birthplace Moxico province. They came upon him while he was resting. He was shot at least 15 times in the resulting gunfight, which also claimed 21 of his bodyguards. By then he had been considerably weakened, his allies who had helped him elude capture having been killed earlier. Six weeks later a ceasefire between UNITA and MPLA was signed. Savimbi’s mistake was to hold out for the full loaf of bread, when he could have taken half.
7: Biafra, Nigeria
The secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria was an anchor of the country’s civil war, which run between 1967-1970 and claimed an estimated two million lives through fighting and famine.
On May 26, 1967 the eastern region voted to secede, led by Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.
Borne of socio-economic tensions between the north and the south-east, at its height it won recognition or support from at least a dozen countries.
Initial military efforts by the federal government were ably fended off, but in December 1969 the central government cut the state in half, causing Ojukwu to flee. The state had already been weakened by the restriction of food supplies, and a ceasefire was called in January 1970 and the province was reabsorbed. Perhaps Ojukwu started his war too soon, when nationalist sentiment was still high - Nigeria had only been seven years independent.
8: FLN, Algeria
Algeria president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (AFP)
On September 30, 1956 three women set off bombs in Algiers, including at the office of Air France. They were members of the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale, FLN, which was fighting for Algerian independence from France.
The response from France was brutal and crushingly efficient, with FLN infrastructure completely destroyed in the capital in a few months.
The methods employed included torture and a brutal curfew, and while the FLN was gutted, it had showed it had the ability to strike at the heart of French Algeria. It also led to a debate over France’s role in the country. The FLN later came to power after France agreed to cut its former colony loose in 1962, but the liberationists had struggled for military traction all through. Beware of taking on a dying empire in its last days.
9: MNLA, Mali
Tuareg tribesmen of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in January 2012 took advantage of a vacuum caused by a coup to make huge territorial gains in northern Mali. The MNLA three months later declared independence, before being themselves dislodged by Islamists.
In January 2013 France begun Operation Serval on the back of UN authorisation, and in the eventful month Malian and French forces had recaptured most of the north.
A five-day blitz in that month saw the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal retaken, decisively breaking the Islamist’s back. The rebels drew too much attention to themselves, and shocked the world, when they destroyed the historic Timbuktu documents. They angered too many.
10: Chad rebel’s coalition
In February 2008 three rebel groups, many former allies of President Idriss Deby, joined forces and attacked Chad’s capital N’Djamena. An assault on the presidential palace was subsequently foiled, leading to their withdrawal.
“Africa’s gendarme” France helped shore defence troops, but among the pivotal moment was the news that a member of the coalition had sought a separate deal with the government.
The attack, claimed by Deby to be supported by Sudan (which denied involvement), was part of a long running attempt to unseat the president, who hang on by the skin of his teeth. Paris’ role was the game-changer for him. The rebels mistake was that they didn’t pick a moment when Deby was more internationally isolated.