“Boko Haram is finished” shouts a soldier, dancing and waving his rifle with his troops.
The soldiers, from Niger, helped liberate the northern Nigerian town of Damasak from Boko Haram.
Arabic graffiti painted on walls and Boko Haram’s black and white flag fluttering on the dome of a mosque are among the few reminders of the Islamists’ four-month reign over the town, which forces from Chad and Niger freed this month.
The town’s recapture was the latest victory in a regional offensive that, analysts suggest, has turned the tide against the six-year insurgency.
“Troop morale is sky-high,” says Niger’s force leader Colonel Toumba Mohamed. “It wasn’t easy to push [the enemy] out, but we did and now they are reduced to almost nothing.”
Last year Nigerian forces scattered as Boko Haram, fighting to establish a “caliphate” in northern Nigeria, seized a swathe of towns in Borno state and bore down on the regional capital, Maiduguri. By the start of this year, it controlled about 20 local government areas, a territory the size of Belgium.
The rise of Boko Haram
The rise of Boko Haram
1/19 Boko Haram
The leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau delivers a message. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the mass killings in the north-east Nigerian town of Baga in a video where he warned the massacre “was just the tip of the iceberg”. As many as 2,000 civilians were killed and 3,700 homes and business were destroyed in the 3 January 2015 attack on the town near Nigeria's border with Cameroon
2/19 Boko Haram
People displaced as a result of Boko Haram attacks in the northeast region of Nigeria, are seen near their tents at a faith-based camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Yola, Adamawa State. Boko Haram says it is building an Islamic state that will revive the glory days of northern Nigeria's medieval Muslim empires, but for those in its territory life is a litany of killings, kidnappings, hunger and economic collapse
3/19 Boko Haram
Nitsch Eberhard Robert, a German citizen abducted and held hostage by suspected Boko Haram militants, is seen as he arrives at the Yaounde Nsimalen International airport after his release in Yaounde, Cameroon on 21 January 2015
4/19 Boko Haram
Officials of the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) visit victims of a bomb blast in Gombe at the Specialist Hospital in Gombe. According to local reports at least six people were killed and 11 wounded after a bomb blast in a marketplace in Nigeria's northeastern state of Gombe on 16 January 2015. Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been blamed for a string of recent attacks in the North East of Nigeria
5/19 Boko Haram
People gather at the site of a bomb explosion in a area know to be targeted by the militant group Boko Haram in Kano on 28 November 2014
6/19 Boko Haram
People gather to look at a burnt vehicle following a bomb explosion that rocked the busiest roundabout near the crowded Market in Maiduguri, Borno State on 1 July 2014. A truck exploded in a huge fireball killing at least 15 people in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the city repeatedly hit by Boko Haram Islamists
7/19 Boko Haram
President Goodluck Jonathan visits Nigerian Army soldiers fighting Boko Haram
8/19 Boko Haram
Displaced people from Baga listen to Goodluck Jonathan after the Boko Haram killings
9/19 Boko Haram
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan speaking to troops during a visit to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State; most of the region has been overrun by Boko Haram
10/19 Boko Haram
Members of the Nigerian military patrolling in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria, close to the scene of attacks by Boko Haram
11/19 Boko Haram
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, appears in a video in which he warns Cameroon it faces the same fate as Nigeria
12/19 Boko Haram
South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to rescue them, during a march to the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg
13/19 Boko Haram
Boko Haram militants have seized the town in north-eastern Nigeria that nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from in April 2014
14/19 Boko Haram
A soldier stands guard in front of burnt buses after an attack in Abuja. Twin blasts at a bus station packed with morning commuters on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital killed dozens of people, in what appeared to be the latest attack by Boko Haram Islamists, April 2014
15/19 Boko Haram
The aftermath of the attack, when Boko Haram fighters in trucks painted in military colours killed 51 people in Konduga in February 2014
16/19 Boko Haram
The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (with papers) in a video grab taken in July 2014
17/19 Boko Haram
Ruins of burnt out houses in the north-eastern settlement of Baga, pictured after Boko Haram attacks in 2013
18/19 Boko Haram
A Boko Haram attack in Nigeria, 2013
19/19 Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader
In a dramatic reversal, Nigeria’s army said this week it had pushed the rebels out of all but three districts. The recapture of Baga, scene of one of the jihadists’ worst massacres, in January, was hailed as a major psychological victory.
Yesterday, Boko Haram, which has pledged allegiance to Isis, fought back, attacking the Nigerian border town of Gamboru-Ngala, killing at least 11 people. Resident Mohammed Umara said Cameroonian forces immediately crossed the border when gunfire erupted and drove out the militants.
Outside Damasak, troops from Chad and Niger found a mass grave which, according to a military source, “appears to contain the bodies of Boko Haram’s victims”.
The offensive by Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria comes as the latter prepares for its elections, delayed six weeks by security fears, on 28 March. President Goodluck Jonathan has been criticised for not doing enough to tackle the insurgency, but yesterday, he said all territories would be retaken “within a month”. He added that the fate of the 219 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok was still unknown, but he believed they were “alive”.
Analysts, though, question how long regional armies can sustain the tempo of the current offensive, without financial and logistical support from the West. The African nations want the UN to set up a trust fund to finance the operations.
And even if Boko Haram is driven from urban areas, analysts warn that it will remain a potent guerrilla force.