Why Nigeria is turning to South African mercenaries to help fight Boko Haram

The Nigerian army patrols in Chibok, Borno State. There are reports South African mercenaries have joined them. Henry Ikechukwu/EPA

Nigeria has drafted “hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa” in its fight against Boko Haram. South Africans have a long-standing reputation as being among the best mercenaries in the world, and have been present in one form or another in most African conflicts for the past two decades.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and his army are under pressure to curtail the Islamist militant group’s activities before the presidential elections on March 28. But the Nigerian security and military forces have been embroiled in scandal after scandal ranging from corruption and desertion to human rights abuses. All this has effectively restricted their ability to act decisively against the designated terrorist organisation, which has thrived in the north east of the country over the past three years.

On the frontline

The use of South African mercenaries is a logical step for Jonathan’s government who has been battling the insurgency with little success. These men have a track record of providing quality counter-terrorism training through various pop-up private military and security companies. They have assisted several governments in overcoming insurgencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.

South African soldiers have extensive experience conducting mobile operations in hostile environments and can provide immediate access to airpower. This is particularly useful in fighting Boko Haram in the Sambisa Forest, a dense area approximating 60,000 square kilometers in the northeast of the country which has become the insurgents’ stronghold.

According to the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, former members of the South African Air Force have been operating gunships mostly based out of Maiduguri, and have flown “a huge number of sorties, including nocturnal operations, with great success”. The mercenaries appear to have adopted a rather low profile, attacking usually at night and pulling out in the morning for the Nigerian government to claim credit. This suggests a deliberate desire to maintain a low profile and shows that the contractors are working closely with the Nigerian armed forces throughout this process.

The South African National Defence Force denied that any of their soldiers were deployed in Nigeria, and in January the defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, warned that citizens found to have fought abroad will be prosecuted upon their return. South Africa has strict anti-mercenary laws, known as the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, although these do not cover security consultancy services.

Threats of legal action have never deterred mercenaries from carrying out their trade however. In early March, the newspaper Beeld reported that at least 100 South African mercenaries have been assisting in the fight against Boko Haram over the past six months.

The death of a former South African soldier Leon Lotz in Borno on March 9 confirmed the involvement of Apartheid-era ex-military personnel supporting the fight against Boko Haram.

History of mercenary activity

Mercenaries in the Angola civil war. STR/EPA

South African mercenaries are often linked to the now defunct private military company Executive Outcomes (EO) which carried out relatively successful operations in Sierra Leone and Angola in the 1990s. The company is generally associated with South Africa’s Apartheid-era government as its employees were active in several unpopular covert and counter-insurgency missions as part of the infamous 32 “Buffalo” Battalion.

Although the company no longer exists, its founder, Eeben Barlow, still takes on consultancy contracts in security and defence and has voiced his opinion that only Africans can solve Africa’s problems. While it cannot be confirmed whether he has been working for the Nigerian government, a mission of this kind would surely appeal to him.

Former EO mercenaries, such as Cobus Claassens, have built successful security companies in Nigeria. Although their involvement in the conflict is not public, it would be surprising if the Nigerian government had not already turned to their expertise.

Recent military victories reported in the press suggest that Boko Haram has been significantly weakened in the past few weeks. This is partially thanks to the participation of an 8,700-strong multinational army of Chadians, Nigeriens and Cameroons who have (finally) joined the fight against Boko Haram and recaptured a number of towns from the militants.

The successes of the Nigerian army are very likely due to the support of the South Africans and Eastern Europeans who have been hired to train the troops, boost morale, and act as a force multiplier to quickly defeat Boko Haram.

The use of mercenaries is controversial in Africa, where these men have been hired in attempts to topple governments (in Equatorial Guinea and the Comoros) or prop up unpopular governments (in Angola or recently in Libya). Private military companies such as US firm Blackwater have also left the industry with a bad reputation due to human rights abuses in Iraq. This is unlikely to be the case in Nigeria given that the South Africans are very aware of the importance of local support for intelligence gathering in counter-insurgencies, and will take pains to maintain good relations with the Nigerians.

Mercenaries are never a long-term solution, as they do not address the root causes of the crisis – in this case the regional appeal of Boko Haram as a credible alternative to a perceived illegitimate and disinterested government. This is not Goodluck Jonathan’s objective however, in hiring the mercenaries. Rather, he needs a quick and immediate solution to curtail the violence Boko Haram has been waging in the northeast, and he needs demonstrable results by polling day. At least, with the South Africans, he can be sure that they will be chasing the next adventure out of Nigeria, leaving him with a powder keg of a country and an election to win.

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