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Nigeria Taps South African Mercenaries in Fight Against Boko Haram

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has a new strategy for defeating Boko Haram before the highly-contested March 28 presidential elections: hiring South African mercenaries to lead the charge.

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Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has a new strategy for defeating Boko Haram before the highly contested March 28 presidential elections: hiring South African mercenaries to lead the charge.

Retired South African special forces are training and advising Nigerian troops, and leading operations against Boko Haram, according to an American source with direct knowledge of the military campaign who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

The source, who has directly discussed the campaign with Nigerian security officials, said Abuja turned to South African defense contractors to provide helicopters and pilots. That happened after the United States refused to provide weapons and blocked the sale of Cobra attack helicopters from Israel to Nigeria.

The sale of the helicopters was blocked, the source said, because the United States was worried that Nigeria did not know how to properly operate the vehicles. Renting the helicopters from South Africa was “one-stop shopping” because they came equipped with trained pilots, the source said. The mercenaries likely arrived in Nigeria this fall but did not launch an offensive until recently.

The United States has long refused to provide military equipment to Nigerian forces due to human rights violations and that has led Nigerian officials to accuse the United States of failing to provide the tools it needs to defeat Boko Haram.

Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. James Brindle told FP that the Pentagon is “aware of the reports but can’t confirm where these folks came from.”

“I don’t want to speculate on what they were doing there,” he said.

The Nigerian military has long struggled against Boko Haram, an extremist group that until recently had consolidated control over large parts of northeastern Nigeria. In recent weeks, however, Nigerian security forces have claimed a string of successes, progress that may be attributed to the presence of the South African mercenaries, who are reportedly participating in ground combat operations against Boko Haram forces.

The Nigerian government claimed Wednesday that 10 of the 14 local governments controlled by Boko Haram have been reclaimed by Nigerian forces in the past three weeks.

The source said Soviet-made Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships have been refurbished for modern warfare and are being used on the ground in northern Nigeria. It could not immediately be confirmed which South African companies are supplying the helicopters.

The mercenaries suffered their first casualty this week, when Leon Lotz, a retired member of South African special forces, was killed in a friendly-fire incident after a Nigerian tank opened fire on his convoy.

The source in contact with the Nigerian military confirmed his identity and death.

On Thursday, Reuters also reported that multiple diplomatic and security sources confirmed the presence of hundreds of mercenaries in northern Nigeria. The report cited photos that appeared on Twitter earlier this month, featuring a white man in khaki and body armor riding on a military vehicle with a high-caliber machine gun in the northern city of Maiduguri.

Reuters quoted a “West African security source” who claimed that these fighters were linked to officials at Executive Outcomes, a now-defunct private military firm based in South Africa. That firm has provided assistance to local militaries in Sierra Leone and Angola.

Mercenary activity is illegal under South African law, and South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula warned that any South African who returns to his homeland after participating in a mercenary mission could be arrested and charged.

In an interview with Voice of America on Wednesday, Jonathan said foreigners were providing training and support to the Nigerian military, but he did not elaborate.

But at a Wednesday event at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, Nigerian defense intelligence chief Gabriel E. Okoi hinted that Nigeria was receiving significant outside military aid. However, he would not confirm from whom.

“The amount of ammunition we have received in the last month is more than enough,” Okoi told FP.

But when asked who was providing it, Okoi just laughed. “I can’t tell you that,” he said.

Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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