Heading into a pivotal vote, the government of Nigeria is pulling out all the stops in its war on Boko Haram. That means turning to mercenaries.
- By Tolu OgunlesiTolu Ogunlesi is a journalist in Lagos, Nigeria, where he works as West Africa editor for The Africa Report, a magazine, and a columnist for Punch, a daily newspaper.
For the militants of Boko Haram, 2015 began like most any year: with death and chaos. Three days into the New Year, the Nigeria-based Islamist terrorist group attacked Baga, a Nigerian town on the banks of the Lake Chad, shared by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. It was one of Boko Haram’s most devastating attacks ever, leaving up to 2,000 people dead in its wake. That was unsurprising for an insurgency that spent most of last year overrunning countless towns and villages in Nigeria’s northeast, seizing control an area believed to be as large as Belgium.
Then in late January, everything began to change. First came the unprecedented moves by Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian troops, operating along the border and making incursions into Nigerian territory, and reclaiming land from the terrorists. In early February, with Nigeria’s presidential elections looming, its senior military officials issued a warning to the electoral commission that they would be unable to guarantee the safety of officials in the northeast and asked for a postponement until March 28 to enable them deal with Boko Haram.
Few believed that Boko Haram could be pushed back. But the doubters have been proved wrong. By early March, the Nigerian government was boasting that it had retaken as many as 36 towns previously under Boko Haram control. On Friday, Nigeria’s military announced that it had destroyed the group’s headquarters in the town of Gwoza in the country’s northeast.
How, exactly, did this stunning turnaround happen? Perhaps Nigeria’s approaching presidential elections spurred its government to pressure the military to deliver results. Or perhaps the game-changer was last May’s regional security cooperation deal between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin, Niger, brokered by the United Nations and the European Union.
Or perhaps it was something else altogether. Over the last two weeks, the focus has shifted to Abuja’s alleged recruitment of foreign mercenaries from South Africa and Eastern Europe and the role they have played in routing Boko Haram. Sightings of these foreigners have been reported in Nigeria’s northeast — the heartland of Boko Haram — since last year. In November, local media broke news of the crash of a military helicopter in the town of Yola. The “five white men” on board were reportedly quickly ferried away by air force ambulances. Unconfirmed reports say that the wreckage of the plane contained dollar bills, ostensibly used in the payment of the mercenaries.
What role the mercenaries are playing, then, remains murky. Are they taking part in ground combat, as media reports suggest? Or are they restricted to training and technical support? Who brokered the deal – was anyone in the South African government aware, or was the deal reached directly with the mercenaries? The New York Times has reported that there are “hundreds” of them, with the Financial Times putting the number at “roughly 300,” the bulk of them from Executive Outcomes, a South African firm that supplied mercenaries to battlefields across the world since its founding in 1989 until it was disbanded a decade later. In its heyday, it is said to have employed as many as 3,000 soldiers.
The Nigerian government, for its part, has flatly denied recruiting mercenaries to engage in combat. Nigeria’s accession to the 1989 United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, makes their recruitment for use in the country illegal. Instead, President Goodluck Jonathan, running for re-election in a hotly contested race against former military ruler Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, says that the so-called mercenaries are actually “trainers who had come to train our soldiers on the use of the new weapons we just procured.”
South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula disagrees. When the news first broke in January she said: “They are mercenaries whether they are training, skilling the Nigerian Defence Force, or scouting for them. The point is that they have no business to be there.”
The key to the debate may be in semantics. “There is an ambiguity in this whole thing about definitions. Mercenarism is really about who is branding who as mercenaries,” says Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher in the International Crime in Africa Program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, South Africa. “Mercenarism has its origins in a time when rebel forces were recruiting foreign fighters to help them — many coup d’états in Africa were led by mercenaries. It has become complicated with the involvement of [legitimate] governments, who are now recruiting foreign fighters. Is that still mercenarism?”
Not surprisingly, the alleged mercenaries are reportedly coming from the same countries believed to be providing Nigeria with weapons: mainly South Africa (possessing what is arguably the most sophisticated defense manufacturing capability on the continent), and parts of the old Soviet Union (Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine come up most often in news reports). Freedom Onuoha, a research fellow at Nigeria’s National Defense College, says the weapons deals came with “conditions attached,” including those mandating that the hiring of personnel from the supplier countries, for training and maintenance.
Unlike Nigeria, South Africa is not a signatory to the UN treaty outlawing mercenaries, although its laws do prohibit “mercenary activity.” But it also permits “the rendering of foreign military assistance” under some conditions, creating something of a legal loophole. Ewi says the South Africans recruited to help in the fight against Boko Haram were likely hired on short-term contracts. “Normally these contracts are like three months, and renewable. Sometimes it could even be for a month, depending on the task they’ve been assigned.”
South African fighters have a long history of mercenary involvement across Africa and beyond. Through the 1990s, Executive Outcomes played key roles in the civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Several of the more than 70 mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea in March 2004 and charged for attempting to topple the government in Malabo were South African. In 2006, a South African government official alleged that there were as many as 5,000 South Africans in Iraq “doing Lord knows what.” They also have deep footprints in Nigeria. During the Nigerian civil war, which pitted Nigeria against the breakaway Republic of Biafra, Nigeria hired mercenary pilots from South Africa to fly its DC-3 bomber planes. The Biafrans also received clandestine military support from South Africa.
Apart from the use of mercenaries during the civil war, and now in the war against Boko Haram, Nigeria has made regular use of foreign military contractors in non-combat operations, including installing equipment, training personnel, and providing security to senior government officials. Debo Bashorun, who served as press secretary to Nigeria’s military Head of State Ibrahim Babangida in the late 1980s, writes in his 2013 book, Honour For Sale, about the “recruitment of Israelis to install, maintain and supervise the web of surveillance equipment keeping vigil over every nook and cranny of the State House grounds.” Israeli intelligence agents were also reportedly hired by Babangida to train his elite corps of presidential guards, and an Israeli team was implicated in the botched 1984 bid, by the government of then-military dictator (now presidential candidate) Mohammadu Buhari, to abduct a former government minister in London and repatriate him to face justice at home.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s reported involvement in Nigeria is playing out against the backdrop of fraying relations between the two countries. Three years ago, a diplomatic row broke out when South African authorities deported a planeload of Nigerians, alleging they did not carry valid yellow fever vaccination certificates. A series of tit-for-tat reprisals followed.
Just like their respective countries, the South African fighters and the Nigerian troops and commanders may end up finding it difficult to get along. In his account of the Nigeria-Biafra War, journalist John de St. Jorre writes that the Biafran soldiers “bitterly resented” the much better paid mercenary commanders. A similar scenario might recur in the northeast, against Boko Haram: the $400 mercenaries are reportedly being paid in cash per day is more than the monthly salary of much of the rank-and-file of the Nigerian army. Early in March a South African fighter died at the hands of Nigerian troops in what news reports referred to as a “friendly fire” incident.
All of this will be playing out against the backdrop of a possible change of government in Nigeria. If the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) wins in the presidential ballot this weekend and all goes as planned, there will be a new government in place on May 29. While the party has yet to issue a formal statement on the mercenary question, spokesman Lai Mohammed acknowledges that the issue is a sensitive one, and that the party is being careful to not come across as being dismissive of the successes of the military campaign.
But pronouncements of leading members offer some hints of what is to come. Vice presidential candidate Yemi Osinbajo described the news of the mercenaries as “an outrage.” When I spoke to Mohammed recently, he accused President Jonathan of lying about what the foreign recruits are doing in Nigeria.
Aside from whatever else the APC may have planned, were it to take power, there is the possibility that the foreigners will soon run into trouble in Nigeria. All it will take is an allegation of complicity in human rights abuses, similar to the one the Nigerian military has had to deal with. If this happens, it would be deeply embarrassing for both Nigeria’s government and, especially, South Africa’s.
This may be why the Nigerians continue to insist that the recruits are mere trainers and technicians, and the South Africans disown them at every turn. Following the news of the death of a suspected South African mercenary in Nigeria earlier this month, South African Defense Ministry spokeswoman Joy Peter reiterated — just in case anyone had any doubts — that the soldiers were in Nigeria “in their own personal capacity.”
Photo Credit: Reinnier Kaze / Stringer