Africa Watch

Ex-South African fighters do it for Nigeria against Boko Haram

Eeben Barlow
Eeben Barlow.jpeg

Despite threats by the government, and against many odds, a handful of ex-South African soldiers contributed substantially to turning the tables on Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Boko Haram, the so-called Nigerian Taliban, is far from defeated, but it is on the run. Not all the credit for this dramatic change of events can go the contingent of South African veterans of Southern Africa’s bush war of the 1970s and ‘80s; a significant contribution also came Nigeria’s neighbours, Niger, Cameroon and, in particular, Chad.

But it is true that since the introduction almost three months ago of the South Africans, the tide has turned rather quickly, helping to blunt Boko Haram's six-year-long reign of terror in northern Nigeria.

Secret South African involvement

The role of private military companies (PMCs) – in this case STTEP (Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection), cooperating with a South African security firm, Pilgrims Africa Ltd, based in Lagos – in reversing one of the most vicious African insurgencies of modern times, has been kept largely quiet by Nigeria's outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan.

He contracted the South Africans on the eve of the presidential election, hoping any success against Boko Haram could secure him some votes. However, despite almost immediate success, he still lost the election.

The decision to keep the PMC involvement quiet was not sinister. It is normal procedure and preferred policy to avoid unnecessary media attention. STTEP also refuses to name any clients, other than to say that they work exclusively in Africa.


Another motivation for secrecy about engaging PMCs is the embarrassment of implied admittance of failure of own security forces to effectively deal with a local insurgency movement.

The failure of Nigerian security forces to check Boko Haram is largely due to widespread corruption in the armed forces. Its defence budget of more than US$6 billion is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, but much of it is lost to corruption.

This manifested in under-resourcing in the acquisition of military equipment; irregular remuneration of troops, causing poor morale; poor training; and weak discipline – all adding up to a significant deterioration of competence in the Nigerian armed forces.

Failed deal               

Lack of proper equipment to fight a well-equipped Boko Haram, according to Nigerian officials, resulted from a failed deal with the United States (US). A request to purchase attack helicopters from the US was rejected due to concerns about Nigeria’s ability to use and maintain them and fears about civilian safety during military operations.

The US government also declined to share some intelligence with Nigerian security officials for fear of possible Boko Haram infiltration.

These disagreements apparently led to the Nigerian government cancelling a US mission to train one of its Special Forces battalions and might have contributed to the decision to approach South African experts.

Some observers also expressed the view that the Nigerian government contracted a South African PMC after the level of assistance from British and US militaries, which offered mentoring packages after Boko Haram's well-documented kidnapping last year of more than 200 schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok, did not measure up to expectations.


At a recently held seminar organised by the Royal Danish Defence College, Eben Barlow, chairman of STTEP, lifted the lid a little on the success of the South African involvement.

STTEP took the fight to Boko Haram in an aggressive campaign of “relentless pursuit”, running Boko Haram to ground by leap-frogging them by helicopter or using armoured vehicles, exhausting them and regularly deploying fresh troops. STTEP finally defeated them with overwhelming firepower.

According to Barlow the initial mission was to train a mobile strike force to help free the schoolgirls. The subsequent successful inroads by Boko Haram, which gave the militants control over 20 000 square miles of territory by January 2015, led to a decision to broaden the scope and STTEP’s mission transitioned from training a rescue unit to training a rapid mobile deployment strike force.

By late February 2015 the strike force conducted its first successful operational deployment. Barlow made it clear that the credit for turning the tide against Boko Haram must go to the Nigerian Army, supported by the STTEP-trained strike force.

While the Nigerian government has insisted the South Africans’ role was mainly that of “technical advisers”, Barlow suggested that the South Africans had been involved in direct combat, helped with intelligence gathering, troop transportation and evacuation of casualties.

End of involvement

After media speculation about whether the new Buhari government would renew STTEP's contract and whether the South African Government, in light of Pretoria’s disapproval, might pressurise the incoming government to terminate STTEP’s contract, Barlow publically confirmed that the contract has been terminated.

Barlow said once it was determined that the contract would not be extended, STTEP made a controlled withdrawal and all its employees had returned home by late March 2015.

Debate reignited

STTEP’s involvement in Nigeria will inevitably reignite the debate over whether PMCs should be used in conflicts.

Accountability is a major concern, but is also the reason why governments sometimes prefer PMCs, while their cost-effectiveness makes them an attractive proposition.

In the African context it could be argued, with historical backup, that PMCs are often better than UN or Western trainers of African armies, simply because they are unfamiliar with African conditions and realities, often hamstrung by political baggage and a failure to understand how either African armies or their enemies operate. Their mandate is often limited, rendering their contribution ineffective.

Barlow indicated that STTEP’s success has resulted in foreign governments beginning to pressure its client states. According to him the US recently used AFRICOM, its military command responsible for Africa, to pressure a potential client and even went so far as to make veiled threats.

Ironically, if any nation is guilty of outsourcing military work, it is the US which has contracted PMCs in unprecedented ways to support its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it is not only the US and other foreign governments that have denounced the presence of South African PMCs in Africa. The Pretoria government also immediately expressed displeasure when news broke of the presence of ex-South African soldiers in Nigeria.

The Minister of Defence demanded that the South Africans, whom she labelled “mercenaries”, should be arrested on their return under the regulation of the Foreign Military Assistance Act in order to “make an example of them”. 

In reaction Barlow said: “It is ironic that when the West uses companies such as ours, they are PMCs. When African governments use an African company with a record of success in ending conflicts and wars, we are labelled ‘mercenaries’.”


The success of the South African PMCs in Nigeria leaves the SAG in a predicament. Any excessive response or action could be dismissed by referring to the less than stellar performance by the SANDF in Lesotho in 1998 and more recently in the Central African Republic.

If anything, the South African contractors have provided the Nigerian government with some breathing room to institute the military, economic, and political reforms needed to ensure Boko Haram is permanently neutered as a threat to the Nigerian people.

Any attempt to dismiss this feat as inconsequential, or to persecute those responsible for the success, would look foolish and counterproductive.

by Garth Cilliers

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