Africa Watch

Boko Haram remains a threat

President Buhari reconsidering mercenaries

South Africans might soon be back in Nigeria to help fight off the onslaught of the militant Boko Haram movement in that country.

Despite a promise that defeating Boko Haram is a priority, all attempts by Nigerian  President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration have thus far had limited success.

Mounting pressure to deliver on his promise is fuelling speculation that President Buhari might rehire the very people he rejected when assuming office to now help do the job.

Meanwhile South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has reportedly done an about-turn and will return the US$9 million to the Nigerian Government, confiscated last year at Lanseria airport when an arms deal went wrong.

A Turkish news agency reported that the Nigerian Government has made an about-turn on the use of a South African private military company in its ongoing war with Boko Haram.

Rehiring of mercenaries                             

Although the Anadolu News Agency (ANA) remains the sole source of this, Nigerian media gave considerable attention to the claim that the Buhari administration has allegedly decided to rehire South African mercenaries to help the Nigerian military crush Boko Haram.

ANA quoted an anonymous Nigerian Defence headquarters source saying that   about 250 personnel and equipment from Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), a South African private military company, are to be rehired. STTEP was formed by former South African army officer and co-founder of the highly successful Executive Outcomes, Eeben Barlow.

“The mercenaries have been re-engaged and their platforms are being deployed. By platforms I mean fighter jets, helicopters, communication, surveillance, medics, etc.,” according to the source.

Responding to a question of why the mercenaries are deployed again, the source explained that, “… it appeared to be the most practical option if headway was to be made against militants whose guerrilla tactics are new to the Nigerian military”.

According to the same source, the mercenary contract was initially terminated because it was “opaque and without accountability”.

Previous contract

Last year, shortly before Nigeria’s presidential election, under pressure to show progress in the war against Boko Haram, the then-president Goodluck Jonathan contracted STTEP to help turn the tide.

The men from STTEP did a splendid job, but their contract was immediately cancelled by newly elected President Buhari, who, during his election campaign, condemned the involvement of mercenaries in the fight against Boko Haram. He described it as “shameful” and lamented that “the practice of involving mercenaries into conflict shows all the huge depth” of Nigerian military’s weakness.

“What is more worrisome is the fact that the military had to rely on South African machinery before it could gain recent success in the war against Boko Haram,” he said.

Africa and Nigeria expert, former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, wrote on his blog, Africa in Transition, there are signs that the Nigerian military is preparing a major campaign. The Chief of Army Staff, in a message to the military, recently said: “Our ability to stand and defeat the Boko Haram terrorists in the next few weeks will determine the future of our country.”

In the context of this remark, the rehiring of STTEP is, according to Campbell, plausible, but by no means certain.


The Nigerian military is under serious pressure to deliver on the ultimatum given to them by President Buhari that Boko Haram should be history by December 2015.

In spite of all the efforts, including the combined efforts by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), consisting of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin, the militants have continued to unleash mayhem on the northeast region of Nigeria and beyond to neighbouring countries – particularly Chad and Cameroon.

With less than a month before the ultimatum transpires, tension is running high. The credibility of both the Nigerian military and President Buhari is at stake.

One commentator concluded: “This mercenary flap may be an indication of growing anxiety within the Nigerian military about its ability to meet President Buhari’s December deadline.”

Government response

The Nigerian government and military, as expected, rejected the allegation and STTEP declined to comment.

A spokesperson for President Buhari denied that mercenaries were engaged again. “It is true that the previous administration hired South African mercenaries to fight Boko Haram, but they left with the (Jonathan) government that brought them. Since coming into office, this (Buhari) government did not have any engagement with mercenaries of any kind and there are no plans to do so.”

A Nigerian Defence Force spokesperson, in refuting the claim, said Nigeria has the capacity to handle the insurgents on its own and that for the past months the military has been “fighting this war more and more effectively and all Nigerians, irrespective of where they live, have come to understand that we are making tremendous progress”.

Facts, however, contradict this bold statement. 

According to Amnesty International, at least 1 600 people have been killed by Boko Haram since the beginning of June 2015 when President Buhari was inaugurated and promised the intensification of the campaign to quash Boko Haram by December 2015.

In practical terms the 1 600 deaths mean twelve Nigerians have been killed every day or one every two hours since Buhari took power.  

American involvement

In the meantime an announcement last month by President Obama on the deployment of approximately 300 US Armed Forces personnel to Cameroon to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations against Boko Haram in support of the MNJTF met with some harsh criticism.

President Biya of Cameroon and President Buhari welcomed Obama’s announcement, particularly the assistance in intelligence gathering, considered an indispensable contribution, since African countries have serious deficits in intelligence capabilities.

There are, however, military and terrorism experts who view the US’s assistance as “too little, too late”.

Those arguing that dissuasive military tactics are the “best means to counter terrorist threats” forecast for Obama a dilemma similar to the one that caused trouble for the US in the past.

How far should the US get involved?

Intelligence, although the first line of defence in fighting terrorism, is not enough if you do not have the firepower to put it to good use.

In 2012 President Obama promised similar assistance to locate and defeat Joseph Kony and his rag-tag Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) causing carnage in central Africa.

Kony and the LRA, by no means in the same league as Boko Haram, are still at large, despite some minor successes.

US deployment focuses on intelligence, stopping short of supporting preemptive strikes or more direct and special operations. At its current level, the US contribution in troops and equipment will not provide sufficient military force to eradicate Boko Haram.

Bringing a speedy end to Boko Haram’s reign of terror is one of President Buhari’s main objectives. All his attempts in this regard, including appointing new senior military commanders to take the fight to Boko Haram, have failed up to now.

Boko Haram remains a menace and the Buhari Administration could not do worse by rehiring a private military company with an excellent score card from its previous encounter with a group of militants that personified evil.         

by Garth Cilliers

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