Africa Watch

South Africa avoids deadly Nigerian terror trap

SA should avoid Boko Haram conflict
Boko Haram.jpg

 South Africans can thank their lucky stars that media reports about potential military involvement in Nigeria turned out to have been nothing but rumours.

The report last week, emanating from Nigerian media, had many a South African concerned and confused. In their usual ‘over the top’ style they reported that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was going to join the war against Boko Haram.

These ‘disclosures’ overshadowed President Zuma’s visit to that country – seen by most analysts as an attempt to try and heal the widening rift between two of Africa’s most powerful and influential countries.  

Done deal

Many of Nigeria’s prominent newspapers carried headline articles, stating as fact that President Jacob Zuma was “set to arrive in Abuja to seal a deal where Nigeria has accepted the deployment of South African special forces to fight Boko Haram insurgents”.

The impression created was that it was a done deal.

Nigerian media also reported that Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali and his South African counterpart, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, met in Abuja to finalise modalities for the special forces deployment. It was purportedly part of a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation, signed between the two countries in 2013.

Creating more confusion, they also reported that the chief of the SANDF, General Zakaria Shoke, said that South Africa’s military was willing to work with their Nigerian counterparts, and allegedly affirmed that the SANDF was also willing to support Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram.


The South African government (SAG), and the SANDF in particular, was completely caught off-guard by these reports and later declared categorically that there were no plans to send any military forces, special or otherwise, to fight Boko Haram.

The SANDF slammed the claims as “reckless and unfortunate”, saying in a statement the chief of SANDF “wishes to strongly reiterate that there is no such a decision to send any military elements to assist with the fight against Boko Haram”.

The Nigerian Defence Ministry later also released a statement, describing the reports as “totally misleading and false”.

The statement also said that Nigeria only sought cooperation in the area of training and transfer of skills for its own forces from the SANDF.

For now, it has to be accepted that there is no plan for the SANDF to get involved in the fight with Boko Haram – which is good news.

If the SAG should, at a later stage, change its position on military involvement in the war against Boko Haram, it will have to consider the following possible consequences:

Reprisal attacks

A real risk of reprisal attacks on South African citizens or interests by Boko Haram – a terrorist organisation considered by internationally recognised terror experts to be the most dangerous and deadliest movement of its kind in the world.

With Boko Haram having the advantage of selecting the target, place, time and form of retaliation, the SAG will face an almost impossible challenge to pre-empt such reprisal attacks. It is spoilt for possible targets, particularly ‘soft’ targets. 

Hotels, as previous terror incidents in Africa show, have become popular terror targets. South African-linked hotels and businesses would be immediate targets. They would have to beef up their security significantly.

Demands on security cluster

Demands on the South African security cluster, especially the intelligence community, will increase dramatically. They will have their job cut out to stay abreast with information on possible Boko Haram revenge plans.

In 2013 Boko Haram threatened to act against South African citizens, even killing them, if the SAG failed to stop xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

It was an obvious propaganda stunt considering the brutal and indiscriminate manner in which Boko Haram has killed an estimated 20 000 fellow Nigerians. For that reason the threat was not taken seriously. It will, however, be a totally different kettle of fish if Boko Haram becomes a target for SANDF forces.  

Military cooperation constraints

While agreement and understanding might exist at political level, it does not imply that the same understanding will exist among the military.

Professional jealousy is characteristic of security forces. The Nigerian military might find it difficult to work with the SANDF if a perception develops that the SANDF is called in because of the inability and ineffectiveness of Nigerian armed forces.

Under such circumstances it will become almost impossible for the SANDF to produce a meaningful contribution to the fight against Boko Haram.

Foreign involvement

SANDF involvement in Nigeria will inevitably require cooperation with various other forms of foreign military support already active there.

A sizeable military contingent from the USA provides assistance and training at various levels and more advisors and instructors are on their way.

The British and the French are also involved and there are rumours of Israeli involvement. It could make for interesting liaison considering the SAG’s strong anti-Israel sentiment. 

Private security companies 

Private security companies are also heavily involved in Nigeria. Their presence and role will have to be assessed, particularly against the background of the reported successes last year when ex-South African soldiers, in the service of foreign-based private security companies, were instrumental in taking the fight to Boko Haram, putting them on the back foot.


Sanity has prevailed and the SANDF was alert and wise not to be tricked into a situation littered with so many potential pitfalls.

South Africa has a responsibility to help and support the international struggle against the scourge of terrorism. It is also obliged to help Nigeria get rid of the brutality of Boko Haram. But it has to be carefully executed to be in best interests of both Nigeria and South Africa.

The decision not to get directly involved in the war against Boko Haram is in the best interests of both countries.                           

by Garth Cilliers

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