Reuters reported early Thursday that the Abuja government is using foreign mercenaries in the struggle against Boko Haram. They cite a security source as saying that each mercenary is paid $400 per day in cash. Additionally, they quote other sources as saying that the mercenaries are South African and from the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia. They ostensibly number in the hundreds, if not more. The numbers seem to be far larger than the two private companies providing “trainers and technicians” to which President Goodluck Jonathan referred in an interview with the Voice of America late Wednesday. And, the mercenaries appear to be using their own sophisticated military equipment. According to Reuters, Nigerian government and military spokesmen are refusing to comment.
Another Reuters source states that the South Africans were “associated” with the leadership of Executive Outcomes, a former mercenary contractor. Executive Outcomes, members of which served as special forces in Namibia and Angola with the South African Defense Force under apartheid, is most well-known for its actions in Angola and Sierra Leone. By all accounts, it was a highly effective fighting force, albeit often criticized for brutality. The company was dissolved in 1998 after the post-apartheid government passed the “Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.” The Georgian parliament is considering a similar ban.
The use of mercenaries may account for the success of the federal government in retaking territory from Boko Haram. It is also credible that the Abuja government would resort to mercenaries as it needs quick results in northeast Nigeria before the March 28 elections. With the Nigerian military at a low point in terms of morale and equipment, mercenaries may be playing a role similar to that of the French during their 2012 intervention vis-à-vis the Malian military, which was also demoralized and under-equipped. They may be serving as the backbone of the military forces, offering disciplined, combat-proven soldiers. Mercenaries can provide quick victories, but they do not necessarily defeat a foe that melts into the countryside and into urban slums. For example, Executive Outcomes was highly effective in Sierra Leone, but after its withdrawal its foes went on to capture Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. But, President Jonathan’s presidential candidacy needs a quick, if not long-term, fix to Boko Haram’s carnage in the northeast if he is to prevail in the upcoming elections.
It remains to be seen whether Abuja’s use of mercenaries will encourage “foreign fighters” from elsewhere in the Sahel to rally to Boko Haram’s side. The Nigerian government is already claiming that Tuaregs from Mali are assisting Boko Haram. It would seem that the presence of mercenaries is “internationalizing” the struggle between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.
*Note: The original version of this article has been been edited to reference Executive Outcomes actions in Sierra Leone, not its actions in Angola.