Citing a sole source, the Turkish Anadolu News Agency, Nigerian media is reporting that the Buhari government is hiring about 250 personnel and equipment from Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), the South African mercenary company that was engaged by then-president Goodluck Jonathan for his push against Boko Haram before the March national elections. The news agency cites an anonymous source within the Nigerian Defense headquarters.
A presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, flatly denies the report. According to Nigerian media, he said: “Since coming into office, this government did not have any engagement with mercenaries of any kind and there are no plans to do so.” During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Muhammadu Buhari characterized then-president Jonathan’s use of South African mercenaries as “shameful.” It is widely assumed that the South Africans are drawn from the apartheid era South African Defense force.
A spokesman for the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) said that there are no South African troops in Nigeria, but that he could not say if private mercenaries were there.
President Buhari has given the military a December deadline to end the Boko Haram insurgency. There are signs that the Nigerian military is preparing a major campaign. The Chief of Army Staff in a message to the military last week said, “Our ability to stand and defeat the Boko Haram terrorists in the next few weeks will determine the future of our country.” He also said, “Our sovereignty as a nation is threatened.”
In the context of the Chief of Army Staff’s remarks, the rehiring of South African mercenaries is plausible, but by no means certain. A likely hypothesis is that bringing back the mercenaries is an option under consideration within the Defense ministry and/or the Nigerian military. But, there is as yet no sitting Minister of Defense to make a final decision or even a recommendation to the president.
Over the past month, Boko Haram has been especially active, and the geographic range of its operations has increased, at least for the moment. This mercenary flap may be an indication of growing anxiety within the Nigerian military about its ability to meet President Buhari’s December deadline.