Following a press briefing by Nigerian Defense Minister Mansur Dan-Ali, Nigerian media are saying that South Africa is joining the fight against Boko Haram, the radical jihadist movement that has killed over twenty thousand and displaced internally up to three million people over the past six years. The briefing took place following the defense minister’s meeting with his South African counterpart, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nquakula. (South African President Jacob Zuma is in Nigeria on a state visit.)
However, there has been no confirmation from the South African side. Further, South African boots-on-the-ground in Nigeria is highly unlikely, as Simon Allison writes in the March 8, Daily Maverick. Allison notes that the South African defense ministry spokesman knew nothing about the deal: “There is no such decision to send any military elements by the RSA [Republic of South Africa] to assist with the fight against Boko Haram.”
Allison notes the reduced capacity of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF). The current finance minister has slashed its budget, and there are only an estimated one hundred South African Special Forces commandos in active service. Allison quotes John Stupart, editor of African Defence Review, as saying, “We don’t have the budget, we don’t have the capacity, and frankly we don’t have the experience in training forces to fight 21st century terrorism. The American, British or even French have operational experience in this. It’s more just a case of too much talking at the diplomatic level and too little understanding or acceptance of the scarce resources in the SANDF that we actually have.”
Allison cites Jasmine Opperman, Africa director for the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, as warning that SANDF involvement could make South Africa, or, more likely, its interests elsewhere in Africa, a Boko Haram target. South Africa has a big economic stake in Nigeria: President Zuma commented during his state visit that there are more than one hundred South African companies present in Nigeria, with a special concentration in telecommunications.
The absence of SANDF involvement does not preclude Nigeria’s use of South African mercenaries, as the Jonathan administration employed during its 2015 push against Boko Haram. Serving as a mercenary is against South African law, but prosecution is difficult and rare.