News / Africa

    VOA Exclusive: Nigeria Brings S. African, Foreign Mercenaries Into Boko Haram Fight

    FILE - Chadian soldiers drive through the streets of Gambaru, Nigeria, Feb. 4, 2015.
    FILE - Chadian soldiers drive through the streets of Gambaru, Nigeria, Feb. 4, 2015.
    Chris SteinMike Eckel

    South African and other foreign soldiers in Nigeria are fighting against Boko Haram, engaging in ground combat and flying combat air sorties, Nigerian soldiers told VOA Thursday.

    The fighting comes as the Nigerian government tries to notch battlefield victories ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections later this month.

    Nigerian government officials confirmed the presence of foreign military personnel, but said they were only advisers accompanying military equipment purchased from South Africa, Russia and Ukraine.

    Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan told VOA in an interview Wednesday that the foreigners were "technicians" brought in for maintenance and instruction.

    But Nigerian soldiers disputed that the foreigners were only present as advisers, telling VOA Thursday that many of the soldiers were participating in actual combat.

    Critical presence

    The decision to bring private military contractors to the fight is a critical one for the government of Jonathan, who is locked in a tight election campaign against Muhummadu Buhari.

    While the government has allowed forces from Niger and Chad to make incursions into Nigerian territory to fight Boko Haram, the presence of soldiers from outside the region — South African or Eastern European — calls into question the effectiveness of the Jonathan administration’s fight against the militants.

    Boko Haram’s chaotic and bloody insurgency has killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million people in northern Nigeria.

    One soldier, who is living alongside the foreign personnel in a barracks in the city of Maiduguri, identified the foreigners as South Africans, Ukrainians and others. He said they were flying aircraft from the Maiduguri airport.

    "The South Africans don’t want to deploy with any Nigerian military units, they want to go on their own," the sergeant, who was not authorized to speak to the media, told VOA.

    Map of Nigeria showing Monguno, Baga, Damaturu and GombeMap of Nigeria showing Monguno, Baga, Damaturu and Gombe
    Map of Nigeria showing Monguno, Baga, Damaturu and Gombe
    Map of Nigeria showing Monguno, Baga, Damaturu and Gombe

    Another soldier, a corporal, told VOA that Nigerian and foreign soldiers had been massing near the town of Bama earlier this week for a planned offensive.

    But miscommunication resulted in Nigerian soldiers opening fire on two armored personnel carriers driven by "white soldiers," thinking the vehicles were operated by Boko Haram, the soldier said. One of the drivers was killed in the shooting, and the offensive was then called off.

    Earlier this week, news reports said a South African ex-soldier who was working as private military contractor was killed in the northeast. It was unclear if that death came in the same incident.

    A representative from South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation declined to comment on the report.

    "The white soldiers, they were the only ones who knew how to operate the mobile rocket launchers," the corporal said.

    The corporal, who was also based in the barracks in Maiduguri, said South African pilots had been flying combat missions using Nigerian jets, surveillance planes and helicopters, along with jets he said appeared to be South African.

    "All the aerial attacks are being done by the white soldiers using Nigerian and hired military aircraft," he said.

    Another officer, who served as a top aide to the commander of a brigade in Borno state, told VOA there were between 100 and 150 foreign soldiers, mainly South African, working out of Maiduguri and they were flying fighter jets daily out of the Maiduguri airport. 

    On February 27, a VOA reporter witnessed a convoy of around 30 vehicles— armored personnel carriers, mine sweepers and open-backed troop transport trucks — driving north on the main highway between the capital Abuja and Maiduguri.

    The drivers were white and men visible in the backs of the transport trucks were overwhelmingly white. Some of the trucks had what appeared to be Nigerian flags painted on the doors.

    Election issue

    Jonathan is facing a tough re-election challenge from Buhari, a former military officer who headed the country during a period of military rule in the 1980s.

    The election had been scheduled for last month but with the Nigerian security forces unable to quell the fighting, security concerns became a top campaign issue and officials postponed the vote until March 28.

    In recent weeks, the Nigerian government has claimed new momentum against Boko Haram. Neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger have also stepped up their campaigns, targeting militant fighters and camps along the borders with Nigeria.

    Jonathan interview

    In Abuja Thursday, the Nigerian government official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA that Nigeria had bought new tanks, trucks, bridge-building equipment and aircraft. He said the foreigners were armed and working in Maiduguri.

    "So we now have this technical people who are trainers and technicians, who are to train our people on how to use them, and technicians that help the maintenance, at the same time training our people how to maintain this equipment," Jonathan told VOA in the interview broadcast Wednesday.

    Lulu Mnguni, South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria, said he was unaware of recent private arms sales to Nigeria, but said the South African government has sold Nigeria weapons in the past.

    South Africa’s defense minister said in January that if mercenaries or private military contractors were to go to Nigeria, they would be prosecuted under South African law upon returning.

    David Zounmenou, a senior research fellow at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, said the fact that Nigeria ended up employing private contractors, even in a training capacity, shows the sensitivities of having foreign troops on Nigerian soil.

    "I think it’s more discrete to rely on private military companies to do the job than to get involved in any official agreement assistance that may also have political implications ahead of the upcoming president elections," he said.

    But Zounmenou warned the deployment could strain Jonathan’s relationship with the military.

    "There are some competent minds within that establishment. If they are given the opportunity and the resources, they could do the job. I think we still have some good units within the Nigerian army," he said. "And if they are pulled aside and government relies on foreign troops to do the job, I think that will not really be well-taken."

    Since erupting in 2009, the insurgency has morphed into what often seems like a full-scale guerilla war, with suicide bombings, hit-and-run ambushes and civilians caught in the cross-fire.

    Human rights and civil society groups have accused the Nigerian military of worsening the situation with gross rights violations that have alienated the population in the northeast.

    Last fall, VOA documented evidence of Nigerian security officers executing suspected Boko Haram sympathizers.

    Stein reported from Abuja. Eckel reported from Washington. A VOA correspondent in Nigeria contributed to this report.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 3
    by: ogggg from: lagos
    March 20, 2015 7:58 PM
    There is no evidence that mercenaries are fighting in Nigeria. There are private military contracts that came with the military hardware to maintain and to instruct the troops on how to use the new military hardware. The federal government has denied the use of foreign mercenaries to fight BH. It is not also not possible for 100 mercenaries to defeat 6000 BH members.

    by: Ed Keazor from: Lagos
    March 16, 2015 12:36 PM
    Sorry guys, this article falls short of your standards. For your information, I have been in touch with Field Officers and some rank and file. There is absolutely no shred of credible evidence that mercenaries are fighting on the Nigerian side. Firstly, there is no question that SA and Ukrainian PMC's have been acting in an advisory role, which stands to reason, since the NA procured such a massive inventory of Armoury and other equipment, they needed to train the NA in-theatre- simple.

    The land mass recaptured by the NA since January spans over 1000 square kilometres and someone seriously thinks a few mercenaries achieved this? I do realise the NA PR dept was a bit shambolic, but now press teams are embedded with the Troops. Perhaps your reporters can get off their seats at the Hilton and actually head out to the theatre? Where they can get actual factual reporting done. For your information, Abuja is over 400 miles from the North-East- they might as well have stayed in Lagos. Perhaps they can spend time with the NA 7 Division, which has been at the core of the action in the most active area of fighting, Borno. Then they would actually understand the sacrifices of the men of the NA? Many thanks.

    by: charles Ubaru from: lagos
    March 13, 2015 2:43 PM
    You foreign are always biased when reporting on happenings in Nigeria and other African countries. This report is said to have been sent in from Abuja and not Maidugiri, Baga, Bama or Mungunu etct. Your lazy reporters stay in hotels in Abuja; relying on gossip from cooks and room service staff and then claim the information they got is authentic or original. Why don't they go to the war front to verify. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, we see CNN or BBC reporters wearing bullet proof vests in the front line but when it comes to Nigeria and Africa, they report from hotel rooms. This is hypocracy and wickedness. We know better in Nigeria now. You guys should to separate yourselves from this governement tailored reportage and be neutral in reporting happenings in Nigeria and Africa

    by: JOE WANGER from: MINNA
    March 13, 2015 12:18 PM
    we nigerians dont really know what is happening. if capable hands are whites so be it.

    by: Musa from: Abuja
    March 13, 2015 12:15 PM
    Weak President, with corrupt advisers, and wicked society, all joins to BOKO HARAM. BOKO HARAM is a game of polities, they all knew the root and cause of it.

    Why must it be now that the so called government must act, after letting innocent ones paid the price for whay they knew not. Fools.

    by: Sam from: Abuja
    March 13, 2015 12:07 PM
    From most of your commentaries, the efforts has always been to paint the Nigerian Army as being professional ineffective, and human rights attackers. You amplified their setbacks, down play any progress. You continue to monitor the body languages of the Army vis-a-vis president Goodluck Jonathan political aspirations. To this end, your local source journalists drives their narratives along this objectives.

    But what really does VOA & the US wants beyond already taken side with the Opposition Party. Nig shall surely be victorious. The current double standards of the US in global affairs, resulting in crisis in difference world regions is no more secrets. As for Nigeria, Boko Haram, the election, we're more interested in the restoration of security and well being of our people. Other considerations are secondary.

    by: James Folarin John from: Kaduna, Nigeria
    March 13, 2015 12:06 PM
    I think the American government and its propaganda mouthpiece, the VOA are playing double standard over this war on terrorism.... You people don't always see anything good about Nigeria's government or military...... America, put your house, your evil collaborator, Israel in order before you ridicule other people

    by: AsorockWeb from: Ontario, Canada
    March 13, 2015 11:31 AM
    It’s racial bigotry. The myth was that African Americans couldn’t fight until they fought with great success during the American civil war.
    The myth was that African Americans couldn’t fly in combat, until the “Red Tails” successfully escorted 1000s of bombers into Nazi Germany.
    There were other myths as well – “Blacks can’t play quarter back”, “Blacks cannot lead”.
    There’s nothing wrong with using PMCs, what is painful is the idea that a handful of PMCs is doing all the fighting.

    by: naijabox
    March 13, 2015 11:21 AM
    This is not a VOA exclusive - Reuters scooped this first and did a better job I'm afraid to say.

    by: Ogobor Joseph from: Abuja Nigeria
    March 13, 2015 7:38 AM
    Most of the sources you quoted except those that spoke against the govt. Are anonymous, what yet you expect. Us to swallow your story hook line and sinker kwo? Pls tell me what is wrong with having military technicians. Accompany new military hardware to teach the end users how to operate and fix it. Now you guys just goofed when you said about 150 mercenaries are in the nation to combat Boko Haram, what do you think that Number can do to record the level of victory the Nigerian army has recorded against the insurgents of recent?

    You went ahead to bring a " military consultant" from SA who has taken up an unsolicited role of advising the govt. On how not to strain her relationship with the military... What is your mission really? To incite the soldiers on another round of mutiny? Pls next time before you write on sensitive issue as this pls rendezvous to do thorough and unbiased research, we have suffered enough in the hands of Boko Haram we wouldn't want a PR job for those that fund its operations
    Comments page of 3

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