As the Nigerian military races to meet the December deadline given it by President Muhammadu Buhari to flush out Boko Haram insurgents, the country has again hired mercenaries to combat the terror group, senior military sources have revealed.
The mercenaries, estimated at around 250 personnel and hired from South Africa-based private contractor Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), are being deployed along with fighter jets in Operation Fire Force, a source at the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) said on the condition of anonymity.
“The mercenaries have been re-engaged and their platforms are being deployed,” the source said. “By platforms, I mean fighter jets, helos (helicopters), coms (communication), surveillance, medics, etc.”
STTEP includes veterans from the South African apartheid era who will work with and train a Nigerian strike force, according to the source.
Another army source confirmed the development to the Turkish news agency, Anadolu Agency. “There is definitely something happening in that direction,” the source said.
According to STTEP’s official website, the company’s trainers and advisers are drawn from “conventional, clandestine, and covert units of the pre-1994 South African Defence Force”.
It claims to have a proven track record of success in Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and Central and South America.
The same group STTEP was hired by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in January to fight the insurgents, but was described as “shameful” during the March 2015 election campaign by Buhari.
Buhari, a retired general, said the practice represented the depth of weakness of the Nigerian Army.
Asked why the Buhari administration was again deploying mercenaries, the DHQ source said it appeared to be the most practical option if headway was to be made against militants whose guerilla tactics are new to the Nigerian military.
Nigeria claimed significant success against the militants in the run-up to the March election, with some analysts crediting the mercenaries.
According to the DHQ source, the Buhari administration initially terminated the mercenary contract because it was “opaque and without accountability”. However, a new agreement was reached to boost the counterinsurgency operation.
“As it stands now, huge amounts of monies are owed to the contractors as fulfillment for the previous engagement,” the DHQ source added. “So they are starting a new engagement for an initial period of three months. As for their outstanding balances, investigations are being carried out to ensure everything is above board.”
The Nigerian military did not respond to Anadolu Agency’s request for comment.
However, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu denied that government was engaging mercenaries again.
“It is true that the previous administration hired South African mercenaries to fight Boko Haram,” he said. “They, however, left with the government that brought them.”
“Since coming into office, this government did not have any engagement with mercenaries of any kind and there are no plans to do so.”
Siphiwe Dlamini, a spokesman for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), said his country did not have any troops in Nigeria but could not say if private mercenaries were operating there.
“I wish to reiterate there are no SANDF personnel in Nigeria fighting Boko Haram,” he told Anadolu Agency. “If there are South Africans who are there as you allege, they are not our members but private citizens.”
“I cannot comment on what private citizens are doing in any part of the world.”
STTEP did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Earlier this year, South Africa’s Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula issued a stern warning to South African mercenaries, saying they had no business in Nigeria and should be arrested on their return.
“Now that the matter has been brought to our attention, it is (up to us) to verify that information as the government,” she told broadcaster SABC at the time. “The police have a responsibility to make sure that when they come back these people are arrested.”
South African law forbids its citizens from participating in foreign wars. Most South African mercenaries are believed to be soldiers who fought for the apartheid regime.
The Nigerian Army has spoken about impending military deployments against Boko Haram, saying in a statement over the weekend that the country's sovereignty was under threat.
“The next few days would be crucial to the operation Lafiya Dole (Peace by Force),” the Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, said in a message to troops. “It is also crucial to our country Nigeria. Our sovereignty as a nation is threatened.”
“The Nigerian army and indeed the military as the symbol of our nationhood are being challenged. Our ability to stand and defeat the Boko Haram terrorists in the next few weeks will determine the future of our country.”
The use of mercenaries is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria’s conflicts. Hundreds of French mercenaries fought on the side of Biafran rebels against the Nigerian army in the late 1960s.
The country also hired mercenaries to weaken Boko Haram between February and early April 2015 when the army rolled back much of the militants’ advances.
However, the government claimed the mercenaries only operated as instructors.
Meanwhile, the federal government has arraigned five suspected members of the Boko Haram sect at the Federal High Court in Abuja for allegedly masterminding the Nyanyan and Kuje bombings early this month, resulting in the death of scores and injuring several others.
The accused persons – Abdulazeez Muhazab, Ishaka Salihu, Mohammed Jimoh, Abdulwaheed Nasiru and Abdullahi Nasiru – are being tried on five-count terrorism-related charges before the presiding judge, Justice Abdulkadiri Kafarati.
The prosecuting counsel, Mr. Mohammed Saidu Diri, at the trial on Thursday slammed the accused persons with conspiracy, contrary to Section 17 of the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act, for acts of terrorism contrary to Section 2(a) of the same Act, for acting preparatory to an act of terrorism contrary to Section 2(b) of the same Act, and accessories to an act of terrorism contrary to Section 2(g) of the same Act.
The prosecution also alleged that 12 ready made bombs and bomb making devices comprising 27 detonators, aluminium powder, hexomine, hydrogene peroxide, sulfur powder, sodium oxide plus nitrate, soldering wire, sodium carbonate, thermometers, PH litmus paper and a bag of fertiliser were found in their possession on October 6.
The accused persons however pleaded not guilty to the charges except Mohammed Jimoh who pleaded guilty to count five only.
Diri, who is the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation, told the court that the investigation into the alleged crime had been completed and that his team was ready for prosecution.
He asked Justice Kafarati for an adjournment to enable him assemble his witnesses and exhibits to be tendered during the trial.
An attempt by the defence lawyer, Nureni Suleiman, to apply for bail of the accused person orally was unsuccessful.
Suleiman also clarified that one of the accused who pleaded guilty “was not properly informed; the way the charges were read to him seemed not to be clear to him”.
According to him, “Pleading guilty is not a big deal, because this is a capital offence and he can still withdraw it.
“I am just getting involved in the matter and have not been properly briefed and that is why I requested that they be transferred to Kuje Prisons where I can have access to them.
“Also, one of the guys said he is an armed robber, saying he was actually locked up before the explosion.”
Justice Kafarati adjourned the trial to November 17 and 24 this year.
He also ordered that the accused persons be moved from police custody to Kuje prison.