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Gordon Campbell on South African mercenaries in Nigeria

Gordon Campbell on the role of South African mercenaries in the war on terrorism

For anyone with memories of the apartheid era, there will be mixed feelings about the news this week that South African mercenaries are playing a key role in turning the tide against Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria. Years ago, many of those same South African fighters were engaged in domestic attacks on activists in the anti-apartheid movement, and led sustained campaigns against liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere. Under the name Executive Outcomes, they were also involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Reuters first broke the news of the South African presence in northern Nigeria. In recent weeks, hundreds of South African mercenaries have reportedly been using “attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group” senior officials in the northern region have told the New York Times.:

The Nigerian military,under pressure because of a presidential election to be held this month, has recently claimed a string of successes against Boko Haram, boasting about the recapture of a number of towns……A senior Western diplomat confirmed that the South Africans were playing “a major operational role,” particularly at night. Equipped with night-vision goggles, the mercenaries “are whacking them in the evening hours,” the diplomat said.

“The next morning the Nigerian Army rolls in and claims success,” the diplomat added. The mercenaries “are doing the heavy lifting,” said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Other countries in the region have also joined the fight against Boko Haram, with Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin all contributing troops to a regional force of nearly 9,000 troops. Chadian troops in particular, have reportedly played a role in re-taking some towns. The South Africans though, have proved to be the decisive factor in changing the course of the war.

When questioned, Nigeria’s chief of defence intelligence has claimed that the South African contractors are only present in a “training” role. While training the Nigerian Army has been part of their duties, their role also apparently includes planning military operations, gathering intelligence, flying Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters and other combat activities.

They’re relics of apartheid,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said of the South African mercenaries in Nigeria. “They love this gung-ho kind of stuff, and they’re good at it.”

Mercenaries from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics are also involved in the Boko Haram campaign. This report spells out the South African contribution in more detail.

All of this is however, a mere sideshow to the March 28 presidential elections in Nigeria. This will be a re-run of February’s postponed encounter between the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan – who is a Christian from the Ijo tribal groupings in the south - and Mohammadu Buhari, a former military leader and Sunni Moslem from the Fulani people in the north that has long been linked to Boko Haram. More accurately, Boko Haram has capitalised on the genuine grievances felt by Fulani herdsman against the enchroachment on their lands by sedentary farmers and agri-business interests. That long simmering conflict is explained in detail here.

Although its own ethnic roots are among the Kanuri tribal grouping Boko Haram has been playing on the Fulani’s list of grievances, and even traces its own lineage back to the regional Caliphate founded by an ethnic Fulani called Usman Dan Fodio in the early 19th century, in order to promote its own plans for a new Salafist Caliphate stretching across the entire Sahei region. In a sense though, Boko Haram has played right into Jonathan’s hands by declaring its allegiance earlier this week to Islamic State. As Bloomberg News says :

[Boko Haram’s]recent pledge of fealty to Islamic State has fed Jonathan's narrative that Nigeria is helping to fight a global war on terror, rather than flailing before a decentralized insurgency that draws on local grievances.

And in the long run… Supposedly, the South African mercenaries will face prosecution by the ANC-led government if and when they return to South Africa. Lets not hold our breath on that one.

Deep diving

Talking of holding your breath, the cliché jargon phrase around the bureaucratic traps in Wellington right now I’m told, is “deep diving”. Everywhere around town, public servants are being exhorted by highly paid team motivators from the h.r. department to don their intellectual and emotional swimming trunks and go “deep diving” into this or that challenge or problem or white-boarded organisational nexus. So with that in mind, here’s Charles Trenet’s timeless ode to those oceanic mysteries. Don’t forget your oxygen tank, as you deep dive into your in-basket. (Do public servants still have in-baskets?) And lets hope there’s enough water at the bottom of that flow chart.

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