The unsubstantiated rumours of the private security company STTEP (Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International) being redeployed to Nigeria have yet to generate the furore that their initial deployment did in 2015. The earlier presence of STTEP prompted the South African government to label them as ‘mercenary’ in function and nature and therefore in contravention of existing domestic and international legal mechanisms. Other commentators took a broader view and characterised their arrival in northern Nigeria as a “logical step” (and as an act of desperation) following the poor performance of the Nigerian Defence Force (NDF) in their operations against Boko Haram.
Following the rumours of STTEP’s return, two questions need to be asked: was the deployment of a private military contractor (PMC: in this case STTEP) a dangerous strategic calculation on the part of the Jonathan administration? And secondly, what would the redeployment of a PMC in a combat orientated role mean for contingency contracting on the continent? Crucially, these questions should be examined against the failure of the training and advisory support provided to the Nigerian government by its international partners to achieve meaningful strategic success.
Fortunately, the answers to these questions can be seen in hindsight. In the first case, it is necessary to outline the broader operational and strategic priorities that prompted the previous Jonathan administration to seek private military services. These priorities influenced the decision to hire a PMC as an outcome of recurring NDF inertia at strategic, operational and tactical levels. The answer to the second question lies within a broader narrative of the desirability of private combat-orientated services on the continent, as well as the notion that the sharp end of military contractor support (Peter Singer’s tip of the spear typology) cannot be wholly removed from the existence of a global market for private military services.
Indeed, one may go as far as to suggest that the historical effectiveness of the PMC model for contingency contracting in Angola (1993 -96), Sierra Leone (1995 – 97) and now Nigeria may make it an attractive option for African governments, despite an increasing preference for behind-the-lines, non-combat advisory and training contracting models. From a strategic point of view, the Jonathan administration hired a PMC (STTEP) for its depth of expertise in high-tempo ground and air operations, and its particular institutional knowledge of combat operations in Africa (contained in STTEP’s doctrine of Composite Warfare). This is a reasonable strategic calculation.
Further, it is important to acknowledge that STTEP is a primarily Africa-centered company whose expertise, doctrine, and training regimes mirror the character of the African battlespace. It is, for all intents and purposes, an African company offering Africa-centered solutions to African security crises. It must also be stressed that STTEP’s role was purely short-term – in effect, a crisis intervention measure. In this sense, the Jonathan administration hired a PMC on the back of failures from state forces and international partners to provide an immediate and much needed military band-aid.
Importantly, it was not hired as a peace enforcer or actor facilitating conflict resolution. These (critical) functions remain the responsibility of the Nigerian government and the broader regional community. The onus remains on the government to sustainably capitalise on the gains claimed through STTEP’s role. Arguably, these traditional roles are better suited to mechanisms such as the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) and its affiliated continental structures. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) reported that President Jacob Zuma had suggested the use of the ACIRC to President Jonathan in January 2015, which he refused at the time.
Despite various suggestions as to why President Jonathan turned down the option of the ACIRC, the hiring of a PMC was, I would argue, a better strategic decision. It gave the NDF much needed quick-wins in a relatively short time frame, which afforded them crucial strategic breathing space. The employment of a PMC in the wake of long-term operational inertia of the NDF should therefore not be seen as either a strategic aberration, or condemned as a poor political choice for security assistance.
While PMCs have been historically painted as unethical enterprises in Africa, the contract model in Nigeria obviates this negative characterisation. Their presence in Nigeria, though kept secret at first (operational security being the most obvious reason) was at the behest of the government and, as a result, legitimate. Moreover, STTEP, as per the old Executive Outcomes (EO) model in Sierra Leone, was embedded within NDF structures for the period of their contract. They were not external/adjunct to NDF structures, and therefore synchronised their services with the broader strategic and operational objectives of the Nigerian army.
This model created the crucial unity of effort required between contracted forces and military structures. This coordination, (which EO used in both Angola and Sierra Leone) offset the damaging strategic and tactical occurrences of poor communication and overall force-disjointedness. This was very much the case in the initial outsourcing surge in Iraq (between 2003 – 06). The much cited analogy of hired guns running amok simply cannot be applied in Nigeria’s case. Despite this, accusations of criminal liability – mostly voiced by the South African government and based on legislation that is constitutionally problematic and legally ambiguous – muddy the conceptual waters of Nigeria’s decision to hire a PMC.
From an operational and tactical viewpoint, STTEP provided the NDF with immediate access to relevant doctrinal advice, and proficiency in a style of warfare with which the NDF was not operationally au fait, despite all the foreign training they were given. More critically, it had a proven and testable battlefield record. Executive Outcomes (STTEP’s arguable predecessor from an organisational and service model perspective) employed similar operational and tactical models in Angola and Sierra Leone with great success. In both instances, a precise and timely economy of force, coupled with high levels of mechanised mobility supported by armour, artillery and gunships, rapid insertion of stopper groups and an effective human intelligence (HUMINT) capability proved to be a winning formula.
Beyond the operational and tactical expertise that their involvement brought, the use of STTEP compensated, to a degree, for the organisational deficiencies that bedevilled the NDF in its long-running campaign against Boko Haram. These ranged from systemic corruption within the military, to poor doctrinal advice, desertion, a flagging espirit de corps, inadequate training, incorrect unit structures, poor tactical use of equipment, and human rights abuses. As an aside, and at the risk of being pedantic, one needs to see these military shortcomings as common motivators to seek private military services as stop-gap interventions (but not long-term solutions) to critical security failures on the part of government forces.
As to the second issue, STTEP’s hiring and consequent strategic value may signal that despite the mainstream Western market for contingency contracting largely steering clear of direct combat operations, Africa is a niche market for contracted combat services. This should not be seen as anachronistic, but as a by-product of the continent’s continuing struggle with traditional and non-traditional drivers of instability. Given the role that PMCs such as STTEP occupy in this market, it would be strategically myopic to view the demand for such services as a solely predatory phenomenon stemming from state failure, or as a key driver of conflict.
While destructive outcomes have been seen in the past, and certainly demand robust engagement, the fundamental policy challenge here is to rigorously delineate and identify service providers within a niche market offering valuable and strategically appropriate services, from those who function in an unethical, predatory manner. PMCs such as STTEP occupy the former. STTEP’s embedment with the NDF is emblematic of a model of contracted military services founded on the principle of synchronicity with broader, government-led strategic objectives. This acts as an important legitimising function. Beyond this model, which has resurfaced on the back of a significant – and long-standing – state failure to deal with security threats, mainstream contingency contracting on the continent will probably remain as advisory and training services.
Within this space, the US currently forms the single largest provider of this type of contingency contracting on the continent through its AFRICOM affiliated AFRICAP and ACOTA mechanisms. In spite of this, it is reasonable and justifiable to hypothesise that STTEP’s organisational and contracting model will continue to be strategically successful, despite the criticism of its Western detractors. The decision of Nigeria to opt for short-term, PMC support has resuscitated – if even only for a brief period – discussions on the desirability and role of private combat services in Africa. It has shown that despite the global market largely eschewing direct combat involvement, the strategic relevance and value of these services remain an enduring feature of the African security environment.