Reports of the death of a South African citizen working alongside the Nigerian military in the frontline of the fight against Boko Haram has sparked a storm of speculation. Rumours and reports of foreign personnel providing training, technical support, and possibly even fighting for the Nigerian government, as what can only be described as mercenaries, have been a regular facet of the conflict in recent months. For South Africans to be involved in the fighting, whether directly or indirectly is both newsworthy and could have dramatic political and legal consequences.
‘Mercenaries’ is a weighted term – it carries a range of negative connotations. Members of the profession, or at least, those that care, often prefer terms like Private Military Company or Private Security Company. Where PMSCs became a common and famous/infamous feature of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Africa, ‘mercenary’ remains highly pejorative. This possibly pedantic side-note is worth bearing in mind.
The predecessor to PMSCs like Blackwater and Aegis was the 1990’s era South African company Executive Outcomes (EO). Without wading into well-travelled and still highly contentious waters, EO made a name for itself in Angola and especially, Sierra Leone, where formations of former apartheid-era SADF soldiers were paid to fight other people’s wars. And they were fairly unquestionably good at it, at least in terms of winning fights. However, to much of the continent, and certainly, to the South African Government, EO remained mercenaries, carrying with that term all of the worst perceptions of the ‘dogs of war’ who created so much chaos across the continent during the final days of colonialism.
Moreover, under South African law, it is illegal for South African citizens to directly participate without government sanction in foreign wars (although, the efficacy of these laws remains questionable considering regular reports of South Africans involved in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere). Nonetheless, reports that emerged from Beeld in January 2015 of former-SADF personnel providing training services to the Nigerian military led Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, at the time attending the AU Summit in Addis Ababa, to unequivocally state that any such people should be arrested on arrival back in South Africa.
Considering the SA government’s attitude toward mercenaries, finding anyone from that ex-SADF contingent to formally confirm what was going on is not surprisingly difficult. The Beeld article claimed to have spoken directly with members of the 100-man contingent providing technical and training aid in Nigeria (then supposedly based at Jaji in central Nigeria). Peter Fabricus, writing for the ISS on 5 March referred instead to intelligence sources who reported that several ex- SAAF pilots were also in Nigeria, flying Russian Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, and possibly engaged in high-level coordination with Nigerian military command.
Importantly, while the South African Government appears to be playing clueless to all of this, the Beeld and Fabricus articles say that Abuja and the mercenaries claim to have cleared their involvement with the SA Government.
Meanwhile, the weight of evidence supporting the stories of foreign mercenaries in Nigeria gained a significant boost on 6 March when pictures posted to Twitter and originating from Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper showed white males manning armoured vehicles passing through what was alleged to Maiduguri city – essentially in the middle of the Boko Haram insurgency. Those pictures quickly became the focus of debate around South African involvement. The vehicles themselves were identified by ADR’s own Darren Olivier as REVA III’s; manufactured by a South African company but also sold worldwide (and apparently popular amongst private military companies in Iraq). More importantly however, these particular models of vehicle were not previously known to be in the Nigerian military arsenal. Efforts to verify the location of the pictures was fruitless until a Reuters reporter, familiar with Maiduguri, came forward to identify the convoy’s route as Bama Road.
Importantly, while these pictures do indeed show foreigners manning military equipment in Nigeria, in what is undoubtedly the conflict zone; they, by themselves, do not necessarily provide evidence of South African involvement in the conflict.
On 11 March, a new piece of the puzzle appeared in an article by Daily Maverick’s Simon Allison. A South African citizen, identified as Leon Lotz, was reported to have been killed either in Maiduguri or near Mafa to the east of Maiduguri (conflicting reports have emerged here). It appears his death, and the possible death of several Nigerian troops at the same time, was the result of friendly fire, when a tank fired upon the vehicle Lotz was in, as part of a convoy. Lotz was a former member of the Koevoet paramilitary organisation that operated in Namibia. After disbandment former Koevoet members served as the one of the recruiting bases for many private military companies, including Executive Outcomes, alongside their SADF counterparts from 32 Battalion, the Special Forces and regular units.
Further information was equally interesting. Notably, Lotz was working for Pilgrim Africa Ltd, a private security company headquartered in Lagos and owned by another ex-EO member, Cobus Claassens. Since Executive Outcomes is invariably invoked for reference in just about any article pertaining to mercenaries, it has been worth bringing up here. That being said, there is precisely zero indication that EO, which shut down in the 1990s, is in any way involved here.
To summarise then, a South African private security contractor was reportedly killed alongside Nigerian troops, in the middle of the conflict zone of the Boko Haram insurgency. A few days prior to his death, imagery appeared showing a convoy of vehicles that did not appear to be a part of the Nigerian military, and included personnel very clearly not Nigerian, in the same area that the South African died.
While this is the limit of what is known for sure, these two points support the claims that non-Nigerian nationals are engaged in some sort of military role alongside the Nigerian military, in ongoing operations against Boko Haram, and that some of those people are South African. While the latter point is notable for its potential legal and political consequences, in terms of strategic impact on the conflict, consideration should be given to the scope of that conflict. Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have committed thousands of troops to combatting Boko Haram, and are actively engaged in fighting inside of Nigerian territory. The AU-supported plan for this multinational intervention is currently on its way to the UNSC for a potential mandate, which would result in a much larger, internationally supported operation. This is not to mention the overt and likely covert support of several international countries, including Canada (which has just recently pulled advisors out of Diffa, in Niger), the US (most prominently in facilitating the anti-Boko Haram themed 2015 Operation Flintlock hosted by Chad), the UK (which maintains a quiet training mission in Nigeria) – and in the near future, France (who on March 12 announced they will be re-directing elements of the Sahel-focussed Operation Barkhane to supporting anti-Boko Haram efforts).
It is worth noting also that Lotz is described as having been 59 at the time of his death, hardly a front-line age. This is true of most veterans whose heyday as potential frontline mercenaries came and went in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nonetheless, such veterans could yet be serving as technicians, trainers, and advisors (as claimed), or indeed as pilots. Jakkie Cilliers and Helmoed Heitman, both well-known authorities on South African military matters, provided commentary in the Fabricus piece, noting the potential wealth of knowledge pertaining to counter-insurgency operations that ex-SADF could provide.
Either way however, the proximity to the fighting is a key point. The position reportedly taken by the Abuja government (although not formally expressed as yet through either the Presidency or the normally vocal Nigerian Defence Spokesperson Major General Chris Okulade) is that the South African contingent is there providing only training services. Some officials have gone as far to suggest that the urgency of the offensive (doubtless impacted by impending elections) necessitated ‘on the job’ training on some recently purchased weapons and equipment. In the eyes of the SA government, and considering its position on private military companies, any distinction that might have been raised about the degree of involvement by that contingent of South African PMCs appears increasingly shaky.
Correction: The previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Koevoet was a unit of the SADF and that it was the primary base for recruitment by Executive Outcomes. Neither of these assertions are true; Koevoet was part of the South African Police and Executive Outcomes recruited personnel from a wide range of units including the former SADF’s 32 Battalion and Special Forces.