ISS: Soldiers for rent in the Boko Haram crisis

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A Nigerian governor’s call for mercenaries to support the counter-insurgency revives questions about a controversial practice.

Following Boko Haram’s brutal attack on dozens of farmers in Nigeria’s Borno State last November, the state governor called on federal authorities to enlist mercenaries to counter the terror group’s activities in the Lake Chad Basin. This reflected popular wariness about the ability of countries in the to defeat the insurgents alone.

Using mercenaries against Boko Haram isn’t a new idea in the region, but it raises tricky questions. Cameroon’s infamous Rapid Intervention Battalion, trained by Israeli mercenaries under Eran Moas, has been involved in fighting the extremists. It’s uncertain whether Chad and Niger have engaged the services of mercenaries but their citizens appear to be working as guns for hire in other countries.

In December 2014, Nigeria’s government recruited South African mercenaries to stop Boko Haram attacks on its north-eastern cities before the 2015 elections. A report at the time by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) mentions at least three private military companies’ involvement. These are Conella Services, Pilgrims Africa, and Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP).

The position of Nigeria’s current administration on mercenaries is clear. President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the move even before assuming office. Using private contractors to deliver military services goes against the African Union’s Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, which Nigeria ratified in 1986. It’s also contrary to the United Nations’ International Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which the country signed in 1990 but never ratified.

Conella Services confirmed its contract with Nigeria to provide training and combat operations.

In a recent interview with Arise News, a Conella Services representative confirmed that they were contracted by Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser to carry out training and combat operations against Boko Haram. He said his company sought to fill counter-insurgency knowledge and experience gaps in the Nigerian military. This included, for example, how to fly a plane at high speeds and low altitudes in the dark.

According to ICIR’s investigation, in 2015 about 147 South African mercenaries and 163 specially trained Nigerian soldiers formed the 72 Mobile Strike Force special unit. This unit reportedly recovered control of major territories in the first few months of 2015, making some remarkable gains against Boko Haram. Eeben Barlow, famous mercenary and STTEP representative, detailed the ‘relentless pursuit’ approach that was supposedly key to overpowering the insurgents.

While issues of non-payment apparently forced the private military companies to leave by April 2015, this intervention is believed to have marked a turning point in Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. One could arguably conclude that mercenaries should be invited back to support Nigeria’s counter-insurgency. However, other intervention scenarios provide a more nuanced understanding.

During Nigeria’s Civil War from 1967 to 1970, using mercenaries was common practice by both the Biafran secessionists and the Nigerian military. Some scholars suggest that these mercenaries contributed to prolonging the war.