There are indications that Nigeria has brought in hundreds of mercenaries from Eastern Europe to strengthen its war against militant Islamic group, Boko Haram.
The Eastern European mercenaries have joined their South-African counterparts and Nigerian soldiers fighting the insurgents.
According to Reuters, rumours about the use of foreign mercenaries against the Islamist militant group gained substance this month when pictures surfaced on Twitter showing Armoured Personnel Carriers vehicles on a street in Maiduguri, Borno State.
In the picture, which appeared on Twitter on March 6, a white man in a khaki, a tee-shirt and body armour, was standing beside a heavy-calibre machine gun on top of one of the sand-coloured APCs as the column drove through the streets at dusk.
The newswire stated that its reporter with knowledge of Maiduguri was able to verify the location of the photo as the Bama Road near the University of Maiduguri.
Security and diplomatic sources said the number of the mercenaries was much higher than the hundred or so previously reported.
When contacted by The PUNCH, the spokesman for the Defence Headquarters, Brig.-Gen. Chris Olukolade, said “I don’t know anything about the claim”(the involvement of mercenaries in the fight against Boko Haram).
He added, “I just know Nigerian military and security forces are putting in all resources, training and experience acquired over the years to address security challenges.
“Our neighbours operating under the auspices of the Mutlinational Joint Task Force are also backing our efforts from all our borders with them. We also have some offers of training and intelligence from friendly countries.”
Attempts by The PUNCH to speak with the Director-General, National Orientation Agency, Mike Omeri, who coordinates the National Information Centre, on the issue proved abortive as he did not pick calls to his mobile phone.
He was also yet to reply a text message on the use of mercenaries in the North-East as of press time.
President Goodluck Jonathan had on Wednesday, said that two companies were providing “trainers and technicians” to help Nigerian forces in their efforts to end insurgency in the country.
He did not name the firms or the nationalities or give numbers.
It was gathered from a West African security source and a South African defence source that the mercenaries were linked to the bosses of a former South African private military.
The company is known for its involvement in Angola’s 1975-2002 civil war and against Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone in 1995.
It disbanded in 1998, under pressure from the post-apartheid government in Pretoria to curtail mercenary activities.
Foreign fighters paid $400 cash daily
A West African security source said the foreign fighters were being paid around $400 a day.
A South African defence contractor confirmed that South African company leaders were involved in the deployment of the mercenaries.
An Abuja-based diplomat said the South Africans were backed by soldiers and hardware from the Eastern Europe in an alliance against Boko Haram .
“It’s an incoherent mix of people, helicopters and random kit from all sorts of different sources, but there is an element of internal cohesion from the Nigerian Army,” the diplomat said.
“It appears to be a desperate ploy to get some sort of tactical success up there in six weeks for the electoral boost,” the diplomat added. The numbers of soldiers involved were in the “low hundreds; he added.
Editor of African Armed Forces magazine, John Stupart, identified the troop carriers as Reva III, manufactured by a Pretoria-based company called Integrated Convoy Protection.
After reports of South African military trainers first surfaced in the Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper in January, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapise-Nqakula, made clear her displeasure, saying any deployment would be illegal under 1998 anti-mercenary laws.
“They are mercenaries, whether they are training, skilling the Nigerian defence force, or scouting for them. The point is they have no business to be there,” she was quoted as saying in domestic media.
The minister added, “The police have a responsibility to ensure that, when they come back, those people are arrested and the [National Prosecutions Authority] has a responsibility to charge them. There are consequences for going out of the country and provide [sic] any form of military assistance as a mercenary, not as part of the deployment by government.”
South Africa bans its nationals from participating directly in hostilities for private gain. Georgia, seen as a major source of mercenaries, has laws before parliament criminalising participation in a broad range of foreign military activities.
The appearance of foreign private soldiers comes four months after Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, Ade Adefyue, said Washington was not helping the struggle against Boko Haram, and had failed to share intelligence and sell Nigeria the weapons it needed.
South African dies
A South African mercenary has been killed in Borno State where he was participating in the fight against Boko Haram.
Leon Lotz, an apartheid-era Koevoet operative, was reportedly killed on March 9 in a friendly fire incident when a Nigerian tank destroyed the wrong target, according to Daily Maverick newspaper.
Lotz is reportedly from KwaZulu-Natal and was involved in the support and maintenance of vehicles used by the Nigerian Army.
According to a Daily Maverick source, Lotz was working for a private security company called Pilgrim Africa Ltd.