Hundreds of South African mercenaries and hired fighters of other nationalities are playing a decisive role in Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.
The Nigerian government has not acknowledged the presence of the mercenaries, but a senior government official in northern Nigeria said the South Africans – camped out in a remote portion of the airport in Maiduguri, the city at the heart of Boko Haram’s uprising – conduct most of their operations at night because “they really don’t want to let people know what is going on.”
He said the mercenaries’ role was crucial, part of a new offensive against Boko Haram after a nearly six-year insurrection. 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.
The mercenaries “are in the vanguard in the liberation of some of the communities,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
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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 next morning the Nigerian Army rolls in and claims success,” the diplomat said.
The mercenaries “are doing the heavy lifting,” said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “They own the night.”
Another diplomat, also unauthorized to speak on the matter, said he believed the mercenary force was composed of fighters from several countries but mainly South Africa.
The Nigerians’ assertions of making headway follow months in which portions of the country’s territory were lost to Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group that has stormed into villages, killing civilians at random, abducting women and girls at will, and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee across the country’s northeast.
The war against Boko Haram has become a regional one, with Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin agreeing to contribute troops to an 8,700-member force to fight the militants. Attacks by Boko Haram have increasingly spilled across borders in the region, prompting Chad to strike at the group inside Nigerian territory.
According to the senior Nigerian official, the South Africans mercenaries have played a significant role in the recent change of momentum in the military effort against Boko Haram.
“They are on the ground; I have seen them,” he said. “They came in with much more sophisticated equipment than the military. Thanks to their involvement the tide is turning. I believe because of them we will witness a seismic shift.”
South African news organizations have carried a number of reports since January about former members of its armed forces traveling to Nigeria. Some other news reports have said that mercenaries from former Soviet republics have also been enlisted. One South African contractor said in an email to The New York Times that among the foreign fighters were Ukrainian helicopter pilots.
South Africa’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries did not respond to requests for comment, but in an implicit acknowledgment of the mercenaries’ presence in Nigeria, the South African defense minister has said that mercenaries fighting abroad will be arrested on their return to South Africa.
In Washington, Nigeria’s chief of defense intelligence, Rear Adm. Gabriel E. Okoi, said in an interview Wednesday that South African contractors had been hired in recent months to help train Nigerian troops. But he said he was unaware of any current or former members of South Africa’s military or security services hired to engage in active fighting against Boko Haram.
Calls and messages to other Nigerian defense officials were not answered this week.
On Wednesday, the death by friendly fire of a South African mercenary in Nigeria was reported by South Africa’s Netwerk24 and Daily Maverick, and there have been several articles in the Nigerian press in recent weeks on the subject. But until now, no senior official in Nigeria has confirmed their presence.