Hundreds of South African Mercenaries Fighting Boko Haram

The New York Times reports:

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.”

This does not look good for the $2.3-billion-per-year Nigerian military. It also shows a complete lack of tact on the part of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. I mean, how hard could it have been to launder the South African mercenary involvement through some AU joint task force?

The way I see it, the problem here is not that Nigeria is using foreign fighters (even the mighty U.S. uses mercenaries, and as Tolu Ogunlesi writes in FT, the tide is turning against Boko Haram). The problem is in how they are being used. Is their use short-circuiting accountability chains between Nigerians affected and their government? How is it affecting civilian-military relations? And what will be the long-run consequences on the professionalization of the Nigerian military?

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