'Hundreds' of Foreign Mercenaries Fighting Boko Haram

Boko Haram
Chadian soldiers push a military pickup truck to get it out of the sand near the front line in the war against insurgent group Boko Haram in Gambaru, Nigeria, February 26, 2015. Emmanuel Braun/ REUTERS

Hundreds of foreign mercenaries from the former Soviet Union and South Africa have been drafted in by Nigeria to battle the radical Islamist group Boko Haram and plug the capability gap in the Nigerian military's offensive, according to diplomatic sources and experts.

The Nigerian election, originally scheduled for February 14, has been delayed to March 28 because of security concerns over the group's insurgency in the northeast of the country. The Nigerian military is carrying out a six-week operation against the group, with the government, led by People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Goodluck Jonathan, hoping to score a propaganda victory by defeating the group before the vote.

"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," an Abuja-based diplomat told Reuters.

"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 said, adding that numbers of mercenaries fighting with the military were in the "low hundreds".

Jonathan, in an interview with Voice of America, this week admitted that two private companies were supplying "trainers and technicians" to aid the Nigerian military but did not elaborate on their role or nationality.

The government has failed to tackle Boko Haram in its six-year insurgency, with the group - who last week pledged allegiance to ISIS - killing thousands of people and capturing towns across the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.

Experts believe that the mercenaries have not only been drafted in to speed up the offensive against Boko Haram before the election, but to also plug gaps in the capabilities of the military, which has suffered a number of defeats against the group, through training and strategic advice.

"Generally speaking, it has been in a training and an advisory capacity rather than the Hollywood image of a mercenary would have us believe these guys were running around in tanks and things like that," says John Stupart, managing director of the African Defence Review.

When asked if the mercenaries were recruited to speed up the fight against Boko Haram, Stupart adds: "Absolutely, but whether the job is done and as fast as possible is another question entirely."

Following the revelation, South Africa's Ministry of Defence spokeswoman, Joy Peter, in comments made to Bloomberg, said that South Africans fighting against Boko Haram would face a criminal investigation as they were acting as mercenaries.

"We don't have a deployment in Nigeria," Peter said, adding that any South African nationals discovered battling the terror group "are not under our authority as the South African National Defence Force".

"We refer to them as mercenaries," she added. "The National Prosecuting Authority and the police would have to investigate them."

Last week, the extremists detonated five bombs in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, killing over 100 people, local media reported.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the terror group killed over 10,000 people in 2014 and they have already reportedly slain over 2,000 people in the first months of 2015 following a series of mass killings in the town of Baga, in the state of Borno.

A spokesman for the Nigerian government was unavailable for comment when contacted.

The Hunt for Boko Haram, an in-depth ebook on the terrorists tearing Nigeria apart by Alex Perry, is available now from Newsweek Insights.