Johannesburg - This week, Nigeria boasted that its war against Boko Haram was all but won, and that the Jihadist insurgents had been driven by Nigerian-led forces from the towns and forest camps from which they had formerly launched their reign of terror.
“So they really have no base,” military spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade is reported by AP as observing. “All we are doing is mopping up and conducting cordon and search operations for weapons and as many of them as may be straggling.”
Olukolade’s confidence may well prove somewhat premature. At more or less the same time, Chad has reported losing 71 deployed soldiers in ongoing conflicts with Boko Haram.
But all indications are that the tide has turned and that recent successes by Nigerian-led strike forces can at least in part be attributed to the involvement of the South African-linked Private Military Company (PMC), STTEP, in training and strategising Nigeria’s military response to a geopolitical security crisis that held its government seemingly mesmerised and ineffectual for several years.
At the heart of their recent success is the application of an apparently simple strategy pioneered by STTEP’s predecessor, Executive Outcomes, in bush wars in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
Describing the strategy as one of “relentless pursuit”, Eeben Barlow, STTEP chairman and former boss of Executive Outcomes, in a blog in 2011, goes on to say it “implies the enemy is pursued with speed and aggression, without stopping, pushing him past the limits of endurance, while we continually substitute the men doing the pursuit with fresh troops…”
He also insists that it can only be effectively engaged with superior firepower on the side of the pursuing forces. It is also vital, Barlow argues, to have expert trackers among the pursuers as well as “outstanding communications” and intelligence capabilities to facilitate leap-frogging ahead of the enemy by means of helicopters (thus allowing for ambushes and the cutting off of their lines of retreat).
The strategic terrain indicated by Barlow is also traversed in the book Four Ball One Tracer, by former EO field operative Roelf van Heerden and Andrew Hudson. It details EO campaigns in Angola and Sierra Leone.
Here, the pursuit was launched on the premise of outgunning the enemy with an infantry backed up by mobile armoured vehicles as well as helicopter gunships. But the principles as well as the reliance on intelligence and mainly Bushman trackers first used by the South African counter-insurgency units Koevoet and the SADF’s 32 Battalion in the 1970s and 1980s, are virtually identical with those used in EO’s early military successes.
In the Nigerian theatre, however, as Barlow notes in an interview with the Special Operatives website, Sofrep’s James Murphy, the force available to the military includes an “air wing”, intelligence structures co-ordinated with the government’s military apparatus, and access to weaponry that includes bombs, mortars and RPGs.
Underlying it all is a coldly logical countering of the strategies classically used by insurgents throughout Africa.
As Sofrep’s Murphy notes, Boko Haram uses “guerrilla hit-and-run techniques, striking when and where they choose, hoping the media will act as a force multiplier by replaying stories about the attack over and over again…”
The core insight driving the strategy pursued by Barlow’s command is to take this initiative away from the enemy, and it appears to be working as effectively today as it did a quarter of a century ago.