The state has warned them, but they are likely to be the only help a Nigerian army – not up to the task of fighting Boko Haram itself – will get, writes Peter Fabricius.
Both International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula this week deplored the reported plans by ex-SADF soldiers to help train the Nigerian military to fight the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Mapisa-Nqakula’s reaction was stronger: “I will not call them ex-soldiers; they are mercenaries,” she said, and they would be treated as such. When they returned from Nigeria, they would be arrested and charged under South Africa’s Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act.
This legislation, popularly known as the anti-mercenary act, was introduced under the Mbeki administration to deal with soldiers from the apartheid era taking up security guard positions in Iraq and Afghanistan and also joining the British military.
It was invoked to deal with the leaders of the so-called Wonga Coup in 2004, which was masterminded by the former British special forces officer Simon Mann and the ex-South African special forces officer Nick du Toit. Both of them had since launched private security companies. In common parlance, they had become mercenaries.
The aim was, in essence, worthy: to topple the fabulously corrupt, brutal and oppressive regime of Teodoro Obiang Nguema in Equatorial Guinea. Whether the government that replaced him would have been better must remain conjecture, because the coup was thwarted.
Mann flew from South Africa to Harare with a planeload of ex-South Africa special forces to buy weapons for the coup from the Zimbabwean parastatal arms company. They were arrested at the same time as an advance party led by Du Toit was arrested in Equatorial Guinea.
There are strong suspicions that the South African government got wind of Mann and Du Toit’s plans – and even that the coup plotters naively thought Pretoria was turning a blind eye, preferring a white-mercenary-inspired coup to a nasty dictator.
Instead, the South African government didn’t just stop them, according to this account; it allowed them to get caught to send a strong message to future would-be mercenaries.
There is a whiff of Wonga about the current Boko Haram “mercenary” operation. It is whispered that the participants also believed – or perhaps still believe – they had the tacit approval of Pretoria.
Perhaps this would have been a good operation if it had not been disclosed. Now that it is out there, it’s hard to sell because it is so flagrantly incorrect politically, as was the Wonga Coup.
Yet fighting Boko Haram is precisely the sort of dirty operation for which such mercenaries are perfectly suited. Remember how the South African Executive Outcomes private security firm turned the tide against the equally horrid Revolutionary United Front amputating militias in Sierra Leone back in the late 1990s?
No one else is keen to take on Boko Haram. The corrupt and incompetent Nigerian army is floundering, as are its partner countries in the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Boko Haram is high on the agenda of the AU summit taking place in Addis Ababa this week. But it’s not clear whether the AU will come up with a solution for Boko Haram.
The South Africa-inspired rapid response force of volunteer nations with the unwieldy name of African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) is not quite living up to the urgency implied by its title.
Military analysts say tackling Boko Haram was one of the assignments AU military planners envisaged for ACIRC and conducted military exercises for.
But it seems unlikely ACIRC will be deployed against Boko Haram, mostly because Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan cannot countenance foreign soldiers – especially South African ones – coming to his rescue, especially on the eve of elections next month.
Evidently the Economic Community of West African States is planning to put together a force for the task and to seek AU approval of it at the summit.
If that ever materialises, it could take ages.
Meanwhile, the dreaded South African mercenaries are apparently already in the field. This counts as an African solution for an African problem, surely?
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.