I note with amusement that the news of South African mercenaries becoming involved (with very effective results) in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria has just hit the headlines.
With their roots in South Africa apartheid-era security forces, they do not fit the standard image of an army of liberation. But after just three months on the ground, a squad of grizzled, ageing white mercenaries have helped to end Boko Haram's six-long year reign of terror in northern Nigeria.
Run by Colonel Eeben Barlow, a former commander in the South African Defence Force, the group of bush warfare experts were recruited in top secrecy in January to train an elite strike group within Nigeria's disorganised, demoralised army.
Some of the guns-for-hire cut their teeth in South Africa's border wars 30 years ago. But their formidable fighting skills – backed by their own helicopter pilots flying combat missions – have proved decisive in helping the military turn around its campaign against Boko Haram in its north-eastern strongholds.
The Islamists have now fled many of the towns they once controlled, leading to the freeing of hundreds of girls and women last week who were used by Boko Haram as slaves and bush wives.
The role of Col Barlow's firm in turning around one of the most vicious African insurgencies of modern times has been kept largely quiet by Nigeria's outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, who lost elections six weeks ago to ex-general Muhammadu Buhari.
But last week, Col Barlow discussed his company's role in a seminar at the Royal Danish Defence College, and in a separate interview with a Sofrep.com, a special forces website, he described in detail the "aggressive" strike force that was created to push Boko Haram onto the back foot.
“The campaign gathered good momentum and wrested much of the initiative from the enemy,” said Col Barlow, 62. “It was not uncommon for the strike force to be met by thousands of cheering locals once the enemy had been driven from an area.”
He added: “Yes, many of us are no longer 20-year-olds. But with our age has come a knowledge of conflicts and wars in Africa that our younger generation employees have yet to learn, and a steady hand when things get rough.”
There's more at the link.
I'm not surprised by this. Former South African Defense Force troops have fought in many of the wars in Africa over the past two and a half decades, after their own country turned its back on veterans of the bush war after the advent of majority rule. Many US servicemen have run into South African 'contractors' in Iraq and Afghanistan as well (a lot of them are still active in the latter country). I was given an early heads-up about the Nigeria operation by an old comrade-in-arms late last year, who's kept me informed with a couple of letters and some very enlightening pictures as operations progressed. (No, I'm not going to publish them here. He specifically asked me not to do that. I have a feeling he may be planning a book or a series of articles based on his experiences, so they'll be reserved for that.)
I understand the unit was technically a 'training mission' - but with only three months to 'train' troops who didn't really know what they were doing, it's obvious that most of the training was 'on the job', with the South Africans actually doing the 'job' while the Nigerians fought alongside them, learned by observation and by copying their mentors, and generally got the idea. Well, I guess you could call that 'instruction' if you stretch a point! The tactics and equipment involved hark back to the heyday of the Border War in South West Africa (today Namibia) and Angola, and will be completely familiar to all of us who served there. They work just as well today as ever they did, to Boko Haram's bitter cost. The South African unit has now withdrawn, after succeeding in disrupting Boko Haram over much of its former territory, setting the stage for the Nigerians to continue with their newly-learned tactics to finish the problem in the old-fashioned African way.
If you'd like to know more, there's a good overview and a six-part interview with Col. Barlow over at Sofrep at the following links, including photographs:
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 1): PMC and Nigerian Strike Force Devastates Boko Haram
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 2): Development of a Nigerian Strike Force
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 3): Tactics Used to Destroy Boko Haram
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 4): Rejecting the Racial Narrative
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 5): The External Drivers of Nigeria’s War
Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 6): South African Contractors Withdrawal from Nigeria
I'm looking forward to learning more about this from an 'inside' perspective in due course. If my buddy decides to write about it, I'll publicize the result here for your reading pleasure and military education. It should be very interesting.