Boko Haram

Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram in the area bordering Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon; the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the eastern DRC is another case in point.

Nigerian army soldiers patrol along a road in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, on March 5, 2015. Nigeria’s government said that work had begun to rebuild a school in the northeastern town of Chibok from where Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped more than 200 girls in 2014.

Rare photo of Boro Haram

Nigeria: Internal security is the central concern for the comparatively well-equipped and-trained armed forces, with border and maritime security also vital tasks. There have been repeated clashes with Boko Haram in the north of the country with reports that the difficulty in defeating the insurgents was adversely affecting morale, despite training support from the US and other countries. The armed forces have been attempting to adopt COIN tactics, and looking to establish forward-operating bases and quick-reaction groups. Boko Haram’s move into neighbouring states has given Nigeria allies in combating the group, and the Multinational Joint Task Force is in the initial deployment stages. In response to the continuing insurgency, items have been brought out of storage and into service, including transport aircraft and light fighters. Equipment maintenance and serviceability has been a long-standing issue. Piracy remains a problem in western waters and in the Niger Delta.

Support to the campaign against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Jan 2015-Aug 2016.

Since the major Nigerian government offensives of 2015, the number of Boko Haram attacks in the region has declined significantly, but attacks continue to occur in Borno State (especially in its capital, Maiduguri) and the surrounding Lake Chad region. Regional support for the campaign has been demonstrated by contributions to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) set up through agreement between the African Union and the Lake Chad Basin Commission in March 2015. Initial international support for the campaign was mainly limited to training and advising by the United Kingdom and the United States. Pledges of international support significantly increased in the wake of the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014 (especially from France, which also hosted the first Regional Security Summit in Paris in May 2014) and continued into 2016 (with the second Regional Security Summit in Abuja in May). However, international support remains mostly confined to training and advising, with the ground campaign left to regional countries, both in their relatively small contributions to the MNJTF in the immediate Lake Chad border area, and in their wider domestic commitments of their own forces. There have also been reports of support from private military companies.

In January 2012 a female suicide bomber from Bauchi State in northeastern Nigeria attempted to gain entrance to the headquarters of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The FCTA runs Abuja, and its offices house the senior government ministers and thousands of government workers. Although she was stopped before she could detonate the bombs strapped to her body, the emergence of this female suicide bomber in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, again points to a breakdown in traditional society and the resulting mutation. Although suicide bombings have been frequent in the region, this was the first known example of a female suicide bomber. It may well be a harbinger of things to come.

Over the previous three years, the group popularly known as Boko Haram had struck fear into Nigerians with its ferocious attacks on both government and civilian targets. Many commentators translate Boko Haram in its literal sense as “book forbidden,” implying a rejection of “book” or Western education. The group identifies itself as People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. It was founded by a Kanuri, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf- “Ustaz” meaning teacher-in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State, as a nonviolent microfinance Islamic organization opposed to what it saw as a corrupt government. Its members were drawn from the lower economic classes and students of Quranic schools. The group was dominated by the historically segmentary lineage Kanuri people, who previously had their own independent kingdom until British colonialism.

In July 2009 violence erupted when Boko Haram’s meeting place in Bauchi State was raided by Nigerian national police and nine of its members were arrested. Within a couple of hours, reprisal attacks occurred against the police. Riots then erupted, eventually spreading to three other states in the northeast. The fighting lasted for five days. During this time, the military was filmed executing suspected members of the group in public. According to the Red Cross, 780 bodies were found in the streets of Maiduguri alone, with hundreds more killed throughout the northeast. The government targeted the group’s affiliated mosques for destruction. After the riots, Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of the group, was captured and shot, and his body was later found dumped in Maiduguri in full view of its residents, his wrists still in handcuffs. The government claimed he died while attempting to escape custody, an incident later cited by Boko Haram as provocation for revenge attacks against the security services.

After Yusuf’s death, Abubakar Shekau, also a Kanuri, became leader of the group. To show solidarity with Yusuf, he married one of Yusuf’s four wives and adopted their children. The group began to recruit other ethnic groups, such as the Fulani, another segmentary lineage people in northern Nigeria. The first suicide bomber in Nigerian history, who Boko Haram announced was Fulani, blew himself up in the national police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011. His target was the inspector general of the Nigerian national police, who the day before had declared in Maiduguri that “the days of Boko Haram are numbered.” Another suicide attack followed a few months later, this time on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, killing twenty-one people and injuring seventy-three.

Boko Haram also began to target fellow Muslims, particularly those associated with the central government. In September 2011 Babakura Fugu, Mohammed Yusuf’s brother-in-law, was shot outside his house in Maiduguri two days after attending a peace meeting with the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. In July 2012 a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up in the central mosque of Maiduguri, killing five and injuring a further six. His main targets, who escaped from the blast uninjured, were the deputy governor of Bornu State and the shehu of Bornu, Abubakar Umar Garbai el-Kanemi, both Muslims. The previous year, the shehu’s younger brother was killed by gunmen. The shehu is one of the main religious leaders of the Kanuri, and the position of shehu was also the former ruler of the Kanuri Kanem-Bornu Empire, which was absorbed into the British colonial government. The current shehu is directly descended from the shehus of the Kanuri Empire. One month later, a suicide bomber targeted the emir of Fika, another religious figure who had spoken against violence and in support of the security forces; this attack occurred during Friday prayers at the central mosque in Potiskum in Yobe State, missing the emir but injuring dozens of people.

In adopting an Islamic identity, the group was also concerned about matters outside the tribe such as the status of Muslims in Nigeria, a country largely divided between a Muslim north and Christian south. In January 2012, in the wake of the 2011 Christmas-day bombings in which several churches were attacked in Abuja, Jos, and in the northeastern Yobe State, Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, announced, “We are also at war with Christians because the whole world knows what they did to us. They killed our fellows and even ate their flesh in Jos.” Shekau was referring to several incidents in 2011 in which Christian Berom tribesmen ate the charred flesh of Muslims they had killed and roasted in the Plateau State of the Middle Belt region in Nigeria. In a widely circulated online video, voices can be heard telling a young man who is hacking apart a charred and headless body with a machete, “I want the heart” and “Did you put some salt?” as youths proudly hold up severed heads blackened by fire for the camera. Several policemen can be seen standing back and watching the cannibalistic feast. There is an air of festivity about the gathering, as if the revelers were enjoying a special celebration. The volatile Middle Belt region, which serves as the border between Muslim north and Christian south and where different religious and ethnic groups live side by side, has for the past decade been caught in a vicious cycle of attack and counterattack between the tribal communities. Revenge attacks between Christian and Muslim tribal groups remain a constant threat in the region, such as in Kaduna State, bordering Plateau State, where a number of assaults killed dozens of Christians in the fall of 2012, including a November suicide bombing of a military base church killing eleven.

The group remains active not just in northeast Nigeria but now also across the border into Cameroon and Niger, particularly as Nigeria and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force have exerted greater pressure on the group. Significant gains by Nigeria’s armed forces continue to reduce Boko Haram’s strength and territory, in conjunction with the military deployments of regional nations as part of the Multinaltional Joint Task Force. Weakened further by a leadership division, the group’s factions remain capable of conducting attacks, including cross-border raids.


Things were not going well in Nigeria in 2015. Its military was fighting war against a powerful force of Boko Haram today. Then suddenly, things began Jihadis – as it is still doing to change. That came after the government of West Africa’s superpower secretly approached a group of former South African mercenaries to gather together a force of former Executive Outcomes (EO) professional soldiers to see if they could sort out the mess. Nigeria did so knowing that South African law does not permit its nationals to fight in foreign wars.

Old names in the industry, like Eeben Barlow (former head of Executive Outcomes, now chairman of STTEP) and Pilgrims Africa Ltd. (another South African PMSC based in Lagos), made headlines in 2015 assisting the Nigerian government in combating Boko Haram.

Since EO has an `alumnae’ network that stretches all the way across Africa and remains strong today, the new combat unit – only 75 strong, including an Air Wing with helicopter gunships – were ready to roll within weeks. Their numbers included many former SADF personnel – black and white – quite a few in their fifties and some even older. Almost all had subsequently served with EO in Angola and Sierra Leone. Most international news reports at the time spoke of a foreign force of several hundreds.

Effectively, said one of them, “I think the ghost of EO was resurrected. The Nigerian decision to hire our blokes to fight this new form of Islamic terror came at a good time and actually, we did exceptionally well.” Though press coverage of conflict was minimal, the international community – and many Nigerians – were stunned.

This tiny group of `guns for hire’ fought for only six months in north-east Nigeria and in that short time achieved more than the Nigerian Army had managed to do in six years of sporadic combat against a powerfully-motivated terrorist force.

What has since emerged is that the South Africans had a secret. “When we go to war,” the author’s contact admitted, “we command the night.” This was something that had very rarely happened in Nigeria in the past, he disclosed. “So, when the sun set, we left our secure bases and did our thing.” It was apparently something for which Boko Haram was totally unprepared.

Then, almost overnight, South African mercenary participation ended. Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari, a former major general in the Nigerian Army was sworn in late May 2015 and soon afterwards the money intended to pay EO was stolen and the venture called to a halt. Buhari was not actually opposed to the mercenary effort because, officially, the word was put out that it was Nigerian troops who were winning the war and not a rogue band of geriatric foreigners. The Nigerian military was involved, but played only a minor, peripheral role, supplying hardware like armoured vehicles and weapons, but little else – their main problem being that they were not prepared for night deployments.

A couple of months later the EO veterans returned home and there is an ongoing dispute as to whether everybody was properly paid. Since then, an impasse in hostilities has returned and Boko Haram is once again terrorising civilians and kidnapping their daughters. This raises the interesting question: how did a relatively small group of freebooters who originally fought in Angola from 1993 onwards manage to achieve so much in such a short space of time?

In truth, they were a hand-picked, select group of professional soldiers. The majority had fought for Executive Outcomes in Angola against Dr Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrillas from 1993 onwards – and thereafter in Sierra Leone. Moreover, all had seen action, some quite a lot of it. Several had been wounded in action and quite a few decorated for bravery while serving in the SADF.

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