The Chadian president, Idriss Deby, recently visited Nigeria to have a talk with the outgoing Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, about the ongoing operations in the Northeast by both the Chadian and Nigerian armed forces, alongside those of Cameroon and Niger. During a press question and answer session, Mr Deby was asked about the relationship between the Chadian forces and mercenaries hired by the Nigerian government to operate in the theatre. The question was posed by Mr Ubale Musa, a journalist working for the German radio station, Deutsche Welle. Mr Deby replied that he had no information concerning mercenaries.
By rights, that should have been the end of the story. However, shortly thereafter, the journalist had his invitation rescinded, and was escorted off the premises. Thankfully, they at least had the decency to allow him go back for his things before being ejected. It appears that the Nigerian president was loath to have the presence of mercenaries in Nigeria discussed so, naturally, we will discuss it.
Note: this discussion will take the form of a 3-part series. In this first part, I will look at the timeline behind the hiring of a private, armed, foreign company to help fight this war. In part 2 I will discuss the roles they played, including tactics, and what it means for the Nigerian Army. Finally, in part 3, I will look at the difference between private military companies and mercenaries, as well as ethical arguments surrounding the use of them.
First we should establish that there was a private armed group hired by the Nigerian government to work with it in the Northeast. This is the easy part, because the chairman of the private military company (PMC) called STTEP (Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection), Col. Eeben Barlow, has admitted it openly. STTEP, by the admission of its chairman, was brought in to rescue the Chibok girls in early December 2014, right around the time that the Nigerian government stopped the final training phase with the American government. It stands to reason that negotiations with STTEP would have already been near conclusion before the American training was cancelled. The girls, however, had been missing since April 2014. A bit late in the day, right? But STTEP was a subcontractor. The main contractor was hired by the Nigerian government a few months prior (date unclear). The company, called Pilgrims Africa Ltd, is supposedly a security company based in Lagos state, interestingly enough, with at least one branch in Europe.
So why is the government so sensitive about the issue? They have never admitted the presence of armed foreigners acting in the Northeast, whether as trainers, suppliers of military hardware, or active participants in battle. Looking at the words and actions of the government, as well as the military, it is clear that they have no desire to be seen as weak or troubled. “Dissident” soldiers are court-martialed, condemned to death, or quietly dismissed if they ever let out any word of the troubles within the army. The examples are too numerous to name but suffice to say that it is clear as day that the army tries its best to look tough, capable and in complete control of situations. The Bring Back Our Girls group have chronicled the history of military and presidential bumbling and fumbling over several months which would make for hilarious reading if it wasn’t all true.
When some of the key events are put in a timeline, it brings up some interesting correlations as well as allowing one to see the pace of movement.
Please keep in mind that some of the events noted in the timelines below are set at estimated dates. This is due to exact dates being hard to come by; some events were referred to as happening in “early January” or “first week in December”, and so could not be pinned to exact dates.
The timelines below are also colour-coded to further highlight the players and their actions. Events in red are those carried out by or against Boko Haram (and I don’t include speeches). Events in blue are political in nature (read: lots of speeches). These events are also placed below the timeline because, let’s face it, everything has a political undercurrent to it. Those in yellow are actions undertaken by our regional neighbors, though not including their military actions against Boko Haram, as those fall under the red category. Finally, events in green represent the Nigerian Army (NA) as well as STTEP, though of course, green events do not include battles with Boko Haram.
Note the flurry of activity surrounding the abduction of the Chibok girls. I haven’t gone so far as to include everything, but we can see here that President Jonathan seems to have been quite late to acknowledge the disappearance of the Chibok girls, even after the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, had released a video claiming responsibility. That was in May 2014, after which it took him 2 months to ask the National Assembly for permission to borrow “not more than $1billion” in order to purchase equipment and training for the Nigerian army in the fight against Boko Haram. The request was granted in September, about a month later. And then, from December 2014 to February 2015 there is another rush of activity, after the relative lull through the middle and late months of 2014 (a period populated mostly by political claims and counter-claims which I have not gone to the trouble of including).
In December of that year, Nigeria canceled the final of a 3-phase military training program with the United States of America,in which the latter country was to train a battalion of Nigerian troops. When asked why in January 2015, the American ambassador to Nigeria, Mr James Entwistle, replied, “As to what motivated your government, I don’t know. I will encourage you to put that question to them.” As it turns out, Pilgrims Africa Ltd had already been hired at that time, and they were already in the process of sub-contracting to STTEP. Unfortunately, I have little information on Pilgrims Africa, except that it was contracted “a few months” prior to STTEP’s contract in early December.
Then, in February, just weeks before the national elections were due to take place, the Nigerian service chiefs informed the Independent National Electoral Commission that they would not be able to guarantee security during the elections because they were beginning a 6-week offensive to retake territory from Boko Haram.
So if we put the hiring of STTEP inbetween the abduction of the Chibok girls and the approaching general elections, we get an interesting picture, as shown below. The contract begins 8 months after the abduction and lasts 3 months, ending around the same period as the general elections. You can decide what that means.
The Chibok abduction occurred in April, but the government refused to acknowledge it until May. Through June and early July they attempted to put a few different spins on the issue. First they denied that it had actually occurred, then they tried to turn it around to appear as if they were being politically victimized, and then (most insultingly of all) they claimed to have rescued the girls. However, this was proven to be false. That was about the time when President Jonathan requested permission to borrow the $1bn previously referred to. That was granted to him in September, with Senate president David Mark staunchly supporting the move, even going so far as to persuade senate members that it was not unconstitutional as it was not going to be a cash deal. Whether it turned out to be cash or not is not something I can comment on, but the facts are clear as daylight, as shown in the timeline above. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the approved money was spent on contracting Pilgrims Africa to rescue the Chibok girls. This shows the shortsightedness and reactionary nature of the presidency because Mr Jonathan did not appear to view the entire insurgency as a matter of urgency, but the embarrassment of the Chibok abductions would seem to have been his main focus, especially with the elections looming.
Now, Boko Haram had been in control of several local governments since 2013, during the first state of emergency. They began capturing territory and taking over control completely later that same year.By the time of the Chibok abductions in April 2014, Boko Haram had captured significant territory, but the presidency still did not deem it enough of a priority to include it in the requirements for its hired PMC. The requirements changed sometime around February 2015, sometime around when the armies of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, seemingly without first seeking authority, crossed into Nigerian territory and began beating the insurgents out of our towns and villages. The embarrassment was huge, and appears to have been felt by the presidency strongly enough to change the requirements for its PMC. Hence it is logical to conclude that the driving forces behind the presidency’s counterinsurgency tactics are embarrassment and face-saving. In that manner, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign has acheived a hugely significant victory, despite some claims that Michelle Obama’s alignment with the cause was “perfectly ineffective”. In fact, such shows of support were the basis of which persuaded the Jonathan administration to hire the contractor that hired STTEP.
Going back to the cancellation of training with the USA, I cannot fathom why it had to be stopped at all, nor why it could not be continued at the same time as STTEP conducted its activities. From all indications, it was the Nigerian government that ended it (even by their own admission). It is entirely possible that the Americans would have refused to complete that phase once they became aware of STTEP’s presence in Nigeria, though I believe that a skilled Nigerian diplomat may have been able to argue the country’s way out of that with comparisons to some American PMCs. Alternatively, it may be that the administration felt it was too great a risk to take, because clearly they have always wanted to keep the hiring of STTEP as close to the chest as possible. Which could prove to be equivalent to shooting themselves in the foot because all the work carried out by the PMC is in danger of falling apart if care is not taken. Yes, we have the Boko Haram insurgents on the run, but it is not nearly enough. As Mr Barlow said, they got away with significant troops and materiel remaining, as evidenced in the video that the Nigerian military saw fit to release as well as the subsequent attacks. It is at this point that you would expect a military trained not just in the battle part of counterinsurgency but also the “hearts and minds” aspect to come in and begin to restore peace. These troops would not simply be soldiers but also doctors, lawyers, accountants, builders, engineers and the like; who would be more than useful to those attempting to rebuild their communities. The effects would be immense, and would instill belief in the people that Nigeria does care about them. You read about people who have returned to their communities because there is nowhere for them, hoping to at least plant crops for next year’s harvest, but facing a situation where there are no bridges and the rainy season is likely to bring up rivers that are impassable otherwise. It sounds like the story of people returning home to die. How different would that be if there were trained army engineer corps there, perhaps building temporary bridges (an army specialty) and helping out with the reconstruction work?
And so, to answer my own question of why the government has tried so desperately to keep the hiring of STTEP a secret, it would seem to have much to do with saving face, rather than saving lives.