Dennis Onakinor shares the frustrations and desperation occasioning the calls on the federal government to engage the services of private military companies (a euphemism for mercenaries) in its counter-terrorism operations against Boko Haram.
Citing vivid examples, he cautions against relying on mercenaries, because they are solely driven by monetary gains, as opposed to patriotic and nationalistic sentiments, hence their loyalty cannot be guaranteed. He concludes that the solution to the lingering crisis lies inadequate training and motivation of the country’s counter-terrorism forces.
A dog, amongst all earthly creatures, is considered the best friend of man because it is capable of numerous human-enabling roles such as life and property protection, livestock herding, game hunting, weapons and illicit drug detection, search and rescue mission, and rendering assistance to the handicapped. But, a dog is despised in equal measure because it is perceived as a scavenging, indecent, ugly, vulgar and dangerous creature. In the later light, mercenaries, otherwise known as soldiers of fortune, are likened to “dogs of war,” for their buccaneering and unscrupulous character. The sobriquet – dogs of war, popularized by the English novelist, Frederick Forsyth, in a 1974 novel of the same title, has since come to symbolize all that is loathsome about the gun-slinging mercenary who, for monetary gains, hires out himself (some say his services) to any interested party to war outside his own national boundaries.
Largely due to the exploits (or notoriety) of America’s mercenaries groups, like Blackwater (renamed Academi) and DynCorp International, in Iraq and Afghanistan, mercenaries who were once the subject of global disapprobation now go by various dignifying nomenclatures, like private military contractors, private military company, private security organization, military service providers, armed security providers, etc. But even at that, their activities are still viewed with much scepticism, for in the perception of most people, mercenaries remain what they have always been: greedy, money-oriented, brutal armed hirelings.
As a matter of fact, the history of mercenaries is replete with tales of self-aggrandizing characters consumed by ruinous posturing, sheer incompetence, racism, cruelty, etc. This is even more so in respect of those mercenaries who featured in post-colonial African conflicts, of which the duo of Mike Hoare and Bob Denard is outstanding. Against this background, the suggestion that the Nigerian government employ the services of mercenaries in its counter-terrorism operation against the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, has attracted mixed reactions.
Proponents of the suggestion, which includes traditional rulers, community elders, elected representatives, security consultants, intellectuals, etc., opine that extraordinary situations require extraordinary solutions, hence the increasingly bloody acts of terrorism being visited upon Northern Nigerians by Boko Haram require the intervention of mercenaries since the Nigerian armed forces and intelligence agencies have largely proven incapable of defeating the terrorists based in the vast Sambisa forest. Specifically, on July 8, 2021, the House of Representatives made a special recommendation to President Muhammadu Buhari urging him to urgently consider enlisting the services of “private military contractors” in the government’s anti-terrorism campaign against Boko Haram. The Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, noted that a broad spectrum of Nigerians support the recommendation since there had been a previous instance in 2014, when a South African private military company, “Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP),” was successfully used to curtail the activities of the terrorist group prior to the general elections of February – March 2015.
Responding, the federal government vehemently maintains that it will not engage the services of mercenaries under any guise and that the country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies are capable of handling the terrorists, even though available evidence has so far proven otherwise. Also, the government argues that it is unbefitting of the country to seek the help of mercenaries in its counter-terrorism efforts, even as Boko Haram has internationalized its operations by aligning with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which is linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Furthermore, the government contends that it is only a matter of time before Boko Haram is decisively crushed, not minding the fact that twelve years has lapsed since 2009 when the group commenced its terrorist activities in a corner of the North-Eastern state of Borno, and that it has since spread its tentacles to several other states across Northern Nigeria.
That well-meaning Nigerians are openly canvassing the deployment of mercenaries against Boko Haram is a sign of the desperation majority of Nigerians presently entertain concerning the need to end the lingering crisis by whatever means. It also underlines the frustrations they feel in respect of perceived government ineptitude in dealing with the terrorist group over the past decade. Come to think of it, there is probably no country in the world where the citizens would not toe a similar line of reasoning when confronted with almost daily occurrences of suicide bombings of soft targets like places of worship and markets; mass-kidnapping of secondary and university students; kidnap-for-ransom of government officials and prominent individuals; etc. And, with the related death toll standing at about 350,000 (most of them children), no one in his right frame of mind would hesitate to call for the adoption of any unconventional counter-measure, such as the deployment of mercenaries against the terrorists.
However, amidst the understandable frustrations and desperation, there is still a need for Nigerians to be wary of the activities of mercenaries, even as they now operate under fanciful names. In this wise, a brief recall of the activities of some mercenaries who featured in the Congo crisis of 1960 – 1965, and elsewhere in Africa, will help to situate this matter in its proper perspective.
To put it simply, the Congo crisis heralded the presence of mercenaries on the African continent. It all began on July 11, 1960 (less than two weeks after the country’s Independence on June 30, 1960), when Moise Tshombe led the mineral-rich Katanga Province on a secessionist revolt against the central government of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was eventually captured and murdered in January 1961. Backed by the United States and Belgium, Tshombe employed the services of European and apartheid South African mercenaries led by an Irish-born South African immigrant, Major Mike Hoare. For his rabid anti-communism and cruelty towards opposing Congolese forces, Hoare gained notoriety as “Mad Mike.”
Operating in a racist and sadistic manner, Hoare and his co-mercenaries revelled in wanton killing of inexperienced and ill-equipped Congolese opponents – all of whom they blanketed as Communists. Dreadful tales have been told of their brutality against the rebels of the 1964 Simba Rebellion led by Lumumba’s loyalist, Pierre Mulele. Relying heavily on fetish magic, Simba rebels were lured into a false sense of invincibility as they charged headlong into battle without combat protective gear, and the mercenaries cut them down in their thousands. One survivor of the rebellion was Laurent-Desire Kabila, who would later lead the successful insurgency that overthrew the sit-tight tyrant, Mobutu Sese Seko, in May 1997.
One of Hoare’s colleagues was a Frenchman named Bob Denard, whose mercenary operations took him to several African countries, including Angola, Benin, Gabon, and Comoros. It was his activities in Comoros that gained him global notoriety. Right from its Independence from France in 1975, Denard turned the small archipelago country into his personal fiefdom as he militarily overthrew and replaced four successive heads of state before he was apprehended in course of attempting his fifth overthrow in 1995. He was so comfortable in Comoros that he acquired its citizenship and took an indigene for a wife – his seventh marriage. However, his image was thoroughly demythologized in course of his 1995 trial in a French court, when it was revealed that he was, all along, serving in the role of “parallel structures” – undercover operations which could not be handled directly by the French secret services.
Apparently inspired by Bob Denard’s exploits in Comoros, “Mad” Mike Hoare embarked upon a mission to Seychelles for the purpose of overthrowing incumbent President France-Albert Rene, and replacing him with a puppet. Suffice to say that the November 25, 1981 mission ended in disaster as Hoare and his fifty-three apartheid South African mercenaries were uncovered at the Seychelles International Airport, although they managed to escape back to South Africa in a hijacked passenger airliner, but not before one of them was killed and four others captured. Hoare’s ignominious failure showed that white mercenaries were not invincible after all, contrary to what the myth of Bob Denard and others had suggested to Africans, who were wont to view foreign mercenaries as invincible superhuman characters, rather than the unscrupulous armed thugs they were.
The aura of invincibility surrounding white mercenaries was largely demystified during the Nigerian civil war of 1967 – 1970. Pitched against Nigeria’s well-drilled and properly armed soldiers, mainly commanded by British-trained war commanders, Biafra’s mercenaries were totally out-shined. For his numerous battlefield failures, the mercenaries’ leader, Rolf Steiner, was disgraced and expelled by Biafran authorities. On a jocular note, the involvement in the civil war of Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, the mythical “Black Scorpion,” was enough to scare the hell out of any mercenary. The charcoal-black sensation-seeking commander was said to possess magical powers of stealth, hence he could vanish behind enemy lines to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, his lack of tactical nous and discipline occasioned the loss of thousands of his “Third Marine Commandos.”
While the mercenaries’ image of invincible swaggering macho-adventurers was severely dented in course of the Nigerian civil war, the Angolan crisis of 1975 – 1976 delivered the coup-de-grace. Upon Angola’s attainment of Independence from Portugal on November 11, 1975, the Soviet-backed government led by the “Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA)” became embroiled in a bitter survival struggle against the rebel forces of the “Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)” and the “National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA),” both supported by the United States and its Western allies, including apartheid South Africa. The rebels were heavily backed by Western mercenaries, some of whom were recruited by an American felon, David Bufkin, who masqueraded as a CIA recruiter.
One of the FNLA’s mercenaries was Costas Georgiou, a former British army corporal, who had served jail time for armed robbery. Posing as an ex-army Colonel, Georgiou was appointed head of the FNLA’s military operations. But, lacking military expertise, he resorted to brutality against his subordinates and the rebel forces under their command. A psychopathic killer, he was said to have killed both friendly and enemy forces for the fun of it. In February 1976, he was captured alongside thirteen British and American mercenaries. Following their trial, he and three others were sentenced to death and were executed on July 10, 1976. The rest nine mercenaries bagged prison terms ranging from 16 to 30 years.
Contrary to the portrayal of mercenaries in Western action movies and blockbuster novels, their Nigerian and Angolan misadventures proved beyond reasonable doubt that the days when half a dozen white mercenaries could decimate a whole battalion of black soldiers were effectively over; and that any well-trained and properly-equipped African soldier was as good as his European and American counterpart. Moreover, the point was finally driven home that there was nothing extraordinary about the so-called exploits of the mercenaries who featured in the Congo crisis, for they seemed to have excelled because they were matched against black troops that had little or no military training and were also lacking in appropriate battle equipment.
The ordinariness of white mercenaries was further exposed in the March 2004 “Wonga Coup,” which involved a plot to topple the government of President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. The plot was foiled by Zimbabwean authorities when the aircraft conveying the group of about 64 mercenaries to Equatorial Guinea landed at Harare airport and was intercepted as it attempted loading military equipment. Financed by Mark Thatcher, the South Africa-based son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the plot was masterminded by a mercenary named Simon Mann, an ex-British Special Air Service (SAS) officer. Extradited by Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, Mann was sentenced to a 34-year jail term in July 2008 but was pardoned by President Mbasogo in November 2009, apparently due to mounting pressure from British government authorities.
In course of the Sierra Leonean civil war of 1991 to 2002, the government of the inexperienced 25-year old Captain Valentine Strasser employed the services of a British mercenaries group, “Gurkha Security Guards Limited,” to help contain the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who were advancing upon the capital of Freetown in 1995. Gurkha pulled out of the country when its leader, Major Robert MacKenzie, a Vietnam war veteran and ex-member of South Africa’s Special Forces, was killed in a rebel ambush in February 1995. It was replaced by a South Africa-based group, “Executive Outcomes (EO),” which successfully halted the advance of the rag-tag RUF rebels in March 1995. EO also pulled out of the country in 1997 due to payment-related issues, and its exit led to the resurgence of the RUF rebels and other amorphous militias, thus prolonging the civil war.
Like the exit of EO from Sierra Leone in 1997, the withdrawal of STTEP from North-Eastern Nigeria in 2015 resulted in the escalation of Boko Haram’s terrorist activities to other parts of Northern Nigeria. But as critics argue, instead of relying on mercenaries for its counter-terrorism operations, Nigeria would do well to channel the resources meant for hiring mercenaries towards the provision of adequate training and equipment for its own counter-terrorism forces. Therefore, irrespective of compelling circumstances, the deployment of mercenaries against Boko Haram should be a temporary measure. For, mercenaries are primarily concerned with financial gains, hence patriotic and nationalistic sentiments have no place in their hearts and minds.
Like a cancerous growth that spreads, and spreads, the involvement of mercenaries in a conflict is fraught with unpredictable danger. Although private military companies claim that their operations are based on established military standards, it is doubtful that their operatives will not engage in clandestine activities such as arms smuggling or gun-running, thus exacerbating the problem of arms proliferation that is common to Third World conflicts. At worst, mercenaries may collaborate with renegade local forces to topple the government of a state, although this is less likely in a territorially vast country like Nigeria.
Also, mercenaries may be inclined to prolong or escalate a conflict, for the purpose of profiteering from it, since they thrive on violence and war, being mainly retired servicemen and honourably discharged soldiers. But, more often than not, mercenaries are dishonourably discharged soldiers clearly unfit for the security roles they are required to undertake. The aforementioned case of Costas Georgiou exemplifies this point.
Unequivocally, the conclusion drawn from the foregoing is that the permanent defeat of Boko Haram and its murderous terrorism in Nigeria lies in highly-trained and adequately motivated armed forces, an effective intelligence community, and a special counter-terrorism force; as opposed to the call for reliance on unscrupulous mercenaries, dignified as they may be by their fanciful names.
Dennis Onakinor hails from Uromi in Esan North-East LGA of Edo State, Nigeria. A self-styled “natural historian,” he holds a B.Sc. degree in Political Science from the University of Nigeria, a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Lagos, and an MBA degree from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma. Over a period of two and half decades, he served in the now-defunct Peoples Bank of Nigeria, Citibank (Citigroup), and Access Bank PLC. He presently lives in Lagos – Nigeria with his family of three.
Support InfoStride News' Credible Journalism: Only credible journalism can guarantee a fair, accountable and transparent society, including democracy and government. It involves a lot of efforts and money. We need your support. Click here to Donate