Since early in 2015 there were rumors that Nigeria, desperate to deal with the growing success of Islamic terrorists (Boko Haram) in the largely Moslem north had hired South Africa mercenaries. Turns out the rumor was true, but the truth of the subsequent defeat (but not destruction) of Boko Haram says more about the sorry state of the Nigerian armed forces than it does about the use of highly skilled mercenaries.
The basic problem was that the Nigerian military, and the rest of the government, were very (notoriously is not too strong a term here) corrupt and had been for decades. This meant too many officers were more concerned with stealing than maintaining and leading well trained, equipped and supplied troops. The main reason the United States would not provide modern weapons to Nigeria was the corruption and the likelihood that some of those weapons would end up with Boko Haram, gangsters or some other bunch of Islamic terrorists. That had already happened with some of the weapons Nigeria already had and that sort of thing had become such a problem that some officers were being prosecuted for it. But the government refused to take measures to eliminate the corruption in the military leadership.
In late 2014 Nigeria began a major offensive against Boko Haram and depended less corrupt and more effective troops from neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon to lead the way. While this seemed to work, it was not enough to weaken Boko Haram sufficiently to allow Nigerian troops to go in and finish (and take credit for) the job. So in December the government decided to act on a suggestion that had been bouncing around (and leaking) for months and hire some foreign mercenaries to train and advise (lead) a task force of elite Nigerian troops to quickly crush the most determined Boko Haram resistance. Naturally, Nigerian officials went shopping in South Africa, the country where the military term “commando” was invented over a century ago.
While South Africa had outlawed “Private Military Companies” (PMCs) in 1998 some were able to remain in business as security firms that could assemble an effective private military force on short notice for use outside South Africa. The most prominent of these security firms was STTEP (Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment) and it was granted a three month contract (worth nearly $4 million) to assemble a force of a hundred combat experienced trainers to help Nigeria deal with Boko Haram. The men STTEP sent consisted of whites and blacks but all were experienced (often former special operations) combat vets. A few were from outside Africa although most were South African (or from neighboring countries like Namibia). In a few weeks the STTEP force had expanded by selecting competent Nigerian troops and these few hundred troops, moving quickly in trucks and a few armored vehicles as the 72nd Mobile Force Battalion, with Nigerian aircraft overhead (some with STTEP men aboard acting as spotters) quickly smashed one “troublesome” Boko Haram group after another. Boko Haram had thousands of armed men in the north organized into dozens of smaller units led by charismatic men of varying military skill. The STTEP force went after the most effective Boko Haram battlegroups, which not only greatly weakened the Islamic terror groups but demoralized the less successful Boko Haram leaders and gunmen. This made it easier for the troops from neighboring countries to go after less effective Boko Haram fighters. By late February Boko Haram was weakened sufficiently for the Nigerian troops to go in and carry out the final push against the demoralized and thoroughly unnerved Boko Haram fighters. STTEP was so successful that Nigeria did not extend their contract and in March the STTEP personnel left as the Nigerian Army was advancing into Boko Haram strongholds and freeing hundreds of women and children the Islamic terrorists had captured in the last year.
All this was big news in Nigeria because since 2009 Boko Haram had killed over 13,000 people and forced over 15 million to flee their homes, mostly in the north. While initially welcomed by many northern Moslems, because Boko Haram sought to deal with the corruption and bad government, the horrific violence the group used eventually eliminated popular support. Most of the Boko Haram related deaths took place since early 2014 which is why their popular support disappeared by late 2014. It also gave rise to a growing number of northern Moslems joining pro-government militias to defend their home areas from the Islamic terrorists. The addition of foreign troops and STTEP was more than an overconfident and now widely hated Boko Haram could handle.
What STTEP did had been done before. In fact the proprietor of STTEP was the founder of one of the earlier PMCs (Executive Outcomes) shut down (for political, not legal, reasons) by the South African government in 1998. Executive Outcomes showed it was possible to quickly, and with few casualties, bring African type civil wars to a halt and allow peacekeepers to get to work. Executive Outcomes recruited heavily among black and white veterans of the South African security forces. Many of these troops found themselves unemployed when the white minority gave up power in the early 1990s. So, Executive Outcomes was able to hire men expert in dealing with African irregulars. This, understandably, made the new, black-run South African government a little nervous. Many nations, not just in Africa, were fearful of highly professional, and effective, mercenary companies. Thus the UN condemned them, for many members run by shaky governments saw themselves as very vulnerable to a few hundred highly effective mercenaries.
While the UN has long opposed mercenaries, more and more people in the UN were pointing out that the only inexpensive, and certain, solution to a lot of the nasty wars going on around the world is mercenaries. Not the undisciplined and rapacious mercenaries of old but the small, well trained, led, and highly effective organizations or former soldiers and commandos. The political hassles of getting UN members to provide less well trained and led troops to serve as peacekeepers wastes time and allows the killing to go on in the many war zones that blight the planet. "Private armies" have never been popular, because they often become the basis for tyranny and warlord power. But the current generation of mercenaries considers themselves as another type of service industry and work within the system. Just another form of professional services, so to speak.
Highly professional mercenaries are nothing new. For thousands of years there have been highly professional mercenaries available. They have gone out of fashion in the last few centuries. But mercenaries have never disappeared from the scene for long, and it looks like they are coming back. Before STTEP got involved in Nigeria it firms like it supplied armed guards for large merchant ships moving through pirate infested waters off Somalia or organized highly effective security forces for large industrial projects in areas containing lots of warlords and local rebels. In some cases foreign countries have sent in a hundred or so commandos to eliminate a key warlord and disperse his fighters. The U.S. prefers to just train and advise (using Special Forces troops) as well as lots of UAVs for surveillance and the occasional missile attack on key personnel for facilities. But many countries suffering persistent armed disorder are openly asking for some UN member to send in a few hundred commandos to fix everything. It doesn’t work that way most of the time but the UN did, in 2014, set up an elite combat brigade in Congo and gave it a license to kill and eliminate the armed groups that a decade of peacekeeping was unable to cope with. This worked, at least so far. These changes are being studied intently worldwide.