In Nigeria, White South African mercenaries fill a void

“Relics” of the feared and hated Apartheid-era “South African Defence Force” are secretly (and illegally) fighting Boko Haram for Nigeria, according to recent reporting by The New York Times:

Hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa and other countries are playing a decisive role in Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.
A senior Western diplomat confirmed that the South Africans were playing “a major operational role,” particularly at night. Equipped with night-vision goggles, the mercenaries “are whacking them in the evening hours,” the diplomat said.

“The next morning the Nigerian Army rolls in and claims success,” the diplomat added. The mercenaries “are doing the heavy lifting,” said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Another diplomat, also unauthorized to speak publicly on the matter, said he believed the mercenary force was composed of fighters from other countries as well, but mainly South Africa.
Photographs showing white soldiers atop armored vehicles on what appears to be a major road in Maiduguri have been posted in recent days on Nigerian Twitter feeds. A correspondent for The New York Times in Maiduguri identified the location as the Baga Road. The correspondent has seen the South African mercenaries jogging around Maiduguri’s airport, now closed, where they are encamped.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of optimistic propaganda reports from the Nigerian military (and from President Goodluck Jonathan) has taken credit for victory after victory in the campaign against Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, ahead of the postponed elections. This once again undermines the already shaky credibility, on multiple levels, of Nigeria’s armed forces.

An extensive report from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies speculates that many of the ex-SADF mercenaries are likely veterans of the brutal counterinsurgency campaign that Apartheid South Africa waged in Angola and in South African-occupied South West Africa (now Namibia).

[…] the sort of operations that the ex-SADF soldiers would be conducting against Boko Haram would be very similar to some of the operations they had conducted against the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), namely ‘very high mobility operations by small forces, heavy in firepower and in protected vehicles, and based on the prompt and quick exploitation of intelligence; backed up by air assault or even parachute insertion of stopper groups.’

The contract with SADF veterans — prohibited by South African law from undertaking military operations for hire abroad — also raises more questions about the repeated attempts by Nigerian officials to bring or transfer huge amounts of money into South Africa last fall (example) for undisclosed “purchases” relating to the war against Boko Haram.

Elsewhere, the military of neighboring Chad also continues to conduct quasi-authorized (but mostly unilateral) operations against Boko Haram on Nigerian soil.

Ensign of the South African Defence Force 1981-1994 (via Wikimedia)

Ensign of the South African Defence Force 1981-1994 (via Wikimedia)

Senegal, AU launch “universal jurisdiction” prosecution of ex-Chad dictator

Chad’s brutal ex-dictator Hissène Habré will stand trial for war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity in a landmark trial in Senegal. This is huge news if it goes forward because the Senegal trial — undertaken with African Union backing — and will be the African continent’s first-ever use of “universal jurisdiction.”

Universal jurisdiction is a controversial doctrine that allows countries to prosecute people they arrest for significant crimes of mass violence and human rights abuses committed in other places, even without direct interests of or crimes against the prosecuting country. It has been used most heavily by Spain (full story➚).

Habré, who ruled from 1982 until the 1990 coup that brought incumbent President Idriss Déby to power, has been in Senegal since his fall from power. He was placed under house arrest in 2005 and then formally taken to jail in 2013 ahead of the now-upcoming trial. He has been sought by various jurisdictions, including Chad, for his 1980s crimes — which include hundreds if not tens of thousands of political killings and tens or hundreds of thousands of torture victims — but until now he has avoided prosecution.

Universal jurisdiction efforts against him began as far back as 2000. Senegal was initially unsure whether it could apply universal jurisdiction in its domestic courts, but the country is a firm supporter of international justice as a general principle, having been the first country to ratify the creation of the International Criminal Court.

Throughout Habré’s rule he received paramilitary assistance from the United States (via the CIA) as part of Chad’s on-again-off-again war with Libya’s Qaddafi regime. Besides his crimes again humanity, Habré was most notable on the international stage, especially in retrospect, for his pioneering use of Toyota pickup trucks with improvised gun-mounts for highly-mobile desert combat, a tactic he used against the Libyan Army’s tanks to surprisingly strong effect. This tactic’s late 1980s use in the war with Libya may well have influenced the use of pickup trucks with improvised gun mounts in Libya’s 2011 Revolution against Qaddafi, which may have then spread via Libyan fighters to ISIS (and other insurgent groups) in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

There was extensive (albeit secret) U.S. panic when Habré fell from power that CIA-delivered heavy weapons, including the same type of anti-air equipment as what they were delivering to Afghanistan at the same time, might fall into the hands of Qaddafi, who at that point had already brought down the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie.

Pictured: Chadian President Hissène Habré and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. (Ronald Reagan Library)

Pictured: Chadian President Hissène Habré and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in June 1987. (Ronald Reagan Library)

Nigeria military forces elections to be postponed

This weekend, the Nigerian elections commission announced that the presidential, parliamentary, and state elections scheduled for mid-February would be postponed — the national vote for six weeks until the end of March and the state vote into April. The stated reason was the deteriorated security situation in several northern states (although most of the country — which is twice the size of California — is not actively threatened by or anywhere near the insurgency). Indeed, some remote areas are effectively under occupation by Boko Haram. However, it didn’t take long for the news to emerge that the decision had actually been undertaken under heavy pressure by the Nigeria’s security establishment.

This is very troubling, particularly in a country with such a long history of military interference in politics prior to the transition to democracy in 1999. The Nigerian security agencies and military essentially ordered the election commission to postpone the election, saying that they refused to defend polling sites against attacks unless there was a delay. Their reason for this refusal was that they were “too busy” planning a six-week counter-offensive against Boko Haram at the same time. As numerous people pointed out in response: Why are they suddenly now attacking Boko Haram after years of inaction, and how are they suddenly now going to be able to wrap this problem up in time for the delayed elections?

“The security agencies forced [Election body chairman Attahiru Jega] into postponing on an issue that is frivolous,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, a political analyst with the Centre on Democracy and Development.

“They say they need six weeks to defeat Boko Haram. Boko Haram has been growing for six years. If in six weeks Boko Haram has not been defeated, they could call for another delay and ultimately destroy Nigerian democracy,” he added.

There is also serious suspicion that the military itself may have been pressured (to cause a delay) by the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which is facing the strongest challenge yet to its continuously elected rule since 1999, and had recently started to head toward defeat in the polling, as town after town fell to the insurgency, corruption scandals continued to break, and people became unhappy with the economy (especially with falling oil prices).

Even before the chaos of January, a December poll found voters nationwide tied 42% to 42% in presidential voting intention, but just 29% trust in the ruling PDP. Traditional PDP strongholds were starting to erode and the northern-favored APC candidate, former military President and General Buhari, was making inroads in the south. An extra six weeks might very well make the chances of defeat greater at this point, but at least it’s an opportunity to try to turn things around; in contrast, not delaying the election might have sealed the party’s fate for sure.


Chad military strikes Boko Haram in Nigeria

Eyewitnesses say Chadian ground forces supported by three fighter jets struck the northeastern Nigerian border town of Malumfatori (or Malam Fatori), compelling occupying Boko Haram fighters to flee. It was unknown if Nigeria backed the action, although a formal African Union multinational force is expected to arrive in Nigeria soon. Neither the Nigerian nor the Chadian armed forces commented on the Malam Fatori raid.

Related background: Chad: How China Created an African Power – The Globalist: How Chinese investment made Chad a vital Central African military ally of the West.

Why did Niger explode in violent protests on Charlie Hebdo?

More than 40 churches were burned in two-day riots in Niger this past weekend ostensibly over the publication of the post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo with yet another cartoon of Muhammad on the cover.

niger-map-ciaAs the BBC notes in the quotes below, a reaction of some kind in Niger wouldn’t be out of the ordinary — there were, after all, also protests (some violent) in Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, and other countries on the same day the riots in Niger began — but the intensity was startling.

(Moreover, Niger doesn’t have a serious Christian-Muslim sectarian split the way Central African Republic’s now war-torn population does, which would normally be a prerequisite factor for explosive and seemingly sectarian violence like this.)

Niger’s population is 99% Muslim, so it wasn’t a surprise that there was a reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s caricature. But what was surprising was the scale of the subsequent protests and violence. Similar demonstrations in the past have been conducted peacefully, and even the authorities could not come up with an answer as to why the latest riots turned ugly.

So what are some of the suggested reasons for the widespread reaction? From the same BBC analysis:

One school of thought is that protesters were angry about their president attending the solidarity march of world leaders in Paris after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office.

A second theory is that the violence was fuelled as much by politics as religious grievance – an idea given credence by the fact that protests started in the opposition stronghold of Zinder.

The last and the most complex theory relates to Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group from neighbouring Nigeria. Officials are reportedly investigating whether the group were involved in stoking the protests – they say a Boko Haram flag was seen – though whether the government is merely exploiting the group to gain outside sympathy remains to be seen.

I would also venture a possible fourth hypothesis, bridging the first and second as well as the specific and unusual targeting of Catholic Churches.

Niger, in the post-colonial period, has been subjected to an exceptionally high level of French meddling and military presence relative even to the other former French colonies. In large part, this is because of France’s large domestic nuclear power capacity, which in turn depends heavily on access to uranium deposits in Niger. Niger is extremely poor, extremely underdeveloped, and extremely unstable (very coup-prone). People are persistently pretty miserable, and France has been fairly heavy-handed about interfering in politics and security affairs to ensure continued stability of access to uranium but hasn’t offered much else.

In a country that is 99% Muslim and continues to face seemingly neo-colonialist, extractive involvement by France, Catholic Churches are probably the most visible and plentifully distributed symbols of continued French influence in Niger. If I were angry at my largely failed government (or wave after wave of governments whose only consistent feature was loyalty to the former occupier), I might start looking pretty disapprovingly at those easily reachable (and thus targetable) symbols of colonialism and failed pro-French governance. Combine that with another visible show of support by the local government for the concerns of the French citizenry (and an offensive magazine that often seemed to traffic in offensive colonial-era tropes) over the Nigerien population, and it’s a particularly volatile mix.

I don’t know if this is what the rioters were actually thinking when they attacked the churches, but it would probably make the most sense as an explanation in a situation where there had not been a recent history of sectarian religious war. In that light, the riots would not be religiously grounded but rather a reaction to the French system and continued abuses of the people, locally and from abroad.

Unfortunately, this kind of instability will probably only make France reinforce its permanent military presence in the country because it will convince them they were right not to trust the locals to maintain the stability and security of the country’s uranium deposits, upon which France relies so heavily.

France and Nigeria terrorism: Dramatically different coverage

In April 2014, almost 300 girls attending a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria were kidnapped from their school in the middle of the night. They were abducted by an Islamic extremist group dubbed Boko Haram, who have been launching attacks against schools and villages in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

Sadly, they targeted the girls in part because of their belief that the “inauthentic” colonialism-descended education system is a sin. The girls’ schooling was detrimental to their mission to overthrow the Nigerian government in order to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state. Making things worse was the lack of media coverage of the kidnapping. It seemed that the information about the kidnapping only reached international headline news after a heavy Twitter campaign, under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

The little coverage that it did receive was short lived, and in some ways disrespectful. The French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, even depicted the kidnapped girls as pregnant, Black and Muslim Welfare Queens. The cartoon ignores the fact that the kidnapped girls were kidnapped from a Christian school and are most likely Christian themselves. It also belittles the fact that the girls are being forced into marriages and are victims of sexual assault. Instead, the cartoon relies on racist tropes for the sake of “satire” (satire being in quotes because comedy at the expense of the oppressed isn’t satirical and rarely funny).

Last week, 8 months after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, a shooting occurred at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, and 12 people were killed. The media was quicker to pick up on this story and the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie rapidly became a trending topic all over the world, almost drowning out the news that Boko Haram massacred as many as 2000 people and razed 16 villages in a 5-day span the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

Above: Human Rights Watch satellite analysis of Doro Gowon, Borno state, Nigeria, one of the towns attacked by Boko Haram this month. 57% of the town is estimated to have been burned down based on this image. Click for full image and article in a new window. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)

The instant support of Charlie Hebdo and the struggle for support for the Chibok girls says a lot about the narrative that the US and European media wants to compose when it comes to which victims are worthy of sympathy. Despite the offensive cartoon drawn about the Chibok girls by the Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – which is the reason why Charlie Hebdo was specifically targeted by the extremists – it seems as if the magazine has been pushed into almost martyr status.

Marches and rallies are happening all over Europe in solidarity with the magazine, while attacks on Mosques in France are being ignored. Cartoonists have even gone so far as to create the hashtag #CartoonistLivesMatter as an attempt to express the importance of their freedom of speech.

There are hundreds of schoolgirls missing, for most of the past year. Thousands have been displaced in just the past two weeks, with possibly thousands more killed. There are entire generations of families murdered in Northern Nigeria.
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2,000 “feared dead” in raids by Boko Haram in NE Nigeria

Last weekend, I posted a story on Boko Haram’s rout of a multi-national force and capture of a Nigerian base in the country’s northeast:

Nigeria’s strategically significant military base at Baga, near the border of Chad, fell to Boko Haram in a clear rout for the multi-national force stationed there, who apparently put up no resistance.

Some residents, who escaped the fall of the town and fled across Lake Chad and the national border, had reported at the time that Boko Haram had set the town of Baga on fire and was killing people indiscriminately. (Baga was previously also the site of a massacre by government counter-insurgency forces in 2013.)

The reports filtering out since then, about what happened next, are even more grim:

Boko Haram razed at least 16 villages in northern Nigeria, leaving 2,000 people unaccounted for and feared dead since Monday, Nigerian officials said Thursday.

It’s possible some of the missing are in hiding or are outside the country and uncounted (about 2,500 refugees crossed the border this week), but things look bleak on that possibility:

Borno state lawmaker Ahmed Khalifa told NBC News that “towns are just gone” and that the the villages along Lake Chad are “covered in bodies.” The village attacks reportedly began after militants seized a key military base and chased residents out of the area. After clearing the villages, they returned to kill survivors and burn down town structures.

TIME magazine reports this alarming development:

Boko Haram […] controls an estimated 30-35,000 square kilometers, roughly the same amount of terrain as Syria and Iraq’s Islamic State.

It’s pretty telling about U.S. priorities, over-reactions, and under-reactions in different parts of the world that the response to ISIS last year was sharply different — which is to say, not even on the same scale of magnitude — from the response to Boko Haram, even as they now control the same land area by size.

Mass executions by ISIS in Syria and Iraq have so far reportedly topped out at 700 people in a two week killing spree (although the total figures across incidents over the past year are significantly higher). If the civilian body count estimates coming out of north Borno state in northeast Nigeria prove correct, Boko Haram will have already significantly exceeded the August 2014 massacres by ISIS.

Keep in mind, however, that public official/government reports on the insurgency in Nigeria have often proven greatly exaggerated or altogether false, and information coming out of the Baga area is likely to be very sketchy at best right now. At minimum, though, the intensity and frequency of Boko Haram’s attacks on military and civilian targets (especially near the border regions) appear to be picking up steam.

Added January 9 at 7:33 PM ET: — Report from Amnesty International via the AP:

Hundreds of bodies — too many to count — remain strewn in the bush in Nigeria from an Islamic extremist attack that Amnesty International suggested Friday is the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram.
District head Baba Abba Hassan said most victims are children, women and elderly people who could not run fast enough when insurgents drove into Baga, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on town residents.

“The human carnage perpetrated by Boko Haram terrorists in Baga was enormous,” Muhammad Abba Gava, a spokesman for poorly armed civilians in a defense group that fights Boko Haram, told The Associated Press.

He said the civilian [self-defense] fighters gave up on trying to count all the bodies. “No one could attend to the corpses and even the seriously injured ones who may have died by now,” Gava said.


Also: The BBC reports that nearby Niger’s troops will no longer be participating in the multi-national force in Borno state due to the deteriorating security situation (which seems a bit counter-intuitive since they’re supposed to be helping with that exact problem):

Soldiers from Niger had been there [at Baga base] but were not present when it was attacked.

Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told the BBC Hausa service: “We have 50 soldiers there and decided to withdraw them after Boko Haram captured Malamfatori town in October and continued to operate in the area with impunity.

“As you know, Baga is under [the control of] Boko Haram terrorists and unless the town is recaptured from them, we will not send back our troops.


Still image (via AFP) from a Boko Haram video communiqué received October 31, 2014.

Still image (via AFP) from a Boko Haram video communiqué received October 31, 2014.