© 2018 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
How Nigeria Engaged South African Mercenaries To Fight Boko Haram
By Samuel Malik
Despite repeated denials by the Nigerian government under former President Goodluck Jonathan that the country hired mercenaries in the war against Boko Haram, the icirnigeria.org has obtained credible information, including pictures, which prove that several dozens of South African ex-soldiers were involved in combat roles against the insurgents in the North east.
Credible information available to this website indicates that between December 2014 and April 2015, at least 147 South African mercenaries were engaged by the Nigerian government to train its troops as well as fight the insurgents.
In fact, it was gathered that at least two of the mercenaries were killed while operating in Nigeria, information that was kept hush-hush by the Nigerian government and the handlers of the foreign fighters.
According to information from highly placed military sources, the government’s initial plan was to bring in foreign military experts to train a special squad of Nigerian soldiers for the purpose of locating the missing Chibok school girls but it altered the plan because of deteriorating security in the North east, with elections barely a year away, a situation the opposition vigorously used to campaign against then President Jonathan.
As a result, the government decided to bring in former members of the South African army and together with 163Nigerian soldiers, formed a deadly and effective team, the 72 Mobile Strike Group. According to soldiers who spoke to our reporters, the strike group played a decisive role in turning the tide against the insurgents shortly before the general elections in 2015.
The deal to engage the foreign fighters, it was gathered, was negotiated through the office of the National Security Adviser, NSA, in 2014 and effectively side-lined the military and most senior army officers, who were against the idea of bringing in outside help.
Our investigations revealed that three companies – Conella Services Ltd, Pilgrims Africa and Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection, STTEP, all with links to South Africa – were involved in bringing in the mercenaries, who were in Nigeria from December 2014 to April 2014.
Conella Services, however, was the major player and handled everything administrative concerning troops, including feeding and payments.
Bank statements seen by the icirnigeria.org show that Nigerian soldiers in the special strike unit with the South Africans were paid a monthly operations allowance of N240, 000 at a time their colleagues fighting in other units in the North east were paid N30, 000 per month.
According to a source familiar with the deal, the South Africans were paid the equivalent of N20, 000 per day in cash from December 2014 to March 2015.
When reports surfaced of foreign fighters in Nigeria, the government strenuously denied it, claiming the foreigners seen in the North east were only in the country to offer training to the troops.
Former Director General of the National Orientation Agency, NOA, and then coordinator of the National Information Centre, Mike Omeri, also rejected the claims of mercenaries fighting in the war, describing the reports as “fictitious commentaries” and echoed Jonathan’s comments that the white men seen were trainers.
“What we have are trainers who came from security companies to help us manage and learn how to use some of the much more modern weapons because there is no time; we are in a war situation and we need the capability to use the weapons immediately,” Omeri told PREMIUMTIMES on March 16 last year.
Three days after this denial, on March 19, Nigerian soldiers attached to the South Africans received their first alert of N240, 000 from Conella Services Limited using the Nigeria Inter-bank Settlement System, NIBSS. Eleven days later they received another alert of N240, 000. This is believed to be payment for the soldiers’ February and March allowances.
The closest and only admission of the presence of the mercenaries from the government came in December last year from Yushau Shuaib, a media consultant employed by the office of the NSA to sell the government’s anti-terror campaign to the people.
According to Shuaib, Nigeria recruited ‘Special M Forces’ to help in the air while government troops took control of land operation. He said the government kept the employment of the ‘technical advisers’, even though some chose to call them mercenaries, secret because of the sensitivity surrounding it.
The making of a deadly force that struck fear in the heart of Boko Haram
In November 2014 the government withdrew 80 soldiers and one officer, who had been assembled in Aba, in Abia State, for a United Nations peacekeeping mission and moved them to Makurdi in Benue State, where they joined 82 other soldiers from the 72 Special Forces Battalion and trained for three weeks by British army instructors.
By early December, all 163 soldiers were moved to the Nigerian Army School of Infantry, NASI, in Jaji, Kaduna State, for further training. They were later joined by 147 white and black South Africans, mostly in their 50s and 60s.
A Nigerian soldier, who trained and fought alongside the South Africans, said the Jaji training was done by South African instructors headed by one Harry.
The team was codenamed 72 Mobile Strike Group and after two months training in Jaji, it deployed to Maiduguri in February 2015 under the command of a South African known among troops as “General”.
Incidentally, that was the time the Nigerian military said it was going to launch a major offensive against Boko Haram beginning from February 14, a development that led to the postponement of the 2015 general elections by six weeks.
It was learnt that the mercenaries brought with them a lot of military equipment shipped in mainly from South Africa, including 24 REVA Armoured Personnel Carriers and two helicopters.
The REVA APCs are manufactured by a South African company, Integrated Convoy Protection Ltd. On its website, as part of its promotional profile, the company provides two photographs of its armoured vehicles in operation in Nigeria.
Troops earned more than what UN pays despite claims of underpayment
During the training at Jaji, soldiers claimed they were assured of more allowances than what obtains at United Nations peacekeeping missions.
“The chief instructor asked which of us had gone on a UN mission and how much we were paid. He told us that we would be paid double of that,” a soldier said.
The United Nations pays a monthly allowance of $1,000 per soldier and by the soldiers’ claims they expected to earn $2,000, which, according to the official exchange rate of 197, would be N394, 000, instead of the N240, 000 they received.
Despite the morale-boosting assurance, soldiers were only paid in March after they had threatened to protest.
“The contractor, a white man called Dival by those who accompanied him, had to come down to Maiduguri from Abuja. He apologised for the delay in payment and less than a week after he left, we received alerts,” a soldier said, adding that they threatened to protest only when they learnt that the South Africans were being secretly paid.
Feeding was once a day, at noon, but troops never complained because it was better than the three square meals they were used to.
“The food was nice. Each lunch box had a boiled egg, juice and apple while we ate chicken every two days,” the source said. “We were also provided beverages every two weeks and hot water is made available every morning for anyone who wanted to take tea,” the soldier stated.
The face behind the mask
The soldiers said when they deployed to Maiduguri, they related directly with the NSA’s office through one Umar, a Lieutenant Colonel, until the contractor had to show face due to their threat to protest, which invariably would have exposed everything and giving the government bad press.
When our reporter got the contractor’s phone number from a source privy to the deal and ran it through True Caller, the phone number search app, the name De Waal Van Jaarsveld showed up, explaining why troops called him Dival as the W is pronounced as a V.
An online search of the name led to a LinkedIn profile indicating that Dewaal Van Jaarsveld works as a manager at Pilgrims Africa. The profile also indicates that he is stationed in Nigeria and works in “Security and Investigations.”
Pilgrims Africa is a private security company run by Cobus Claassens, a former senior member of the South African mercenary group, Executive Outcomes, founded by Eeben Barlow, a former commander in the South African Army, who is now chairman of Specialised Tasks Training Equipment and Protection, STTEP.
When our reporter dialled his number and enquired if the receiver was Dewaal, the person at the other end of the line said yes. He admitted working for Conella Services Limited and addressing troops in Maiduguri.
However, Dewaal refused to give details of his trip to Maiduguri or what specific service his company provided to the Nigerian military. He also refused to comment about his firm, Conella’s payment of N240, 000 twice to some Nigerian soldiers and allegations that the soldiers were underpaid and are being owed another month’s pay.
“Whatever happened out there happened and it is confidential, I don’t want to talk about it,” he said after pausing for some time.
When asked what relationship existed between Conella Services Limited and Pilgrims Africa and why LinkedIn has a profile of him as a manager at the company, Dewaal denied knowing or working for Pilgrims Africa.
“Conella has nothing to do with Pilgrims Africa. I have never heard about Pilgrims Africa and I do not know what they do. I only know that they are a Nigerian company based in Lagos. I can help you Google it or you can do it yourself,” he explained before ending the call. The reporter sent him a text message requesting to meet him but he did not reply.
Until the time of publishing this report, Dewaal’s LinkedIn profile still indicates that he is a manager with Piglrims Africa
A search for Conella Services Limited at the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, showed that it is registered in Nigeria with registration number RC: 1231667, which, according to a lawyer familiar with company registration matters, indicates that the company was most likely registered in 2014.
However, the company’s registration documents were not found on the shelves, an indication that it might have been deliberately removed.
The disappearance of the company’s file might be connected to investigations by the committee set up to investigate purchase of military equipment by the NSA’s office as Conella Ltd is one of the 241 companies invited by the panel for questioning.
According to the lawyer who conducted the search, the absence of the company’s file at the CAC could be due to a request by a security or anti-graft agency investigating the firm.
“Usually, such a file is taken off the shelf to caveat to prevent tampering with the documents, which could affect the investigation,” he explained.
The role of STTEP and Pilgrims Africa
Little is known about the involvement of these two firms, particularly Pilgrims Africa Limited, in the fight against Boko Haram but it is thought that whatever role they played most likely came through Conella Services Limited, which was the major player. This provides a possible explanation why none of them was invited by the Dasuki probe panel.
However, Barlow provided a window into STTEP’s role in Nigeria in an end – of – year post on his blog on December 22, 2015.
“STTEP’s men made a very positive difference in Nigeria until we were forced to leave but we also lost 3 of our men in Nigeria; we had adrenalin rushes, expectations, waiting, laughter, highs and lows, cheap airlines, rundown airports, meetings, proposals, headshaking, briefings, presentations, bad food, terrible water, long hours, little sleep and some blood, sweat and tears,” he posted.
In a series of blog posts titled Eeben Barlow Speaks Out, Jack Murphy, a military journalist and managing editor of sofrep.com, who had an exclusive interview with Barlow, STTEP’s men were very much involved in the battle to reclaim lost territories from Boko Haram.
“The South African contractors of STTEP trained and served alongside the Nigerian Strike Force in combat against Boko Haram starting in January of 2015, putting a significant dent in the terrorist organization and helping to pave the way for Nigerians trapped behind enemy lines to participate in democratic elections in late March,” Murphy said.
In the interview, Barlow described how the team operated: “It is a mobile strike force with its own organic air support, intelligence, communications, logistics, and other relevant combat support elements… The strike force was never intended to hold ground. Instead, it operated on the principle of relentless offensive action.”
Pilgrims Africa Limited’s participation in the North east was revealed by Murphy on March 13, 2015, when he posted: “While the world remains fixated on the “ISIS crisis” in the Middle East, a small group of South African soldiers-for-hire are once again proving what it takes to fight, and win, against terrorists and insurgents. Teamed up with Nigerian military forces, a private military company named Pilgrims Africa Ltd. is employing South African Special Forces veterans to do what they do best: fight the dirty little bush wars that the United Nations can’t or won’t fight themselves.”
Pilgrims Africa Limited, according to a search report at the CAC, was registered on November 5, 2007 with a share capital of 10 million, which was increased to 25 million on December 19, 2015.
The company’s two shareholders are Pilgrims Group with 7.5 million and Cobus Claassens, who is listed as Jacobus Marthinus Claassens, with 2.5 million.
When our reporter called Cobus Claassens, who is Managing Director at Pilgrims Africa Limited, to find out if he knew De Waal or if he worked at the company, he admitted knowing him but said he was not a staff of the company.
In an email five days later, Claassens denied that Pilgrims Africa Limited provided any service to the Nigerian military.
“Pilgrims Africa does not now and have not at any point in time provided services to the Nigerian Military. This has been erroneously reported during early 2015, and forced us to take legal action against the perpetrators of such inaccurate information,” he said.
How miscommunication led to the death of two mercenaries
The icirnigeria.org learnt two of the South African mercenaries were killed in what military sources said was in “non – combat circumstances” that still remains unclear till date. The two foreign fighters were said to have been killed by friendly fire in an incident that could easily have been avoided.
Our reporter spoke to troops from both camps, the team that took the shots and the 72 Mobile Strike Group, and they all explained that the incident would have escalated but for the restraint shown by the South Africans.
According to soldiers from the strike group, when the army planned to retake Baga from Boko Haram, they received a signal to report to Mafa and meet up with troops from 81 Battalion, with whom they would go to Baga. The signal was received on a Monday and they were to report the following Saturday by 12.00pm.
They could not tell whether the signal came from the army headquarters or 7 Division.
However, on Saturday, another signal came that the time had been changed to 4.00pm but by the time they got to Mafa, the 81 Battalion soldiers had left their location, apparently thinking the strike group was no longer coming.
“Soldiers stationed in Mafa pointed us to the direction the 81 Battalion troops went and we decided to trace their tire tracks,” one of the soldiers in the strike group said.
When they got close to the 81 Battalion location, it was already getting dark and before they knew it, they were being shot at, so they stopped.
“We were all shocked, even though the shots were warning shots into the air. We started shouting ‘friendly force, friendly force’, but they didn’t stop,” the soldier explained.
Shortly after, the soldiers claimed their vehicles, a REVA APC, were being hit with bullets and their front vehicle was hit by a T-72 tank, resulting in the death of the driver and gunner, a white and a black South African.
At that point, the strike group, particularly the Nigerian troops within the group, thought of retaliating but they were ordered not to by their white commander, General.
“Can you imagine for how long we shouted that we were friendly force but they continued shooting, even when they saw that we did not fire back? If we had fired back, believe me, we would have finished them,” the soldier said, anger still visible in his eyes.
It was only after the strike group defiantly refused to fire back that the shots stopped but by then the damage had already been done.
“All through the night there was tension between us. We could not sleep because of anger and also because we did not know what they might do,” he said.
By daybreak, ‘General’ ordered his men into their vehicles and headed back to Maiduguri. As far as he was concerned, they were no longer interested in the operation.
A member of 81 Battalion confirmed that the incident took place but said it was not deliberate. He said they mistook the strike group for Boko Haram members.
However, he said they were fortunate that the strike group did not fire back.
“When we saw their weapons in the morning, we were relieved that they did not shoot and when they decided to withdraw, we felt bad because they were heavily armed,” the soldier explained.
After the two mercenaries were killed, it was learnt that it took the intervention of the Office of the National Security Adviser to get the mercenaries to continue with fight against Boko Haram.
“Some generals were immediately dispatched to Maiduguri to personally plead with them. The army promised to compensate them for the death of their colleagues,” a military source said.
The unceremonious exit
The icirnigeria.org gathered that there was friction between the mercenaries and Conella Services Limited because of payment.
According to a Defence ministry source, the South Africans wanted a pay rise, as their contract drew to a close but the contractor was having none of it because the government too was considering replacing it.
As a result, problems started creeping into the operation, including delay in the arrival of food. According to one of the cooks contracted to feed the team, she is still being owed about N500, 000.
With the unexpected defeat of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and President Jonathan in the last general election, it was obvious that the days of the South African hired fighters were numbered.
Before the election, President Muhammadu Buhari had criticised his predecessor’s employment of the foreign fighters, a situation that indicated he would not countenance such a thing.
As early as the second week of April 2015, our sources confirmed, there was not a single mercenary left in Maiduguri.
However, the sources said Conella Services Limited, which was angling for an extension from the NSA’s office, was still being owed when the contract came to an abrupt end. De Waal refused to confirm or deny when our reporter sought to confirm this information.
In spite of the evidence unearthed by our investigation, Nigerian military authorities continue to deny any involvement of foreign fighter in the counter insurgency campaign.
The Nigerian Defence spokesperson, Rabe Abubakar, a Brigadier General, denied the engagement of mercenaries by the Nigerian Army to fight Boko Haram insurgents. He told our reporter that the Nigerian military does not need mercenaries to defeat Boko Haram.
“We are fighting with Nigerian military and we are succeeding very well as Nigerians attested to this unprecedented victory over the terrorist. The military is professional and does not need mercenaries to fight to salvage our country from the menace of these ragtag rebels,” he replied to a text message seeking the reaction of the military to our findings.
The reporter still asked for a reaction to the evidence we came up with, including bank statements and pictures confirming the involvement of the mercenaries, but Abubakar did not respond.