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. With their three-month contract expiring, STTEP made a controlled withdrawal from Nigeria and had all of their employees returned home by late March.
Once it was determined that their contract would not be extended, “It then became a matter of withdrawing our employees in groups whilst a skeleton crew remained in place to ensure all equipment was handed back to the army in a controlled and orderly manner,” STTEP’s chairman, Eeben Barlow, told SOFREP. “The Nigerian Air Force flew our men to a large city from where they departed Nigeria.”
When asked if STTEP successful fulfilled the services stipulated in their contract with the Nigerian government, Barlow answered, “As our contract was of a mere three month’s duration, I think we achieved the best we could with very limited resources.” The South African contractors were initially brought on to help the Nigerian military rescue the Chibok school girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists, but as the enemy made significant advances in northern Nigeria, STTEP had to adjust their approach at the request of the Nigerian government. They were now to train the strike force to conduct “unconventional mobile warfare,” Barlow said (these tactics are detailed in a previous article). “I can only commend the training team for achieving what they did in a very short space of time,” Barlow said.
But when it came to turning the tide against Boko Haram, Barlow made it clear that, “The credit goes to the Nigerian Army, who were supported by the strike force we trained. The strike force was a force-multiplier in the area of operations.”
The strike force plowed into enemy-held terrain while the Nigerian Army sent in infantry to secure the strike force’s rear areas and sure up any gains made. As far as the punishment that the Nigerian forces dolled out to the enemy, Barlow said, “I do know that the enemy lost many of their technicals and that they suffered heavy casualties.”
But considering the impressive performance of the South African contractors and their host-nation counterparts in the Nigerian strike force, the question becomes why their contract was not extended for a further three months. While Boko Haram has been put on the ropes, they have yet to be crushed and permanently defeated.
“Obviously we, as a sub-contractor, were not privy to the decisions made regarding the contract, and we accept whatever decision the client-government makes,” Barlow said. Had the contractors overstayed their welcome, the media reports about out-of-control mercenaries would have been accurate, but the South Africans had no interest in camping out in mega-FOBs in Nigeria or occupying their host’s country.
The impact of the Nigerian elections
One factor contributing to the contractors’ withdrawal may have been the elections themselves. “The end of our three months coincided with the elections, and as is now known, a change of government. This obviously changed the political and military landscapes. With this change in government comes a change in many things, one of course being if STTEP is required or not,” Barlow said.
Another issue may have been the pressure African governments are subjected to by the international community for employing South Africans to help resolve their security issues. “Much of this pressure originated locally from the South African print media by apparent under-control journalists publishing misinformation on the company’s activities, even to the extent of claiming we were driving main battle tanks (MTBs) into battle!” Barlow is no stranger to media smear campaigns against the companies he has worked for, as Executive Outcomes came under the same pressure for their role in the Angola and Sierra Leone conflicts in the 1990s.
International institutions and academics have no shortage of consternation when it comes to the use of certain types of private military companies. Most of these individuals were educated to believe in the Westphalian system, in which the state has the only legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Of course, there have always been huge exceptions to this rule since the current global order was established, but that doesn’t seem to deter them much. Besides that, STTEP was contracted by the government of Nigeria! How this differs so much from the myriad of American private military companies who contract in Iraq and Afghanistan is hard to fathom.
If any nation is guilty of outsourcing military tasks, it’s certainly the United States. “The current market maker for modern force is the United States, as it has turned to the private sector in unprecedented ways to support its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Sean McFate writes in his recent book “The Modern Mercenary.”
“For example, the United States has relied on contractors to develop the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, even awarding DynCorp International a contract worth up to $1 billion to train the police.” McFate also references PMCs like Lincoln Group, which came under investigation for running propaganda in the Iraqi press, and Total Intelligence Solutions, which, “runs spy rings for the U.S. government overseas.”
However, some private military companies are more equal than others. Little is said in the British press about Sterling Corporate Services or in the American press about MPRI, as the scandals have mostly focused on Blackwater contractors. Ironically, the same press that cries about the atrocities committed by Boko Haram also goes ballistic when a firm like STTEP effectively helps to cut the same terrorists down to size. Agenda-driven media accounts of Barlow and his activities only exacerbate the situation.
Take, for instance, a recent article published in the Guardian, which was more than likely written in response to part four of this series in which Barlow rejects the racial narrative his company has been accused of by the press. The Guardian article is actually quite an embarrassment for the writer, David Smith, and his editors, who spin a superficial narrative about old white mercenaries fighting for profit in Nigeria. The article cites those who are far removed from the conflict, pointing out that, although they have turned the tide against Boko Haram, they’re still just a bunch of old white racists.
“The South African government has been fed such a false narrative by the South African media that it is possible they requested the Nigerian government not to extend the contract. The media here has tried very hard to turn this into a racial issue with the intent to create as much suspicion as possible,” Barlow wrote. “It is a sad day for Africa when a few in the media want to ensure a continuation of conflict as opposed to an end to it, and want to dictate who a government may use and who not.”
As for the claim that the SADF veterans are getting up there in age, Barlow doesn’t bat an eye. “Yes, many of us are no longer 20-year-olds,” Barlow told SOFREP. “However, we are all mentally and physically fit, and can hack it with our younger-generation employees. But, with our age has come knowledge of conflicts and wars in Africa they have yet to learn, a wealth of experience the youngsters do not have, and a steady hand when things get rough.” While the infantry may be a young man’s game, unconventional warfare requires a different, more mature, type of soldier.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is left to struggle with their internal security dilemmas, first among them being Boko Haram. “The enemy was not annihilated and was able to flee the battlefield with some of their forces intact, and will no doubt regroup and continue their acts of terror to enforce their political and religious philosophy,” Barlow said. “The ending of Boko Haram will be political and economical in nature, as you cannot kill an aspiration.”
The Nigerian government will have to continue to battle Boko Haram on the battlefield, but this effort will have to be done in tandem with political and economic reform in order to create a lasting peace. Barlow acknowledged this reality, arguing that military force is important, but not enough by itself. “Like elsewhere on the continent, the majority of the security problems will continue to be driven by socio-political factors and motivated at times by extremism.”
When it came to the subject of military reform in Nigeria, Barlow offered a few words of advice:
“I would like to see a reorganization of the security forces, including training to enable the security forces to pose an effective and credible deterrent to any bad guys. By reorganization, I mean a redesigning of the order of battle as African armies are merely clones of their pre-independence rulers, making them slow to react, lacking in flexibility, and relying on relative strengths. But all of this will require a refocused strategic vision and threat analysis, coupled to sound advice, training, and the correct equipment. From an equipment point of view, Africa has become the dumping ground of old, obsolete equipment that is purchased on bad advice.”
The future for the Nigerian strike force that STTEP trained is uncertain. Will it continue to operate as a highly mobile direct-action unit, or be disbanded? While STTEP and the strike force took Boko Haram down a few pegs, their final battle remains to be fought. If anything, the contractors and their Nigerian partners have provided the Nigerian government with some breathing room to institute the needed military, economic, and political reforms needed to ensure the Boko Haram is permanently neutered as a threat to the Nigerian people.
Barlow and his men demonstrated in Nigeria that it is possible to chalk up incredible successes against enemy insurgents, a vexing problem set that the American military has failed to adequately address in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.
“To defeat such an enemy militarily, we must out-think and outsmart him by adopting tactics, techniques, and procedures that are so unexpected and unconventional that he becomes confused and loses his cohesion. That is what we tried to do with the strike force, but three months is a very short time in which to do that effectively,” Barlow said, explaining his approach to warfare—a rejection of conventional thinking that lumps such conflicts into counterinsurgency models. “However, if the Nigerian Army does not annihilate the armed Boko Haram members, the government will not be able to negotiate from a position of ultimate strength or be able to govern in a secure environment.”
(Featured image: The strike force prepares for an early morning advance into enemy territory.)