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South African Mercenaries Play Crucial Role In Fight Against Boko Haram


Today is the final day of campaigning for Nigeria's presidential election - an election that was postponed six weeks ago because of security concerns. That delay seems to have been a bonus for embattled incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.


It gave the president extra time to make progress against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has been terrorizing northern Nigeria for years. And now indeed Boko Haram is on the run. The Nigerian military has taken credit for those victories, but there's evidence that the real fighters include a contingent of highly skilled mercenaries. New York Times' West Africa bureau chief Adam Nossiter uncovered the story. When he joined us via Skype, he said the Nigerian armed forces are doing some of the fighting.

ADAM NOSSITER: But it is also clear that the Nigerians have hired a fair number of mercenary soldiers from South Africa - men who fought for apartheid South Africa and who are very experienced and who are, I am told, frontlines now of Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram.

MONTAGNE: When you say that you've been told, what exactly has been described to you about these forces that are - is it allegedly from South Africa - these mercenaries?

NOSSITER: Well, my sources there are geographically close to what's going on. And they tell me that they've seen white soldiers - South Africans - camped at the airport in Maiduguri, which is the main city in northeastern Nigeria and the city that gave birth to Boko Haram. And they tell me that they have good night vision capability. They're operating helicopter gunships. And as one very credible - again - source told me, you know, they're whacking them at night. The South Africans are whacking them at night. And the Boko Haram - you know, they don't even know what's hit them. And in the morning, the Nigerian troops roll in and proclaim victory.

MONTAGNE: But is this a positive, then, for Goodluck Jonathan? I mean, as a president, will this in fact enhance his standing, or is there any potential for this doing him damage as this emerges as a story?

NOSSITER: Well, the Nigerians are not acknowledging for one second that they've hired South Africans to do the fighting for them. The most they'll say is that they have foreign technical advisers helping out their troops. You know, if this was acknowledged, it would be a political disaster. Nigeria is a very proud country. It's a very nationalistic country. And there's a certain element of xenophobia in the national makeup.

Now, the other question though is whether the recent success undoubted against Boko Haram, for whatever reason, will help Goodluck Jonathan. And that is not clear because the question that people are asking in Nigeria, especially in northern Nigeria where there's great deal of opposition is, you know, why has it taken an election? Why only the last six weeks has this problem been fully engaged by a Nigerian government that up until now has been absolutely indifferent to what's been going on?

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us via Skype from the capital of Chad, N'Djamena, Adam Nossiter is the New York Times' West Africa bureau chief. Thank you very much.

NOSSITER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.