The Mercenary Playbook

Why do Western media outlets still fantasize that Apartheid's foot soldiers will be the ones to stop Boko Haram?

Refugees from Boko Haram's violence in a camp across the border in Niger, December 2014 (EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, via Flickr.)

In the weeks leading up to the Nigerian election this weekend (official results expected sometime today), Reuters stirred up a lot of speculation with a report which claims the Abuja government is secretly using white South African mercenaries— read apartheid-era security forces—to fight Boko Haram in Northeastern Nigeria.

Then last week, The New York Times realized that Nigerian Twitter feeds have actually documented “white soldiers atop armored vehicles on what appears to be a major road in Maiduguri.” The Nigerian government initially refused to comment, then claimed that the so-called mercenaries were really “technical advisors,” only there “to provide training and technical support for foreign-bought weapons.”

Approximately zero percent of journalists were satisfied with the government’s explanation. And yet, even as international news outlets have scoffed at the government’s attempts to cloak their reliance on foreign military personnel in technocratic mumbo jumbo, an overwhelming among of coverage has relied on the idea that the mercenaries are efficient in order to justify, or at least understand, why the government of a country that was once so closely associated with the anti-apartheid and pan-African movements, could rely on the very same soldiers that fought to uphold the white supremacist regime in South Africa.

And we do know, following reports of the death of the former South African soldier Leon Lotz in Borno state on March 9, that apartheid-era forces are participating in these military (and by proximity, political) campaigns. In the 1980s, Lotz fought for a paramilitary unit, known as Koevoet, that was euphemistically tasked to “root out” nationalist guerrillas in what is now Namibia. The unit infamously targeted civilian sanctuaries including refugee camps and hospitals — and Lotz himself was formally accused of the murder of two civilians who survived the Kassinga massacre. A 1989 government inquest “determined that Lotz and Bouwer took the two into custody for interrogation, murdered them and buried the bodies in a water-filled pit,” as Binaifer Nowrojee and Bronwen Manby document in their book Divide and Rule: State-sponsored Ethnic Violence in Kenya.

Despite the fact that their crimes are public record, The Economist throws its support behind the South African mercenaries. The neoliberal stalwart assures us that their presence is a good sign — while managing to transform white men into actual guns, and reduce the grisly conflict into a bro-y business performance report:

Bringing in experienced hired guns may be a clever move by Nigeria’s army. It has performed abysmally against Boko Haram.

And The Economist isn’t the only publication relying on the contrast between the corrupt and bumbling Nigerian army and these ultra effective, white killing machines. Here’s The Conversation describing the difference between the Nigerian forces and the South African mercenaries:

(T)he Nigerian security and military forces have been embroiled in scandal after scandal ranging from corruption and desertion to human rights abuses. All this has effectively restricted their ability to act decisively against the designated terrorist organisation, which has thrived in the north east of the country over the past three years.


South Africans have a long-standing reputation as being among the best mercenaries in the world…

The use of South African mercenaries is a logical step for Jonathan’s government who has been battling the insurgency with little success. These men have a track record of providing quality counter-terrorism training through various pop-up private military and security companies. They have assisted several governments in overcoming insurgencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.

South African soldiers have extensive experience conducting mobile operations in hostile environments and can provide immediate access to airpower.

There are other textual examples we could highlight, which also accommodate the mythic power of the mercenaries. But what is most striking to me is how consistent the visual narrative is in all these reports.

Despite the fact that the story follows reports of white South African mercenaries sighted (and photographed) atop armored vehicles in Maiduguri, by and large only Black Nigerian soldiers are pictured in the photos that accompany these articles— ie, black bodies are made hyper-visible in a story about white mercenaries. When photos of the white South African soldiers are included, they have been pulled from archival sources— which means that they actually remind us that these soldiers fight to uphold the white supremacist regime. At the same time, the photos are carefully selected to represent the white South African soldier as a sharp-sighted, rational commander. This soldier, we’re assured, never loses control, or glorifies violence (though there are plenty of archival images that would tell a different story). Equally chilling, the selection of these photos refuses to show the way the white South African soldier has aged. His body is perfectly invulnerable, always at its physical peak.

To understand what this immortal (nay, deathless) image stands for, and how it participates in the naturalization of violence, we could start by examining the history of the most famous South African mercenary operation — Executive Outcomes.

Eeben Barlow, who was one of the apartheid state’s most senior military strategists, founded his company just when the Nationalist regime was beginning to falter. As Jeremy Harding observed back in 1997, Barlow quickly identified “political and military instability in Africa to be a market issue” — and the company’s most lucrative contracts involved secure unstable regimes in the oil-rich nations of Angola and Sierra Leone. While Executive Outcomes consistently conducted operations around extractive concessions, “Barlow has a way of speaking about the company’s benefits to civilians as though he were running a Christian outreach project.”

We needn’t defend the Nigerian government or the conduct of the Nigerian military to ask why the corruption of the state narrative effectively legitimizes the activities of the South African mercenaries — which are by definition — illegal. The often repeated, vague assumption that white mercenaries are “effective” ignores the South African soldiers’ record of human rights violations — and gives men like Eeben Barlow a get-out-of-jail free card.

White South African mercenaries have traded on lesser evil narratives and no alternative ultimatums which conflate the violence that has been inflicted on civilian populations in unimaginably horrific ways with the violence the government needs to control in order to secure the election — and as John Campbell points out, they do not promise an end to armed conflict.

In Nigeria, it remains to be seen whether Abuja’s use of mercenaries will encourage “foreign fighters” from elsewhere in the Sahel to rally to Boko Haram’s side. The Nigerian government is already claiming that Tuaregs from Mali are assisting Boko Haram. It would seem that the presence of mercenaries is “internationalizing” the struggle between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.

And, at the end of the day, South African mercenary groups like Executive Outcomes capitalize on corruption narratives in post-colonial states, expertly mixing fears about inefficiency with dystopian imaginary of death and decay which demands evermore vigilance, evermore impenetrable, indestructible bodies that make demilitarization unthinkable.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.