ABUJA, NIGERIA —South African and other foreign soldiers in Nigeria are fighting against Boko Haram, engaging in ground combat and flying combat air sorties, Nigerian soldiers told VOA Thursday.
The fighting comes as the Nigerian government tries to notch battlefield victories ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections later this month.
Nigerian government officials confirmed the presence of foreign military personnel, but said they were only advisers accompanying military equipment purchased from South Africa, Russia and Ukraine.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan told VOA in an interview Wednesday that the foreigners were “technicians” brought in for maintenance and instruction.
But Nigerian soldiers disputed that the foreigners were only present as advisers, telling VOA Thursday that many of the soldiers were participating in actual combat.
The decision to bring private military contractors to the fight is a critical one for the government of Jonathan, who is locked in a tight election campaign against Muhummadu Buhari.
While the government has allowed forces from Niger and Chad to make incursions into Nigerian territory to fight Boko Haram, the presence of soldiers from outside the region — South African or Eastern European — calls into question the effectiveness of the Jonathan administration’s fight against the militants.
Boko Haram’s chaotic and bloody insurgency has killed thousands and displaced more than 1 million people in northern Nigeria.
One soldier, who is living alongside the foreign personnel in a barracks in the city of Maiduguri, identified the foreigners as South Africans, Ukrainians and others. He said they were flying aircraft from the Maiduguri airport.
“The South Africans don’t want to deploy with any Nigerian military units, they want to go on their own,” the sergeant, who was not authorized to speak to the media, told VOA.
Another soldier, a corporal, told VOA that Nigerian and foreign soldiers had been massing near the town of Bama earlier this week for a planned offensive.
But miscommunication resulted in Nigerian soldiers opening fire on two armored personnel carriers driven by “white soldiers,” thinking the vehicles were operated by Boko Haram, the soldier said. One of the drivers was killed in the shooting, and the offensive was then called off.
Earlier this week, news reports said a South African ex-soldier who was working as private military contractor was killed in the northeast. It was unclear if that death came in the same incident.
A representative from South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation declined to comment on the report.
“The white soldiers, they were the only ones who knew how to operate the mobile rocket launchers,” the corporal said.
The corporal, who was also based in the barracks in Maiduguri, said South African pilots had been flying combat missions using Nigerian jets, surveillance planes and helicopters, along with jets he said appeared to be South African.
“All the aerial attacks are being done by the white soldiers using Nigerian and hired military aircraft,” he said.
Another officer, who served as a top aide to the commander of a brigade in Borno state, told VOA there were between 100 and 150 foreign soldiers, mainly South African, working out of Maiduguri and they were flying fighter jets daily out of the Maiduguri airport.
On February 27, a VOA reporter witnessed a convoy of around 30 vehicles— armored personnel carriers, mine sweepers and open-backed troop transport trucks — driving north on the main highway between the capital Abuja and Maiduguri.
The drivers were white and men visible in the backs of the transport trucks were overwhelmingly white. Some of the trucks had what appeared to be Nigerian flags painted on the doors.