So now we know where Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan is getting his new found swagger.
In recent months, the extremists who have wrecked havoc on the country’s northeast—killing thousands and displacing about one million people – finally seem to have been pushed back.
The regional force made up of soldiers from Chad, Niger and Cameroon as well as Nigeria’s own military have all claimed to have scored victories against the dreaded Boko Haram.
Chad’s president Idriss Derby has said he knows where the group’s fearsome leader Abubakar Shekau is hiding (perhaps in the vast Sambissa forest) and he’ll exterminate him.
Jonathan himself has said he’ll have this insurgency under control before the elections at the end of the month.
After five years of bloodshed and Boko Haram pledging allegiance to their equally blood thirsty cousins in extremism, Islamic State, why is Mr. President suddenly so confident?
Well it turns out he’s gotten himself Russian, Ukrainian and… wait for it, South African mercenaries. Mercenaries for hire, or rather technical security advisors as Mr. President would have the world believe.
On Wednesday Jonathan told Chris Stein, reporting for the Voice of America that these companies were simply providing “technical support” for newly acquired weaponry and other military equipment.
“So we now have these technical people who are trainers and technicians, who are to train our people on how to use them, and technicians that help the maintenance, at the same time training our people how to maintain this equipment,” Jonathan said from the presidential villa here, near the gargantuan Aso Rock.
But up in north east Nigeria’s biggest city, Maiduguri, there are hundreds of foreign soldiers from South Africa and Eastern Europe who are engaged in the fighting. Mercenaries.
It was these kinds of foreign mercenaries, white soldiers who attempted for years to crush the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. They bombed and killed many black South Africans for decades.
These soldiers are the ones who know how to operate the rocket propelled launchers and the South Africans like to work on their own not alongside the Nigerian soldiers.
Then there is the strange scenario of foreign ‘soldiers’ in night goggles flying fighter jets with Nigerian military equipment to attack the Boko Haram from the air. One foreign contractor has already lost his life, but gains are being made it seems.
Jonathan must feel he’s got to try something different after all Boko Haram razes entire villages, straps bombs on children and kills with abandon.
Jonathan believes they have trained with Islamic State though he wouldn’t say which country this training took place.
“So we know the links are there. … we may not know the degree of linkages as to how much funds are coming in from them, the kind of volume of weapons coming in from them, the nationalities coming from them,” the president said. “But the training, because some of the Boko Haram members go to have their training in the ISIS camp and come back.”
But even if this new round of foreign military contractors succeed in killing many Boko Haram members, how will this play in two weeks when Jonathan is up for reelection against a surging Muhammadu Buhari?
In the shadow of the Aso Rock presidential villa, I chatted with a few blue collar workers. The ones who make this beautiful city work.
Unlike the chaotic nature of traffic in many Nigerian cities, Abuja is still fairly orderly, highways still have bright street lights and roads tarred immaculately.
On the surface it seems Goodluck is the man, but still a chunk of people here lowered their voices to me and whispered conspiratorially ‘We want change.’
Joseph, a launderer and sometime gardener, is a 41-year old Christian from the Jos area in the middle-belt of the country. He supported Jonathan for years. But now, back home in his village, people sleep in the bush at night, too afraid to sleep in their homes in case they are attacked by Boko Haram insurgents.
“There is no security. Our people dey sleep for bush. People are dying, he said mixing in Nigerian pidgin English.
He told me he was disappointed because working class folk supported Jonathan and put him in office last time but now all the poor are with Buhari.
Parking lot attendants, roadside traders all whispered some version of the same sentiment. This was hardly surprising after all people with little economic heft would of course hunger for a better life.
But then civil servants and friends in the private sector here also whisper the same thing, with one telling me that the galling thing about Jonathan and his cadre of ministers was that corruption was rampant and had become the norm. In the last year there has been an on going debate about whether as much as $20 billion really went missing from the treasury.
Could security and corruption issues, derail Jonathan’s bid to remain office? Despite the slick TV ads from Jonathan’s campaign urging voters to keep him in office ‘for the love of the country’ pollsters say it’s still too close to call.
The dour and conservative Buhari, in many people’s minds, would tackle Boko Haram and publicly punish the thieving.
As a child, I remembered the former dictator’s ‘War Against Indiscipline’ and his drive to root out corruption over 30 years ago, civil liberties be damned. But in a country with 60% of the population under-30 memories of his controversial reign are dim.
Yet support for Jonathan remains strong in the mid-western and south eastern parts of the country where he hails from. As I head out to that region, I wonder if the public vociferous support for him will be the same in private.
Nothing in Nigeria is ever what is seems.