Sceptical analysts are asking if SA really means to deploy its military strength to help bring peace and stability to the continent, writes Peter Fabricius.
Intriguing reports emerged from the Nigerian government in Abuja last week that President Jacob Zuma had agreed to send Special Forces of the South African National Defence Force to help Nigeria fight jihadist group Boko Haram.
This was while Zuma was on a state visit to Nigeria.
Nigerian Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali told Nigerian journalists last Monday that he had met his South African counterpart Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to finalise details of the special forces deployment.
At a press conference after meeting Buhari, Zuma talked about the challenges posed by terrorism and extremist groups in Africa, including Nigeria, and said that in the spirit of finding “African solutions for African problems”, that “we have agreed to work together to deal with these challenges”.
But then the defence ministry said in an official statement that SANDF chief Solly Shoke “ wishes to strongly reiterate that there is no such a decision to send any military elements by the RSA to assist with the fight against Boko Haram”.
So did the Nigerian media just get it wrong? Or did Dan-Ali jump the gun by announcing something that had not yet been finalised? Or did he announce a joint operation that was supposed to remain secret? Perhaps because the South African government feared retaliation at home from Boko Haram or even from Islamic State, which Boko Haram is now affiliated to?
Politico-military analysts have suggested a few reasons why South Africa might have offered to help Nigeria fight Boko Haram.
Last year, South African media reported that that South African “mercenaries” - or private security operatives - were successfully helping Nigeria fight Boko Haram. They had been hired by the previous Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.
The South African government was angry. In January last year, Mapisa-Nqakula vowed to have the “mercenaries” arrested the moment they set foot back on South African soil because they had broken the South African so-called anti-mercenary law which forbids South African citizens from providing any military service to foreign interests.
Officials said recently the mercenaries had left Nigeria but there have been no reports they were arrested.
So, did Zuma decide that he needed to restore his government’s credibility by offering official SANDF assistance in the fight against Boko Haram in place of the mercenaries?
Or was he instead perhaps trying to compensate for a big blunder by MTN? The South African cellphone company had just incurred an immense $3.9 billion (R60 million) fine by Nigerian authorities for failing to disconnect millions of unregistered simcards.
In Zuma’s presence, on his arrival in Nigeria last week, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari bluntly declared that through this error, MTN had been responsible for thousands of deaths of Nigerians inflicted by Boko Haram. That was because the organisation had been using MTN’s unregistered simcards.
Was this an indirect appeal to Zuma to compensate for MTN’s mistake by offering to help Nigeria fight the terrorist organisation? If so the implication seemed to be that Buhari was ready to reduce MTN’s huge fine substantially in return.
But if that were the case, would that not be tantamount to using South African taxpayer’s money to help get MTN off the hook? Zuma was expected to ask Buhari to reduce MTN’s fine anyway as the South African government had made clear it regarded the fine as harsh and excessive, given the good state of South Africa-Nigeria relations. So far there has been no indication of where things now stand with the MTN fine .
There is often murkiness about the use of South African forces in Africa. Why exactly they were in Central African Republic (CAR) before several were killed there in 2013 is still a mystery.
Three years ago Zuma proposed the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (Acirc), a mechanism for combining forces of volunteer African countries to tackle continental crises.
The AU had been greatly embarrassed recently by having to rely on France to intervene in Mali and in CAR to counter insurgencies because African had not been up to the task. Acirc was supposed to be the AU force that would intervene the next time a crisis arose. South Africa presented itself as country championing an African solution to an African problem.
Yet several crises have erupted since where Acirc could had been deployed - such as the civil war in South Sudan and indeed the Boko Haram insurgency. But Acirc was never deployed. The reasons may have been political; regional countries did not want countries from elsewhere on the continent meddling in their affairs. Or maybe the Acirc countries did not have the means or the will to intervene after all.
Now Acirc’s future looks uncertain. There are signs it will soon be dissolved, or absorbed into the African Standby Force, without ever having seen action. In retrospect it looks rather like a hollow political gesture.
Are we now about to see the Special Forces go into action instead? Many analysts are sceptical. They ask if South Africa really mean to deploy its considerable military strength to help bring peace and stability to the continent. Or does it only mean to brandish it as a means to other ends?