Nigeria's government is deploying South African mercenaries in its effort to battle the Islamist Boko Haram militia that's wreaking havoc in the northern part of the country, the New York Times reported last week.
The Times didn't mention Erik Prince, the American businessman and defense contractor who founded the controversial Blackwater Worldwide company, which he left in 2010. (Blackwater later changed its name to Xe and then Academi.) But BuzzFeed News has learned that early last year, Prince met with the president of Nigeria and gave him a business proposal: to deploy foreign "contractors" for hire, the same type of mercenary force Nigeria is now reportedly using.
Two sources familiar with the meeting in Nigeria said that Prince told the country's president, Goodluck Jonathan, that his company could assemble a well-trained fighting force of non-Nigerians to battle Boko Haram. The terrorist group kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last April and recently swore allegiance to the Syrian and Iraqi rebel force Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), known for beheading Western captives. The mercenaries — though Prince himself never uses the term — would lead the combat operations against insurgents, taking the load off the Nigerian military, which has often been accused of corruption and human rights abuses.
A third source, familiar with Prince's version of events, said that the American businessman presented a proposal to President Jonathan, but that it was for a "police" force for Nigeria's northeast region, rather than a military unit. This source says Prince made the pitch on behalf of his company, Frontier Resources Group, a private equity fund registered in the Cayman Islands. Prince is Frontier's managing director.
Much about Prince's proposal remains murky, and it's unclear if President Jonathan signed off on his business proposition. But the bid itself highlights how Prince, who campaigned to privatize large pieces of America's military efforts during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has exported his push for the outsourcing of war to other parts of the world. And even more important, it underscores the way that soldiers-for-hire, employed by for-profit businesses, have entered the already chaotic clash between terrorist networks and traditional armies that serve national governments.
It is not clear that the South African mercenaries now reportedly operating in Nigeria are in fact doing the job that Prince had bid to do or even whether they are employed by Prince's company. Two sources said that Prince's business pitch was declined by the Nigerian government, which would mean that the mercenaries who are operating in the country are not connected to Prince.
But one source familiar with the deal said that Nigeria's government did agree to do business with Prince. This source said that he believed the South African mercenaries are indeed part of a force affiliated with Prince.
Prince himself could not be reached for comment.
Prince is a U.S. citizen, and State Department arms trading rules generally require Americans who broker foreign defense service deals to obtain licenses and get advance approval. But there are exemptions, especially if the brokering is done with the authorization of other agencies, such as the CIA or Pentagon. The State Department said it does not release information about specific licenses or approvals. A Department of Defense spokesman, Major James B. Brindle, emailed a statement to BuzzFeed News, saying, "We are aware of the reports. We have nothing to add, and direct you to the Government of Nigeria for queries relating to their possible use of security contractors." The CIA, which has clashed with Prince in the past, declined to comment.
Prince is best known for his role in Blackwater, the most active of the private military companies that flourished over the last decade and a half during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2004, four Blackwater guards were savagely killed in Fallujah, where their bodies were burned and displayed, sparking a massive U.S. assault against the city and changing the tenor of the war. And in 2007, Blackwater guards in counterassault vehicles in Baghdad's Nisour Square killed 17 innocent Iraqis in an unprovoked massacre. Last year four of the Blackwater guards were found guilty in a federal trial in Washington, D.C.
In the company's heyday, it ran security for the State Department and CIA officials throughout Iraq, protected U.S. convoys in the Middle East, trained Afghan forces, and provided aviation services to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The CIA even briefly hired Prince to set up an assassination wing to kill terrorists, according to former officers and published accounts, though that effort was canceled.
But Prince left Blackwater years ago, and the firm was renamed Xe and then Academi.
For some time, Prince operated in Abu Dhabi. The New York Times in 2011 reported that he had helped the United Arab Emirates set up a unit of Colombian security contractors to conduct missions inside and outside the tiny Gulf state. He was also linked to an effort to train an anti-piracy force in Somalia.
Prince, more recently, has been best known for running Frontier Services Group, a company traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The firm is backed by the CITIC Group, which is majority-owned by the government of China.
The name of that company is similar to Frontier Resources Group, Prince's Cayman Islands firm and the one through which he pitched Nigeria's president on the force to combat Boko Haram. But the two are separate entities.
The government of Nigeria did not respond to request for comment on this story. But President Jonathan told the Voice of America news service last week that the foreign contractors were "technicians," and a government spokesman has been quoted in the BBC saying that foreign troops were acting as trainers.