Sam Ethan Air force base was known for one major thing in the whole of Benue; it had the best medical facility in the state.
Except for a few vehicles here and there; some Air Force Boys who were mounting and dismounting from their duty posts, not much was happening. We got to the airfield without more ado. A C-130 was already waiting for us to board. In the six years since I joined the army, nothing happens that fast. To raise a military aircraft certainly needed various clearances from various hierarchies and authorities. The orders must have indeed come from the Commander-in-Chief himself. After some waiting by us and running around by the Air Force boys, we boarded the C-130.
The soldiers who boarded the aircraft were less than a company. As the aircraft taxied along the runway, I remembered Doyin. We had both wanted a child for the past two years before she finally got pregnant. To me it seemed the air craft might crash at any time and I would not be able to see Doyin and the child again. I looked into the face of my colleagues; everyone was lost in his thought.
I managed to ask the Corporal beside me, “Wetin dey happen sef?” “How I go know? No be inside duty room I meet una? I no know oo,” he retorted in a very cold but calm voice which had a tone of finality to it. He wanted to be left alone.
We landed at Abuja airport at 10.05 hrs. At the time, the airport was not an International Airport. We were met by a Lieutenant Colonel from the Armor Corp and we were directed to move to a building in some secluded part of the airport. While we were waiting, soldiers were arriving in platoons and companies in both military and commercial aircrafts. The soldiers looked more confused than we were. The most frustrating thing was that no one would give us a true account of the situation of things; not even the cold comfort of rumors was forthcoming. At precisely 14.06 hrs in the afternoon of September 2, 1990, a Senior Artillery Officer, a Colonel addressed us. He simply told us that there had been some hiccups in modus operandi, so we would proceed to Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos and await further instructions. He did not say a word more; more confusion for us. Our familiar C-130 was still waiting.
We touched down at Murtala Muhammed at 18.50 hrs and we were directed to move to the restricted wing of the airport where we were offered some food we had no appetite for. But in our line of work, especially in the circumstances where we did not know what awaited our fate, one does not reject such good gesture. Every one of us was certain that something unusual was in the air, but what it was, we did not know. After about twenty minutes we were asked to move to an even more restricted area of the airport. There, activities were taking place. At that moment I had an idea of what might be in the air.
We were told to sign for brand new FN rifles and as many magazines and ammunitions as one could take on one’s person. Certainly the idea of a coup or a counter-coup was out of the question. All our movements were far from being covert. Soon afterwards we were ordered to get on board another aircraft.
We boarded a commercial aircraft, Nigerian Airways D-C10. We assumed that we were going back to Abuja, or we wanted to think that we were going back to Abuja or better still, Makurdi, our base. That was my thought and I was sure what most of us would like to think. I knew we were not going anywhere near Abuja or my base. We were joined by soldiers from various units. In the aircraft, I recognized just a few faces and naturally the new guns and ammunitions should explain it all. There were four officers on board the commercial aircraft and I assumed there were four platoons of soldiers on board. I could not keep track of time anymore; it seemed after all, time was of no essence.
After sometime, the pilot’s voice on the speaker brought me back to life, “Gentlemen, we are now 10,000 thousand feet above sea level in Accra, enjoy the rest of the flight. Thank you.”
I turned to the Sergeant beside me in simulated confusion, “Accra in Ghana?” I asked.
“No, Accra in Gambia!” He retorted.
Everyone was talking at the same time and it seemed some of the senior Non-Commissioned-Officers (NCOs) had got wind of the information before that moment as they appeared unruffled. If they were surprised, they did not show it. Albeit, I did not follow international news closely, one could not but have heard about the political developments in Liberia.
At that moment, we knew where we were going. Everyone overcame his worst fear; there was a change in the air and in the countenance of the soldiers as soon as we knew where we were heading. We had good reasons to be worried, the arbitrary attitude of the military authority then left much to be desired. Even though we were not told, we knew.
Some soldiers, later during the years in the Liberian war, were brought to Liberia just in the same manner that we were brought and in two hours within on arrival, they were dead. Strange things happened at those times. We started singing to boost our morale and make the best of the moment. I was sure most of us especially the junior NCOs had never been in combat. And we were dying to see one. Tension was replaced with enthusiasm. It was written all over our faces. Survival! We must survive this mission and return home in one piece. I thought of Doyin and vowed that I must see her again.
As we touched down in Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone, I inhaled the air. The air was filled with an unnatural flavor. From the airport we were quickly taken in military trucks upon which were written “ECOMOG” to ECOMOG’s temporary military base in Sidibe. ECOMOG is an acronym for ECOWAS Monitoring Group. ECOWAS itself is an acronym for Economic Community for West African States. The term ECOMOG in years to come would bring to me memories of Monrovia. Sidibe is a town at the edge of a river which took its name from the town. The river divides the little town of Sidibe into almost two equal parts. The natural course of the river takes one straight into Liberia.
General Arnold Quainoo, a Ghanaian, the Commander of ECOMOG, was a huge and very dark man. He was nicknamed ‘buffalo soldier’ by Nigerian soldiers. It was in Liberia that I knew that those of us that flew in Nigeria airways D-C 10 were the first Nigerian soldiers to be sent to Liberia. We were the Nigerian First Battalion, NIBAT 1.
To refresh our weapon’s skill we were quickly taken through a three day crash course of the basics. The words and practices stuck with me in three days better than the nine months I spent in the Nigerian Army Depot. The atmosphere stimulated it. It was like I had never been thought those words; it became my poem:
“Aiming and holding must be firm enough to
support the rifle.
The rifle must naturally point to the target.
Shot must be released and followed through
without disturbing the position.
Sight alignment must be accurate.”
While NIBAT 1 was preparing to move into Liberia, Ghana’s first battalion, GABAT 1 was already approaching Liberian waters in Ghana’s war ship GNS Achimota. A few hours after GNS Achimota left Sierra Leonean waters and just a few nautical miles into Liberian territorial waters, GNS Achimota was attacked and severely damaged by Charles Taylor’s forces. It suffered heavy casualties but the experienced Captain of the warship, Captain Mike Afrifa steered it to a safety port. In those days, Charles Taylor was breathing fire like a possessed dragon threatening to destroy any person who dared to interfere in the situation in Liberian.
A week later, Nigerian warship NNS Aradu, the biggest Nigerian naval ship at the time, a MEKO 360 Class Frigate carrying NIBAT 1 moved to Liberia. We were not going to take chances like GABAT 1.
NNS Aradu was flanked on the right by a Coastal Minesweeper NNS Ohue and on the left by another Minesweeper NNS Ruwan Yaro. Two Augusta A-109 military helicopters, armed with lightweight torpedoes and machine gun covered the air. We entered Liberia like an imperial fleet entering a wild savage land.
ECOMOG Command Headquarters was set up along the coastline at Freeport so that it stuck a balanced distance between the rebels of Prince Yommy Johnson, leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia [INPFL] on the West Coast and the Headquarters of the National Armed Forces of Liberia on the East Coast. The rebel forces of Charles Taylor, leader of National Patriotic Front of Liberia [NPFL], had taken control of the hinterland. Therefore, Charles Taylor controlled the only international airport in that country and more than a quarter of the land area of Liberia.
For the first two weeks, we spent time in securing the Command Headquarters, keeping fit and getting ready, expecting more reinforcements and intelligence information. Charles Taylor kept ranting to the world press and whoever cared to listen about how he would crush anybody that dared to intervene in Liberia. Samuel Doe sat in the presidential villa undecided as to what to do even though the most foolish person in Africa knew what should be done; run! He had been advised to leave Liberia and offered asylum by different willing governments. He refused. He was not going to leave his people. No, he would not. He would not leave his fatherland, the land upon which he had spilt the blood of his people. No, he would not. He would not leave his country, the country that had forsaken him. Even in the face of the thinning National Armed Forces and growing rebel forces.
The forces of Charles Taylor were just about 5 miles away from the presidential villa waiting to pounce on it. The forces of Yommy Johnson could do little or nothing apparently, because of its small size and less fire power it had compared to that of Taylor. And naturally, the ECOMOG Headquarters had become a barrier to it. The waiting continued. Samuel Doe would not move. Perhaps he had assurances and was waiting for help from somewhere but the help did not come. Charles Taylor would not come for Doe, Yommy Johnson could not move, ECOMOG would not act. ECOMOG had not even fully secured its Command Headquarters; therefore, the question of brokering peace amongst dissident factions had not arisen.
Samuel Doe, for whatever reason, forgot the ethnic nature and composition of Liberia and what he had done to the other tribes, especially the Gios and the Manohs. He was from the Krahn tribe and the armed forces consisted of all the tribes in the country of which the major ones are: Madingo, Crebe, and Gio. The latter is from whence Taylor and Johnson came. Samuel Doe was not from a major tribe.
On September 9, 1990 at about 13.00 hrs, Samuel Doe unannounced stormed into ECOMOG headquarters with his light military force made up of about two platoons but heavily armed. Not less than three minutes after he had been ushered into General Quainoo’s office did Doe start shouting and General Quainoo tried to calm him down and to explain the ECOMOG situation. Our rule of engagement was to maintain peace and not engage the warring factions. After some minutes the voices went very low only to rise again. They were engrossed in deep discussion and it seemed, whatever their differences were, reason and mutual interests prevailed over it.
Doe would have spent almost thirty minutes at the ECOMOG headquarters and I was leaving the gate of General Quainoo’s headquarters when we heard a loud noise. “GBUOAAA!” It was a Bazooka! Rebels! One of the military trucks with mounted machine that escorted Doe was hit. GBOGAA! Another bazooka launch followed with one of Doe’s armored trucks hit again.
I dived and rolled under a waiting truck with my rifle by my side and I brought it to a shooting position as quickly as I could. To hell with the rules of engagement!
They came by speed boats from the rear, on the sea which was lightly guarded at that time. All our war ships except NNS Ruwan Yaro (which was undergoing some repairs) were in Sierra Leone to bring in more reinforcements. We had a couple of gun boats patrolling the sea. The rebels were shooting aimlessly everywhere. Whichever way, if there was any buffer zone on the sea, the rebels had breached it, and they were right there on our territory. The rules of engagement were very clear. The muzzles of our guns must point downwards; we were peacekeepers. Even if the rules of engagement were otherwise, this was a surprise attack and we were caught with our pants halfway down.
Some believed we could or should have prevented the capture of Samuel Doe. That was true. But for me, the results would still be the same, whether we intervened or not there was going to be a war. Really, they were not shooting to kill except if one stood in their way. Until they got to the Command Headquarters, they never shot directly at any peacekeeper. However, at the Command Headquarters they shot Sanni, my fellow guardsman and friend, in the chest and he died afterwards. What really transpired there I would never know. They killed almost all of Doe’s guards and one of ours. Some of Doe’s guards ran for cover while the courageous ones returned fire. I guess the rebels could not quickly differentiate between Liberian soldiers and the peace keepers (except those with ECOMOG inscribed helmets, arm bands and caps which were few at the time) until Yommy Johnson saw to it. They knew where they were going; they went straight to General Quainoo‘s office having shot their way through.
Word was that Quainoo panicked and went into hiding and left Doe at the mercy of the rebels. Still under cover of the big truck, I saw Yommy Johnson himself giving orders that the peacekeepers should not be shot. Samuel Doe was dragged out and bundled into one of the waiting speed boats. In less than twenty minutes they left the way they came, shooting into the air with the barbaric voices of triumph. Those voices in years to come would torment my dreams and give me sleepless nights. After the rebels left, I discovered I was bleeding. I had been hit on the thigh, but it was only a flesh wound. I wonder why violence and the sight of blood sometimes thrill human beings. We were enthusiastic about combat when we were coming to Liberia too, like it was some kind of desired annual picnic on some fantasy island.
Samuel Doe was killed soon afterwards. Two days later the buffalo soldier, General Quainoo, was relieved of his command and in his place was appointed General Joshua Dongoyaro, a Nigerian. They called him “the terror of Liberia.”
In the days that followed, the rules of engagement changed. We were transformed from peacekeepers to peace enforcers; and that ‘peace’, we would enforce by any means necessary. We pushed for more buffer zone, advanced into rebel territories and forced them further hinterland. People were dying: ECOMOG soldiers, rebels, foreigners, members of the press, children, women, and innocent harmless people. Some peace enforcement!
When Sanni died, I felt very lonely because he was the only soldier I knew from my base in Nigeria and who was always close to me in Liberia. An only child; he left behind an aged mother and a beautiful timid helpless young woman. Anyway, there were thousands of Sanni’s who died in Liberia. Back home, my wife died six months later during the birth of Lola. Then, I had been drafted to the Nigerian Embassy in Monrovia. Communication with Nigeria and loved ones was better in the Embassy than in the ECOMOG Headquarters.
Sometimes, I imagined what would have been achieved if all the resources used in prosecuting the war from all sides were used in peace time for that country.
At that time when Liberia was hot, we heard some personnel who were scared of combat; NCOs and officers alike go into offices at the Armed Forces Headquarters in Abuja to lobby so that they would not be posted to Liberia or at least to ensure that if they were posted, they would not be in combat.
These days once a member of the armed forces is posted for foreign operation, it calls for celebration. As though, the posting is a pass to paradise. Notwithstanding the trend, I am still proud of the Nigerian Army for what it stands for. One could not forget brave soldiers like Major Akande, an artillery officer who after his soldiers deserted him in an ambush during the siege of a village, alone destroyed almost a platoon of rebels in an armor tank and still brought two wounded rebels to the base for medical treatment. Captain Shinkafi who got lost in rebel territory after a mission to attack and secure a rebel controlled village went wrong and was left behind enemy lines and for nineteen days he used sabotage and guerilla tactics to destabilize the already destabilized rebel group; he survived on enemy food, wild fruits and leaves before he was later rescued. The rebels called him “the chameleon”. He looked like a cave man when he was found. He died three months later in another classified operation that also went wrong.
Most of us had no problem with being in combat; the only peculiar thing at that time was the manner in which we were taken to Liberia. I am a soldier and I am trained in the art of war.
I hope that the future of Lola and the days yet to come will fade from my memory the bad scenes of Monrovia. I finished my delicious food and proceeded to hang out with friends at the Warrant Officers’ Mess.
The court-martial proceedings started. The charges against Major Usman and the other accused soldiers were read to them and their pleas taken. They all pleaded ‘not guilty’ to the charges.
I imagined that Major Usman would have his own memories of Monrovia as proceedings went on.