A Voyage Home From Exile (Part I)

By Brownie J. Samukai


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 10, 2004

After almost six years in exile, I took a journey on 9th July 2004 to return home from my Duty Station in Dar es Salaam on a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi enroute to Monrovia via Abidjan. Upon arrival in Abidjan I entered an impressive redesigned international airport different than the one I had left six years earlier. It was on September 23, 1998, I fled Monrovia on board a Weasua flight from RIA, with the assistance of trusted NPFL assets and the fearsome but model physique NPFL female General Martina, for Abidjan, into exile in the United States. My decision to flee began immediately after Taylor came to power. However, I hung on, assuming the illogical sequence of the conflict, that by remaining, Taylor would have to devise an open but elaborate plan to get me. As a counter strategy, I made it a strategic objective, as a safety net, to call at least one NPFL Government official, on a daily basis. However, it all came to a decisive point when some of my child-hood friends in Taylor’s government provided me credible information of attempts by agents of the then regime to get me killed and at some point get me involved in a scam of a plot against the government, thus my demise.

As I reflect on my journey from Nairobi to Abidjan, via Douala (Cameroon), I recall that during the weekend of September 11, 1998 Taylor began to engage Blamo Nelson (the Director General of the Cabinet and a confidant) on the possibility of me accepting an appointment as Deputy Minister of National Security for Administration. On September 13, I received a call from EXSECON informing me that Blamo requested that I see him urgently at the Executive Mansion. After I called Blamo, he sent his vehicle to get me. Upon arrival at the Mansion, I was forewarned by a professional security expert and a good friend, the late Charles Deshield: “They want to kill three birds with one stone - John Yommie, Philip Karmah and you- don’t take that job….” In the office at the time was Samuel Doe’s former Minister of Justice Jenkins Scott, who was seated on the couch, reading. Charles also gave me a copy of the draft document on the creation of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), and said he would be happy if I worked with him instead. I thanked him and went upstairs on the 7th floor to see Blamo. After few minutes I was ushered in. Also there were the late Hon. Tambakai Jangaba and veteran politician and survivalist, Hon. Bai Gbala.

Blamo told me straight up front: “President Taylor wants to appoint you Deputy Minister of National Security for Administration”. I asked Blamo how did the President come about this. He narrated how the President had sent for him over the weekend, and told him that he wanted to appoint me. He said, “You know the President wants to resolve this Roosevelt Johnson thing once and for all…and he needs people like you…some blood will be shed but the problem will be solved….” I was shocked to hear this, and wondered whether Blamo knew the implications of what he had just said to me. Could it be because we have been acquaintances, or was he simply being blunt of the President’s intentions? I had to think quickly. I told Blamo that I was due to attend the Police Conference (International Association of Chiefs of Police) in Salt Lake City, in the US, in October and that upon my return I would make a decision. I told him I did not want to be pushing pen and paper as the Deputy for Administration. Blamo said it would just be the matter of time, before Taylor appoints me “Minister proper.” Blamo also pointed out that the President wanted to appoint me immediately, and suggested that I accept the appointment and then go for the Police Conference. I told Blamo I could not accept the appointment at this time, until my return from the Police Conference. He was not pleased. Hon Gbala and Tambakai were seeking from Blamo an avenue to see President Taylor on some work they had done, especially Hon. Gbala, Economic Advisor at the time, who said he had nearly completed some extensive policy document on the economy.

During the flight from Douala to Abidjan, I noticed on the screen that we were passing over Calabar (in Nigeria), and I wondered how Taylor would feel knowing that I was returning to Liberia. I looked outside but it was cloudy, and thought to myself, “Taylor, I am going home and you can’t stop me”. As I reflected, my thoughts drifted back to the Executive Mansion six years earlier: Blamo told me “the President has another problem he has been thinking about…since you have been in the military he wanted to hear from you how he could go about the possibility of….” I interrupted Blamo and said I knew what the problem was: That the President was thinking on the possibility of turning his fearsome Special Security Unit (SSU) into the Executive Mansion Guard Battalion. Blamo did not hesitate to reveal his excitement as I explained how it could be done legally within the Table and Organization of the AFL. He immediately contacted the President informing him that I was there, and that he had been discussing the “issues” with me, and indicated that I had some interesting ideas.

My trend of thoughts were interrupted by the passenger in the next seat, whom I came to know later as a Military Medical Doctor with the Bangladeshi Battalion with UNMIL (he was previously with UNAMSIL in Freetown) assigned at the Unity Conference Center, Monrovia. He asked how many more hours before we reached Abidjan. As we conversed, I revealed to the Doctor that this was my first trip in six years and that I had retired from the military thirteen years earlier. Our conversation became more interesting and revealing. The Doctor told me of the plight of the situation in Monrovia, the poverty, hunger, yes hunger, and the alarming double-digit rate of HIV cases in Monrovia. He could not believe that with the richness of our land and natural resources and the resilient of the people he has met, how is it that Liberia is in such very poor condition? This revelation made me more anxious to reach home to see for myself.

Slowly, I regained the flow of my route into exile: The President (Taylor) at the time was in the Tea Room (in the Mansion Garden) along with Hon. Ernest Eastman. Blamo later said the President wants me to wait and he will see me. After several hours, I told Blamo that I had to return to my office and would be available whenever they were ready. As soon as I left, I told my security aides as well as some family members about this encounter and what I thought was the intention of the regime.

On Friday, September 17, 1998, I was in my office when I was told that the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission (a Former Chief Justice) had come to see me (EXSECON had withdrawn its security guards that day due to extended arrears). I was shocked to see the former Chief Justice, who pleaded that the Commission was finding it difficult to pay for EXSECON services (four months in arrears) and wanted some more time to pay. I directed that EXSECON immediately redeploy security guards to the Human Rights Commission. The Justice told me about his attempt to see Taylor that day, but that the ECOMOG Force Commander had been urgently ushered into see the President, and after a very brief meeting, the Force Commander hurriedly left, and no sooner the President followed. This was the last connect to the puzzle of Taylor’s intention as I knew it from my earlier meeting with Blamo. As soon as the Justice left my office, I sent one of my security aides to check up things on Camp Johnson Road. He reported that things were calm. However, one of my security aides in the Sinkor Area reported that two trucks loaded with SSU fellows had just passed 14th street heading towards to the Mansion. Taylor’s decision had been made and something was imminent.

I consulted with my security aides, and we left the office immediately and drove home on 9th Street. I sent my vehicle to pick-up my family members to avoid any problem. I was in the house loosening my necktie, and Focus on Africa was just beginning when we heard what sounded like two loud explosions in the direction of city center. I was later told that SSU personnel had fired two RPGs as they launched an attack in broad-day light on highly congested displaced corridor of Camp Johnson. I immediately took “prearranged precautionary measures” and partially went underground. Sustained shooting and loud explosion went on for about half an hour, and later consistently intermittent.

On Saturday 18 September, someone from the Special Security Service of the Mansion came by my residence to see me, but was told that I was not around. Later that day I surfaced and went to visit Mr. Wilson Tarpeh who also lived down the road on 9th street. Not long after, someone later identified as general Coocoo Dennis came upstairs to visit. He was literally shaking in his pants when I introduced myself as ‘Samukai’. He was uneasy through out, because his vehicle and armed escorts had left to return later. As a precautionary measure, I left and went further underground.

As our flight approached Abidjan, the lights of the city appeared in sharp contrast to what the Doctor had said describing Monrovia as the poorest of countries he had ever visited: Without electricity and any basic needs facility for its people, pitch darkness or buzzing sound of personal generators. Looking back, that Monday, September 20, I sought not to remain underground because that would be an excuse to include me in anything stupid. Infact, my name was on the radio airwaves as one of the 25 prominent Liberians being called for consultative meeting with President Taylor. While in my office on Broad Street, Wilson Tarpeh called me and inquired when I would be going to the meeting. I told Wilson Tarpeh that I was not going to the meeting. He urged me repeatedly as a big brother, but I was serious. Infact, I had planned to escape that night with the assistance of some very useful NPFL contacts I had cultivated over the years. Wilson finally convinced me to attend the consultative meeting, and we drove in Wilson’s vehicle to the Mansion. At the Mansion, we met Cllr. Cherue, then President of the Liberian Bar Association, who felt very relieved when he saw us.

The meeting with President Taylor, and the flamboyant rattling explanation by Cyril Allen were highly intimidating. President Taylor went on to elaborately explain the plot and the intentions of staging an alleged coup by person/s on Camp Johnson Road, the type of weapons recovered, and then pointed that even “Samukai as a military strategist (or expert) can explain…” (and the cameras and microphone were brought to me). My explanation (which is on record because it was live and on television) had nothing to do with what he had expected, rather I simply explained about textbooks for Liberian primary schools, provided for by a UN Agency which were stored at a warehouse located adjacent to the Ministry of Home Affairs on Camp Johnson Road, and that the generator there had been stolen on Saturday night (18 September), a location under SSU control, and requesting that security be provided to ensure that those textbooks meant for Liberian schools were not looted. I knew about the textbooks and the missing generator because EXSECON provided security services at that warehouse. How I got away with my response was guarded by the Wisdom of Bishop Francis who spoke earlier about the excesses of government actions against innocent civilians in other parts of Monrovia instead of Camp Johnson Road.

The President was disappointed with the responses from the 25 eminent persons. All of us stood up as President Taylor strode majestically from the meeting. Blamo Nelson found his way and came up to me to inform me that the President was going to appoint me that day. I told Blamo if I were appointed I would decline the appointment, and that they should wait until I return from the Police Conference. As we were walking out of the Blue Room, I complained to Wilson Tarpeh and someone else whom I don’t recall now, that Blamo was trying to have the President appoint me, and that I would reject the appointment if it were to happen. Wilson himself was uneasy about being there, and told me not to worry about it.

After that meeting, and after consulting with some colleagues, as well as seeking a final favor from some of my NPFL contacts, I reached the decision that I could be assisted to leave Monrovia safely through RIA. Thanks to General Martina and few others who are still in Monrovia, I boarded the Weasua flight bound for Abidjan. Wait a minute; the flight did not leave on time!!! We sat in the plane for over 15 minutes, and I wondered whether any of my contacts had betrayed me. Eventually, a government official, also a friend with nickname “player, football play….” had escorted someone and requested that I assist the person since this was the person first time flying out of the country. What a relief, and finally Weasua took off from Monrovia, and I looked through the window at my beautiful country and its green habitat, a land I was not sure I would see as long as President Taylor was in power.

My thoughts were interrupted by the announcement that hostesses should take their seats. This time, it was July 9, 2004 (almost six years later) that I was on Kenya Airways landing safely in Abidjan for the transit leg of my journey to Monrovia. That night seem the longest as I reflect in Hotel Ivoire (for safety and security reasons) on what it would be like tomorrow as we leave for Monrovia. That same uncertainty came upon me when I began to check in at the Weasua counter in Abidjan the next morning. I had come along with three of my kids, one of whom also fled Liberia six years earlier. There in Abidjan, I met my old friend and CEO of DC 101 Mr. Fred Bass-Golokai. Fred extended an unforgettable assistance and I was reminded of old times. He extended his Liberian hospitality of his home and vehicle when I arrived in Monrovia (a promise he kept to the letter, an appreciation of a friend when in need). My kids and I boarded another Weasua flight, this time from Abidjan to Monrovia. The flight was equally full of passengers and cargo in a congested setting. One passenger sought to ask whether the aircraft was not too loaded. Such flight was not too surprising, since I have been riding in 2-3 seated tiny planes for nearly three years, with cargo on board, flying from the shores of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania, to the border area of Kibondo, near Burundi.

On the Weasua flight, I sat next to a young Liberian, who frequently travels between Monrovia/Abidjan/Conakry seeking business opportunities for his small business located in Claratown. He was happy to hear that I was returning after being in exile as a refugee. Some friends on the Weasua flight easily recognized my voice and then my face. Earnestly, I had forgotten most of their names, but in the usual Liberian way, we click on with conversation, and the talk of where I have been. When I asked about home, a couple of them said, “the big problem is no water, no light”. That was the familiar theme throughout my visit.

Upon approaching RIA, and seeing once more the land of my forefathers/mothers, I felt an emotional glitch of really wanting to be home once again. The sight of half of dozen white helicopters indicated the overwhelming presence of the UN mission to help bring sanity and restore peace to our dear country. . When the plane landed, a smooth landing, we were ushered into a waiting bus (indeed a bus waiting for passengers), I was emotionally overwhelmed with joy and felt an intangible pride of returning to my own country. It was like my graduation day from Grad school in 1990 (The American University, Wash. D.C.), the uncertainty after comprehensive exams and awaiting the results from my thesis.

As we passed through Immigration formalities I could hear: “Yes Sir Chief…Welcome Chief…Samo is back…Welcome Home…” and many more greetings from friends and colleagues of years back. In fact, as a civilian in the UN we don’t salute. But being back home and in the Liberian way, I had to acknowledge a salute from security personnel, and easily click our renowned Liberian handshake. I couldn’t easily place everyone I saw, but I respected their tenacity and resilience. It would seem that most of them were surprised to see me traveling on a UN Passport.

Suddenly, my stomach grinned a little. An uneasy feeling came upon me. I could not tell what awaited me outside. I had not seen my father and mother for six years!!! Once outside of the terminal, I saw my Dad (Governor B.J. Samukai, Sr.) in his traditional suit, much older, but stronger, spirited and overjoyed. His traditional entourage of relatives and friends escorted us. We embraced for a good while and as usual BJ Sr shed his familiar tears of joy as his entourage of relatives looks on. And there was my Mother (Madam Nakou Vah), and being the only child of my mother, I felt an emotional sense of a child once again as I saw how visibly emotional my mother was when we embraced as she came along also with relatives and friends, singing and dancing and offering me traditional welcome. My dream of seeing my parents once again came to fruition and what more could I have asked the Dear Lord for but to see them and for them to see me.

My Mom and Dad kept looking at me as I greeted other relatives and friends. And out of the blue, there was a surprising ‘guard of honor’ from my friends from EXSECON (Executive Security Consultancy), a company, I along with two of my friends founded in 1993. They were there in their olive green and black-stripped pants, and white shirts smartly dressed and rendering their best salute. I gesture a salute and spoke individually with each of them, asked about their family and thanked them for the sacrifice made to keep up EXSECON, and for being there to welcome me.

I felt very thankful that the Director of Police extended his courtesy by sending his vehicle along with my good friend and brother, Fombah (smoking a cigar as usual) to pick me up. The CEO of DC 101, with whom I had discussion with earlier in Abidjan, also sent his vehicle to pick me up. I really felt the appreciation of my family members and friends welcoming me back home. Not bad that an ordinary Liberian could also have people dancing, guard of honor on hand, and a stretch of convoy without declaring any political ambition of wanting to be President!!!!

(The author once served in Liberia during the Interim political administrations between 1991-1997 as Special Assistant and later Deputy Minister of Defense for Operations, Director of Police, and Deputy Minister of State for Administration. He currently lives and works in Tanzania).