How Nigeria Prolonged Liberia's
Horror And Stamped Its Misery
By Tom Kamara
A decade has elapsed since Nigerian troops landed in Liberia and 4 years since the Nigerians spearheaded the 1997 elections which propelled Charles Taylor, a declared foe of Nigeria, to power. Within this period, over 250,000 died out of a population of barely 2.5 million. The country's economy, already in a sorry state, was reduced to tartars. Political liberties and democractisation, the slogans under which the war was waged, are worst off than during the years of the military. Thus, it is time for stock-taking with a number of questions. Was Nigeria's intervention under the shadow of ECOMOG redeeming? What was or were the motives for this intervention? Would Liberia have been better off without Nigeria's meddling?
Was the intervention redeeming?
Former Gambian President Dauda Jawara, as ECOWAS' chair during the nadir of the holocaust, described Liberia as a "slaughterhouse." There would have been no better description. Liberia's historical godfather, Washington, had no more use for a useless child. Although, according to Kramer, Reagan's America listed Samuel Doe as one of the 12 leaders around the world deserving US protection and backing - regardless of his appalling human rights and economic record - the dictator was now on his own, regretting his ties with Uncle Sam and preaching Nkrumaism to a Ghanaian head of ECOMOG during his last minutes alive as a captive of Prince Johnson, according to Stephen Ellis in his memorable book - The Mask of Anarchy. But the dictator's cries were now in the wilderness, heard by no one as his was left to his ghastly fate.
But this "slaughterhouse" captured regional attention. The Liberian slaughterhouse was a major episode signaling the disintegration of the West African region. Although, this country founded to resettle America's freed slaves was no longer important in the new global power configuration, West Africa had reasons to worry, for an epidemic in one's backyard is likely to spread into your house. In Monrovia during the early 1990s, theories of Nigeria's intervention spread. A Nigerian journalist covering the war hinted to this writer that one of the main reasons for Ibrahim Babangida's alliance with Doe was to forestall the reemergence of the oligarchy headed by former slaves who monopolized power since 1822, interrupted by Samuel Doe who was now pursued by a ruthless son of the "Pioneers", Charles Taylor. It was this authentic African nationalism that drove Banbangida on Doe's side, he said. Furthermore, Doe had a special affinity for Babangida, naming a branch of the University of Liberia which he established in honour of the Nigerian president. Hence as the world abandoned the West African nation, Nigeria became its population's only hope as drugged teenagers were instructed to institute raids on defenseless people, many of them women and children. During the early months of 1990, the sight of ECOMOG soldiers was symbolic of freedom and safety. It seemed the country's entire population, the lucky ones, had sought protective cover under ECOMOG, wherever its soldiers were.
The first group of Nigerian commanders were indeed exemplary men who instilled trust in many Liberians left to an uncertain fate that things would again be fine, that life would retake its normality despite the spreading chaos and insanity. There was Joshua Dogonyaro, a towering, firm, dedicated soldier who reminded one of a Clint Eastwood's good guys, bad guys movies. I remember seeing him in a Nigerian gunboat in 1990 on our way to Monrovia. As the first Force Commander of the force, he quickly ensured that NPFL rebels were pushed out of the city, enabling citizens to move freely and resume basic activities. He understandably became an anathema to the rebels for they quite clearly understood his language and feared him. He was one of the few Force Commanders who developed no personal ties with Taylor, and this led to the mystique of fear around him. When the remnants of Samuel Doe's Armed Forces of Liberia were accused of summary executions around the city which was then largely ungovernable, he approached the source. It was then rumoured that the AFL was packed with death squad leaders and that one of these leaders had become uncontrollable, feared by his own tribesmen. Somehow, the Nigerian solved the problem. Ellis wonders why Dongonyaro was recalled, because there was every indication that he had succeeded in pinning Taylor down and was about to implement a military solution, with the NPFL now feeble and near disintegration. There is no doubt that Taylor's handlers, the likes of Jimmy Carter and Blaise Campaori, the Ivorians, knew this and preempted their candidates defeat
There was Olurin, the General who, according to reports, personally led assaults against the NPFL during its Operation Octopus. It was he who defeated Taylor's mostly ambitious military plan financed by Libya, Cote D'Ivoire and Burkina Faso to install the rebel chief president of Liberia. But as Liberia's insipid political leadership, led by Dr. Amos Sawyer, organized a sendoff reception for this man, he, as a honest and professional soldier, warned: "Liberians, times are changing." He told Sawyer and his entourage that he had come to Liberia not because he loved the country, but for professional reasons. He was obeying a command. He was not a "Mother Theresa", and he needed no sycophantic praises and offers of land in Liberia as a show of gratitude. "Times are changing, Liberians", he repeated. Indeed times were changing. For those who wanted to heed the warning, it was clear what the Nigerian meant. He knew that there were in the making shifts in political alliances within Nigeria. He must have known that Nigerian political thinking was now geared towards accommodating and backing the rebels as a means of teaching the Americans (who were then seen as anti-Taylor) a lesson by ensuring that the end of the war leaves Taylor and his Libyan backers in charge.
Indeed times changed. Babangida's exit and the coming to power of Sani Abacha, indicated changed times. Immediately after Abacha's rise to power, an underground leaflet circulated in Monrovia announcing that the new Nigerian dictator was a confidante and firm backer of Taylor. Soon after, Taylor reduced his anti-Nigerian propaganda. While he referred to Babangida as "Black Hitler", Abacha was defended as an African leader who wanted an African solution to the crisis. Taylor now felt comfortable to visit Nigeria, and it was during this time that he built the confidence to abandon violence and terror as his best hopes for the presidency.
An important turning point was between 1995 and 1996. The ECOMOG Force Commander then, John Mark Iniegar, began to adopt overtly pro-NPFL policies. Taylor was now a member of the State Council responsible for setting the stage for democratic elections. More and more, it became clear that the main warlords - George Boley, Alhaji Kromah, and Taylor - were getting less and less confident of elections as the best hope for settling the leadership question, concentrating on how best to empty state coffers for themselves, since this was their prime objective for opposing Taylor. Kromah and Taylor teamed up against the Krahns, with, according to sources, a gentleman's agreement between the two men stipulated that Kromah would serve as Vice President (claims he later denied) and Taylor would be president if the Krahns were defeated. It was at this time that Monrovia was inundated with information of NPFL infiltration of men and arms into the city. An American working with the UN wrote a memo indicating that the city was unsafe and a timed bomb. The memo was leaked to the Nigerians who leaked it to the unsuspecting media, painting the American as an anti-African determined to destroy ECOMOG because the Americans did not want to gain the glory that he eluded them in shutting the Liberian slaughterhouse. When stories appeared in the local press denouncing the leaked report, Taylor and his team within the Council of State were visibly happy. The game plan was working.
But the chips were soon to fall in place. The Nigerians' collaboration with Taylor and Kromah against the Krahns became a public affair. Writes ..Fabrice Weissman in a recent book published by the medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers(MSF:):
Indeed, during the April violence , the peacekeepers made little effort to interfere and protect civilian populations. Apart from a number of operations to rescue people such as aid expatriates, UN local staff and their families (and at a price) Lebanese businessmen, they abandoned their checkpoints almost as soon as the fighting began. Had they remained at their posts in a show of force, they might have been able to atleast contain some of the fighting. ECOMOG's supposed impartiality became even more questionable when it appeared that it had overturned its earlier alliances and made a deal with Taylor, allowing him to infiltrate fighters and weapons into Monrovia during the weeks that led to the fighting. "
Bunkered at the ECOMOG base, this writer was eye-witness to a well-organized and inspired looting undertaking by Taylor's and Kromah's fighters but with the backing of ECOMOG. Garages were ransacked and emptied, with new cars sold to ECOMOG soldiers for as low as US $200.000. Computers littered the ECOMOG base. "Reference computers", beamed Gen. Iniengar, the Force Commander upon spotting me in a crowd of people seeking means to leave the burning and corpses-covered city. His instructions were that computers belonging to The New Democrat which I owned be returned. But his Intelligence chief - known to have been on Taylor's payroll - and others had ideas. They were determined to ship the computers to Nigeria. "Oh! Your computers. You don't want to see them. They have all being vandalized," said ECOMOG's Chief of Intelligence. That was my last encounter with him until I jumped on the leaking Nigerian-owned ship The Bulk Challenge out of the inferno.
"... Many Liberians were ready to view the plundering of their country as a price worth paying for security. But anger started growing as people realised that ECOMOG not only took advantage of Liberia's plight for its own benefits, but also failed to provide adequate security" writes Weissman.
This extensive looting of the country, a common characteristic of the war, descended on Monrovia between April and May 1996. The few infrastructures that survived Taylor's Octopus were wiped out. Many buildings were left in flames. When the smoke subsided, over 3,000 persons had been killed.
Sadly, and to the bewilderment of many, ECOMOG soldiers heavily participated in the worst orgy of looting ever experienced in Monrovia. At the Ducor Hotel which served as the base of the Nigerian contingent responsible for safeguarding central Monrovia, the city commercial heart, rooms occupied by Nigerian soldiers overflowed with electronic goods. The story was the same at the main ECOMOG base. Buildings occupied by officers were filled with looted items. Some who tried to whitewash their theft fake papers indicating they had bought the goods, cars among them.
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