The ECOMOG Story… Exhuming the ghost of Liberian war, Nigeria’s intervention
The Liberian conflict was as complicated as the mythological labyrinth. The stage was set for the conflict by the refusal of the settler community (otherwise known as the Congos or Americo-Liberians) to institute democratic reforms in the country during their 133-year rule. During this period, the natives who constitute more than 90 per cent of the citizenry were considered second-class citizens. The political, economic and social life of the country was dominated by the settler community. The President of the nation always came from within the ranks of the Congos… In those dark days of Congo hegemony, no native could enter the premises of wealthy Congo families through the front door…”
The above quote sowed the evil seed for the human carnage that was to happen in Liberia from 1980 till the end of the bloody civil war that started in 1989 after a decade of conflict. In his book The ECOMOG Story (Inquirers Publishers Ltd, Lagos; 2015) that has Dynamics of African Politics and International Conspiracy in African Wars, as sub-title, Mr. Frank Akinola has added another important volume to the Liberian war narratives by Nigerians who were at the war front and played active roles in it. The first of such volume is Operation Liberty by Agetua Nkem, a journalist with defunct New Nigeria and was Press Secretary to the second ECOMOG Field Commander, Nigeria’s Major-General Joshua Nimyel Dogonyaro, who took over from Ghana’s General Anold Quainoo, ECOMOG’s first Field Commander. Akinola, who was at the time City Editor of Daily Times covering Dodan Barracks (Nigeria’s seat of power with General Ibrahim Babangida as Military President) was appointed Press Secretary by General John Manzip Shagaya, the sixth ECOMOG Field Commander to the Liberian crisis.
In this absorbing account, Akinola provides a broad spectrum of historical and political narrative to the Liberian crisis. He also reaches back into the historical evolution and formation of the country, the missteps that shaped Liberia from the onset and how the missteps inevitably led to the deep schisms in Liberia’s social-political life that eventually boiled over to the conflagration that was to cost the country millions of human lives and a devastated country. That was the country that incumbent Madam President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf inherited after warmongering Charles Taylor got his just deserts of 50 years jail term at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for war crimes. President Johnson-Sirleaf was a silent actor in the conflict having served in the government of President Williams Tolbert that Samuel Doe overthrew in a military coup in 1980. In fact, from Akinola’s account, her ancestors (the freed slaves and returnees from America were the ones who imposed themselves on the natives as supreme overlords) provided the fuel that ignited the crisis.
Towards the tail end of the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it began to emerge that in most American cities the population of blacks to whites was widening, with whites finding themselves in the minority and the fears of black domination began to be real. This scenario led some spirited Americans to form the American Colonization Society, “which applied to the American Congress and received its charter in 1816 with the sum of USD$100,000 provided by President Monroe to aid the society”. With the seed money and charter, the society set out to Africa to find suitable land to resettle any blacks who were ready to leave America. Needless to say that the usual guile and deceit that characterize European dealings towards Africa prevailed, as conflicts with the natives becoming inevitable. The Colonial Society got land from the natives largely through force of arms and coerced the natives into submission.
The black returnees saw themselves as the superior beings who must dominate the natives. What was worse, they had firearms to ensure their superiority. Moreso, the charter that brought the blacks was essentially to ‘colonise’ as the British, French and other European powers had begun to do as slave trade was becoming less fashionable and African markets were being sought for European goods as well as raw materials from Africa for were being sought.
Thus, having entrenched themselves as indisputable overlords over the native tribes of what became known as Liberia, the Americo-Liberians usurped power for 133 years and began a systematic enslavement of the natives. So that while whites Europeans were the colonisers of other African countries, these black returnees from America became the colonisers of the indigenous and original owners of Liberia. In fact, with their superior firearms, they forcefully shipped off many natives to work in Portuguese farms in Fernanda Po Island in worse conditions than they suffered in America as slaves.
It was the biggest irony of the black man. Was it revenge on the natives, that having been sold into slavery by the natives’ ancestors, it was now the turn of the returnees to sell the children of those who had earlier sold them into slavery and make the rest slaves in their own land? Whatever was the motive of claiming superiority over their own brothers and sisters, it didn’t bode well for the country as Samuel Doe’s coup was to show in 1980.
WHEN Doe struck, the country was just ripe for such violent change. It turned out a bloody coup. President Tolbert was executed including 13 of his leading political affiliates who were also executed on the beach. Doe was barely literate soldier, a Master Sergeant from the Krahn tribe. Rather than broaden the space for all Liberians to participate in the political space, he began to tow the lines of the discredited Americo-Liberia regimes. For the 133 years the returnee settlers ruled, the type of democracy they practiced was the worse form, as it was characterized by rigging and laws that did not permit the natives to have a voice while suppressing them. Doe’s government was not different; in fact, he took a direct cue from past governments. Since he did not learn from the mistakes of the past that prompted him to strike, opposition soon sprang up to challenge him in the form of coups attempts by his former close allies with whom he rose to power. He had to eliminate some of them to consolidate his hold on power.
He organised a sham transition from military rule to civilian administration with him as candidate and blatantly rigged the 1985 election to his favour. Thus the seed for armed struggle to rescue Liberia from Doe was sown, with Charles Taylor, Doe’s former ally and fugitive from Doe’s justice for embezzlement, leading the charge. He was to capture about 90 per cent of the country before the arrival of ECOMOG forces that eventually thwarted his efforts to march to the Presidential Mansion by force of arm rather than the ballot box.
A fellow journalist, Akinola devotes a full chapter to his slain colleagues who paid the supreme price in the course of doing their job during the Liberian crisis. Before the armed struggle broke out in Liberia in 1989 and Doe’s appeal to Babangida for help, which led to the formation of ECOMOG as West African governments’ response and Africa’s first Military High Command, Chris Imodibe and Tayo Awotusin were journalists with The Guardian and Champion newspapers respectively.
A third colleague Frank Igwebueze from African Concord magazine whose ‘chi or ‘personal God’ was aide awake’ escaped being captured by the murderous Charles Taylor and made it alive from Liberia. Imodibe and Awotusin weren’t that lucky. In 1990 they left Igwebueze behind in the hotel because he suddenly took ill and wasn’t sure if he would survive it; the trio had run out of money and was starving and desperately needed to get help. Charles Taylor had besieged Monrovia and there was no way out.
As soon as Imodibe and Awotusin stepped out to seek out the Nigerian Embassy, they walked into the arms of Taylor’s men and were captured and taken away. Charles Taylor later accused them of spying for Nigeria and ECOMOG.