Bakut the soldier, the humble man
OF all the senior Nigerian Army officers who served as ECOMOG Commanders in Liberia during the civil war, perhaps the one commander who had the most difficult assignment was General Ishaya Bakut, 67, who passed away weeks ago in Abuja during a brief illness.
Gen. Bakut commanded at the time when the warring factions were encouraged to move about but only the NPFL rebels, while still determined to undermine the process, ventured into Monrovia, which was under ECOMOG. It was these security headaches in protecting the people in Monrovia that Gen. Bakut had to deal with.
In company of another journalist, Lindsay Barrett, we acted as media consultants to Abass Bundu, the ECOWAS executive secretary during the formation of ECOMOG when the decision to intervene was taken in Banjul. Before then, Barrett also had known and related to a number of senior officers, many of whom were later to act as commanders over the period.
There is a secret hardly known about Gen. Bakut’s many difficult decisions while commanding ECOMOG troops. Had he acted differently from what he did, the sub-region would have been long disgraced out of Liberia and the success of ECOMOG peacekeeping operations, as we know it today would never have been realized. A costly mistake was avoided because of Gen. Bakut’s willingness to listen and take advice from political operatives around him, at a critical time.
One Saturday night while we were visiting Lagos to meet Abass Bundu, we got reports that President Sawyer was to worship at a church service inside rebel territory at Harbel Firestone plantation the next morning as part of the confidence-building measures. We sensed danger, feeling that a trap was being laid for the President by Taylor. With no telephone links, we needed to get into Monrovia quickly. There was no direct military flight from Lagos that day. The only flight into Monrovia was an hour and half away from Abidjan. We boarded early morning flight from Lagos. However, we realised that the Monrovia flight would have left before our arrival in Abidjan. So we approached the pilot to radio the Monrovia-bound Weasua flight that a large delegation was coming from Lagos to join them. So they waited.
Gen. Bakut asked how we managed with no flight from Lagos. We told him that we heard of the church service planned in rebel territory and feel that it was not advisable. We said President Sawyer’s life was in danger with the possibility of his convoy being ambushed with ECOMOG having not carried out any recce of the venue. He accepted our reading of the situation and quickly, we met President Sawyer and his entourage, which included well known close friends of Taylor who were also the president’s friends embedded.
It was an elaborate set-up. Gen. Bakut told President Sawyer that he had instructions that the church service was to be called off. Gen. Bakut, by listening to us, prevented a Patrice Lumumba-like assassination. It was certain that, had President Sawyer travelled for the church service inside rebel territory, his convoy would have been attacked with unimaginable consequences. Taylor would have denied responsibility with the excuse that he tried to make peace and some renegades went against him. The question ECOWAS leaders would have asked was: How was it possible that the Interim President under the watch of ECOMOG found him deep inside rebel territory? ECOMOG, under Gen. Olurin, was to capture Harbel after Gen. Bakut handed over command.
Gen. Bakut, besides his military orders and intelligence briefings, kept close to civilian counsel, including advice from political representative of ECOWAS to the operation, the late Ambassador Joshua Iroha, and from us. Gen. Bakut tried very hard to act in a confusing civil war situation of intrigues where old friends, former classmates and brothers got caught up on different sides and with different agendas, most of them aiming to gain political power.
Gen. Bakut showed the soldier in him when after months of soft approach and Taylor kept being intransigent, he ordered the arrest at sea of a ship, ‘the Sea Rose’, which was supplying arms to Taylor’s rebels. This action heightened tension before both the OAU and ECOWAS summits in Dakar after which Senegalese troops were to join ECOMOG.
We traveled along with Gen. Bakut and President Sawyer on a Weasua aircraft to attend the Dakar meetings. Onboard the flight after refueling in Freetown, Bakut kept struggling to write his report, fully aware that not all ECOWAS leaders approve of the mission, particularly the Francophone. Half-way on the flight the aircraft suddenly dropped several feet causing fears. Gen. Bakut simply remarked that it looks like this aircraft does not want me to make this report, exchanging banters with Lindsay Barrett who sat next to him.
The remaining days of Gen. Bakut in the mission area proved agonizing to say the least. With new agreements among the warring factions to start disarmament after meetings sponsored by the late President Hougheut Boigny in Geneva, Gen. Bakut finally deployed his troops into rebel territory. The NPFL in skirmishes with the Senegalese troops deployed in Vahun city killed six of them and held others as hostages, including nearly 560 Nigerian peacekeepers that got disarmed and robbed. Gen. Bakut remained in command while painful efforts were made through various negotiations to secure the release of his peacekeepers.
Soon, full-scale war resumed. With the changed situation, Gen. Bakut handed over command to Brig. Gen Olurin who had arrived to take charge. Saying farewell to Gen. Bakut at the airport, he took myself and Barrett to a corner and with his hands on our shoulders and looking at us straight in the eyes he said, ‘in all my operations, I have never seen two civilians of your type who are not soldiers, but committed to remain in the area until the end’. With these words, he took his leave. The departure of his C130 aircraft was greeted with a direct rebel rocket strike on the tarmac.
Gen. Bakut’s sojourn in Liberia was not his last mission. Back in Nigeria, he served as the principal officer to General Oladipo Diya at the Villa. After his retirement, I visited him at his home in Abuja on several occasions where he had reverted to his other calling as an engineer. In one discussion, he informed me that he was critically ill at one point and had to travel to the USA for a heart operation. He revealed that it was President Goodluck Jonathan, who was then a state governor, that paid for the operation and to him, he remained deeply grateful.
One is not sure how to describe Gen. Bakut: A soldier or just a nice humble human being that he was. For one thing, he took great pride in the military, especially the Engineering Corps,. Proudly placed in a prominent corner in his Abuja living room is a large portrait of him and several pioneer officers, including Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo with whom he made the first engineering corps.
After a professional sojourn that included sleepless nights agonizing about peace in Liberia during the difficult part of no peace, no war, Bakut has gone home. He will be sorely missed, but the fond memories will remain forever.
•Asante, veteran foreign correspondent who covered the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and saw Gen. Bakut at close quarters, pays this tribute.
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