Sometime in November 2006, I spent a weekend with a group of four army officers in Jos and quickly spurred them to narrate their ECOMOG experiences during their tours of duty as part of the pan-West African ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group which was charged with restoring peace to conflict-ridden Liberia and Sierra Leone during the decade of the 1990s. In broad outlines, permit my use of the account of the most senior of the lot who I would describe as being completely battle-hardened.
My star narrator took off from Nigeria to Liberia in July 1996 and did not come back till 2000. He was frank enough to admit that the roughest days of action in Liberia(ie the Dogonyaro era and the famous April 6 battle) had come and gone by the time he was in Monrovia under the command of the current Liberian Army Chief of Staff Major General Y.L Nyeh. At the time,the then Colonel Nyeh was ECOMOG Ground Task Force Commander ie charged with the protection and defence of Greater Monrovia.
When the Sierra Leone war escalated in the last quarter of 1998,he and his company were offloaded to SLR to form the advance party of the battalion planned for the defence of Kenema. They made it into SLR overland at about the same time as ECOMOG forces around Makeni were pushed back and out of the town by a large and well equipped RUF brigade,supported by a fresh consignment of artillery,RRs and ATGWs from Burkina Faso and in operations led by a mix of South African and French mercenaries.
In retaliation,ECOMOG Forces in the East (still outnumbered and awaiting reinforcements from Nigeria) attacked Sam Moskita Bockari’s Field HQ and Bush Camp at Kailahun,levelling it with 122mm & 155mm field guns. This narrator was actually a company 2 I/C at some point and their unit was charged with securing the Kenema airstrip
Anyway,to teach the ECOMOG Forces an enduring lesson, the RUF decided to attack Kenema head on and link up with RUF forces advancing on Freetown from elsewhere at the time.
Describing the topography of Kenema which the RUF took full advantage of to launch this attack,he said that the town is situated along the path of a high hill range which rises from many miles inland but terminates in the heart of the town. All but the ECOMOG forces were aware of the impending attack and on D-Day,the town quietly emptied itself around midnight. The natives left our countrymen to stew in their own juice apparently.
Ascending the hill range from way out of town, the RUF forces literarily descended on the town at 2.30am. In the ensuing 16 hour battle, anti-tank guns, artillery heavy mortars, RPGs and all manner of dangerous weapons were freely used. In this battle,the RUF deployed the feared French HOT anti-tank missile.
At this juncture,the narrator lifted his shirt to show me where he received a severe burn after he mistakenly slung an AK 47 from which he had expended 10 magazines during the 16-hour battle period. He fought the battle with an AK47 in one hand and an RPG launcher in the other. At the cessation of the day’s hostilities(the RUF beat a retreat for emphasis),11 Nigerian soldiers lay dead while 42 RUF troops were liquidated.
Talking about weapons systems adapted for specific battlefields, he said that the strategic weapon with which ECOMOG forces time and again sent the enemy into retreat was NOT 122mm or 155mm or tanks BUT the quadruple-barreled ZSU-23 AIR DEFENCE ARTILLERY SYSTEM(the SHILKA) employed in direct fire mode ie flat trajectory. This claim was overwhemingly backed up back by all the officers present. They said the muzzle velocity,astonishing rate of fire,number(four) and comparatively low calibre of the 23mm cannons made them a formidable weapon against personnel, positions and vehicles.
Some of the officers who commanded his own brigade(charged with the protection of eastern Sierra Leone included Brigadiers-General DRA Ndefo (later General Officer Commanding 1 Mechanised Division), the proactive UJ Uwuigbe and Ndiowei. He concluded by affirming that 70% of all the approximately 8000 commissioned officers of the NA saw military action during the heady 10 years between 1990 and 2000. The rest 30% consist of officers in non-combat units and those commissioned after 2000 AD when serenity had returned to the Mano River area.
The said officer proudly told me that he received his Lieutenant to Captain and Captain to Major promotions whilst away on foreign missions. With an utmost sense of pride,he told me that his Captain pips were pinned on his shoulders by the late Brigadier General Maxwell Mitikishe Khobe, arguably the most acclaimed hero of the post civil war Nigerian Army.
Some analysts have contended that the Nigerian Air Force’s Alpha jets were not adapted to the Mano River Area engagements. It may surprise you to know that all the officers agreed with the benefit of hindsight that helicopter gunships such as the Mi-24 Hind and Mi-35 would have been much more effective in the Close Air Support missions which the Army needed from time to time. That is instructive for all those who wanted to see F-18s and Patriot missiles in an African Bush War pitting conventional forces against murderous and unscrupulous drug-propelled guerrillas! Curiously,the officers said that each time a new battalion was flown in from Nigeria, the Revolutionary United Front rebels took it upon themselves to engage them as a way of testing their resolve.
Playing the spoilsport, I sought to know their impressions of their fellow ECOMOG troops. They said that the Guineans were very compatible comrades-in-arms who gave no quarter and were tenacious and proud warriors. Er, they also said that the Charlies (an apparent reference to Ghanaian soldiers) were more interested in looking good than in fighting and were very good at rearguard duties and the protection of liberated areas. Their uniforms and sentry posts were also the neatest as, in the heat of raging battles elsewhere, they had no qualms about white-washing their sentry posts and shining their boots from sunrise till sunset!