Sometime last year, BEEG EAGLE’S BLOG published details of narratives given by commissioned officers of the Nigerian Army who participated in the West African ECOMOG military interventions in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean Civil Wars. The narratives were contained in a report titled “HANGING OUT WITH ECOMOG VETERANS”. As a follow-up to that report, BEEG EAGLE’S BLOG now brings you the perspectives of a rank-and-file soldier who was a participant in the events of those heady days.
With a view to getting a second Nigerian opinion on the ECOMOG intervention in the Sierra Leonean Civil War, BEEG EAGLE’S BLOG reached out to a non-commissioned officer who, as of November 2006 when this interview was conducted, was thirty-five years old. At the time, he was deployed to the Headquarters Garrison of the 3 Armoured Division stationed in Jos and served as a tank technician. His ECOMOG experience commenced in Liberia in 1996 when he was airlifted out of Nigeria to the conflict zone. A year later in 1997, he was again drafted from Liberia to Sierra Leone.
Professionally trained to fix Panhard Sagaie armoured fighting vehicles, MOWAG and Steyr armoured personnel carriers, as well as T55 and Vickers Eagle tanks and AFVs, his account of events was rather more blood-curdling.
The narrator belonged to the 7 Brigade of ECOMOG’s Nigerian Contingent whilst in Liberia and he affirmed that the worst of the Liberian debacle had come and gone by the time that he arrived in Monrovia. His principal engagement whilst in Liberia had been the Disarmament and Demobilization of ex-combatants.
Shortly before the Sierra Leonean Civil War took a dramatic turn for the worse, his brigade,a typically adhoc formation which was expressly created for the ECOMOG expedition from a medley of existing Nigerian Army battalions and regiments, was disbanded and some of the companies began to be airlifted back to Nigeria from Liberia.
Before it got to his turn to be airlifted home, his unit were issued with marching orders to move overland from Liberia to Kenema in neighbouring and war-blighted Sierra Leone as part of the newly-created 15 Brigade.
The narrator confirmed that the overland crossing into SLR did not pose much of a challenge since the approach roads leading all the way to the Sierra Leonean second city of Bo from the border were already under effective ECOMOG control. Their efforts were complemented by the friendly Kamajor militiamen, a community-based vigilante comprised of hunters and traditional warriors.
According to him, Kailahun was the stronghold of the rebel Revolutionary United Front(RUF) leader, Foday Sankoh. Rightly or wrongly, he said, Kailahun was widely believed by Nigerian ECOMOG rank-and-file soldiers to be Sankoh’s hometown and that Sankoh, an ethnic Temne (pronounced Timini) was a retired non-commissioned officer of the Sierra Leonean Army who later went into the tailoring trade, post-retirement.
Kailahun and the northern town of Makeni were of utmost importance to the rebel Revolutionary United Front for reasons to be explained later. Kailahun was taken by ECOMOG, recaptured by the RUF and retaken by ECOMOG, during which they blasted the RUF Field Commander, Sam Bockarie’s Headquarters & Bush Camp to bits with heavy artillery. The RUF were at all times closely supported by the renegade Republic of Sierra Leone Army.
According to him, one town in the East of Sierra Leone around which a lot of fighting took place was Segbwema and the following weapon systems featured prominently in the battles around Eastern SLR
* MOWAG Piranha armoured personnel carriers
* Panhard SAGAIE 90mm gun-armed armoured fighting vehicles
* the feared ZSU-23 self-propelled artillery system (the SHILKA).
He confirmed to this writer that of all the tanks and armoured vehicles fielded by the Nigerian ECOMOG contingents in Sierra Leone, the SHILKA was “Lord of the Battlefield” and that once it got thrown into any battle, it carried the day for them.
Coveted to no end by the enemy RUF and their allies in the renegade wing of the Republic of Sierra Leone Army who rallied under the banner of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council , a Nigerian-owned SHILKA once developed battery problems while combing areas close to enemy territory. For fear of almost certain death at the hands of lurking rebels, the crew simply abandoned it and a posse of Ukrainian mercenaries and their RUF allies moved in with much celebration to recover the mighty SHILKA. Or so they thought.
For the ECOMOG troops found their way back to their own lines and called in the Alpha Jets of the Nigerian Air Force(NAF) ECOMOG contingent with clear instructions to destroy the SHILKA rather than let it slip into enemy hands. The SHILKA was loaded with ammunition and knowing its battlefield capabilities, the NAF chaps were told to destroy the SHILKA for strategic operational reasons. It was successfully bombed to bits and so were the Ukrainian crew and their jubilant RUF comrades. According to him, ECOMOG soldiers later returned to relieve the fallen combatants of their arms and other military items,coldly posing for photographs with the heads of their Ukrainian victims!
On weaponry, he said the RUF typically fielded rocket-propelled grenades, AA weapons, mortars, light artillery, recoiless rifles, landmines, anti-tank guided weapons and AK-47 rifles. Their AK-47 rifles typically had their butts and barrels sawed off for ease of concealment. But the sawed off barrels meant that they produced a distinct din when fired. The SHILKA he said, simply cuts everything in its path in two…man or tree!
A few days after the bombing and destruction of the captured SHILKA, the RUF in retaliation laid ambush around Segbwema and an unsuspecting crew of Nigerians in a SAGAIE armoured fighting vehicle were burnt alive.
Moving on, he mentioned that his Company got drafted in to support the embattled Lungi Garrison held by Brigadier General Maxwell Khobe and his men. According to him, by the time that they arrived at Lungi, both ECOMOG and RUF forces were entrenched in the same airport. That was until Khobe decided to go for broke, that is. Before leaving the shores of Nigeria, Brig-Gen MM Khobe had served as Commander, 21 Armoured Brigade stationed at Maiduguri in the far northeast of the country. He was full of accolades for the fallen hero who he described as “fearless and an unconventional commander who loved to lead his men…from the front!”
At the time of their arrival at Lungi, the ECOMOG forces were so heavily outnumbered that soldiers, naval ratings and airmen alike (medics inclusive) had all been drafted in for infantry duties. The RUF tried several times, by way of marine assaults, to dislodge them from their positions. Ultimately, the Nigerian ECOMOG troops pushed out the RUF from Lungi. Some of them(RUF)fled into Freetown, some 20 kilometres away, while others made it back to the northern town of Makeni, which was for the RUF a veritable stronghold.
Some ECOMOG units continued in hot pursuit of the fleeing RUF forces, making it as far as Port Loko before a determined RUF assault halted the ECOMOG advance. He said that ECOMOG never managed to take Makeni barracks, even as the town was successfully encircled on several occasions. The RUF were simply unwilling to let go of their strategic supply base.
On other contingents to ECOMOG, he rated the Guineans as being by far the toughest. He had few kind words for the troops of a participating West African nation from whom a lot more had apparently been expected by all ECOMOG troops from everywhere. He complimented them for always appearing well-kitted and they were well taken care of by their government in such a manner as ECOMOG troops from other nations, including oil-rich Nigeria could only dream of. In the end, he stated categorically, their superior welfare packages were of no use to fighting ECOMOG troops since troops from the unnamed country, in his words,”liked to perform garrison duties and were fated to retreat in the face of any intense engagement.”
He stated bluntly that they simply did not have the stomachs to take battlefield casualties and that whereas the Nigerians and Guineans took to the forests and swamps and were virtually always fighting and engaging the enemy, their comrades from the said participating West African nation’s military clearly preferred to protect headquarters and to perform guard duties at the rear. He actually looked both quizzical and puzzled, almost as if he expected an explanation of that tendency from this writer.
With some measure of embarrassment, he went further to buttress his point by stating that whereas Nigerian ECOMOG chaps simply draped their fallen colleagues’ caskets in the GREEN-WHITE-GREEN flag of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with bowed heads and carried on, they were utterly alarmed when they once had to go and sympathize with a platoon of wailing troops from the said West African nation, only to discover that the soldier in question had died in an automobile accident while performing illegal duties. The disgusted Nigerians simply spun on their heels and hit the road.
According to him, it was always a spectacle whenever a soldier from the said West African country died in Sierra Leone because they typically avoided areas characterised by fierce gun battles.
Well, we hope to someday get a response from a soldier of that much talked-about Army on the strong views expressed by the narrator about the “highly controversial” nature of that country’s troops’ participation in ECOMOG operations. Indeed, in the article titled “THE BATTLE OF FREETOWN” which was published last year on this blog, the country’s troops where mentioned as having linked up with Guinean troops at some point during the brutal fighting which took place in and around Freetown.