IBB Makes A Strong Case For ECOMOG Journalists

*By Paul Ejime |

Nigeria’s former Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida, who was instrumental in the formation of ECOMOG, the regional Ceasefire Monitoring Group set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to end the civil war in Liberia, has made a strong case for the national recognition of journalists who risked their lives in reporting that conflict.

“With a look back into history, I think one thing that the government needed to do for journalists who risked their lives to cover the highly volatile Liberian civil war, but which was not done, was to decorate them with requisite national medals. That patriotic act, I believe, could still be considered, and rewarded by the government of the day,” declared Gen. Babangida, represented by Ambassador Tunde Adeniran, Nigeria’s former envoy to Germany at a recent book presentation and the 70th Anniversary celebration of one of the ECOMOG journalists, Dr. Olusegun Aderiye.

By the nature of their professional training and practice, journalists report the news. They are not always the newsmakers or the subject of the news.

This metaphor aptly sums up the story of the ten Nigerian journalists who were embedded in the maiden Mission of the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) deployed to Liberia in August 1990.

In the official letter of their deployment from Dodan Barracks, the then seat of the Federal Military Government, the journalists then working for Federal Government-owned media Organizations, including this writer, as a Diplomatic Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), were on “a National Assignment.”

They could neither turn down a patriotic duty nor disobey a “marching order” by the usually media-savvy Military Government of President Babangida to serve their country or the region.

However, before the journalists joined the Nigerian Military contingent by air to the Port Elizabeth Harbour in Freetown, Sierra Leone, ECOMOG’s point of departure to the Freeport in Monrovia, the whereabouts of two of their professional colleagues who had left Nigeria much earlier to cover the Liberian civil war, was unknown and they were presumed dead.

It later emerged that Tayo Awotunsin of the Champion newspapers and Kris Imodibe from the Guardian stable were killed by the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor, who launched the rebellion against then President Samuel Doe on Christmas Eve of 1989. Doe was executed by Taylor’s ally-turned-enemy Prince Yormie Johnson of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), who captured him at the ECOMOG Freeport base.

The INPFL was a breakaway faction of the NPFL. Taylor was vehemently opposed to ECOWAS’ intervention in Liberia and vowed reprisal attacks against Nigerians, including journalists.

Established on the 10th of August 1990 with an initial strength of 3,000 troops, ECOMOG as the first of its kind in the region and the African continent, was the product of the first session of the ECOWAS Standing Mediation Committee held in Banjul, the Gambia, under the chairmanship of the then-President Dauda Jawara. The Heads of State of Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Togo, and the then Organization of African Unity (OAU), also attended that meeting with members of the Interfaith Mediation Committee as observers.

After noting the wanton destruction of human life and property and the displacement of persons caused by the armed conflict, the meeting called on all parties involved in the conflict to observe an immediate ceasefire and surrender all arms and ammunition to the custody of ECOMOG.

Against all odds, Operation Liberty as the Mission was called, was launched on Thursday, 23rd of August 1990 from the Freetown Port, under the command of Ghanaian Lt-Gen. Arnold Quainoo, with the ECOMOG troops sailing to Monrovia in a convoy of two main vessels, Nigeria’s Naval ship NNS Ambe and Ghanaian merchant ship MV Tano River.

There were also support gunboats contributed by Ghana – GNS Yogaga and GNS Achimota – and two attack crafts NNS Ekpe, and NNS Damisa, contributed by Nigeria, with a tugboat, Dolphin Mira. All the vessels berthed at the Monrovia Freeport by 1700hrs on the 24th of August 1990 with the ten journalists on NNS Ambe and amid fierce fighting between Taylor’s NPFL rebels and Johnson’s INPFL forces. Heavy gun fires rent the air, punctuated by mortar bombings lasting until late evening.

The peacekeepers were received by Prince Johnson, who narrated how his INPFL forces fought and dislodged Taylor’s NPFL rebels from the Freeport area for ECOMOG vessels to land.

Some of the ten Nigerian journalists might not have experienced war before their deployment to Liberia, but they were fired by patriotism, and the palpable courage and enthusiasm demonstrated by the ECOMOG military contingents contributed by Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia for the maiden Peacekeeping Mission.

Telecommunications technology had only developed to the level of Satellite phones, which Taylor used to great effect, but mobile phones and the internet were not available then, so most journalists in developing countries, who could not afford the luxury of satellite phones, relied mainly on telex and fax for the transmission of their stories.

While Western journalists such as Elizabeth Blunt of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), also travelled to Liberia with their satellite phones to facilitate their coverage of the war, Nigerian journalists like the Biblical disciples of Jesus Christ, went “without a purse, a sack or sandals.”

They had their pens, writing materials, tape recorders, and cameras. It was an emergency military operation and time was too short for them to take the advance payment of their eligible subsistence allowance.

Food and where to sleep were no big issues. The journalists and troops shared the available rations and slept at different military bases or inside the vessels.

The journalists knew they were not in Liberia on holiday or a picnic, but to provide factual and timely information from the war front to the public.

But it was wartime. The National Telecommunications offices, like most businesses in Liberia, were closed or inaccessible. For more than three weeks, the journalists were sitting on a goldmine of war stories, including from interviews and their close shaves with death.

Out of frustration, they joined an oil tanker from Monrovia to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where officials of the Nigerian High Commission, particularly Ambassador Joe Keshi, then Deputy High Commissioner at the High Commission, assisted the journalists in couriering their first news reports back to Nigeria.

Apart from the ten journalists from the government-owned media, some private Nigerian media organizations also dispatched their reporters to cover the Liberian civil war, even as Imodibe and Awotunsin became part of the estimated 250,000 souls lost in the two-phased civil war, which ended in 2003.

BBC’s Elizabeth Blunt was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the British Government for her reportage of the Liberian civil war. However, the contributions of the Nigerian journalists who kept the public informed on the war, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, have remained unacknowledged even by the Federal Government, which sent them on that national assignment.

The records of service of the ten journalists, including the two who have passed on to glory, and could be honoured posthumously, are available. Also deserving of the honour are journalists who served as Press Secretaries to ECOMOG Field Commanders. One of them, Frank Akinola, formerly of the Daily Times, passed on recently, almost unsung.

The ten journalists and their other colleagues took symbolic military ranks and integrated very well into the environment under which they served during the ECOMOG Mission as illustrated by the attached picture.

L-R: WO II Samuel Ajakaiye (regular soldier photographer, GHQ Dodan Barracks, Pius Iyaniwura (ADC to Commander, ECOMOG Press Corps), Tony Verrisimo, GHQ Dodan Barracks (Pay Master General), Pius Akpan, cameraman, GHQ (Director, Welfare Service & Supply), the late Odafe Othihiwa, Daily Times (Commander ECOMOG Press Corps), Ibrahim Yakassai, New Nigerian Newspapers (Chief of Logistics), Kayode Komolafe Guardian Newspapers (Adjutant-General), Olusegun Aderiye, Nigerian Television Authority NTA (Quarter Master General), the late Yemi Fakayejo, Voice of Nigeria (Provost Mashall), and Paul Ejime, News Agency of Nigeria (Chief of Staff).

Long before General Babangida’s advocacy, Dr. Aderiye and this writer had wondered aloud why journalists are so treated by successful governments. But with the recommendation now coming from high quarters, the President Bola Tinubu administration is unlikely to miss the opportunity of doing the needful.

It is also unclear if ECOMOG soldiers have been sufficiently acknowledged for their valour in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Consistent with the standard practice, cenotaphs/tombs ought to be erected in Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in honour of fallen ECOMOG soldiers for history and posterity. Such recognition/acknowledgment of national service will serve as an incentive to engender patriotism in other citizens going forward.

*Ejime, a former War Correspondent, is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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