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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and the Future

The 1996 Monrovia War                                                                                                    Alliance with Charles Taylor?

By Alhaji G. V. Kromah

Posted July 22  2008

Written 2003


It appeared that everything was on the right path for the denouement of the Liberian war drama until that special Liberian month of April heaved its head in 1996.

We had received in audience at the Executive Mansion Boutros Boutros Ghali, the United Nations Secretary General, followed by the eminent United States Ambassador to the United Nations and later Secretary of State, Magdalene Albright. The Council of State (Collective Presidency) had even authorized me as one of its members to proceed to the United Nations and address a special session of the Security Council, and I may say the mission was not a waste. Some reconstruction work had started in the Liberian capital to begin erasing the physical scars of the war, and old and new investors in the country seemed to have been energized again. Hundreds of Liberians were on the return from the refugee camps in neighboring and other countries, though many were still behind. We were all saying thank God in our hearts that Liberia might after all see the light at the end of the tunnel that was not the light of an oncoming train. Then came the letter from the leader of ULIMO-J, the splinter group of the ULIMO warring faction.

In the peace agreement trying to create a balance of representation by all players in the transitional government, the ULIMO-J faction was given, among other portfolios, the National Bank of Liberia for which it could nominate the Governor. The procedure was that the participating organization would submit to the Council of State its nominees for its allotted positions. That had earlier been done for the Bank when ULIMO-J leader Roosevelt Johnson presented the name of Raleigh Seekie, first administrator of the mainstream ULIMO, as his organizationís choice for governor. And so after the usual deliberation and examination of the name by the Council, Seekie was appointed. This time around, the letter from Johnson was saying they had decided to replace Seekie with the name of Ignitius Clay. It was the right of the organization to recommend changes in its government placements and the Council would review the matter only to establish whether the nominee was qualified. At that point, the Council, as the Executive Head of the Liberian Transitional Government, had no information on any ill conduct of Governor Seekie, and yet it proceeded to review the new ULIMO-J submission. I particularly didnít know what caused the change of mind to bring in Clay.

Raleigh Seekie

As we considered the matter in the Council, a letter came from ULIMO-J saying that Johnson had not consulted with the leadership and that his nomination of Clay was a personal unilateral decision that should be ignored. Johnson was informed about this, and he rejected the accusation. A subsequent letter came, announcing that one Kaye had replaced Johnson, and that Seekie remains the organizationís man.

In our deliberation, we were careful not to interfere in the internal affairs of ULIMO-J unnecessarily, for we ourselves were representing other organizations and were going by the agreements formally recognizing certain individuals as leaders of their groups. If the leadership change in the group had taken place before the bickering over the switching of the Bank governor, majority of the Council members felt then the Kaye appointment would have been considered. We wrote asking ULIMO-J to explain the developments in more detail, and until then, we would go by the rule and accept Clay.

Gen. Arma Youlu, the former ULIMO Field Commander, was the second notable figure in ULIMO-J and appeared to be head of the group opposed to Clay. I was shocked one evening when Youlu phoned my residence to ask whether I could supply him with ammunition. It was nearing midnight. Besides not having such supplies at home, I was concerned about what he wanted to do with ammunitions when everyone was now working towards the last stages of the peace process. Youlu said he needed the ammo to defend himself against armed raids allegedly carried out by Johnsonís men against his residence on 9th Street in Monroviaís heavily populated Sinkor suburb. Johnson lived on 18th Street. I asked how come we didnít know about this. 

Youlu was clearly incensed when he then said that in fact, Johnson had abducted and killed his cousin, one Bawu, and that the corpse was still lying near Johnsonís residence. Then why wasnít this matter, which borders on a criminal act, reported to the government, I asked Youlu. All he was concerned about now was to resist the attack he said he had heard was being prepared by Johnsonís men.

 From a civil conflict at the Bank, two Krahn leaders in the same organization had effectively moved to armed conflict. Warring factions in the countryís civil war had not yet been disarmed, and so the potential for escalation was real.

I advised Youlu to remain calm until the next day when the Justice Ministry and its relevant law enforcement agencies would officially handle the matter. I ran into a roadblock on my way to work in  the  morning. Citizens had actually laid rocks and empty drums across Tubman Boulevard near the JFK government hospital to stop, as they said, Council members on that route from going to work. Alternative routes were already impassible. I got out and was told by the picketing small crowd that Johnson and Youlu were turning the Sinkor area into a private war zone, and it was "disgraceful" for the government to sit and do nothing about it. I found out that the Chairman of the Council, Prof. Wilton Sankawulo, and Councilman Charles Taylor had also been turned back that morning. I called the leader of the group along with few of his people to a grocery shop nearby and listened some more. They said they saw pickups with armed men being traded between the residences of Johnson and Youlu for two nights then, and they could not believe that this was going on with a government in place. They confirmed that a dead body was lying near Johnsonís house.

The protesters finally allowed me to move on to work, and I succeeded in getting Johnson on the phone. His line was constantly busy the previous night when Youlu called. The two men had worked with me as leader of the parent ULIMO faction, and despite the split later, I still maintained a working relation with them. Johnson and Youlu belonged to two feuding groups within their Krahn military setting in ULIMO since the days we organized the group in Sierra Leone as refugees. It was certainly now a delicate balance with them in ULIMO-J, which grouped mostly Krahn people.

Johnson denied killing Bawu, and said that the body was near the beach, which was not far from his residence anyway. I told him about my experience in front of the JFK and Youluís version, and then told him to await a Council meeting that would immediately look into the matter.  Already on radio was a statement from the United Nations Special Representative in Monrovia, Mr. Nyanki, openly condemning the inability of the transitional government to restore law and order in the civil disturbance that was being caused by the internal-Krahn conflict. Field Commander of the West African Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG), Maj. Gen. John Innieger, was summonsed to the Executive Mansion. It was then decided that the relevant law agency units be ordered to go to the scene of the body and carry on their usual work, and that Johnson and Youlu be requested to report to the Ministry of Justice to explain their conduct. In the meantime, the Council unanimously suspended Johnson as Minister of Rural Development and Youlu as Deputy Minister of Transport.

Investigations  indicated that Bawu had died from gunshot wounds, and the security agencies established that he was driving a vehicle when he was shot near Johnsonís residence. The precise identity of the culprits was not yet ascertained.

Youlu yielded to the Councilís instruction to report to the Justice Ministry, but Johnson was reluctant. Johnson told me on phone that he feared for his life getting out of his compound and going to "unknown people" at the Justice Ministry. I told him he had nothing to fear as Youlu had been there, and that he was needed to explain his side. My plea yielded little. Thatís when I called in Defense Minister Hezekiah Bowen, a Krahn and common friend to me and Johnson to intervene personally. Bowen said afterwards armed men around Johnson were skeptical and were insisting that he should not leave the well-armed building. Even after I suggested that an attorney could represent Johnson at the Justice Ministry and Counselor Findleyís name came up, nothing happened. Bowen gave up.

ECOMOG & the Arrest Warrant

The issue became a public standoff with the population watching to see whether the transitional government actually had authority. We did not have a standing army, and so the ECOMOG, which was in charge of the nationís security, was the de facto national army. The security agencies had weapons as well. At hand was how was the government going to respond to a homicide and the refusal of one of its officials to submit to investigation not only related to the commission of the crime, but also the armed raids in the city. When representatives of the Liberian clergy stepped in, there was hope that Johnson would eventually feel safe to comply. The net results did not solve the problem.

The Council convened another meeting with Gen. Innieger. ECOMOG at the time was just two weeks earlier in conflict with ULIMO-J on the Bomi County highway where the warring faction had taken the peacekeepersí pieces of artillery. Innieger (passed away last year in Nigeria from asthma) recommended that an arrest warrant be issued for Johnsont, but that ECOMOG would execute the warrant. He also revealed that Johnson was well armed, and the government put out an announcement asking residents in the vicinity to leave.

The alert radio announcement naturally increased the tension, and I believe led to Johnsonís further fortifying his position. I surmise that at that point, he got a lot of solidarity from other armed Krahns, mostly from the Armed Forces of Liberia based in the BTC barracks near the Executive Mansion. A former ULIMO Field Commander, Mohamed Doumbuya, was now Chief of Staff of the largely nominal AFL that was still in need of restructuring per the peace agreement. The Deputy Chief of staff was a Krahn, Maj. Gen. Philip Kammah, based at the BTC.

Marching for Heads

"There is shooting near 18th Street and itís not easy," the Commander of my security detail informed me early the next morning. Who was shooting whom, I inquired. Nobody around me knew exactly. The Nigerian and former German embassy buildings in the Monrovia suburb of Congotown next to Sinkor separated my residence from Taylorís. That was a coincidence. He had wanted the house I was in before our arrival in Monrovia, not knowing my representative had already secured the building in my name. So he got one in the vicinity. 

I tried looking for physical signs of the fighting around 18th Street, and for sure we could see a number of police vehicles streaming from the direction of Taylorís residence. The position of Director of Police was one of his allotments, and he had installed in it, Joe Tate, reportedly a cousin who had similarly served him during the war at his headquarters in Gbarnga.

From my phone inquiry, I learned that Councilman George Boley, a Krahn and leader of the Liberian Peace Council warring faction, had left the country a day or two earlier. Taylor gave me his version of how the shooting began. I wanted more details from my own investigations. There was no time. Actual war had begun in the so-promising and once again bustling Monrovia. Hopes for genuine peace and reconciliation had again become a mirage.

Reports came from the other flank of Congotown that armed men from Boleyís compound were in a running gun battle with police troops nearby, besides the fighting on 18th Street. Strangely, ECOMOG that was supposed to be doing the arresting was not directly involved in the battle. They had pulled back quickly to their headquarters, and the combined Krahn forces had taken Tubman Boulevard toward Congotown, where Taylor and I lived. Quite frankly, I had exaggerated the peace atmosphere in Monrovia and had only a handful of ULIMO soldiers in my security detachment along with the Government Special Security Service officers, not trained in warfare. Taylor had his regular generous number of fighters well spread in his area. My consolation was that my ULIMO forces were based in Suehn, my maternal home, just some 33 miles away.

Radio communication among the security agencies said the Krahn grouping was in a festive war march toward Congotown, chanting that they were coming for the heads of the councilmen. Obviously that included mine. Where was ECOMOG, I kept asking without any serious response. The lines to Innieger were now ceaselessly busy. My men and I had again been placed to choose between sure death and survival. 

As there was no standing government army, I sent my few men to help block off the Krahn offensive, and there, near the Spriggs Payne Airfield, my special bodyguard, Mohammed Fofana, lost his life. His wife and three young children had just returned to Monrovia from the refugee camp in Guinea. Another special bodyguard, Sheik Swaray, not involved in the fighting, was caught in downtown Monrovia and literally slaughtered. Yet two other military aides, Joe Akoi and Mohammed Trawally, were shot in central Monrovia. It had indeed turned into a serious war. I signaled for personal help to my ULIMO base in Suehn, which sent in a contingent, bypassing Monrovia to get to the residence.

"Carpet Bombing"

Scores of people, particularly Krahns, had moved out of the war zone onto the BTC, where Gen. Philip Kammah was in charge. Johnson and all of his officers had also transferred to BTC. It was no longer a ULIMO-J affair. We were now dealing with a combined force built around Johnson. In two days, the number of civilians in the barracks had swollen to a reported number of about 10,000. The strange thing about the composition was that it involved a number of other tribes who subsequently decided to get away from the area, from the notion that it was a Krahn dominated area that may be targeted. The BTC military authority refused for anyone to leave. A hostage scenario had been constructively created.

Taylorís men had quickly brought in long-range artillery pieces, threatening to "carpet-bomb" the entire BTC, and had actually sent in something that fell into a building in the BTC outside of the crowded center. Thatís when I got to find out some of the non-Krahns in the barracks. Sheik Kafumba Konneh, Vice Chairman of the then Inter-Faith Committee, phoned me from the BTC from Kammahís office, indicating that the barracks was fairly mixed, and that I should do everything to save the lives of people in there. He, along with one of my other colleagues, A. Jesus Swaray, told me that they had seen the first artillery hitting, and it was crucial to prevent this.

Upon investigation, my group learned that one of Taylorís men, Gen. Geeba, was the one operating a red pickup carrying a howitzer 107 near the Ministry of Lands and Mines on Capital Hill.  He fled from the ULIMO men as they approached him, and headed for Bushrod Island, another Monrovia suburb.

This life and death battle had  a number of realistic pictures for me. Militarily, my officers and I decided that it should be a battle of containment. Monrovia was a peninsula, and our residence was at the end opening of this land formation. On the other flank, two parallel bridges spanning the Mesurado River into Bushrod Island, the home of ECOMOG, connected the peninsula. So if we blocked the narrow exit of the peninsula into Congotown and restrict the bridge linking Bushrod, the Johnson fighters would be contained in the BTC vicinity in central Monrovia. Otherwise, it would be a loose battle if it spread out to Congotown, considering that thirty miles away at the military camp Scheflin, there were Krahn soldiers who hadn't yet decided to join the war. 

The ULIMO forces were deployed accordingly, and it paid off. The fighting was restricted to the BTC area, leaving unfortunately the rest of general Monrovia for the opportunity of mass looting. Whole supermarket inventories were seen loaded up in trucks by looters, both civilian and military. My men set up a checkpoint across the street near my residence and landed a big catch. Taylorís "Jack the Rebel" was carrying the looted truck and its supermarket content. I was surprised later to see a delegation from my neighbor, including Jack, to negotiate the release of the truck and the goods. We sent the vehicle  to the ECOMOG base and passed on the rapidly rotting food to Jack for disposal. I am told it was disposed otherwise.

My team had put out radio announcements with a strong message against looting and vandalism. And Maj. Gen. Seth Obeng, the Deputy ECOMOG Commander, now Chief of Defense Staff of the Ghana armed forces, worked along with us to set up a mobile crisis response team. We went to the extent of scaring people with an announcement on radio that anyone found looting would be shot on sight. That helped, but actually did not stop it. I dispatched two pickups with one of my two personal telephone numbers inscribed in bold letters for would-be victims to call. The telephone service was one of the few efficient things that refused to collapse during the war.

In the meantime, Krahns belonging to the Arma Youlu group had joined our forces, actually blurring the ethnic identity of who was fighting whom. It was certainly not Krahns versus non-Krahns.

The Suehn Move

In the end, both sides had lost key commanders. Gen. Doumbuya had been killed from our side and so was Gen. T. Karlar on the other side. The young men had been two of my most trusted before the ULIMO split in Tubmanburg. A number of other top soldiers from all sides similarly under our single command in Tubmanburg also lost their lives. Civilians had been caught in the crossfire, including my cousins living on Camp Johnson Road, behind the Tommy Bernard compound. Raliegh Seekie, besides losing his job, tragically lost a wonderful young son, in his early twenties.

At a certain point of the war, Gen. Philip Kamara of ULIMO informed me that Taylor had actually been secretly leaving Monrovia and spending the night at his Gbarnga headquarters and coming back the next morning. I did not have time to confirm that, and followed the advice that we move out to nearby Suehn for obvious military reasons. My preparation to go Suehn that evening attracted so much in the neighborhood until hundreds of civilians decided to actually join the convoy that night. There was a change of mind for  stopping in Suehn because of the exposed info, and so I went on  to the Town of Lofa Bridge, where it was much safer for civilians. It was a useful decision, for surely the next morning, ULIMO-J soldiers from Bomi had bypassed and attacked Suehn. They missed their target and were repelled. It was anybodyís guess what would have happened to the huge number of civilians traveling with me if we had remained in Suehn.

Before my departure, a Western ambassador had been calling asking us to make sure that "those Krahn fighters donít reach our embassy." I was surprised that this same ambassador during the day would give a blanket condemnation of everybody for public consumption. That contributed to my reluctance to meet with his boss who arrived in Monrovia to assess the situation. In a woefully funny incident involving a meeting between the Council members and a delegation from the United States headed by former Ambassador William Twadell and a Marine general, Taylor actually admitted his involvement in the mass looting, but also challenged the seated American ambassador in Monrovia, the UN representative, and the ECOMOG commander  to deny that they didnít loot as well. It was so undiplomatically funny that the accused men didnít know how to respond, especially having heard Taylor say, "I can prove that all of our people looted." How could everybody know at that moment whether or not people belonging to their work places or organization had not been looting.

Facing Abacha and Rawlings

Nigeria was the head and biggest contributor to ECOMOG, and Head of State Sanni Abacha wanted to know what was the fighting all about. By then, I had gone to the ULIMO headquarters in Voinjama. Abacha and I were friends then, and so a helicopter was sent to Voinjama to enable me board the special flight waiting at the Lungi Airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The Nigerian ambassador from Monrovia had spent two days there trying to establish contact with Voinjama to arrange the trip.

The Chairman of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ghanaís President Jerry Rawlings, had at the same time organized a meeting for the leaders of the groups fighting. Abacha had sent his vehicles ahead to Accra for the meeting. Following my briefing in Abuja, I was not prepared to attend the Accra discussions at that time. Johnson had been flown to Accra a week earlier by the Ghanaians, and there were some activities that made me uncomfortable with going to Ghana that particular week. I "respectfully" told Abacha I would wait for a while. So he did not go as well, and that infuriated Rawlings. The BBC was reporting that while a peace meeting was going on in Accra, Abacha and I were meeting in Abuja.

After some consultations, I met with President Rawlings in Accra and promised that everything will be done to bring the situation in Monrovia under control, and that he should please send our grand old friend, Capt. Kojo Tshikata, his point man in the Liberian peace process. I flew on to Voinjama by way of Guinea. The fighting had actually subsided, taken over by looting. From Voinjama, I told my men in Monrovia to withdraw from the fringes of the battlefront. An arrangement had been concluded for ECOMOG to form an immediate buffer, and that replaced our men.

During the fighting, the peacekeepers had remained at their base, and actually carried ammunition to the barracks for Johnsonís men, despite the earlier strained relations. This was accomplished through the advice of a former interim government leader who had taken refuge in the immediate guestroom of the ECOMOG Field Commander. I discovered him there sporting a T-shirt in dire need of soap and Clorax. He told the Commander that it was better helping the Krahns, for if Taylor took over Monrovia, he would have killed all of them. 

It was true that Taylor had an agenda of using the occasion to get rid of some targeted figures, though he was in no military position to take over the city. It was ULIMO and Arma Youlu's  men who were doing the containment of the Johnson's  forces. ULIMOís Gen. Varmuyan Sheriff, Philip Kamara, and Doumbuyaís successor as AFL Chief of Staff, A.B. Kromah, were heading the task forces that went to rescue Liberian political and religious figures that had been targeted by some of both Taylor and Johnsonís men at Mamba Point and Ashmun Street.

The April Monrovia war was formally ended with the arrival of Kojo in Monrovia where we all met and smoked peace pipes and took our losses. The destruction had indeed thrown us at least two years back.

 Besides deciphering  who joined whom to do what to whom in these things that have come to pass, let's take stock of the little things that started the big things - like the war producing bank.

©  Alhaji Kromah Page