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Lessons and Reflections on the Past Present and the Future

 

Alhaji Kromah's Leadership of ULIMO

Policy and Operational Profile

Posted February 2009

Nature of ULIMO

The United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) was founded in 1991 by Liberian refugees and other victimized groups in neighboring Sierra Leone as a resistance movement against the onslaught of Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels. The movement worked its way into Liberia and helped the West African Peacekeeping Force "ECOMOG" to resist and oust the invading NPFL from Liberian territory. 

Scores of Liberians had to take to their heels fleeing to neighboring countries when the NPFL invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve, 1989, and began killing civilians, despite announcing that its intent was to overthrow President Samuel K. Doe. The ULIMO stoppage of the NPFL from militarily taking over the country and installing a government by force paved the way for a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict.

From the onset, Taylor, like a number of Liberian politicians, played the ethnic and religious card, regularly on radio claiming that ULIMO was coming to fight a "Jihad" because its leader, Alhaji Kromah, was a Muslim. Never mind the world knew that Taylor and his NPFL rebels, including mercenaries and regular and retired soldiers from Burkina Faso, the Gambia, and Sierra Leone, were not only trained by the  regime of Moamar Khadafi in Libya, but were also financially and militarily supported by the same Khadafi. And never mind that the top officers of ULIMO – Military Wing Chairman Roosevelt Johnson, Chief of Staff Arma Youlu, Field Commander Joe Harris, Grievance Committee Chairman John Kollie, and scores of other top brass - were not only practicing Christians from various tribes, but actually conducted Sunday services in Tubmanburg and Voinjama, Lofa County capital. Never mind when local communities held intercessory church services for Alhaji Kromah in ULIMO liberated areas, he remained comfortably seated with a huge portrait of Jesus in the background, despite he was a Muslim.

It was the same ULIMO that was called to Monrovia in 1992 by ECOMOG to help successfully defend the besieged capital against the infamous NPFL "Octopus" multiple military attack. It was during this battle that NPFL fighters were accused of abducting and killing five American nuns.

Several months later in 1993, the year included within the period that ULIMO was supposed to be abusing human rights, the US Ambassador (Chief of Mission), H.E. William Twaddell, visited the headquarters of ULIMO in Tubmanburg, 45 miles outside of Monrovia at the invitation of ULIMO leader, Alhaji Kromah. The news media from Monrovia were present. Ambassador Twaddell did not only publicly reject any religious label against ULIMO but acknowledged the liberation task of the organization. The media quoted him as saying that ULIMO was a "movement whose prime objective is to liberate the people from continued suffering." (See Attachment A).

Successive US presidential envoys, including Ambassador Howard Jeter, later Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, acknowledged the value of ULIMO under Mr. Kromah in achieving the peace settlement. In fact the friendly relations between ULIMO and the US mission were so public until an article appeared in a Monrovia newspaper in which France was reportedly accusing the United States of siding with ULIMO and the United States was reportedly accusing France of backing the NPFL. (See Attachment B). This is why we were dumbfounded when we began to see adverse and clearly false reports about the activities of ULIMO. But then again, it was not difficult to identify the source and the reason, as we shall explain later.

ULIMO and the People

In consonance with what Ambassador Twaddell observed, ULIMO was truly a rescuing organization. Every time ULIMO drove out NPFL from an area, hundreds if not thousands of civilians were rescued. This was evident when ULIMO drove out NPFL from the Township of Todee, Montserrado County, an area the NPFL had been confining thousands of civilians some 40 miles away from Monrovia. ULIMO practically rescued more than 2000 civilians. (See Attachment C).

The ULIMO commander was quoted as saying that it was very useful to get the civilians out of the area as fears loomed that the NPFL would have attacked again.

Again when ULIMO drove out the NPFL rebels out of the German-operated Bong Mining Company working community of Bong Mines, civilians jubilated. Newspapers reported the event as 900 civilians being "rescued from the claws of the NPFL." (See Attachment D)

ULIMO did not only help liberate areas under the NPFL, but also took the initiative to bring the humanitarian plight of people in the liberated areas. ULIMO Col. Apollo Jay Swen, who actually defected from the NPFL a year earlier and received intensive orientation in ULIMO officer humanitarian services, was often in Monrovia appealing to the UN to provide humanitarian assistance to citizens in Margibi County, which had been freed of NPFL occupation. (See Attachment E)

When the NPFL attacked Monrovia in its "Octopus Operation," thousands of panicky Monrovia residents took refuge in the then ULIMO held territories of Cape Mount and Bomi Counties, where they had left earlier when NPFL attacked the areas. (See Attachment F). The citizens told the media that they went to the ULIMO area because of insecurity in Monrovia.

The Nimba County Factor

 ULIMO fought only warring factions and not particular tribes. The same tribes that consisted of NPFL were the same tribes that were included in ULIMO, despite there was political ethnic schemes of identifying a whole group by the tribe of the leader, especially when it came to their common target ULIMO. Contrary to assertion that ULIMO was enemy to any  persons from Nimba County, the NPFL was more of a direct enemy to the people of Nimba, including the Gio and Manos, despite many of whom were foot soldiers in the NPFL. As a matter of fact, citizens of Nimba County, with their headquarters in the United States, and their men on the ground in Liberia, actually organized a faction to fight Taylor's NPFL. (See Attachment G). The leader of the group, Kerper Dwanyen, declared the existence of the group in an interview with the BBC international radio program, quoted in the February 17 1993 edition of the Eye newspaper in Monrovia. Dwanyen said the ‘Nimba Redemption Council’ was formed "as a result of atrocities carried out by the NPFL against Nimba citizens as well as other Liberians." (See Attachment G.)

Where ULIMO engaged the NPFL, it was on the basis of military to military, not on the basis of ethnicity, religion or membership in an organization. This fact could not have been summarized better when Mr. Peter Kerbay, President of the United Congress of Nimba Citizens, an association grouping all Nimba citizens, put out an announcement in Liberia calling on all sons and daughters of Nimba fighting in the Liberian war to lay down their arms and spare their own lives. Mr. Kerbay said: "We are very deeply concerned about the renewed fighting because there is a sizeable number of Nimbaians in each of the warring groups. From reports we have received hundreds of Nimbaians, whether of the Mano, Gio, Mandingo, Krahn or Gbi ethnic groups, are members of the NPFL, the INPFL and ULIMO." (See Attachment H).

Though tribes were identified with warring factions, ULIMO is reputed to have used radio communications to lure away NPFL fighters of various backgrounds, which eventually led to the fall of the NPFL headquarters of Gbarnga without prolonged fighting. Though Mandingoes of Nimba, and later of Lofa were targeted by Taylor's NPFL for "pointing the NPFL rebels out to government soldiers" and refusing to be recruited, there were Mandingoes fighting for Taylor and Mandingoes serving as his key aides. All Liberians are aware of the Cisse brothers’ relations with Taylor.

By the time the war ended and elections were held in 1997, most of Nimba citizens, including Mr. Kerbay mentioned above, as well as former NPFL fighters, declared their membership and support respectively for Mr. Kromah's Party, the All Liberia Coalition Party and complaining to Mr. Kromah that the NPFL had neglected them. (See Attachment I ).

The Lofa Dimension

Lofa County is the political prize some politicians, including some from there, will spare nothing to get. When ULIMO under the leadership of Alhaji Kromah drove the NPFL out of Lofa, it was inevitable that ULIMO and its leader would have been serious targets for politicians with presidential ambitions, whether they were from Lofa, or whether they were leaders in Taylor's NPFL, or were part of the Interim Government in Monrovia.

The political phenomenon during the war could not have been better described than the points emphasized by a mixed group (Christians and Muslims and all ethnic groups) living in Lofa during the presence of ULIMO when the Lofa citizens told the UN in a December 7, 1994 letter: "It is very unfortunate that this war has not come to an end due to the selfish aims of some politicians whose aims and objectives are to play game with the lives of the Liberian people." The document, whose signatories included the Rev. T. Sele Yengbeh, Priest in charge of the St. Theresa’s Episcopal Church in Lofa, stated: "We the citizens and residents of Voinjama District have enjoyed and continue to enjoy relative peace and protection from the ULIMO Forces on the ground. It is regrettable that some people residing outside of the District and perhaps the entire County of Lofa continue to give false accounts or information on situation in our District and County thus creating serious problems for us in the county, such as starvation, ill health resulting into the deaths of citizens.." (See Attachment J).

Lofa is the largest county with the highest number of ethnic groupings, 8 (now 6) out of the country's 16 - Mandingo, Lorma, Kpelle, Gbandi, Mende, Gola, Belle, and Kissi. Lofa is also the "breadbasket" of the nation with its high yielding agriculture landscape and tradition of the people, and spans the Liberian border with Guinea in the North and Sierra Leone on the West. The county is home to Alhaji Kromah, and his forefathers are well known families who battled the French during the colonial period to retain the territory on the Liberian side in partnership with American interest. The late Attorney Mohamed V. Kromah, an uncle, was one of the most active County Attorneys and Acting Superintendents Lofa has produced, according to citizens in the area. Alhaji Kromah's father is from the Mandingo tribe of Lofa, and his grandmothers are from Lofa’s Lorma tribe.

Mr. Kromah has been a popular Lofa figure, having served as President of the Lofa University Student Association of the University of Liberia, and as founding President of the Lofa Citizens Association of Washington DC when he went for graduate studies in 1980. His contribution has never gone lost on meaningful Lofa citizens. (See Attachment K )

Following the occupation of Lofa by the NPFL shortly after the war started in 1980-1990, and Taylor subsequently visited the country capital of Voinjama in 1991, Lofa citizens had already had enough of the NPFL. They mustered the courage and wrote a statement for presentation to him that told the full story. After the usual praises and courtesies, the Lofa citizens of mixed tribes, led by the Veteran Traditional Chief Tamba Tailor, (no relation to Charles Taylor) reported the following acts committed by Taylor's NPFL fighters in Lofa: (Extracted from Attachment L)

  1. "Some Freedom Fighters who saw their tribal brothers that sought refuge in Lofa at the time they were being hunted by forces of Doe's evil regime, were quickly armed by the very Freedom Fighters, and together, they are looting and harassing the very peaceful citizens who provided them asylum.
  2. "We have observed here that corruption, favoritism, tribalism, nepotism, and continuous looting even after the cease-fire was announced, are the order of the day in Lofa, for examples:

a. Arbitrary arrest and detention and subsequent extortion of money from peaceful citizens.

b. Monopoly of  commercial activities by Commandos.

c. Illegal seizure and personal possession of civilian properties.

d. Extortion of money by Immigration personnel from aliens in Lofa County in the range of $25 to $100 per person without any receipt. 

e. Looting of Lebanese stores and residences.

  3. Gross Disregard to Executive Orders by Commandos:

     a. Secret tying (tabae) of peaceful citizens.

     b. Secret executions of innocent citizens by Commandos.

     c. Dehumanizing and humiliation of citizens, (public raping), etc. 

 4. Total Disregard for and interruption of our cultural norms  and mores.

     a. Entering by Commandos into Sande schools

b. Public insult, undressing and flogging of females and elderly people who are all law abiding.)

This is a public document circulating in the media, and not a single person has ever challenged the content. This is the NPFL, not ULIMO, that was "breaking into the homes of missionaries," "Damage to Mosques in the County," and having "total Disregard for and interruption of the cultural norms and mores" of the people of Lofa. We wonder if any of this has ever been specifically reported in any foreign document on human rights. If not, why?

When ULIMO entered Lofa in 1993 and fought to kick out the NPFL, ULIMO's  top military leaders  were Maj. Gen. Roosevelt Johnson, Chairman of the Military Wing of ULIMO, a Christian and a non-Mandingo, Brig. Joe Harris, Field Commander and later Gen. Arma Youlu, Chief of Staff, both Christians and non-Mandingoes. In fact, Col. John Kollie, chairman of the ULIMO Grievance committee, and a Lorma and Christian from Lofa, was appointed the Superintendent in the county while ULIMO was there. William Baysah, a Christian and Lorma, was appointed Mayor of Voinjama, the capital of Lofa County. When Alhaji Kromah became a member of the Interim Government in 1995, he successfully recommended Baysah to serve as Assistant Minister at the Ministry of Education. Baysah ended up becoming one of the National Vice Chairpersons of Mr. Kromah's All Liberian Coalition Party.  

ULIMO opened the borders with Guinea for the free movement of citizens, especially for those who needed to escape the fighting. (See Attachment M).

Moreover, ULIMO set up a special commission for the repatriation of refugees from Guinea into Upper Lofa. This commission which did a marvelous job, was headed by a Lorma elder, Mr. Johnny Koigblie, who passed away after the peace settlement. His nephew, Mr. Joe Siemah, lives in Washington DC.

Earlier in Lower Lofa, civilians died mainly from starvation and lack of medical facilities. Chiefs and elders from the Lower Lofa Belle District actually traveled to Monrovia along with ULIMO representative to appeal to NGO’s. The roads in lower Lofa, and the whole county as a matter of fact, are the most impossible in the country. The elders and chiefs were however prepared to return home in the District, clearly indicating that they had free movement. (See Attachment N). People who came from others’ held territory at the time, never returned, even if they had left their families behind.

The ULIMO peace initiative did not stop the NPFL from launching attacks under the guise of a "Lofa Defense Force." Following the 1993 Cotonou Peace Agreement and cease-fire, some politicians from Lofa within Taylor’s NPFL, worried that their "leaving the county to Kromah until national elections" would give him political advantage. They asked Taylor to evict ULIMO from Lofa, in obvious violation of the cease-fire. Taylor withheld his new weapons and instead mobilized NPFL soldiers who were from Lofa, and together with some retired Armed Forces of Liberia soldiers from Lofa based in Guinean refugee camps, began launching insurgent attacks on ULIMO in Lofa, and the trend of NPFL insurgency continued even after the 1997 elections.

ULIMO defended the rights of journalists and the media to speak freely even if it did not ensure favorable coverage for the Movement. ULIMO issued statements condemning threats against journalists relative to ULIMO territory being turned over to the Interim Government. Said the movement: "It was an uncivilized act by those responsible, as not being in the interest of the peace that every patriotic Liberian is seeking today, and is indeed primitive and barbaric. Those involved should be brought to justice. The press is a vital organ, a partner in progress in the search for peace in Liberia without which it could be found difficult to exchange views relative to the process of peace, reconciliation, reunification and repatriation as well as the holding of the free and fair elections anticipated at the end of the war." (See Attachment O).

ULIMO, among many economic and social moves, caused to reduce commercial transport fares in the liberated areas of Cape Mount and Bomi Counties, creating ease for the civilian population. (See Attachment P).

Was ULIMO a Saint?

Certainly not. ULIMO was a military organization, which had to deal with disciplinary problems including harassment of civilians by some of its soldiers who were unruly. In those circumstances, Commanders gave stern warning and took actions, or even called on civilians to report these undisciplined fighters for appropriate remedial action.

In one such incident reported by the Inquirer Newspaper of Monrovia, ULIMO Commander Varmuyah Sheriff gave "stern warning" to ULIMO fighters who had been harassing some individuals in the Monrovia area. He said, "any of our soldiers found subjecting our people to any form of maltreatment, he or she will face the full weight of our law (Liberian Uniform Code of Military Justice)." (See Attachment Q)

Col. Sheriff said that such complaints "embarrass" ULIMO, as the public would believe that the unruly act was being done with the consent of the Movement. He then called on the peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, "to arrest any ULIMO soldier found in acts not befitting a real soldier ." (See Attachment Q). And indeed ECOMOG soon cooperated. The Inquirer Newspaper reported that ECOMOG began picking up AWOL ULIMO soldiers from Carey Street in Monrovia. We do not believe that the action of Col. Sheriff, who by the way is from the Mandingo tribe, was an example of an organization that condoned reckless behavior or carried on persecution of people.

In another incident, Col. Isaac Quawah, Secretary General of ULIMO, issued a statement in the Liberian media calling on Monrovians not to hesitate in reporting any wrongdoing of ULIMO fighters found in Monrovia, which was 45 miles away from the ULIMO Tubmanburg headquarters. (See Attachment R).

Basis of Massive Misinformation Given Foreigners

One of the areas in which ULIMO lost was the Propaganda war it suffered from the very start of the war, whether it was from the "jihad" label besmearing scheme from the Charles Taylor camp, or the ethnic manipulation intrigues from the Interim government in Monrovia.

ULIMO was between the rock and the hard place - Politicians in the Bush and Politicians in the City. The two extremes had their eyes set on the Liberian Presidency at the anticipated end of the war, and so if ULIMO lived up to its mission of liberating the country from the NPFL, it would have been a case of Alhaji Kromah as leader of ULIMO being seen as a Gen. Eisenhower who ended becoming President of the United States as a war hero who liberated Europe. This constituted a significant part of why the Liberian conflict was prolonged. This is not immediately visible to the eyes of the unsuspecting foreigner, including those who even carry on research on Liberia.

Besides, we must embarrassingly confess that the Liberian political culture is loaded with core vices that inhibit the progress of any society. Prof. Monie Captan, who later became Charles Taylor's Foreign Minister, was forced to confess this Liberian character when his newspaper was led into disgrace in an incident involving Mr. Kromah.

The First National Poll Newspaper owned by Mr. Captan in February 1994 was called along with another newspaper by a Defense spokesman of the Sawyer Interim government and told that Alhaji Kromah, on a visit to neighboring Guinea had been put under house arrest and was subsequently mobbed to death in another town in Guinea. Though the Poll had its doubts, it did not resist the temptation and actually carried the story with a headline that Kromah was feared dead from mobbing. Unfortunately for the paper, Kromah arrived in Monrovia on the day that the story was published. (See Attachment S). It turned out that Guinean President Conte invited Kromah for discussion on the peace process.

In obvious anger that his paper had been misled by the government spokesman, Captan summed up the Liberian political character thus: "Politicians in power today have learned to make maxim use of the negative vices of the Liberia political culture. Vices such as the encouragement of corruption, bribery, deceit, lies, double-dealing, sycophancy, and political character assassination." (See Attachment T).

Indeed political character assassination, more than even bullets, destroyed Liberia in more than 17 years of civil strife. For the sake of getting into the Executive Mansion, ambitious politicians did not leave anything behind in their schemes to politically eliminate their real or perceived rivals. And with the close relations with the United States and the West, it was always, and still is today, to paint political enemies in the worst way.

 

For the NPFL, the strategy was to play the religious and ethnic scare tactics. For the group in Monrovia, it was useful to paint ULIMO with "rebel," "atrocities" "abuse of human rights." With Mr. Kromah being a Muslim and this religion perceived to be out of synch with Western culture, it was convenient for political rivals, and other politicians who worried about a Kromah emergence, to play the religious ethnic card. Never mind ULIMO was the group that came to the aid of Monrovia when the NPFL launched a massive military attack on the jammed packed capital, under the control of Sawyer and the Peacekeeping Force.

Conclusion

Our country, Liberia, has been a global sore eye for nearly two decades now. Its geographical and population smallness has not stopped its society from breeding enmity and political anarchy, a view shared by external observers, who have themselves been often deluded. ULIMO was not a saint, but it was the fulcrum in preventing Monrovia, which had more than 1.4 million people, from being demolished by the NPFL in 1992.

As late as November, 2003, a group calling itself the Revolutionary UNREFCORPS, invaded Mr. Kromah's email, informing him that they had completed an "investigation" of his activities at the behest of some adversaries and that the group found out that he was "unharmful" to Liberia. (See Attachment U). UNREFCORPS said it had monitored Kromah's activities for more than three months and found that he was not what its benefactors had alleged, and they decided to divulge this to Mr. Kromah. The group appeared sophisticated as they revealed Kromah's email password and "warned" him to change it, along with his telephone numbers as he was being monitored. (See Attachment U).

This is the leadership that led ULIMO.