This week alone families of two former ECOMOG Commanders Brigadier Generals Timothy Mai Shelpidi and John Shagaya are burying them after their recent deaths. Gen. Shelpidi commanded ECOMOG when the group routed out AFRC/RUF rebels from Freetown and restored the elected Kabbah government. A few years ago he survived an armed robbery attack but recently the cold hands of death laid themselves on him after a brief illness.
First among the former ECOMOG Field Commanders who passed away was Gen. Rufus Kupolati. He died in a car accident in Abuja. The next person, who died caused by shrapnel injury while leading his troops in Sierra Leone, was Brig. Gen. Maxwell Khobe. Earlier, Khobe, commanded the 221 tank battalion on its long march to capture Liberia’s second largest city, Buchanan, from rebel forces. He is more noted for his heroic march from Lungi airport to liberate Freetown city from RUF rebels ‘control. Brig.Gen. John Inienger came next in the line of ECOMOG Commanders to suffer untimely death. Then came the death of Brig. Gen. Abdul One, the former Nigerian Contingent Commander in Liberia.
Brig. Gen. Bakut died nearly two years ago. To many the death of the no nonsense Commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Victor Leo Malu last year, was a major blow. Malu twice served in Liberia, first as Chief of Staff and head of the Nigerian contingent when, in 1992, ECOMOG had to enforce the peace in the Octopus war launched by Taylor’s rebel NPFL force. Gen. Malu died last year coincidentally on the eve of the recent elections in Liberia. As the substantive Field Commander, Gen. Malu had supervised Liberia’s the post-civil war general and presidential elections.
Gen. Shagaya’s death is not only untimely but a wake up call for the region to preserve the gallant achievements of these brave soldiers. Gen. Shagaya was a professional soldier with a chequered career and at different times held political posts as minister of interior under President Babangida and also serving as a member of the ruling ARMED FORCES RULING COUNCIL (AFRC).
I first met Gen. Shagaya in 1992 as part of a team of news correspondents, trying to get back to our office in London after the erstwhile OAU summit hosted by Nigeria. We had to catch connecting flight in Lagos but the Abuja runway had unfortunately been closed due to some problems with the Egyptian presidential aircraft. However, a special flight ordered by Gen. Shagaya, then the minister of interior, was expected. One of my colleagues approached Gen. Shagaya and asked if our group could catch a ride. Given the chaotic situation at the packed airport Shagaya asked my colleague, with a stern expression; “has anybody ever lost his mind on you?” Not long after, he discovered that our group had been on duty in Abuja and needed to get back. He instructed that we be airlifted.
The next time I came across Gen. Shagaya was in the ECOMOG mission area in Liberia. Shagaya, much like other commanders before him had come into an operation that, from its very beginning, had been plagued with several intrigues that eventually necessitated a change of command with Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro coming in as Field Commander. Not many people are aware that the ECOMOG mission almost got aborted even before the Armada of warships set sail from the staging post in Freetown due to command and control problems. For example, political expediency in Guinea meant that no officer on the Guinean contingent was above the rank of a colonel.
The rank of “general” was reserved only for the late President Lansana Conte. Gen. Abacha, then defense minister, was adamant that none of his brigadier generals would serve under Guinean colonels and was prepared to order them back home.
When ECOMOG eventually took off, Generals Dogonyaro, Olurin, Malu and Shagaya showed such strength of character that terrified the rebel groups. The Liberia war was not without complexities. There were undefined battle lines, and internecine conflicts driven by personal political ambitions. Various commanders, including General Shagaya, relied on few correspondents with knowledge about Liberia. Renowned war correspondent, Lindsay Barrett, and I saw Gen. Shagaya often and accompanied him on missions in the short time he commanded the ECOMOG. On one of such missions when Gen. Shagaya had travelled to the war front to discuss plans for disarmament an unexpected dispatch came in from Abuja that he had been retired and withdrawn as Field Commander by the Abacha government.
We returned to the base to meet groups of officers bitter that the general had been disgraced while serving the country abroad. Gen. Shagaya, not ruffled and speaking in his usually distinct voice, asked the group to calm down. He continued, “When I signed to join the army I knew that there were three exit points. I would serve to the rightful age of retirement, I could lose my life in an operation or I could be dismissed all of a sudden. All these three I am aware off.” As prescient as those words may be, Gen. Shagaya’s death, barely a year after his wife passed away, remains a major shock for those who knew him.
The memories of the men and officers who served in ECOMOG are insulted by the lack of recognition of their service. To this day, there are no Cenotaphs for those who lost their lives in Liberia and Sierra Lone. We fail to see that, but for ECOMOG, Taylor’s rebels would have unleashed a violent disruption of political life with a domino effect across the region. Our collective memories are insulted when some in the top echelon of ECOWAS would claim they did not know Gen. Malu after his death and were unwilling to pay him public tribute and honour his memory with the respect that he and others truly deserves. Where is the institutional memory of the leaders of ECOWAS. Rest in peace Generals Shagaya and Shelpidi.
Ben Asante is a veteran journalist