Freeing Freetown: A tale of atrocities committed by Nigeria’s ECOMOG soldiers in Sierra Leone (Part 2)

Joseph Musa in his house in Freetown
Joseph Musa in his house in Freetown

In the second part of this special report, Shola Lawal reviews the atrocities committed by Nigerian soldiers in Sierra Leone. She also provides the real name of Evil Spirit, the Nigerian soldier noted for his notoriety in killing innocents during the war. Read the first part of the report here.

ECOMOG soldiers took many things from Joseph Musa, among them his coveted Mercedes-Benz 200 and his left eye.

The tall, gangly white-haired 55-year-old spends his days indoors, unable to get a job because of what ECOMOG troops did to him.

Mr Musa lives in a modest rental in the Wilberforce area of Freetown. His encounter with ECOMOG forces was in ‘97, he says as he settles to speak to me under a tree in his yard. His grandkids play around him and his fiercely protective dog sniffs me. It was when that first intervention happened, he says. Mr Musa had fled rebel-held Kono where he was working as a miner to join his family in Freetown. On August 10, ECOMOG forces came to his house and arrested him.

A Fula guy about three houses from where he lived in Lumley had reported him. “He was having issues with my brother’s wife and he was befriending the intelligence commander of ECOMOG at the time, Lt. Colonel Sam Gbenobah,” Mr Musa says. “So he went to them and said ‘SAJ Musa’s brother lives close to me so please come and arrest him. He is a collaborator. He has communication set in his house which he uses to relay info to his brother in Kabala to tell him about ECOMOG positions.’”

Mr Musa’s brother, Solomon Musa, was second in command to Valentine Strasser, the then head of the NPRC junta. Solomon Anthony James Musa or SAJ Musa as he was known, left Sierra Leone for the United Kingdom to study after falling out with Strasser. But SAJ Musa could not stay away from the war and soon came back to Sierra Leone to join the renegade AFRC that overthrew democratically-elected president Tejan Kabah. SAJ Musa’s new alignment put him directly at war with the Nigerian-led troops who Kabbah relied on for support. SAJ Musa became notorious among the ECOMOG troops and some of the men could not pass up the opportunity to torture his brother.

The men who arrested Mr Musa took him to where he remembers as the ‘Gas Chamber’ in the Wilberforce base, a tiny structure where they had squeezed 167 suspects into. (Gyang tells me he does not remember the ‘Gas Chamber’). He was the 168th. All of them defecated in one can and only urinated at 5 p.m. in the evening. He stayed in that cramped, hot space for two nights until he was summoned by the battalion commander, Major Tanko. Major Tanko was having lunch when Mr Musa appeared before him. He forced the piece of chicken he was eating into Mr Musa’s mouth, he tells me. “He said I should eat my last good food because from that point they were going to execute me,” Mr Musa narrates. ‘Because your brother is SAJ Musa’, Major Tanko replied when he dared to ask why he would be executed. Then the major slapped him and ordered him to return to the Gas Chamber.

Two days after he was detained for his brother’s crimes, General Maxwell Khobe requested to see him. This time, he was treated better. Mr Khobe reprimanded Major Tanko for keeping him without evidence. “He told him, ‘Do your investigations accurately. If this man has no involvement in what we are searching for, please release him.’”

But Mr Musa stayed in the Gas Chamber for three more months. Major Tanko took his time investigating. It was so hot in the structure that when he rubbed his palm on his arm, his skin rolled off, he says. Soldiers ransacked his house while he was detained. They harassed his wife and kids and stole his furniture. His Mercedes disappeared too. Then Lieutenant Gbenoba called him one morning. The officer was tall and very dark, with long marks on his cheeks. He told Mr Musa he was sending him to Pademba road jail, but not because he was actually a rebel. “He said to me ‘We’ve done all our investigations and found that you had no hands in this. But before I release you I’m going to send you to Pademba for some months and you’ll advise people not to involve themselves in the fighting.’” Mr Musa was bewildered. He thought it was a cruel joke being played on him until he actually got there. He spent three more months in Pademba before he was finally released.

By the time he got home, his family had moved to Golderich road out of fear that the men would come back. He returned home to the news of the death of his daughter, who had been gravely ill before he was detained. Mr Musa paused his recount to dig up a load of grainy old photos which he handed to me. There’s one of his daughters before she fell sick and another of his stolen Benz 200.

Mr Musa thought it was all over, but it was only just beginning. Exactly one month after January 6, a “black, high captain” as the 55-year-old remembers him, visited his new compound. “Are you Joseph Musa?” the captain asked. Mr Musa knew what was coming, and cursed Mr Gbenoba silently. He’d tried to obtain a clearance from Mr Gbenoba after his first detention but the officer had refused. Mr Musa asked the man what he wanted and with his reply, he knew he was already dead. “So you are here enjoying and your brother is out there killing soldiers?”

His wife was with his sick father at the time and he was spared the disgrace. After another round of beatings, the captain told Mr Musa to say his last prayers because “I am going to execute you.” Every attempt to redeem himself was met with brutal force – a clutch cable which coiled around his body when it hit him, struck his left eye repeatedly until he saw red and then saw nothing. He stopped feeling pain, Joseph tells me, snivelling now and rubbing his eye as he remembers. He was thrown into a truck, ready to be shipped off to the Aberdeen bridge in the city centre to be executed. He was conscious enough to notice a boy in all-black come down the road. His black clothing raised suspicion. The captain stopped to question him. The boy pleaded that he worked for Super Sound, an Indian rental shop. He claimed his boss had given him money for his parents who had not seen him in a while. The boy kept denying his involvement with the insurgents, so they gave him options. “They told him ‘If you say you are a rebel, we will release you, but if you say you are not a rebel, we will kill you’”. So he confessed to being a rebel. Three shots later, he blinked and hit the ground with a thud. The captain levelled up with Mr Musa who had been watching from the back of the truck. Mr Musa tried to find his nameplate but he had none on.“You see, that is your example,” the captain seethed.

Bodies littered the area around the Aberdeen bridge and as far as Mr Musa could see with his good eye. The captain ordered him to take six steps and turn around. Just as he closed his eyes and prepared for oblivion, the Captain changed his mind. He would ask General Buhari Musa, the garrison commander for permission, he announced. Mr Musa was hauled back to the camp. Luckily, General Buhari Musa disagreed to let him die that day. The General ordered he be taken back to the garrison and issued a proper letter of release. At the garrison, he met General Abu Ahmadu in place of Gbenoba: Gbenoba had been redeployed. (Brigadier-General Abu Ahmadu would later become ECOMOG Commander in year 2000). It was General Ahmadu who broke the news of his brother’s death to him. SAJ Musa had been killed in fighting at Benguema. General Ahmadu knew him well, a long time ago in Liberia, he told Joseph. The two fought Taylor’s forces side-by-side along with Strasser before the duo turned renegade. SAJ Musa had even offered Ahmadu his first $100 before Ahmadu’s initial 3-month-no-pay period had lapsed.

Then General Ahmadu did something rare for a soldier, let alone a Nigerian general. He apologised. He was sorry for the way Mr Musa was treated, he said. He even offered to take him to an eye clinic. “I was too scared of them by then, so I said no,” Mr Musa says. I read the fear in his one good eye, a decade later. General Ahmadu had a final parting shot for him, words that broke Mr Musa and caused him to sob like a baby in the general’s presence. “You are very lucky,” General Ahmadu had told him. “The guy who went for you never spares anybody. Don’t you know his name? He is Captain Evil Spirit.”

Evil on Aberdeen Bridge

When eyewitnesses spoke of human rights violations by ECOMOG troops to HRW, the dreaded Captain Evil Spirit almost always come up. The captain had paraded the Aberdeen Bridge where he would summarily execute scores of people, many reports say. The Aberdeen Bridge was under his command during the January 6 incursion, so many suspected rebels would end up in the waters below.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed witnesses and counted up to 98 executions on the Aberdeen Bridge between January 7 and January 29 alone. Those executed, overwhelmingly young men, were often captured at ECOMOG checkpoints or on mop-up exercises. Captain Evil Spirit did most of the executions, and to a lesser extent, some 10 other officers under his command. The Kamajors executed people too, although less frequently.

One witness recounted in the report: “Every day they [the soldiers] killed people two, three, four a day. We feared that man, Evil. He never gave anybody a chance to explain. Some people even called him Captain No Explain. There was a man from our neighbourhood who was caught by him. I was told the other ECOMOGs tried to convince Evil that he was a boy from the neighbourhood but he wouldn’t listen and killed him anyway. The boy was an only child and his mother went crazy. A few times we saw her go to Evil’s house and ask to see him. She started screaming. ‘You, I want you to kill me too… you’ve killed my only son. You show me where you’ve buried my boy’”.

Tracing what happened to Evil on redeployment from Sierra Leone is difficult. HRW withheld his name in their reports. Gyang’s usually jovial demeanour changes when he hears the name. “Evil Spirit? I know him well,” he tells me rather coldly. “He tried to kill me once.”

There are good people and there are bad people in war, Gyang continues, with a preacher’s glint in his eyes, but Evil was on another level. The captain’s real name was Okou Lajah. He had been feared not just by the locals, but by his own men – a cruel man made all the more worse because he could legally carry a gun.

Gyang had come close to having a shoot out with Evil at the peak of the fighting. A superior had ordered Gyang to escort some locals to the ferry crossing: The group was fleeing into neighbouring Guinea where they would become refugees. Evil had noticed the group and approached them with a group of soldiers. Without warning, the officers shot in the air to halt Gyang. “He even asked them to collect my rifle,” Gyang says incredulously now. But Gyang says he was no pushover. “When they were coming close to me I fired them one shot.” Evil hadn’t expected that and advanced himself. This time, Gyang shot another round close to his feet. That ended the standoff as Evil retreated and reported the private to a general.

It’s unclear how Evil ended. The captain had been recalled sometime during the war. He’d been court-martialed and demoted, all in a very hush-hush manner typical of the Nigerian military. Gyang is not sure exactly why, but it may be related to the allegations of crimes against humanity levelled against Evil and included in the HRW document. There were rumours in the military that he’d died mysteriously after hitting an older, retired soldier (He’d been demoted to post of pension officer and had hit one of the men he was attending to.) “We heard that just some moments after, he fell down and died, and that was it for him.”

There are other plausible accounts that say Evil died after falling mentally ill, according to a 2003 news article in Sierra Leone’s The Standard Times. The men had not gotten any special trauma or psychological treatment after the war and many had likely been affected. “We did not have anything like that back then,” Gyang says shaking his head and laughing it off. “Nowadays they have that. They’ll do rehabilitation for soldiers who are on the war front. But back then, they just held us for one or two days and we went home.” The men had been elated to be home and to see their families, and would likely have waved off any need for therapy or trauma counselling anyway, he says. Gyang believes Captain Evil’s end was befitting poetic justice, whatever the real story was. Karma had quietly done its job.

It’s even more unclear what happened to Major Tanko. He had been court-martialed too, Gyang says. (Committee for Protecting Journalists in a 2000 report “Attacks on The Press 1999: Sierra Leone, detail attacks on the press by rebel forces and ECOMOG troops, and name Major Tanko in it). While he was awaiting sentence, he got out on bail. He’d been travelling when he was attacked and butchered, according to rumours Gyang heard. But other accounts dispute that, and say not only is the major alive, he may still be in service. Gyang, however, insisted the major is dead. “I was at Takum, Taraba state when they brought his body. You can ask anybody, Major is not alive,” he told me. Gyang could be covering up for the major, but he has no reason to lie since I agreed to keep his identity hidden. The Nigerian military has not responded to requests about the major and about this report yet, after several weeks.

General Buhari Musa had been redeployed to an obscure town in the east, where he could quietly fade into the background, Gyang tells me. There is very little about the general on the internet. Gyang does not remember Sam Gbenoba or Lt. Alusayne: There are no internet records of them either.

“This our uniform doesn’t like dirt,” Gyang mumbles. It’s something older soldiers used to say. He had seen clear evidence of that. None of the troops who stole Sierra Leone’s diamonds were able to spend the money, he says. Many had those very hands cut off. Gyang believes he lived through the war because he stuck to that advice. If you stain the uniform, it will end you.

In Memoriam

It was hard for Dato Alagendra to get the boy out of her head. He was featured prominently in Cry Freetown – a pitiable mute in a red vest, who was beaten within inches of his life by ECOMOG troops convinced he was a rebel. Three senior commanders featured in that scene. It is for him, the human rights attorney says, that she is now fighting authorities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone for a redress of human rights violations and war crimes committed by ECOMOG forces two decades after the civil war.

Ms Alagendra was a junior prosecutor, among the group of international human rights lawyers who chaired the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The Special Court was set up jointly by the Sierra Leonean government and the UN in 2003, after the war. The Lome Peace Accord had laid the grounds for surrender, and a UN resolution ordering Liberia to cease funding to the RUF had proven effective, causing the insurgents to retreat, this time permanently. By the time President Kabbbah declared the war over in January 2002, over 50,000 people had lost their lives. ECOMOG troops pulled out and were replaced by 6,000 troops from the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone – UNAMSIL.

The court tried those most responsible for mass atrocities, human rights violations and war crimes. RUF warlords and other warring factions were tried on counts of mass killings, sexual violence, and the drafting of underaged soldiers. Thirteen people were indicted by the Special Court, including RUF rebel-leader, Foday Sankoh. Sankoh died before he faced jail term. Charles Taylor was jailed more recently in 2013 – a 50-year term for his role as RUF’s main sponsor.

The Civilian Defence Forces, and it’s strongest group – the Kamajors who had allied with ECOMOG and SLA troops – were tried too. Three of the group’s top men were indicted in the trials although they were given more lenient terms: While the role they played in ending the insurgency can not be swept away, many in post-war Sierra Leone still see them as war-mongers, a brutal and biased tribal militia who helped foreign troops kill their people at will. “They sold us to them,” Joseph Musa says accusingly.

The ‘them’ Musa refers to are the ECOMOG soldiers. They remain the only armed group that did not face prosecution in the Special Court, till date. It seemed odd to a younger Ms Alagendra at the time that the court did not even consider putting Nigerian troops on trial. “We didn’t even look into these crimes at all,” she tells me. “ The conduct of the peace-keepers or the Nigerian forces was not something we touched, so I never really spoke directly to victims of these crimes during the time I served as a prosecutor.”

Crimes against humanity committed by Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops were dismissed, swept under the rug for a reason: Nigeria was one of the major funders of the court and the statute that created the Special Court ruled out the prosecution of peacekeeping troops, and by extension, Nigerian soldiers. The court spent $300 billion by the time it officially closed in 2013.

But public opinion did not align with the statute, in Ms Alagendra’s opinion. “Anyone on the street would acknowledge that the soldiers got away with a lot,” Ms Alagendra says. Even though there had been complaints, but there was still gratitude for the contribution the Nigerian troops made. (That remains the general feeling when I spoke to Sierra Leoneans -who were not directly affected- about this.)

But even though the troops helped bring peace and deserve accolades, Ms Alagendra believes there must be accountability in some way. The Nigerian Army and government have been elusive. “There were promises of an investigation at the time, but nothing was ever done. There was no accountability or even an acknowledgement or an apology. Instead, there were denials.” Ms Alagendra refuses to stand for that. “For human dignity and respect, even an acknowledgement, saying ‘Yes we accept that there were excesses and we ask those individual families affected, to apologise to them’. That restores dignity.”

In the years since the Special Court completed its mandate, Ms Alagendra has helped set up a school for children displaced in the conflict and has come in contact with victims of ECOMOG abuse. Many spoke of rape and torture. She was particularly drawn to the phenomenon of ‘ECOMOG babies’, thousands of children whose mothers were impregnated by ECOMOG troops, some through rape.

In present-day Sierra Leone, there’s a social death that comes with being identified as an ‘ECOMOG baby’ as Alagendra has witnessed. The children and their mothers are taunted and called names. “I’ve spoken to some children: they are given Nigerian nicknames as part of being made fun of, and as they grow they blame their mothers,” Ms Alagendara says. “But most of them were children themselves at the time.”

It’s not clear just how many mothers and children are in this situation. “ECOMOG babies boku for here,” Yeno, a 33-year-old who lives in Lungi, tells me. Yeno was pulled inside the Lungi base by a group of Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers in 2000, a few years to the end of the war. Lungi houses the airport, and many soldiers were camped there for swift evacuation. Yeno got pregnant from the rape.

She is one of nine victims Ms Alagendra is seeking redress and reparations for. Her daughter is now 20-years-old, and she has struggled with feeding and clothing her. “I join ashewo (prostitution) because of it,” she says dispassionately. She went to Ghana and Liberia to work for some time, but is now back with nothing. She needs some kind of settlement now more than ever, she explains and wishes the case would be attended to. Her fiance left her recently. He had been livid that she slept away from Lungi on one of the many trips to meet the prosecutors in Freetown.

Ms Alagendra wants things to move faster too. There has been an outpouring of support for the cause after Peacekeepers, the documentary, was released. Many asked ‘why now?’ But the video evidence from Cry Freetown was a powerful influence, even showing actors like Major Tanko in action. She raised the case in Sierra Leone as a constitutional issue with the support of The African Bar Association last year. But her efforts have been frustrated by a Sierra Leone judiciary that’s too slow to act. There are legal complications, too. First, there is the debate about which country-state the jurisdiction of the Nigerian forces fell under. There are arguments that the Nigerian forces were under the command of the Sierra Leone government. It is a valid argument, considering that General Maxwell Khobe was appointed Chief of Defence staff of Sierra Leone by Mr Kabbah. It is one of the reasons Ms Alagendra cannot present the case to the Nigerian Supreme Court directly.

Gyang is strongly opposed to the petition. “There’s no need for that,” he tells me angrily. “If you see the way they slaughtered us there, you will cry for Nigeria. So many families don’t have fathers now, and yet some people want to stand and come and say one thing. It’s not fair at all. We are not machinery.” In fact, Gyang says, the ECOMOG troops who fought and died bravely, in their thousands should be memorialized. By 1999, Nigerian troops made up 80% of the 13,000-strong ECOMOG force.

The Nigerian government has been quiet on the issue, but Ms Alagendra hopes the state will step in. “Nigeria can step in and do the right thing because it goes high up,” she says. She is hopeful that perpetrators still alive can be prosecuted directly because “they are criminally liable and should be held responsible in their individual capacities.”

Then, there is President Julius Maada Bio, who himself was involved in the conflict. Mr Bio was part of forces loyal to Strasser’s NPRC, but who would later plan a coup against Strasser in ‘96 after they fell out. His men frog-marched Strasser to an airplane and bundled him to exile in Guinea. Mr Bio led the junta government, albeit briefly – from January to March when he turned over power to the democratically-elected Mr Kabbah.

President Bio proved bankable then. He has carried that same progressive mindset into his second go at Sierra Leone’s highest office – righting the education system and voicing displeasure at the state of violence against women. He even declared a state of emergency against rape. But on the matter of reparations for ECOMOG crimes, he has been slow. There are speculations the president does not want to misstep and implicate himself.

But these cases go far beyond the president and affect two countries. “Victims of RUF and AFRC had the dignity of a court hearing and a reparations programme, but these victims were never part of that. They have been complete bystanders in every sense of the word,” Ms Alagendra tells me.

The victims cannot heal without justice and this is a chance for the two states to agree on the facts of what happened on the ground in Sierra Leone, she says.

Ms Alagendra is doing the case pro bono because she feels strongly for victims like Karim. Karim has been made popular locally for being featured in the award-winning film, Cry Freetown. Ms Alagendra marvels at how, every year the documentary is aired on national TV as parts of a human right campaign yet the human rights of the victims are completely ignored, despite their trauma.

Karim’s children have learned to avoid the TV every time June 16 comes around, he says, as we walk out of Ascension Town cemetery. He has struck a deal with the Friends of the Dead – they’ll make a simple, but nice cairn on the mass grave where his family was buried. It will cost him some money, but Karim believes it’s his duty to give his mother’s soul, and the souls of all those people whose lives were cut so abruptly, those whose spirits remain unsung, some peace.

(This story was co-published by Premium Times and Mail & Guardian).


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