Nigerian peacekeepers changed the course of Sierra Leone’s civil war, helping to defeat the rebels. But in keeping the peace, these soldiers committed atrocities of their own. Two decades on, they are still grappling with what happened on their watch — and their victims want justice
‘Evil Spirit? I know him well,” says Sergeant Solomon Gyang*. “He tried to kill me once.” Today, Gyang is a regimental sergeant major in the Nigerian Armed Forces. In 1997, he was still a fresh-faced recruit, just three years into his army career, when the order came to pack up and head out to war.
It was good luck for Gyang. Not many soldiers got to go to war so green, but Liberia was burning and its West African neighbours had responded to its call for help. Spearheaded by Nigeria, the 12 000 soldier-strong regional peacekeeping force, known by its acronym Ecomog (the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), was dispatched to intervene and keep Charles Taylor’s bloodthirsty forces from plunging Liberia further into chaos.
The conflicts soon spread west to Sierra Leone, fuelled by the rebellion of Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The rebels had sought to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government after 20 years of state corruption in the diamond-rich country. Sankoh’s forces mirrored Taylor’s: young men, women and children abducted from their parents and given no choice but to become killing machines.
The fighting in Sierra Leone had been raging for about six years when Gyang, then about 26 years old, was pulled from Monrovia and redeployed to Freetown. It was 1998. Together with about 700 Nigerian soldiers, Gyang’s mandate was to restore to power the civilian government of Tejan Kabbah, and unseat the rebels who had taken charge.
A boy mutilated by partisans of the military junta. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP)
By the time his battalion dropped from military choppers into the dense green of a remote coastal settlement, there was an acute sense of aloneness. “We dropped in Kossoh Town, [which] we didn’t know — where there had not been any Ecomog soldiers — and from there we made our defence and started facing fights,” Gyang remembers.
Liberia had been a blur: Gyang had been with many soldiers there and had felt sheltered from the frontlines of the conflict. But in Sierra Leone, things were different, more dangerous; there were far fewer men against the experienced rebels.
Gyang’s group of peacekeepers were tasked with securing State House in Freetown. But there were no templates, no history to go on. Ecomog troops had to fight their way into the capital and take control of State House. “We did that in six hours,” Gyang smiles boastfully. It remains one of his most poignant memories. A young private, advancing under the lead of assured Nigerian captains — the bravest men he’d ever seen. He was in awe. “I worked with gallant soldiers. They gave us morale. We would see our soldiers dying but because of them we were able to advance.”
The cost of war: Refugees arriving in Freetown during the Sierra Leone civil war. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP)
Gyang also saw things that made him uncomfortable. There are good people and there are bad people in war, he says. Like Captain Evil Spirit — real name Okou Lajah — who was feared not just by the Sierra Leoneans he was supposed to be protecting, but by his own men.
‘Who that boy whey they cry so?’
It has taken Karim Sesay 20 years and five months to muster enough strength to find the spot where his family was buried. In the heat of the blazing Freetown sun that sends invisible daggers of fire down the back of his neck, the 45-year-old saunters determinedly past the stadium and towards the graveyard, limping slightly, arms swaying by his side, eyes watery and oval face set.
He hates to remember but the day comes to him clear as crystal whether he likes it or not. The day his life changed and when he started to float, as if in a constant dream state. The day he “went off”, is how Sesay describes it to me. It was January 6 1999, the day the rebels invaded Freetown, taking on the Ecomog forces — Gyang among them — defending the capital.
Sesay was 25, living with his partner and their baby daughter. Word had reached him at his workplace in Congo Cross, where he was a driver’s apprentice, that Ecomog troops had detained his mother and stepfather. They’d taken them to the waterside in King Tom, a suburb in Freetown where his family lived.
It took a while for his mother to die — that’s what upsets him the most. By the time he reached her at the waterside, she’d been beaten so severely that a huge bump was visible on her forehead. His brothers, Khalia, Mark and Bobo Sesay, had already been shot. His stepfather was dead too. Mark was 10 years old. One of his brothers had stolen some money belonging to an Indian man. According to bystanders, this man had then recruited the Ecomog troops to implement “bush justice”. He stood with the crowd that had gathered — helpless, trembling.
He watched one of the soldiers hit his mother repeatedly. His nametag read Lieutenant Alusayn, or that’s how he remembered it. He doesn’t remember much about the men. He certainly doesn’t remember seeing a cameraman in the crowd: the same cameraman who would later produce Cry Freetown, a film about the war that features his suffering prominently. He remembers one man clearly though: Major T*, the battalion commander who shot his mother in the waist with a pistol.
Sesay’s effort to disguise himself in the crowd failed. Major T noticed him crying harder than anyone else. “Who that boy whey they cry so?” Major T asked his mother. That’s the one mistake his mother made, Sesay tells me now, with sad wistful eyes, eyes that say he yearns to go back and change the horror that unfolded. “Those words that she said? ‘Na me pikin.’ That’s how Major T asked them to arrest me.”
The soldiers asked them both to give back the money his brother had taken from the Indian man. “I didn’t know,’ his mother had said. She was just a housewife. She knew nothing, her son knew nothing, she had cried over and over, begging for mercy. She did not receive any.
That was the last time he saw her. Now, Sesay and I turn a corner and come upon the gates of the Ascension Town Cemetery. Red-eyed boys, in their twenties or younger, lie on graves getting high. It could be a national park if one ignores the rather conspicuous tombstones lined in rows. “Friends of the Dead”, these boys are called here in Sierra Leone. Many of them were orphaned in the war. Four of them look up and make their way towards us. Up close, the smell of weed is strong. Sesay tells them what he’s looking for.
“January 6? We remember well-well,” the group leader, a dark, slim junkie, says. “Na, there they put them,” he points, motioning for Sesay to follow him. The group jumps over scores of disintegrating tombstones to get to the far eastern corner of the graveyard, and Sesay and I follow suit. Some of the tombstones have caved in and we can make out termite-ridden coffins. The boys clear a patch of land covered with shrubs with their hands.
Sesay is alive only because his boss had intervened and begged for his release. The Ecomog troops had listened to his boss because they knew him. In a cruel twist of fate, the boss and Sesay had driven Major T and some of his men around when they first arrived in Freetown. Sesay remembers pushing a stalled motorboat that carried Major T over from Lungi to Freetown when the troops began their offensive against the rebels. In a way, he says, he’d pushed his family’s killers closer to them.
His mother had not been so lucky. The leader of the gang of Friends of the Dead remembers Ecomog troops rounding up boys in the area after January 6 for burial duty. He’d been one of them, he says, as he motions to the cleared patch of land. Some of the bodies were still moving when they threw dirt over them, he tells Sesay in Krio. Some had been killed by the rebels and some, like Sesay’s family, had died at the hands of the soldiers. They were buried on this very spot, he says. Sesay shudders and bows his head.
Every Car or Movable Object Gone
The relationship between the Nigerian-led Ecomog troops and the locals in Freetown was strained. There were many innocent people who were wronged, Gyang admits now. But it was inevitable. “In fact,” he tells me, reflectively, “I know that most of the people captured were innocent, but that is war for you.”
The Ecomog troops were undoubtedly faced with a terrifying enemy, but there are clear cases of the soldiers turning against the very people they swore to protect in Sierra Leone and in Liberia.
Extrajudicial killings and torture was rife in Ecomog operations, according to reports by Human Rights Watch. The organisation documented executions of rebel suspects and sympathisers, including the killing of women and children. Ecomog troops were often manipulated by the local population to settle personal vendettas. Some people lied to get their neighbours in jail.
An Ecomog soldier inspects weapons seized from the Sierra Leone Armed Forces Revolutionary Council in 1998. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP)
A foreign face was automatically a rebel or a collaborator. Some soldiers were exceptionally brutal and the local population took note of them. The most notorious of these was Captain Evil Spirit. After the January 6 invasion, tempers flared on the side of Ecomog troops and that anger may have amplified already terrible human rights violations.
The resource curse in Sierra Leone did not help. Many people accused men from the Sierra Leonean army of parlaying with rebels to loot diamond mines and the homes of local townspeople and there were documented reports of Nigerian-led Ecomog troops doing the same.
Gyang saw that himself, he tells me. “I remember, we would free some places and soldiers would carry everything they see. They’d take diamonds and money.” The same was true in neighbouring Liberia, where Ecomog was renamed “Every Car or Movable Object Gone”.
When eyewitnesses spoke about human rights violations by Ecomog troops to Human Rights Watch, the dreaded Captain Evil Spirit almost always came up. The captain had paraded on 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 in mop-up exercises. Captain Evil Spirit conducted most of the executions; about 10 other officers under his command assisted to a lesser extent. The Kamajors, a local militia working with Ecomog, executed people too, although less frequently.
Tracing what happened to Captain Evil Spirit after his time in Sierra Leone is difficult. The captain had been recalled some time during the war. He’d been court martialed and possibly demoted, all in a very hush-hush manner, typical of the Nigerian military, says Gyang. There were rumours in the military that he’d died mysteriously after hitting an older, retired soldier. Gyang isn’t sure exactly why or how this happened, but it may be related to the allegations of crimes against humanity levelled against Captain Evil Spirit and included in the Human Rights Watch documents. (He’d been demoted to the post of pension officer and had hit one of the men he was attending to, Gyang says.)
There are other plausible accounts that say Captain Evil Spirit died after falling mentally ill. The soldiers had not received any special trauma counselling or psychological treatment before or after the war and many had likely been affected.
Sergeant Gyang is short on sympathy for Captain Evil Spirit. His usually relaxed demeanour changes when he hears the name, and he says coldly: “This, our uniform, doesn’t like dirt.” 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 stayed clean. If you stain the uniform, it will end you.
Gyang had come close to having a shootout with Captain Evil Spirit at the peak of the fighting. A superior had ordered Gyang to escort some locals to the ferry crossing: the group was fleeing into Guinea, where they would become refugees.
Captain Evil Spirit 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 now says incredulously. But Gyang says he was no pushover. “When they were coming close to me I fired them one shot.” Captain Evil Spirit hadn’t expected that and advanced himself. This time, Gyang shot another round close to his feet. That ended the standoff: Captain Evil Spirit retreated, and reported the private to a general.
Gyang believes Captain Evil Spirit’s end was poetic justice, whatever the real story was. Karma had quietly done its job.
We didn’t touch the peacekeepers
It was hard for Dato Shyamala Alagendra to get the boy out of her head. He was featured prominently in Cry Freetown, the documentary: a pitiable mute in a red vest, who was beaten within inches of his life by Ecomog troops who were convinced he was a rebel. It is for him that the human rights attorney is fighting authorities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone for the redress of human rights violations and war crimes committed by peacekeepers during the civil war.
Alagendra was a junior prosecutor with the Special Court for Sierra Leone set up jointly by the Sierra Leonean government and the UN in 2003. By the time President Tejan Kabbah declared the war over in January 2002, more than 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.
The court tried those most responsible for mass atrocities, human rights violations and war crimes. Rebel warlords and other warring factions, including the Kamajors, 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, who died before he faced a jail term. In 2013, Charles Taylor was jailed for 50 years for his role as the RUF’s main sponsor.
Ecomog soldiers remain the only armed group that did not face prosecution in the Special Court. It seemed odd to a younger Alagendra at the time that the court did not even consider putting Nigerian troops on trial. “The conduct of the peacekeepers 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,” she tells me.
Crimes against humanity committed by Ecomog troops may have been dismissed and swept under the rug for a reason: together with the United States and United Kingdom, Nigeria was one of the major funders of the court; and, as a key peace negotiator, was on the court’s management committee. So it is no surprise that the statute that created the Special Court ruled out the prosecution of peacekeeping troops, and by extension, Nigerian soldiers.
A general feeling of gratitude prevails though when I speak to Sierra Leoneans who were not directly affected by Ecomog brutality. Indeed, thousands of soldiers gave their lives to fight for Sierra Leone’s peace. They provided emergency care to wounded civilians on many occasions. When I told locals that I was from Nigeria, they often smiled and said, “Our big brothers”.
But even though the troops helped to bring peace and deserve accolades, Alagendra believes there must be accountability in some form. “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.”
In the years since the Special Court completed its mandate, Alagendra has helped to set up a school for children displaced in the conflict and has come in contact with victims of Ecomog abuse. Many spoke about rape and torture. She was particularly drawn to the phenomenon of “Ecomog babies”, thousands of children whose mothers were impregnated by peacekeepers, some through rape.
In present day Sierra Leone, there’s a social stigma that comes with being identified as an Ecomog baby. The children and their mothers are taunted and called names.
It’s not clear just how many mothers and children are in this situation. “Ecomog babies boku for here,” says Yeno*, a 33-year-old woman from Lungi. Yeno was pulled inside the Lungi base by a group of Nigerian Ecomog soldiers in 2000, a few years before the end of the war. Lungi houses the airport, and many soldiers were camped there for swift evacuation. Yeno became pregnant from the rape. She’s one of nine victims Alagendra for whom is seeking redress and reparations. Her daughter is now 20 years old, and she’s struggled with feeding and clothing her. “I join ashewo [sex work] because of it,” she says dispassionately.
Alagendra wants matters to move fast. She sued the government of Sierra Leone, with the support of the African Bar Association, last year. She is fighting for reparations, and to put some soldiers on trial. Alagendra cannot present the case directly to the Nigerian Supreme Court because of arguments about which nation’s jurisdiction Ecomog troops fell under. Gyang is strongly opposed to this action. “There’s no need for that,” he tells me angrily. “If you see the way they slaughtered us there, you will cry for Nigeria.” In fact, Gyang says, the Ecomog troops who fought and died bravely should be memorialised.
No healing without justice
It is unclear just how many Nigerian soldiers were deployed to the region or how many died. But by 1999, Nigerian troops made up 80% of the Ecomog force, with about 10 000 deployed in Liberia and 11 000 in Sierra Leone, and the country suffered the heaviest troop casualties.
Corinne Dufka, from Human Rights Watch, says the organisation welcomes efforts to pursue justice. But Dufka also acknowledges the conditions Nigerian troops were forced to survive in during the war. “I met Nigerian soldiers who’d been wounded and a few who’d been tortured by the RUF or seen fellow soldiers executed, but after hospitalisation in Nigeria, they were re-deployed to Sierra Leone, and to the field of operations.” That, of course, is not an excuse for indiscipline, Dufka says, but rather a pointer to the mental conditions of Ecomog troops at the time.
Alagendra hopes the two states will take up the case. The Sierra Leonean government has been as tight-lipped as the Nigerian government. President Julius Maada Bio himself was involved in the conflict.Although he has been progressive on some fronts — reforming education, and condemning violence against women — Bio has been silent on the subject of Ecomog’s excesses.
Sierra Leoneans deserve better, Alagendra says. “Victims of [rebel groups] 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.”
Alagendra is taking on the case pro bono, because she feels strongly for victims such as Sesay, who has become popular locally for being featured in Cry Freetown, which is broadcast every year on national TV; and yet, Alagendra marvels, its victims are ignored, despite their trauma. Sesay’s children have learned to avoid the TV every time the documentary is played, he tells me, as we walk out of the 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 Sesay believes it’s his duty to give his mother’s soul, and the souls of all those whose lives were cut so abruptly, those whose spirits remain unsung, some peace.
* Names changed or redacted.
This story was published by the Mail & Guardian and Nigeria’s Premium Times, with support from the Tiger Eye Foundation