ECOMOG: Dirtier Than a Lie

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective

February 20, 2001

Much as I would like to give more credit to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for sending the military expedition called Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) into Liberia in 1990 to stop its civil war, I must hesitate in awarding some credits. The string of disasters resulting from the ECOMOG military servicemen's susceptibility to bribes and other woes underwritten by low morale, absence of measurable morality, and any number of demerits make the force dangerous on to itself without it been thrown into the mix of other conflicts. Some of the appalling acts of the ECOMOG soldiers may not be premeditated crimes, but the spontaneity with which these acts were committed seems to make them a natural part of the soldiers' collectively defective character. If they stopped stealing today, they would still be terrible soldiers, but only half as bad as thieves.

Yet I see no acknowledgement of these problems by the ECOMOG high command or the ECOWAS secretariat. This is why there is no current debate about how to tame the intervention force so that, at the very least, they do not aggravate any situation they may be dispatched to contain. There seems to be no administrative device in the ECOWAS system for triggering investigation of bad conduct from within. That's why each time ECOMOG soldiers went on a looting outing in Liberia or Sierra Leone, they returned safely to their bases without risking any censure for the bounties to returned with.

During the Liberian operation, stealing became such a habit for the average ECOMOG soldier that theft replaced restoration of order as ECOMOG's mission. At some point, Liberians had to find some balance in the whole mess as reason for putting up with the putrid ECOMOG. Monrovia residents watched their cars and refrigerators being loaded onto ships bound for Nigeria, and thanked God that at least their houses were not burned down. At that time the search for valuables worth shipping home became a time-consuming task ahead of peacekeeping for the average ECOMOG soldier.

It can be argued that once a thief, always a thief, but then what about the negotiating table which called for civilian administrators who were not pressed by the need for mere survival? Well, for that there was a separate breed of crooks who met with then rebel leader Charles Taylor ahead of each negotiating session for instructions on what the deal would be. ECOMOG therefore was not much better on the negotiating table, because of what often passed under the table.

It is believed that Charles Taylor also kept some higher up ECOMOG military personnel on his payroll from the money he earned from his diamond operations in Sierra Leone. When ULIMO leader Roosevelt Johnson replicated the Taylor operations in the part of Bomi County under ULIMO-J control, some ECOMOG servicemen, true to their crooked disposition, showed up to try to muscle Johnson out of the way to work the area for diamonds. But, Johnson, fed up with ECOMOG's criminal conducts and seemingly insatiable appetite for Liberian wealth, engaged the squad of ECOMOG solders in a battle, killing more than half a dozen and stripping the rest of the defeated and retreating soldiers of their equipment and provisions.

Because the engagement took place so close to Monrovia and the international media, the defeat of the ECOMOG in that battle brought much shame to Nigeria ­ enough that Johnson became a target of the disgraced ECOMOG command structure. But there was no amount of ECOMOG shame that a big enough bribe would not smooth over.

Liberia somehow survived both the war and ECOMOG, although in a much terrible shape. But the experiment is not worth repeating without investigating why ECOMOG soldiers were left in the battlefields to scrounge for themselves as they did in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is why I agree with those who question the wisdom of placing yet another hungry ECOMOG brigade in the diamond-rich areas on which Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea converge.

ECOMOG soldiers always disgraced themselves first before they would begin to disgrace those they were deployed to help. How long did Lieutenant-General Arnold Quainoo remain in his post as ECOMOG commander in Liberia before he surrendered his headquarters to Prince Johnson, a known warlord, to slaughter the Samuel Doe presidential party he was hosting? He had been in Liberia fewer than three weeks. He arrived in Liberia in mid-August 1990. On September 10, 1990, General Quainoo was holed up at the fortified ECOMOG base in the Port of Monrovia, waiting for his ship to come in to take him home to his native Ghana. He probably had no plans for keeping warring factions apart, and perhaps felt he might lose his life to another mistake of similar magnitude.

Gen. Quainoo's departure was followed by a half dozen fire-breathing Nigerian commanders in successive order. But each was compromised by either bribes or the structural ineptitude that was evident before he arrived. All this never prompted any soul searching in ECOWAS. But if we Africans don't talk about these failures, some poor white man is going to venture to broach the subject and therefore ­ though needlessly ­ incur our wrath and a litany of our gifts to civilization.

We Africans should be much richer for having made this many mistakes. But we have denied ourselves the benefits of each error because we often don't investigate our failures. This is why, for the foreseeable future, ECOMOG will remain the rough equivalent of a lie. So, if you don't think that the truth is trouble enough, try ECOMOG which, for now, is dirtier than a lie.

For subscription information, go to:
or send e-mail to: