Did the Nigerian Army Actually Succeed in Ending the Liberian and Sierra-Leonean Civil Wars?

For the referenced version of this article, click here.

Just how true is the often heard claim that the Nigerian army brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone?

Soldiers stand in front of the Remembrance Arcade during a military ceremony to honour Nigerian war heroes in Lagos 15/01/2011. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters)
Soldiers stand guard during a military ceremony to honour war heroes (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Boko Haram’s five-year long insurgency shows no sign of abating. With the group now seemingly capable of seizing and holding territory, questions over the military’s competence have grown louder. To rescue the army’s wounded pride our military and political leaders often point to what they claim is the army’s “stellar credentials” in bringing peace to war ravaged countries. The ECOMOG missions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone in the 1990s, which the Nigerian military led, is often presented as the prime exemplar of the army’s competence in combat. I've lost count of how many times I've heard something like “our boys brought peace to Liberia and Sierra-Leone” whenever questions are raised over the badly mishandled war against Boko Haram. But just how true is this claim?

Nigeria’s commitment to restore peace and stability to the two West African countries was undoubtedly commendable – about $8 billion allegedly spent on the missions; up to 12,000 soldiers deployed; and approximately 1,500 killed-in-action, including Brigadier General Maxwell Khobe. By most estimates Nigeria provided 90 percent of the funding and about 80 percent of the total troops for both ECOMOG missions. This praiseworthy commitment notwithstanding, the fact is the military’s interventions in Liberia and Sierra-Leone failed to dampen the civil wars that ravaged those two countries.

 Brief background on Nigeria’s ECOMOG Interventions


The civil war that destroyed Liberia lasted eight gruelling years, 1989-1997. The human toll of the conflict was shattering. Out of a pre-war population of 2.5 million, 200,000 – mostly civilians – would die, and 1.5 million would be scattered into neighbouring countries as destitute refugees.

On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor crossed into Liberia from Cote d’Ivoire with 168 armed fighters. Calling themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), their stated aim was to overthrow Samuel Doe; the country’s dictator who had himself seized power in a bloody coup in 1980. The ranks of Taylor’s rebels rapidly swelled in number. Doe’s repressive and brutal decade long rule meant a significant section of the country was already seething with discontent by the time of Taylor’s incursion. The Liberian army, long crippled by decades of corruption, ethnic favouritism, and political manipulation buckled in the face of this motley band of ill-disciplined, Libyan trained, international rebel force (the nucleus of the NPFL reportedly consisted of mercenaries from an assortment of West African countries including Burkina Faso, Sierra-Leone, Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire – many of whom had received rudimentary training in Libya).

As the NPFL raced to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, they butchered civilians along the way – especially targeting Doe’s ethnic kinsmen and other ethnic groups they believed had done well under Doe. By the end of July 1990, the Liberian state had practically collapsed. With roughly 90 percent of the country under Taylor’s control, with Doe besieged in his Presidential residence, and with the NPFL and other ethnic militias having free rein in the capital, a generalized state of insecurity prevailed in the country. The Western Powers however, showed scant interest in the tragedy unfolding in Liberia; leaving West African states to scramble a sub-regional response.

In May 1990 at the behest of Babangida, Nigeria’s military ruler at the time, a five-member Standing Mediation Committee (SMC) comprising Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Mali, and Togo had been formed within ECOWAS to negotiate a political resolution to the crisis. Several rounds of mediation however produced no tangible results. Charles Taylor felt he was on the cusp of military victory; hence he had little incentive to commit to any political settlement that may have resulted in a power sharing arrangement. Under diplomatic pressure from Nigeria, the SMC recommended the deployment of a sub-regional peacekeeping force to intimidate the warring parties back to the negotiating table.

On the 7th of August, ECOWAS established ECOMOG – the sub-regional force that was to enforce a ceasefire – initially comprising troops from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, and Sierra-Leone. On the 24th of August, the ECOMOG troops were inserted into Liberia: 3,000 initially, rapidly augmented to 6,000 within a month. ECOMOG forces would eventually peak at 16,000 in 1993, before tapering off to around 11,000 by early 1997. Nigeria, however, dominated the force – providing both the overall commander and between 75-80 percent of the total troops. Thus began Nigeria’s quest to pacify Liberia.


It didn’t take long for the Liberian conflict to spill into Sierra-Leone. Sierra-Leone was a troop contributor to the ECOMOG mission in Liberia – with about 700 troops – and it had been a strong supporter of Nigeria’s muscular approach to the Liberian crisis. Sierra-Leone’s only international airport also served as the Nigerian military’s primary staging post for operations in Liberia. Charles Taylor therefore, keen to exact his revenge, facilitated the creation of a Sierra-Leonean rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In March 1991, the RUF invaded Sierra-Leone from Liberia – igniting a brutal civil war that would consume the country for the next eleven years. By 2002 when the war ended, 50, 000 civilians had perished and 2.5 million people had either become internally displaced or had fled to neighbouring countries.

The RUF incursion prompted calls within Sierra-Leone for the redeployment of the country’s ECOMOG contingent for internal security duties at home. But Babangida, keen to blunt perceptions of ECOMOG being a Nigerian show (there was already considerable disquiet within West African capitals over Nigeria’s overwhelming dominance within ECOMOG), offered to deploy 1,200 Nigerian troops instead in return for Sierra-Leone’s continued commitment to ECOMOG’s Liberia mission.

Nigerian policy however was limited to bolstering the security of the capital city, Freetown. This insulated Nigerian soldiers from direct participation in the escalating civil war ravaging the countryside. Events in May 1997 would finally drag Nigeria into the Sierra-Leonean vortex.

Much like Liberia, Sierra-Leone had suffered decades of predatory rule which had caused state institutions, including the military, to decay to the point of collapse. By the mid-90s, Sierra-Leone resembled a “phantom state” devoid of any institutional capacity and utterly dependent on others to preserve its territorial integrity. Nigerian forces protected its capital from being overrun by the RUF, while a South African mercenary firm and a tribal militia made up of local hunters battled the rebel threat in the countryside.

On the 25th of May 1997, taking advantage of the departure of the mercenary firm – their contract had been terminated in January by President Tejan Kabbah following international pressure – and barely one year into the country’s nascent democracy – Kabbah had only been elected the year before – a handful of semi-literate corporals and sergeants calling themselves the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) seized power in a coup d’état. Announcing their intention to bring an end to the civil war, they invited the rebels to come and join them in a coalition government. Given such a dramatic turn of events, Nigeria, being the Kabbah government’s protecting power, simply couldn’t allow such a humiliating affront to go unchallenged.

After an initially botched attempt to retake Freetown and reinstall Kabbah’s government on the 2nd of June; Nigeria reinforced its forces in the bits of the capital it still controlled, worked to diplomatically isolate the AFRC/RUF regime, and with UN backing imposed a naval and air blockade on Sierra-Leone - all in a bid to force the usurpers from power. With the AFRC/RUF regime proving recalcitrant and unwilling to yield to these pressures however, Nigeria’s patience finally snapped. On the 6th of February 1998, in a well-coordinated assault lasting about a week, Nigerian forces dislodged the AFRC/RUF regime and expelled the rebels from Freetown. The victory was nothing short of stunning. Buoyed by triumphalism, the victorious soldiers were ordered to pursue the RUF into the hinterland and militarily defeat them. Thus began Nigeria’s quest to pacify Sierra-Leone.

Why Intervene and Did It Succeed?

Why Intervention?

Babangida initially hoped to achieve two objectives by sending Nigerian troops into Liberia: Force the warlords to commit to a political settlement, and contain the conflict from spreading to neighbouring countries. When it became clear that Taylor’s ambition of seizing state power for himself was the biggest obstacle to peace, two new objectives gradually took shape: Crippling Taylor’s war machine, and blocking his ascent to the Liberian Presidency. The reasoning being that with Taylor’s military machine broken and his ambition frustrated, he would be more likely to commit to a political solution.

In Sierra-Leone however, Abacha, Nigeria’s then military ruler, initially had a limited objective when he authorised Nigeria's direct intervention in the country’s civil war: Overturning the May 1997 coup and reinstating Kabbah to power. After Nigerian troops routed the rebels in February 1998 and restored Kabbah’s government, perhaps flushed with the impressive victory, a new objective emerged: Defeating the RUF and pacifying the entire country. There was also a secondary objective which led Abacha to opt for intervention. In the 1990s Nigeria was under limited sanctions due to Abiola’s incarceration and the hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and his colleagues. Therefore to improve the battered image of his regime and stave off the threat of more stringent sanctions, Abacha, a military dictator at home, decided on military intervention to safeguard a fledgling democracy abroad.

A further implicit reason which powerfully shaped Babangida’s and Abacha’s decisions to commit Nigerian troops in Liberia and Sierra-Leone has been attributed to a deep-rooted belief, shared by most Nigerians, in the country’s destiny as West Africa’s leading power. The interventions were therefore meant to demonstrate that Nigeria could police its turbulent neighbourhood and shape the security environment of the sub-region.

Did the Interventions Succeed?

Geopolitically, the interventions improved Nigeria’s image. The attempts to pacify Liberia and Sierra-Leone through the near unilateral use of military power enhanced Nigeria’s claim to sub-regional leadership. Many commentators saw the country’s leading role in ECOMOG as an indication that Anglophone West Africa finally possessed what the Francophone sphere had in France for decades: A hegemon with the power and resolve to stabilise weak regimes and reverse the tide of collapse in failing states. Without Nigeria’s diplomatic and political leadership, and military and financial commitment, the ECOMOG missions to Liberia and Sierra-Leone would have never gotten off the ground. The geopolitical achievement however, should not obscure the fact that Nigeria failed in its political and military objectives.


Nigerian artillerymen in action in Liberia (Patrick Robert/Corbis)

In Liberia, all four objectives of (1) forcing the warlords to durably commit to a political settlement, (2) containing the conflict from spreading, (3) crippling Taylor’s war-machine, and (4) denying him the presidency were not achieved. On the first objective, while many peace agreements were signed, the agreements merely bought the warlords time to recuperate for the next round of fighting. Hence, each failed not long after being signed. On the second objective, the spread of the Liberian conflict into Sierra-Leone put paid to that hope. On the third and fourth objectives, Nigerian forces was neither able to decisively break Taylor’s war-making resolve, nor perpetually frustrate his ascent to the Liberian presidency. In fact Nigeria, recognising it couldn’t militarily defeat Taylor, eventually reconciled itself to a Taylor presidency.

Abacha, who came to power in 1993 and therefore inherited Babangida’s Liberia mission, reportedly didn’t share the same antipathy that Babangida had for Taylor. The lack of personal animosity between the two men paved the way for Taylor’s visit to Nigeria to meet with Abacha in June 1995 to settle differences. This rapprochement eventually culminated in Taylor’s election to the Presidency in 1997 with Nigerian acquiescence – thereby bringing an end to Liberia’s first civil war. Many observers were left wondering what exactly had been achieved: Taylor was exactly where he would likely have been seven years ago without ECOMOG’s intervention. Taylor himself, commenting on the outcome, wryly observed: “If we had been allowed to win on the battlefield, we would have finished the war in six months in 1990”.

This peace however would prove illusory. Within a year of his coming to power, Taylor, citing sovereignty concerns, told ECOMOG to leave. And within two years, his repressive rule would eventually plunge Liberia into another civil war which would last four years, 1999-2003. Abandoned by former allies and faced with encirclement by two rebel armies, Taylor finally relinquished power in August 2003. If anything, it is the outcome of this second war that is the source of Liberia’s current peace. And Nigeria played absolutely no military role in it – save for sending peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire which concluded the war. So the notion that the Nigerian army won the Liberian civil war and brought peace to the country is simply false.


Nigerian reinforcements arriving in Freetown, Sierra-Leone (Getty Images)

The army’s efforts in Sierra-Leone were met with similar disappointment. The main objective of defeating the RUF was not achieved. In fact reading Brigadier Adeshina’s (rtd) The Reversed Victory, one gets the distinct impression that Nigerian forces came within a hair’s breadth of strategic defeat.

After dislodging the rebels from Freetown and restoring Kabbah’s government in February 1998, Nigerian troops met with initial success as they probed deeper into Sierra-Leone to seek out and destroy the RUF. As the troops advanced, the rebels melted before them. In April, Kono District, the main diamond producing centre and the country’s economic nerve-centre, fell to Nigerian troops. Many other cities similarly fell to Nigerian troops – often after a token defence by retreating RUF forces. Outright military victory seemed imminent. What was happening however, as has been chronicled by Lansana Gberie, a leading scholar on Sierra-Leone’s civil war, was that the RUF “avoided confrontation” with Nigerian troops during this phase. Having been badly mauled earlier in the Freetown battle, the rebels instead retreated to their forest redoubts to rejuvenate and rebuild their shattered force. And the Nigerian army, lacking in “counterinsurgency training, failed to pursue the rebels to their hideouts, preferring conventional assaults against towns”. 

As the rebel strength recovered, their attacks on Nigerian positions increased in intensity and frequency – first only hitting isolated outposts with hit-and-run attacks, eventually mutating into conventional assaults on supposedly well dug-in Nigerian positions. By October, the momentum had palpably shifted in favour of the RUF. In December, now with the wind in their sails, the rebels mounted a lighting month-long offensive which saw them reconquer the northern and eastern portions of the country. According to Brigadier Adeshina, so total was Nigeria’s collapse in the north and the east that in some sectors the rebels captured strategically vital towns “without firing a shot while pursuing our boys”.

On the 6th of January 1999, just under a year after they were forcibly dislodged from the capital, the RUF stormed Freetown again, intent on reconquering it. In a bruising battle lasting just under a month, Nigerian troops managed to expel the rebels and reassert control over the capital city. As the rebels retreated, leaving carnage in their wake, the belief that Nigeria could win a decisive military victory on the Sierra-Leonean battlefield evaporated.

Lansana Gberie perfectly captures the surprise which many felt at the revival in the RUF’s military power, particularly as it was believed they were on their backs just a couple of months ago: “The spectacular resurgence in rebel activities caused much bewilderment. How was it that a group that had been routed from power without much resistance, that had seen its control of nearly 70 percent of the country reduced to scattered and isolated parts of northern and eastern Sierra-Leone, and had been all but pronounced dead, resurge with such power and destructiveness?”

The Sierra-Leonean President who, during Nigeria’s early successes, had initially resisted calls for a political settlement to the civil war bowed to reality. He signed a controversial peace agreement with the rebels in July 1999 which granted them blanket immunity and cabinet positions – the leader of the RUF was made Vice President and minister of natural resources. The UN was called in to monitor the newly agreed ceasefire and co-administer with ECOMOG the disarming and demobilisation of the rebels.

This proved a false dawn. The RUF, rather than disarm and demobilise as per the peace agreement, instead harassed UN peacekeepers – in many cases stripping them of their weapons, and occasionally holding them hostage. Concluding that the UN peacekeepers and ECOMOG forces were too weak and demoralised to confront them, in May 2000 the RUF massed for yet another assault on Freetown. The deployment of British troops finally stabilized the volatile situation, and forced the rebels to disarm and demobilise. This was what created the condition for durable peace to return to Sierra-Leone.

Commenting on the outcome of Nigeria’s intervention, Gberie delivers this withering verdict: “Almost every observer concluded, after the January 1999 attack on Freetown, that the Nigerian-led ECOMOG force had failed, and failed disastrously. And no one failed to notice that it was the robust presence of the British troops that prevented the total collapse of the UN mission and a relapse into violence”. In reality, though a highly commendable effort, Nigeria's ECOMOG-led mission to Sierra-Leone failed to quell the civil war and restore peace to the broken country.

The less than impressive outcomes in Liberia and Sierra-Leone, and the current challenges in the fight against Boko Haram, underscore the urgent need for comprehensive military reform.

For me the most important lesson to be drawn from the ECOMOG missions is the urgent need for comprehensive and far-reaching reforms of the military. For anyone familiar with the military’s operational history, the current failures in the fight against Boko Haram will come as no surprise. For example, many of the deficiencies which hampered the effective use of military power in Liberia and Sierra-Leone – lack of combat readiness, poor planning, command failure, obsolete weaponry, supply shortages, corruption etc. – have also blunted the military’s operational effectiveness against Boko Haram.  If the same maladies that afflicted the military in combat operations twenty odd years ago still characterise its operations today, this tells me that the organisational rot in the armed forces is deep and pervasive. Without looking at the military’s operational history objectively, we will never recognise the need for urgent military reforms. And without comprehensive military reforms Nigeria will always struggle to deploy effective military power, whether abroad or at home. 


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