- Published on Monday, 15 October 2012 10:21
- Written by T. Michael Johnny
It is exactly 20 years (October 15, 1992), since Liberian dissidents backed by mercenaries operating under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) headed by ex-president Charles Ghankay Taylor, now sentenced to 50 years in prison launched what was widely known as “Operation Octopus” in his bid to overrun Monrovia and install the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG).
The infamous operation Octopus which lasted nearly 120 days reportedly sparked-off after series of harsh and unfavorable political and economic exchanges from interim President Amos C. Sawyer on one hand, ex-president Charles Taylor, and the former leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) Prince Yormie Johnson, now senior Senator of his native Nimba County at the other end.
Before the launch of the deadly and calamity filled “Operation Octopus,” Charles Taylor, the once feared and ruthless rebel leader had 90% of the country under his aggressive military control as hordes of gun totting youthful rebels’ masquerades in towns and villages’ spreading Taylor’s proclaimed vision, perceived empire and ideology.
However, despite the cruel murder of the late Samuel Kanyon Doe on September 10, 1990 at the hands of Prince Johnson, remnants of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) continued skirmishes with the NPFL at the outskirts of Monrovia, while a breakaway INPFL faction of Prince Johnson also captured and maintained their presence at Bushrod Island, Caldwell (INPFL Base) and other surrounding towns and villages.
The death of ex-president Doe, who was widely viewed as the first indigenous leader created power vacuum and regional leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), convened an emergency meeting in Bangul, Gambia, where an interim government was set up led by University Professor Amos C. Sawyer.
Rather desperate for state power and wealth, Charles Taylor’s NPFL constituted a parallel government in 1991 known and styled as “Alternative National Administration” (the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government - NPRAG) based in Gbarnga, Bong County in central Liberia.
Taylor's authority as self-proclaimed head of the NPRAG was, however, challenged by a breakaway faction, known as the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), led by Prince Yormie Johnson, whose troops, estimated to number less than 500, rapidly gained control of parts of central Monrovia.
The legitimacy of Amos Sawyer’s regime was persistently challenged by Charles G. Taylor and Prince Y. Johnson purportedly based on economic, financial and military gains as Taylor had claimed legitimacy to the Presidency because he controlled more than 90% of the country at the time.
Seemingly, on the flip side, some financial and military experts suggested that interim president Amos C. Sawyer and the former INPFL leader Prince Johnson were at loggerheads due to the interim government’s decision to change the coins introduced by the late president Samuel K. Doe to “Liberty notes.”
Cogent tales revealed in Monrovia hinted that Prince Y. Johnson had systematically looted thousands, if not millions of coins from an undisclosed banks and institutions and stockpiled it at his Caldwell base.
Charles Taylor named his captured territories as “Greater Liberia” or more militarily “Rebel Line” and both rebel leaders refused to transact commercial activities in the “Liberty notes” introduced by Amos C. Sawyer, which they argued was “illegal and unconstitutional.” Both men refused to recognize the legitimacy of Amos Sawyer and his new bank notes in their controlled areas.
On October 15, 1992, the NPFL launched 'Operation Octopus' which was repulsed by combined ECOMOG, Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) forces.
Taylor's NPFL enjoyed the active backing of Libya, Côte d'Ivoire and Burkina Faso, especially in the early years of the war. Popular support within Liberia helped the group expand from an initial force numbering in the low hundreds to a large irregular army which occupied around 80 percent of the country in less than a year.
Taylor’s NPFL anxiety to capture the capital city of Monrovia in early 1990s leading to the failed operation octopus in October 1992 were thwarted by the arrival of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) cease-fire monitoring group, ECOMOG.
As ECOMOG's nuptial was over and its novelty evaporated following an edgy ceasefire, Liberians perception varied, Sawyer's Interim National Government appreciated its efforts, but the NPFL saw it as an attempt to rescue the discredited Doe regime having struggled so hard to overthrow Doe. Taylor was particularly opposed to Nigerian domination in ECOMOG and its support for Doe's forces in the early stages of the conflict.
However, NPFL's opposition to ECOMOG varied according to its relationship with respective Field Commanders. NPFL had a relatively better relationship with Rufus Kupolati, Ishaya Bakut and John Shagaya than with Joshua Dongoyaro and Adetunji Olurin.
While the latter had individual styles that did not endear them to the NPFL, there were also military reasons for hatred. Dongoyaro by re-establishing law and order in Monrovia had frustrated the NPFL's attempt to seize control in late 1989, and later Olurin repulsed the NPFL bid (Operation Octopus) to takeover Monrovia in October 1992.
Soon after ECOMOG established its presence in Monrovia, tension between Charles Taylor and the intervening forces led to outbreaks of violence. After the change of command from Ghana to Nigeria, ECOMOG's position hardened as ECOMOG "peacekeepers" confronted and fought Taylor's NPFL from several fronts.
As “bad-blood” between ECOMOG and NPFL rages, a new armed faction emerged, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), comprising supporters of the late President Samuel Doe. It controlled the two counties of Cape Mount and Bomi on the border with Sierra-Leone, and was led by Alhaji Kromah, a former Minister in the Doe government.
This development reduced the prospects of establishing a Liberia-wide interim government and complicated the already tangled web of opposing interests. In due course, it would also resuscitate clan rivalries that had been dormant during the onset of the civil crisis in 1989.
The cadence of violence between NPFL and ECOMOG troops increased in October 1992when NPFL launched an attack on ECOMOG positions in Monrovia. A well planned pincer movement was to meet up in the urban fringe with the intention of dislodging the interventionist forces and take over the capital, Monrovia.
The "peacekeepers" were surprised and the advance reached the edge of the city generating in its wake a string of atrocities and summary executions. After urgent calls for reinforcements the attack was successfully contained and then NPFL was thrown back. The most significant lesson that emerged from the failure of "Octopus" was that ECOMOG had the capability to take on and defeat the Liberian factions, in particular the NPFL in a conventional operation. To achieve this, ECOMOG abandoned the restraint and conciliatory approach associated with conflict resolution.
In their tough fight to reestablish a hold on Monrovia, they had used powerful and indiscriminate weapon systems against the NPFL and any civil installations where Taylor's fighters sheltered. ECOMOG's impartiality was lost, despite their efforts in the post Cotonou phases of the peace process, an open hearted relationship was established between the Nigerian elements and NPFL.
With these advantages and with some residual bitterness that the Nigerians had twice thwarted their bids to seize Monrovia, it was to be expected that the NPFL arrived at the peace talks with the aim of reducing the Nigerian domination of ECOMOG. For their part the Nigerians, with their experience of previous UN inter-positional operations could see that ECOMOG faced a 'no-win situation'.
They were not militarily strong enough to subjugate more than a fraction of greater Liberia, but their future as a credible instrument of a peace process was now seriously compromised after months of hard fighting against the NPFL.
ECOMOG needed to change their role and status from adversary to mediator. This was achieved by the intervention of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) who widened political dimension of ECOMOG by arranging troops from Uganda and Tanzania to be included.
As a result, Taylor appeared to have won a major concession and IGNU, in a weaker bargaining position with their fortunes tied to ECOMOG, was forced to make a number of concessions to placate the NPFL.
Although they had proposed that the executive branch of Government be made up of the Presidency to be held by nominees of the Interim Government and two Vice-Presidents representing NPFL and ULIMO, the NPFL insisted on a five-Member council of State, three of the Members of this Council to be nominated by the three parties and two others to be selected from a list of nine nominees through a process of consultation.
GNU's proposals to secure its authority during the interim process were not accepted. Perhaps ECOMOG seeking an exit from the impasse pressured Amos Sawyer to accommodate the NPFL proposals.
Within the Cotonou Agreement, ceasefire article appears to be the most important on which all subsequent articles relied for success. Under the agreement, the expanded ECOMOG and UN Observer team, UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) were to "supervise and monitor" its implementation.
ECOWAS and the United Nations were also mandated to impose military embargos on the warring factions creating a buffer zone, in effect sealing Liberia's borders to prevent cross-border attacks and importation of arms.
All sea and air ports of entry were also to be monitored. Violations of the cease-fire agreement included importation of arms and ammunition; attack against the positions of warring faction by another; and recruitment and training of combatants.
The ECOMOG peace-keeping force was expanded and theoretically became less Nigerian in its constituency with the addition of units from other ECOWAS Member States and troops from outside the West African sub-region.
In order to monitor the cease-fire prior to the arrival of ECOMOG and the United Nations observers (UNOMIL), a Joint Cease-fire Monitoring Committee was to be established comprising representatives from the three parties, ECOMOG and an advance team of the UN Observer Mission.
The absolute nature of ECOMOG's supervisory role was diminished by constant emphasis in the Agreement that all procedures of the peace process would be jointly observed and organized by UNOMIL. This should have encouraged the NPFL to submit themselves more readily to the conditions relating to disarmament and encampment.
The NPFL was particularly content to see that it incorporated the United Nations and reduced the authority of ECOMOG. IGNU, although losing some ground still felt satisfied concessions had been made to bring peace to the country.
Alhaji Kromah, on his part, must have considered his inclusion as recognition of the role his new movement could play in the future of the country. In Monrovia there was for a while an air of optimism generated by the successful conclusion of the agreement.
It was however a dangerous optimism which concealed unrequited political interests and among key officials fostered a myopia that encouraged some to ignore the possibility of the factions rekindling the terrible passions that long-standing rivalries would in due course unleash.
Although the prospects for a peaceful settlement were improving in Liberia, the majority of territory and real power still lay in the hands of the factions .At the signing of the Cotonou Agreement in July 1993 the country was divided into three factional areas respectively controlled by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) in close cooperation with ECOMOG, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO), and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
In a faction smaller sub units frequently formed, dispersed and reformed in new configurations, consequently command structures were largely ad hoc except for the key appointments. In reality the Liberian factions, in common with many so-called terrorist "armies", were made to seem much larger by the transient presence of local fighters whose status was decidedly part time.
A faction leader's power and ability to control could only be exercised downwards as far as his most reliable field commanders. Beyond that limit at a local level gangs of youths that made up a field commander's "unit" responded unreliably to orders, perhaps because they were out of contact, but more likely because their immediate concern was focused on local issues and survival needs.
The NPFL was estimated to have around 25,000 combatants and has orchestrated a wide range of human rights abuses including massacres, torture, kidnapping and a number of political assassinations. In addition to the war in Liberia, the rebel group reportedly sponsored Revolutionary United Front (RUF) subversion against the military government in Sierra Leone, partly as a strategy to gain control of the local trade in diamonds
Prior to the failed operation octopus, most of the country’s infrastructural was intact even after ex-president Samuel Doe was slain; electricity was still been supplied, and pipe borne water was intermittently supplied under the watchful eyes of fighters then loyal to Prince Johnson.
However, the launch of operation octopus was devastating and dealt a huge damage to infrastructure as rebel fighters conducted themselves in a ruthless manner as if they were creators because they had ‘absolute’ command of lives….. They could kill at will, rape, loot and take civilians hostage.
More bizarrely, callous fighters shot at electrical poles, houses and other public and private properties which in no way challenged their quest to conquer territory. Notably rebel fighters from all the myriad rebel groups that participated in the Liberian conflict had no respect for private or public property during their onslaught.
With visible eyes, this writer (Then in High School at St. Mary’s Catholic, Duala, Monrovia) at his tender age recounted how several houses were burnt down by marauding rebels and just anything that was contested for; including houses, business centers and even banks.
To compound injury and spread destructions, these fighters sometimes burnt down houses they occupied when they were ready to advance to other territory and this evidently speaks succinctly of why high-end structures and whole villages were burnt down during the Liberian conflict.
According to corroborated reports, forces of Charles Taylor's NPFL are reported to have blown up the country's only Hydro Electric Power Plan in Mount Coffee when they launched the "Operation Octopus" on October 15, 1992 to complete their conquest of Liberia and install their leader as president of Liberia.
In their conquest, the rebels reportedly blew up the hydro plant to prevent residents of the capital Monrovia from enjoying electricity, which effect has paralyzed the country’s energy sector for nearly 20 years with even the culprits now living in perpetual darkness awaiting donor aid.
The rehabilitation of the Hydro Plant and restoration of electricity to Monrovia and other parts of Liberia have become a nightmare for the first elected post-war government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Indeed, due to the hike in the inflation rate and the attendant increase in the prices of commodities worldwide, it will cost the government more than 200 percent of what it spent in the 1960s to rehabilitate the hydro, lamented Finance Minister Amara Konneh during a tour of the hydro recently.
As a matter of fact, all public and private facilities, including houses were not left untouched. Vehicles that ventured into rebel territory were seized by fighters for 'operation'. In the same vein, vehicles found in any captured territory were seized and either sold or used for commercial purposes.
It became a norm for fighters to hunt for vehicles whenever they captured new territory. Banks were broken into and all monies found there looted. Indeed, the scale of destruction was so huge that it cannot be easily quantified in cents and dollars. Monrovia and other towns in Liberia were emptied of everything. Houses were either burnt down, or looted. War effected civilians who had no other source of livelihood joined the looting fray.
They looted the zinc on the roof-tops of private and public buildings and sold them. Tables, chairs and other household items were also not spared. Returnees everywhere had to rebuild houses before taking residence in them.
Indeed, October 15, 1992, was one of the worst day in Liberia with insurmountable damages that followed the quest for “Power and Wealth” at the behest of innocent lives…Be aware, war damages a nation and placed its citizens in hopelessness and despair, preach peace and tolerance for the future of the youths and generations yet unborn and save mama Liberia