Gen. Shagaya’s death is a wake-up call for the region to preserve the achievements of its brave soldiers, writes Ben Asante

One after the other, Nigeria is gradually losing some of its finest regional military heroes. The demise of Brig. Gen. John Nanzip Shagaya, which occurred only last month in a ghastly motor accident, is another unfortunate addition to the pile. Sadly, it appears that the regional institution, ECOWAS, which they served in various capacities, has made little effort to set up an institutional framework for preserving the memory of their gallant services to the region.

This week alone families and friends of two former ECOMOG Commanders, Brigadier-Generals Timothy Mai Shelpidi and Shagaya are burying them under very sad circumstances. Gen. Shelpidi commanded ECOMOG when the group routed AFRC/RUF rebels from Freetown and restored the elected Kabbah government. A few years ago he survived an armed robbery attacked but recently the cold hands of death came calling.

First among the former ECOMOG Field Commanders who passed away was Gen. Rufus Kupolati. He died in a car accident in Abuja after returning home to Nigeria. The next person, who died, following a short ailment believed to have been caused by shrapnel injury while leading his troops in Sierra Leone, was Brig. Gen. Maxwell Khobe. Khobe commanded the 221 tank battalion on its long march to capture Liberia’s second largest city, Buchanan, from rebel forces. He later became more noted for his heroic march from Lungi airport to liberate Freetown city from RUF rebels’control. Brig.Gen. John Inienger came next in the line of ECOMOG Commanders to suffer untimely death while travelling through Jos to his hometown in Benue state. Then came the death of Brig. Gen. Abdul One, the former Nigerian Contingent Commander in Liberia.

Brig. Gen. Bakut died nearly two years ago. He was next in the succession of commanders who took charge of ECOMOG in a rather difficult period of ‘no peace, no war’ in which his soldiers ended up being taken hostages by rebels.

To many, including the military establishment the death of the no nonsense Commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Victor Leo Malu last year, was a major blow. Malu twice served in Liberia, first as Chief of Staff and head of the Nigerian contingent when, in 1992, ECOMOG had to enforce the peace in the Octopus war launched by Taylor’s rebel NPFL force. Serving under Brig. Gen. Adetunji Olurin, Malu succeeded in beating back rebel fighters and bringing large areas of Liberia under the control of ECOMOG. Gen. Malu died last year coincidentally on the eve of the recent elections in Liberia. As the substantive Field Commander, Gen. Malu had supervised the post war general and presidential elections under which Liberia transitioned from the civil war to an elected government.

Gen. Shagaya’s death is not only untimely but a wake-up call for the region to preserve the gallant achievements of brave soldiers. Gen. Shagaya was a professional soldier with a chequered career and at different times held political posts as minister of interior of the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida and also serving as a member of the ruling Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). After a sudden retirement he adapted to a life of politics, getting elected as a senator and a community leader, among his people.

I first met Gen. Shagaya in 1992 as part of a team of news correspondents trying to get back to our office in London after the erstwhile OAU summit hosted by Nigeria. We had to catch connecting flight in Lagos but the Abuja runway had unfortunately been closed due to some problems with the Egyptian presidential aircraft. However, a special flight ordered by Gen. Shagaya, then the minister of interior, was expected. One of my colleagues approached Gen. Shagaya and asked if our group could catch a ride. Given the chaotic situation at the packed airport he was trying to evacuate people from, Shagaya asked my colleague, with a stern expression: “Has anybody ever lost his mind on you?” Not long after, he discovered that our group had been on duty in Abuja and needed to get back to work. He instructed that we be airlifted.

The next time I came across Gen. Shagaya was in the ECOMOG mission area in Liberia. Shagaya, much like other commanders before him had come into an operation that, from its very beginning, had been plagued with several difficulties and intrigues that eventually necessitated a change of command with Gen. Joshua Dogonyaro coming in as Field Commander. Not many people are aware that the ECOMOG mission almost got aborted even before the Armada of warships set sail from the staging post in Freetown due to command and control problems. For example, political expediency in Guinea meant that no officer on the Guinean contingent was above the rank of a colonel.

The rank of “general” was reserved only for the late President Lansana Conte. Gen. Abacha, then defence minister, was adamant that none of his brigadier generals would serve under Guinean colonels and was prepared to order them back home.

When ECOMOG eventually took off, General Dogonyaro, Olurin and Shagaya showed such strength of character that terrified the rebel groups fighting for spoils of political power. The Liberia war was not without complexities. There were undefined battle lines, and internecine conflicts driven by personal political ambitions. Various commanders, including General Shagaya, relied on few correspondents with knowledge about Liberia. Renowned war correspondent, Lindsay Barrett, and I saw Gen. Shagaya a number of times and often accompanied him on missions in the short time he commanded the ECOMOG. On one of such missions when Gen. Shagaya had travelled to the war front with chiefs of troops from contributing countries to discuss plans for disarmament an unexpected dispatch came in from Abuja that he had been retired and withdrawn as Field Commander by the Abacha government.

We returned to the base to meet groups of officers and men who had besieged his quarters bitter that the general had been disgraced while serving the country abroad. Gen. Shagaya, not ruffled and speaking in his usually distinct voice, asked the group to calm down. He said, “When I signed to join the army I knew that there were three exit points along the trajectory. I would serve to the rightful age of retirement, I could lose my life in an operation or I could be dismissed all of a sudden. All these three I am aware off.” As prescient as those words may be, General Shagaya’s death, barely a year after his wife passed away, remains a major shock for those who knew him.

The memories of the men and officers who served in ECOMOG and the many who gave their lives are insulted by the lack of recognition of their service. To this day, there are no Cenotaphs for those who lost their lives in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Asante is veteran journalist