A time when the armed forces in Africa were infamous for their penchant to interfere in politics, Malu distinguished himself as a professional icon. He led the 10-nation-strong force that liberated Liberia from the throes of a bloody civil war.
Even before the United States assembled the 30-nation “Allied Forces” against Iraq during the first Gulf war in 1991, with all the attendant controversies and uncertainties, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had demonstrated an international best practice in regional peace keeping operation in Liberia through its Military Monitoring Group, ECOMOG.
Nigeria provided the bulk of troops for the ECOMOG maiden mission with 10 journalists including this writer embedded in the regional force which landed with the Nigerian Naval War Ship (NNS AMBE) in Monrovia’s Freeport on 24 August 1990, to help end the civil war waged against then President Samuel Doe by Charles Taylor, ex-warlord now war crime convict serving time in Scotland.
That mission was under the command of Ghanaian General Arnold Quainoo, whose tenure was later marred by the controversy that surrounded Doe’s capture and eventual death at the hands of former rebel leader Prince Yormie Johnson, now a Liberian Senator.
The rest, they say, is now history, but a host of Nigerian generals were later to succeed Quainoo. The 8th ECOMOG Commander (1996-98) was General Samuel Victor Malu, who sadly passed away on 9 October at a Cairo, Egypt, hospital after a prolonged illness, aged 70.
The chronicle of international peace keeping operation may not be complete without a mention of General Malu, who at a time when the armed forces in Africa were rather reputed for their penchant to interfere in politics, distinguished himself as an icon among the endangered uniformed species.
In an interview he granted this writer in Monrovia in July 1997, shortly after Liberia’s elections won by Taylor, the stoutly-built infantry general was quick to point out that as a professional soldier he probably did not require diplomatese or the suavity of the politician to be an effective commander of the 10,500-strong regional troops with diverse backgrounds then under his command as ECOMOG Commander.
But Malu may have unwittingly combined those attributes and even more, especially a depth of talent, courage and professionalism in making the Liberian operation the acclaimed success it turned out to be. Ever exuding the tough aura of a general, Malu was, however, always modest in conceding that the campaign represented more than a personal success.
“It is a collective achievement,” said the man, who was nicknamed a “Frank General.” He said he owed “whatever achievement in Liberia during my tenure to the loyalty, commitment and dedication of the troops from diverse cultural backgrounds, the ECOWAS leaders, who sent ECOMOG to Liberia in 1990, and the international community for their support.”
On behalf of the government and people of Liberia, Ambassador Al-Hassan Contey in Abuja paid a glowing tribute to the Nigerian general, whose “pivotal efforts” he said, led to the resolution of the Liberian conflict.
“Gen. Malu led the (ECOMOG) Command at the critical juncture of the conflict in Liberia,” and “we express our deepest condolences to the Government and people of Nigeria and his family for this great loss,” the envoy said.
Similarly, Sierra Leone’s Acting High Commissioner to Nigeria, Maj.-Gen. Alfred Williams, who as commander of his country’s contingent to ECOMOG in Liberia from 1992 worked closely with Gen. Malu, described the late ECOMOG Commander as a “soldier’s soldier,” who was resolute, demonstrated “courage and leadership,” and “ensured fairness and equity for all.”
Like any mortal, Malu had his faults. Indeed, some rights groups probably might not have forgiven him for the military operation carried out in November 1999 at Ogoniland’s Odi town in Bayelsa State, during his tenure as Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff (1999-2001) under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, with whom Malu later fell out resulting in his being eased out of the military in April 2001.
Some might even consider Malu a lucky officer in the right place at the right time. But to Liberians and Liberia, which bestowed a national honour on him for liberating the country from a bloody rebellion, Malu was a godsend.
“Thank God for ECOMOG, thank God for Malu,” is a common refrain in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, even as Africa’s oldest republic struggles to consolidate democracy through recent presidential and legislative elections, which have now gone into a second round because none of the 20 candidates was able to gain the required 50% plus one vote in the first round of balloting on October 10.
Gen Malu had served as ECOMOG Chief of Staff and Director of Operations in 1992/93, for what represented his military baptism of fire before he became the Commander in August 1996.
With more than 30 years of a distinguished career in the military, Malu had disclosed that the period he served as ECOMOG Chief of Staff had more than compensated for the opportunity of a first combat operation he missed during Nigeria's Biafra civil war of 1967-70. He was in military school during the war and only got commissioned at the end of the hostilities.
Although Malu went ahead to hold many command duties after training in Nigeria, Britain and the United States, he said the one-year stint as ECOMOG Chief of Staff represented a highpoint in his career. “As a soldier, the only thing I know how to do very well is military duty, but the real test for me came in Liberia,” he said. Even as a brigadier directing ECOMOG operations in 1992/93, he was obliged to do the job of a Battalion or Brigade Commander, leading troops into the frontline.
For those familiar with the history of the Liberian crisis, that delicate period of the ECOMOG so-called Octopus Operation was, ironically, against the National Patriotic Front of Liberia forces of Charles Taylor, who went ahead to win the country’s presidential elections in 1997, only to be tried and convicted in 2013 at the International Tribunal at The Hague for war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone. “Taylor knows me very well when it comes to military action, but thank God all that is over and the important thing is that there is peace now in Liberia,” Malu said then.
A pioneer staff member of Nigeria's elite National War College, Malu was the General Officer Commanding the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, a post that made him a member of the Ruling Military Council under General Sani Abacha regime, before he took over the ECOMOG command from compatriot Maj. Gen. John Mark Inienger.
To those who have had dealings with him, especially as ECOMOG Commander, Malu was a complete gentleman officer, firm and resolute. “He was fearless,” one of his sub-ordinates said. Malu himself admitted that when he took over the ECOMOG Command, “some Liberians considered me too tough and even threatened to leave the country, but we all eventually understood ourselves.”
Perhaps one secret the late Malu revealed in the 1997 Monrovia interview was the fact that he turned down an offer for a lucrative ministerial appointment in 1984. “I don't think I fit into the civilian duties of a politician. I am not trained to say, Your Excellency,” he said. But neither does he disobey lawful orders. “I try my best at least to show my superiors how reasonable or otherwise an order can be,” he added.
For a general whose major publications include “Super Power Intervention in the Third World: Strategic Lessons for Nigeria”, what are the key lessons of the internationally acclaimed operation by ECOMOG, which, against all odds and scepticism, managed to pull Liberia out of the ashes of war to see one of the best organised elections?
Malu said the diverse background of troops from the 10 West African contributing countries was one of the greatest assets. “We learnt from each other and the command and control structure has been such that we do not have the type of problems encountered by similar operations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation,” he affirmed.
“I think there are one or two lessons to be drawn from the fact that West African leaders and the ECOMOG troops managed to prove critics wrong,” he said, adding that even up till the day of the 1997 elections, some people were still expressing doubt.
But despite his acclaimed military success Malu, a recipient of top national and military awards including the Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), Force Service Star (FSS), Meritorious Service Star (MSS), and the Distinguished Service Star (DSS), insisted he would not encourage any of his children to join the armed forces. “In our time, we joined the army purely out of interest, but today, people see it as a means of gaining or controlling power, and this is not good for the profession,” he said.
The dubious reputation of the armed forces in African politics notwithstanding, analysts say the ECOMOG military initiative commends itself to a world plagued by unending conflicts. Even now that all 15 ECOWAS countries are democracies, the regional body still led a combined diplomatic and military intervention to stave off a potentially dangerous threat to democracy recently in The Gambia.
On his regrets in Liberia, Malu said he had none. “I would do it the same way all over again if given the same opportunity.”
One of Liberia’s major problems today is a weak economy compounded by high youth unemployment and crime rate blamed on the so-called Zogoes, or street urchins.
In retrospect, the ex-ECOMOG commander could be said to be prophetic in warning about the potential danger posed by the “improper handling” of the demobilisation and reintegration of the estimated 35,000 former Liberian faction fighters. Less than one-third of the ex-combatants, mainly young people, had been reintegrated by 1997 leaving the rest without any means of livelihood. “We expected the process to be a little better because to have thousands of young people roaming the streets is not good for post-war Liberia,” Malu had warned.
Malu whose remains were interred 27 October 2017 in his Tse-Adoor family compound, Tongov, Mbajima, Katsina-Ala, in Benue State, Nigeria’s middle-belt region, enjoyed comedies and films, with hockey, lawn tennis and soccer as his favourite sports. He is survived by his widow, Esther Mbarumun, and four children, a daughter and three boys.
Adieu to a gallant soldier who sacrificed so that others might live!
*PAUL EJIME is an international media and communications consultant. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @paulejime5
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