The UN Mission in Liberia successfully disarmed Liberia’s warring factions. The mission’s first commander, Lt-Gen Opande, spoke to Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau and Kingsley Ighobor.
What was the security situation in Liberia when you first got there?
I arrived in Liberia from Sierra Leone on October 1, 2003. By then Sierra Leone had established a UN peacekeeping mission. The situation in Sierra Leone had returned to normal: there was a functioning government and peace had been restored countrywide.
But Liberia was the opposite: Nothing functioned, the government had collapsed, without effective security arrangement the entire country was in turmoil and in danger of falling apart. People were moving about looking for safety and food. It was a very bad situation.
How confident were you of a successful mission?
I was determined to address the appalling security situation. Once that was accomplished, then the politicians would address political, economic and governance issues.
How were you able to get the many “generals” of the various warring factions to accept peace?
I replicated what we had done in Sierra Leone — reached out to the warring factions and targeted their leaders. Instead of sitting down in Monrovia and expecting them to come and discuss the way forward, I went out to meet them in their strongholds.
I was not afraid to go wherever they were; I met the generals and the local leaders in places like Ganta, Gbarnga, Buchanan and other locations. I explained what I expected of them in order to restore peace and security.
There is a video clip of you in a town, surrounded by armed rebels, and you are talking tough to them. Were you not scared?
That was the time I went to supervise the forceful opening of the road between Monrovia and Buchanan [in the south], which the rebels had barricaded and blocked free movement.
Rebels are difficult to deal with and unpredictable. They kill and commit atrocities against civilians and can occasionally turn their guns on peacekeepers.
A week before this incident, I had asked the rebel commander to open the road forthwith but it was not heeded.
So, I went there myself and sent a strong message that UNMIL peacekeepers were determined to ensure that peace was restored. There are times when the peacekeeping commander must lead by example.
Given the security situation at the time — with thousands already killed during the war — were you not taking unnecessary risks?
No. It was my duty to fulfil the mandate given by the UN Security Council to UNMIL. We had to engage the rebels and fighters from all sides.
Do you think the strong presence of UN troops influenced the rebels to disarm?
When I landed in Liberia, I expected to lead one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions ever deployed. That gave me hope that, with the huge manpower and the equipment provided, we would face down any security challenge. I was confident that we had the will to deal with any situation, including countrywide disarmament. Within six months I received sufficient troops, trained and motivated for the task.
What was your toughest challenge during this assignment?
The most difficult time was when I landed in Monrovia. The city was under siege, surrounded by rebels and former government forces who were on the rampage, killing, raping, looting and determined to cause chaos so that our mission could fail. I deployed the troops that I had to protect key areas within Monrovia and prevent mayhem within the city.
The first attempt at disarmament, in December 2003, failed. Why?
I had drawn up a plan to deploy contingents in key locations across the country before attempting any disarmament. From my experience elsewhere, it was my view we should avoid a rushed disarmament without a proper plan.
If your troops are insufficient to monitor the process, disarmament will not succeed because rebels will just move from one place to the other and circumvent the process. Military and civilian leaders in a mission have different approaches on how to deal with such situations.
How was the experience of leading a multinational force accustomed to different equipment and with varying levels of motivation?
It is not easy leading troops who speak different languages, use different equipment, have different ethics and command structure. But leadership ethics require that everyone must be brought on board and appreciated. I always insisted on creating a cohesive command in UNMIL. We all understood our roles and expectations.
UNMIL ended its work on March 30 and is one of the UN’s success stories. What role did Liberian women play in the peace process?
If there is a group in Liberia that I can name and congratulate for working tirelessly to bring about peace, it is the women. I witnessed thousands of them sitting on an open field near Spriggs Payne [Airport] daily, praying and discussing how to cultivate lasting peace in Liberia.
They would confront then-president [Charles] Taylor insisting that he must give peace a chance; they travelled to Ghana to confront the leaders of the warring factions as they were negotiating peace, urging them to sign a ceasefire agreement. Although the men of Liberia also played a role, it was the women who were consistent and at the forefront.
What lessons can other countries in conflict, such as South Sudan, learn from Liberia?
It is difficult to compare countries in conflict. Post-conflict Liberia has proved that a country can overcome the worst. Other countries can learn lessons from the long-drawn Liberian conflict on how to end their suffering.