The Liberation of Freetown in 1999: Battlefront reflections of a Nigerian Soldier and how his friend was killed by rebels
By Captain Effiong Eyo (Rtd)
I just came back from a border patrol duty with my colleagues from Igboho and Kisi areas of Oyo State, Nigeria when my Battalion Chief Clerk showed me a signal releasing me to attend my A1 Recce Weapons Instructors Course at the Armoured Corp Centre and School (ACCS) Bauchi State.
While preparing to a get a pass from the duty clerk at the orderly room to enable me travel to Bauchi State for the course, there was an alarm (called double sound in the military) which compelled me to rush to the parade ground as our tradition in the military demands. There at the parade ground, an instruction was given by the Commanding Officer (CO), Colonel Moses Obi who later retired as a General that we were going to Sierra Leone to help our troops on the ground there liberate Freetown because the rebels have taken over the nation capital and they were occupying the State House ( The Presidential Building).
We just left Freetown 12 months ago when we went to counter the military coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Alhaji Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah by the military junta led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma. It took us 72 hours from the day we were briefed at the parade ground by our CO to the day we took off at the Ilorin International Airport in Kwara State to Freetown.
When about a thousand troops selected from 244 Recce Battalion Saki, 222 Mechanized Infantry Battalion Ilorin and 231 Tank Battalion from Kanji boarded Kabor Air at the Ilorin International Airport for onward movement to Freetown, inside the plane was as quiet as a grave yard, already we got an information that the enemy forces were advancing toward the Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone.
An airborne officer on board the plane having realised the placed was too quiet, shouted MORALE! But only few solders responded. At that point, the Battalion Commander, Colonel Moses Obi thundered from where he was seated, ARE YOU GOOD TO GO? At this point, every soldier on board chorused WE ARE GOOD TO GO, GOOD TO GO, GOOD TO GO and the plane took off.
After about three hours or more in the sky, we landed at the Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone and as we touched the ground, we were air lifted by military helicopters to the Sierra Leone Defence Headquarters where we were later conveyed with military trucks to the Wilberforce military barracks in Freetown.
At the Wilberforce barracks, the Commanding Officer addressed us and asked us to wait for General Maxwel Kobbeh for the last instruction. Not too long, the Nigerian General who was also appointed the commander of the Sierra Leone army arrived with heavy escort. While addressing us, General Kobbeh specifically mentioned that he particularly requested that we should be brought back to liberate Freetown because between 1997 and 1998, we were in Freetown and we fought and pushed out the military junta together and he was very confident that we the best people for the job because we understood the terrain better.
We were highly motivated, because the 15 minutes’ address by the General was a morale booster. He assured us that he was going to advance with us until we chase out the junta and the RUF rebels from Freetown. About 200 metres from the Wilberforce barracks was a bridge adjacent the Sierra Leone International Stadium that we must cross before advancing to the city.
At this time, nobody was found in the street exception of dead bodies and vultures feeding on them, and wandered dogs were our best friends. As the leading section RPG man, my paratrooper friend, Lily Diepireye was beside me with his General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). We sighted some pocket of enemies around the international stadium area and my company commander ordered me to drop a bomb there. And immediately I launched a high explosive Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) bomb, and my airborne friend Lilly fired his GPMG, the enemy forces replied us with the same RPG bomb and from there the music began.
We were firing all through the night and even sleep respected itself that night because it did not come close to any of us as we held our location till the breaking of the day. At about 5:00 HRS the following the day, we continued to advance using three main roads leading to the state house of Sierra Leone that was already occupied by the enemy forces.
Around 13:00HRS, we were in front of Nigeria House that was next to the American Embassy just beside the Iroko tree that stands in between the US Embassy and the State house. After a while, we launched all round attack and captured the state house with enemy forces trapped in the presidential building. We quickly deployed ourselves and moved in to comb everywhere for the bad boys. I took some soldiers with me to the last floor of the state house and we saw about two rebel soldiers with their weapons running away from us. We shouted at them to stop because there was nowhere for them to escape from us, and our intention was to capture them alive to get information from them, but they decided to jump from the last floor and killed themselves.
About one hour later, some rebel forces came from one big hotel directly opposite the state house and attacked us from behind and we were forced to withdraw from the state house building and some of us pinned down in front of the American Embassy. While our troops withdrew and pinned down near the Nigeria House. Three of us who were with GPMG took cover by the half walls under the iroko tree in front of the US Embassy to slow the rebels down from attacking our troops. We were Michael Aniema, Gregory Akuruk and I.
We had enough boxes of 7.62mm rounds that we captured from the rebels and three of us were with GPMG each. After a while, Michael Aniema asked us to pull out, but I knew if we did, the rebel forces would have upper hand, so we kept engaging. And the next thing I heard was boooom, and everywhere went blank, and I was like a deaf and dump person because I lost consciousness. Few minutes later, I heard Gregory Akuruk shouting to Michael Aniema saying, THAT RPG BOMB DON KILL OGA EFFIONG and it was difficult for them to come and carry me or the GPMG, so Michael Aniema pulled out.
As God would have it, I gained consciousness immediately, and as I looked toward the state house direction, I saw a rebel soldier running towards my location to pick the GPMG, thinking I was dead. Unfortunately to him, I still had enough rounds and a long chain of ammunition on my Machine gun. So I played Shakabundu Samba for him and he danced for about 30 seconds before dropping on the ground. Then Gregory and I pulled out to join our people who were already planning the next action in front of the Nigeria House.
In a twinkle of an eye, ECOMOG trucks arrived from the Wilberforce barracks with enough support weapons, bombs, ammunition and food. So we relaunched another attack and recaptured the state house and took many prisoners of war. The task given to Colonel M Obi, the CO of 244 Battalion in Freetown by General Kobbeh was to advance from the Wilberforce barracks to the city and capture the state house and make it his battalion headquarters which we did in 72 hours of arriving Sierra Leone.
As we took over the state house, our men were deployed for all round defence. We occupied Shaka Stephen street, Sani Abacha street down to the Sierra Leone Telecommunication Limited (SIERRATEL) area. Trooper Tajudeen Olonade, L/Cpl Lilly Diepereye and I with some infantry soldiers were deployed to the SIERRATEL to support the Nigerian Navy Ship deployed at the Water-Key Port closer to the SIERRATEL.
That faithful morning, after three of us who were from the same battalion have prayed together, we received a message from our battalion 2ic (second in command), Major Funmilayo who later retired as a Colonel that Trooper Tajudeen and I should report to the State House. On getting there, we were asked to join an infantry battalion that just arrived from Liberia to advance to Calabar town.
The reason being that the newly arrived troops needed experienced fighters to lead their attack since we understood the terrain better. Even when we were celebrating that we have carried out our own task successfully by capturing the state house, we had no option when the new task was given, we must obey the last order. Tajudeen and I prayed together before we boarded the truck to the location. I was with my RPG and AK-47, while Tajudeen was with his GMPG and AK-47 also.
Our battalion 2ic, Major Funmilayo led the attack by himself. The commander of the infantry battalion we were fighting along with was Major Lasisi, he was the infantry battalion 2ic. By the time we got to Calabar town, we had captured more ground that we were looking for men to cover it, to avoid being recaptured from us by the enemies. That was when Major Funmilayo shouted EFFIONG TAKE OVER THE FRONT LINE, YOU KNOW THESE PEOPLE ARE JJC HERE. I was shocked because Major Lasisi, a battalion 2ic was there at the front line with us but Major Funmilayo decided to hand over the command to me.
While still waiting for Major Funmilayo to return to the front line with reinforcement, something terrible happened and fear came upon me. Few metres away from us was the only support weapon we had in the front line, it was Armoured Personal Carrier (APC) with 7.62mm Machine Gun mounted on it. By then I had exhausted all the bombs with me, I went to the APC for more bombs. There I knew in my spirit that something bad was going to happen. So I picked a charcoal on the ground and wrote JESUS on the ground. As I was looking at the name, I started building confidence until the fear gradually left me.
The next thing that happened was a sound of a close range shot and Tajudeen thought I fired it and he shouted Effiong who fired that shot. It was a sound of a 7.62mm special, which can only be fired from AK-47. We were even blaming some of the infantry solders behind us, little did we know that an enemy soldier had crawled closer to us to eliminate us who were giving them troubles. The battle was in a build-up area where someone can easily infiltrate your location without your knowledge. Again there was a rapid firing at close range and this time, my friend Tajudeen was shouting Effiong carry me carry me. But at that time, I saw the rebel who opened that fire, so I released one out of the three RPG bombs I was holding to escort him to meet with his ancestors in the land beyond.
Then I quickly turned back and my friend was losing blood. And even at that condition, Tajudeen was firing his GPMG. He was shot at the waist region and the bullet busted his bladder. The enemy’s plan was to kill three of us who were in the fore front, so he opened rapid firing on us and I was in the middle. But surprisingly, the bullets hit two of them by my right and my left, and my friend Tajudeen was the one by my right. Meanwhile, Gambo, an infantry soldier who was by my left was also hit but survived.
After we had managed to push back the enemies, I carried Tajudeen who was bleeding seriously to the APC and asked the APC driver to open for us to put Tajudeen and rush him to the ECOMOG hospital. At this time, the 2ic of the infantry battalion we went to help came out from where he was hiding and instructed the APC driver not to leave the front line. Tears were all over my eyes because I did not want Tajudeen whose wife has just given birth in Nigeria to die. I was left with only one option, so I dropped my friend who was shouting Effiong don’t leave me, Effiong don’t leave me, I mounted the only RPG bomb left with me on my RPG and cocked, I ordered the APC driver to open the vehicle or I blow off the APC. At this time, Major Lasisi was helpless, because the APC driver obeyed my command. After all, it was me Major Funmilayo handed over the front line to.
That was how we moved our friend out of the front line, but along the road, we captured a vehicle and asked the APC driver to return to the front line. My friend was still alive when we got the hospital at the Wilberforce barracks. The doctor received him and did the necessary medical things, he was still holding my hand very firmly while telling me what to tell his wife. I was not ready to allow him talk more because I was telling him that he would not die, and I was praying like a mad man. But I heard him said, oga Effiong, please those two children are the only things I have in this world, please tell my wife to send them to school. After that, he breathed his last.
My late friend married a Liberian woman when we went for our first ECOMOG Mission on 6th August 1994. They had a son by name Ola who was about two years old as at when we were brought to Sierra Leone to liberate Freetown. His wife was pregnant for the second child when we left Nigeria for the operation. Few weeks after we arrived Freetown, while on the battle field, we heard a good news that his wife in the barracks in Saki, Oyo State has given birth to a beautiful baby girl. But my friend did not see the girl whose name is Mary till today.
After the mission in Sierra Leone, as we returned back to Nigeria, I was told that my friend’s wife faced so much hardship in the barracks because army had stopped her late husband’s salary. As a result of that, she decided to take the two children back to Liberia. And there was no way for me to deliver the message from her late husband to her. But in 2008, I went back to Liberia for United Nations Peace Mission where I was deployed at the Freeport of Monrovia. Then I was able to trace the woman to their family compound near Hotel Africa and delivered the message from my late friend to her.
When I got to their family compound in Liberia, she told the children that their father has come. I could not hold back my tears, but I controlled it so the children would not see my crying. And since 2008, we lost contact until this year 2022. Thank God for facebook and whatsapp. I now communicate with my late friend’s wife and the two children anytime I want. Late Tajudeen Olonade was from Osun State, Nigeria. He was a brave soldier and a good footballer; we were selected as special forces to reinforce the battalion that arrived from Liberia because we were more experienced, but unfortunately, we lost him on active service.
Last time I spoke with his wife, she told me that her family in Liberia is sponsoring her daughter’s education, but Ola has dropped out for lack of money. Would Tajudeen’s children had dropped out of school if he was still alive? Is it a crime defending Nigeria? Now who will send late Tajudeen’s children to school? This is the picture of late Tajudeen’s Children in Liberia.
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