Reaching the port entrance and joined by a number of ECOMOG troops, Emeka and his fellow soldiers met a group of INPF fighters. Among them was the hotheaded rebel force commander, Prince Yormie Johnson. Johnson was walking up and down the pavement, swearing, cussing, stamping his feet, and punching the air with his fists. The Gambian troops, who had been manning the entrance, had stopped pleading with him. Instead, like the rest of the peacekeeping troops who had joined those moments later, they regarded Prince Johnson in silence. However, the air was full of fear and hatred. Fear, because many of the ECOMOG soldiers were afraid of the fighters and stood trembling; hatred, because the rebels considered the Freeport and everything in it as spoils of war. They could not bear the thought of being deprived of it all by foreigners they had just harbored into the country. And even before the arrival of ECOMOG, Prince Johnson and his men had ransacked the port of almost everything that could be stolen. But with the coming of the peacekeepers this seemed no longer possible. Enraged, each day saw the rebel leader and his men sit down at their Caldwell base, plotting ways in which they could recapture the port and send the ECOMOG troops packing.
However, as much as INPFL fighters were known to have looted from the Freeport of Monrovia, they were by no means the only ones who did so. Nearly everyone living within the vicinity of the Freeport went every day and came out of the port with looted items. But how did they enter the fence, especially since it was being guarded heavily first by INPFL fighters and then by ECOMOG troops? They threw carbolic acid on to the fence. By this means they were able to punch as many holes into the walls as possible. Through these they came and went in the dark of night. Although Prince Johnson, considered then a disciplinarian, was believed to have warned his fighters against looting and had even killed a number of his own men, nevertheless some fighters were known to have aided the civilians, in order to get their hands on the loot as well. But sometimes the civilians were caught and shot. Once, so the story goes, Prince Johnson came upon a group of civilians looting things out of a shipping container. Without a word, the rebel leader threw a grenade. In the few seconds it took the looters to scream for their lives, the grenade exploded and everybody was killed.
Now, Prince Johnson grew angrier. His voice could be heard throughout the deserted streets of Monrovia, strewn with bullet casings, cartridge shells, and corpses. One or two civilian cars, crammed full of INPLF fighters, some sitting onto the rooftops, some hanging from the windows, drove past at a terrific speed. Commandeered by the fighters and poorly maintained, these vehicles often caught fire, and the fighters would scurry out to save their skins. But usually it mattered very little. At that time, the rebels could arrest, abduct, beat up anybody and commandeer his vehicle, or simply pickup it up wherever it could be found.
“What you mean we can’t enter the port with weapons?” Prince Johnson said to the Nigerian Chief of Staff, who had come along with the ECOMOG force commander. “My men fought and died over this port for you ECOMOG soldiers, and you’re telling us we shouldn’t enter! Either you take your ships and go back to your countries now, or you clear the way immediately.”
“We don’t object to have you and your men enter the Freeport,” said the Nigerian, “except that you must leave your weapons at the gate.”
“We’re only being cautious, Mr. Johnson,” said the Nigerian. “We’ve have just arrived in Liberia and don’t want any confrontation, especially if we can help it.”
The rebel leader thought it over for a moment. The Nigerian was right. What could be gained from risking a confrontation with the peacekeepers, except only to join the NPLF in its refusal to acknowledge them and so deprive himself of a much needed ally, ECOMOG? Feigning suspicion, Prince Johnson looked the Nigerian Chief of Staff up and down. He shook his head in reluctance. Then he said, but now more with appeasement than harangue, “You need not have any fear of us, my friend. We did not come here to make any trouble for you. Just let us enter the port and take the things we came for. But we can’t leave our guns here at the entrance; under no circumstances,” he added.
There was a brief silence. The Nigerian Chief of Staff turned to consult with ECOMOG force commander, General Quianoo. The fighters, as with the scene at the harbor, had their guns aimed at the ECOMOG soldiers. The air, which from the outset had grown tauten with tension, seemed now to snap, like a bowstring held over the fire. A pickup stopped at the port entrance, full of INPFL fighters. Several rebels dismounted, swelling the number of those already at the gate. The ECOMOG troops had been joined by more soldiers from the headquarters, all of them wearing white helmets.
Finally, the force commander, turning aside from the Nigeria Chief of Staff, who seemed visibly shocked and angry, said to Prince Johnson, “All right, Johnson. You and your men can come into the port carrying your weapons, but leave some of your fighters at the entrance.”
“No problem,” said Prince Johnson, nodding approval. “We’ll just take the things we came for; most are just food for my men. Tomorrow or the day after, we’ll come for more things. I give you my word nobody will make any trouble for you.”
With that, Prince Johnson and a few other fighters, about thirty in number made their way into the port and headed towards the shipping containers.
Behind Prince Johnson came the ECOMOG force commander and the Nigerian Chief of Staff, followed by a number of rebels and peacekeeping troops. The fighters walked to one side; the ECOMOG soldiers to the other. The distance between them was about twice the length of a man’s arm stretched wide apart. The pavement was alive with the sound of footsteps; the air rang with the clanking of cartridge belts.
Among the rebels was a boy of about nine years of age, dressed in neat-fitting army fatigues, well- polished boots, and cap to match. He looked every bit the son of Idi Amin come out of the movies, posing in Uganda military uniform. Slim and dark as the Berretta assault rifle which he carried, the little boy had long arms and a large head that swayed from side to side. He was not tall. However, by keeping his chest up and his big head elevated to an aggressive angle, looked rather tall for his age. On his left wrist he wore a gold wrist watch, which would have suited an elderly man but hung on him as though he were trying to dispose of it. His lips and fingers were stained black, like those of an opium smoker. His eyes burned like red lightbulbs. His Beretta assault rifle, the stripe slung across his shoulders, he held in front of his chest. One hand rested lightly on the muzzle of the gun, the index finger of the other inside the trigger.
“I’ve heard some of the containers here,” the ECOMOG force commander was saying, “are packed with expensive cars, like Porches, BMWs and Chevrolets.” Beside him walked Prince Johnson and the Ghanaian force commander would not stop smiling, as though the bride, for whom he had waited so long, had finally appeared.
Prince Johnson said nothing.
“Ah, you wouldn’t talk because you want everything for yourself,” said the ECOMOG force commander, and burst into laughter. “But perhaps you could exchange a BMW for a few machine guns, eh?”
All this was spoken in such a whisper that none but the ECOMOG force commander and the rebel leader could have heard.
Listening to the Ghanaian force commander, Prince Johnson held his peace. But from the expression of his face, which seemed to register both careful thought and probably a conspiracy into the making, made it clear that the words of the Ghanaian General had been swallowed, like gingbie.
To be cont’d in the next edition.