Thursday, 4 June 2015
Khobe - The Brave
Ben Asante who knew Gen. Maxwell Khobe personally writes about the exploits of the Nigerian general and chief of defence staff of Sierra Leone who died of a heart attack on 18 April.
Sometime around Christmas 1998, Brigadier General Maxwell Mitikishe Khobe invited us – a group of visiting journalists – to lunch with him at his official residence in Freetown.
It was a Sunday. He arrived late, and when his military convoy sped through the gate, he briskly jumped down from the jeep. With a quick apology, using words like, “he has been busy doing nothing and wasting other people’s time”, he proceeded to say the grace. It was unusual for even an ofFicer known to be deeply religious. For several minutes, Khobe prayed that President Kabbah be protected and allowed to complete his mandate against attempts by rebels to overthrow him.
Little did we know at the time that what was uppermost on Khobe’s mind was rebel activities slowly threatening the government and the people of Freetown. Barely a year before, he had liberated the capital in a swift action against the AFRC military junta headed by Major Johnny Paul Koroma. Khobe was among a small core of Ecomog officers who saw action in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. I first met him in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1992.
Few soldiers trust civilians, and least journalists, especially during operations, but Khobe invited us to film battle action involving his tanks.
We were not disappointed For one moment by the experience and in seeing what impact our work was having on the morale of Ecomog troops. Several times soldiers came on our camera to send messages to their relatives. One 25-year-old gunner shouted a message on camera to his father. “Papa, I am a man now for I have fought in a war as a soldier!”
Khobe hardly entered a tank at the front but preferred to walk armed with nothing but a radio. In typical fashion, he and several officers and troops marched on foot to take town after town in Liberia until they captured Buchanan City in 1992.
Because of the utter confusion generated by Ecomog’s role in fighting to protect itself and the civil population in its areas of control, people began accusing the force of becoming a party to the conflict. The level of misgivings about Ecomog was such that a CNN reporter asked the then Ecomog chief of staff Brig-Gen Victor Malu, why his troops who were supposed to be neutral were fighting alongside other factions opposed to Charles Taylor’s NPFL and allowing them to operate freely in Monrovia.
We visited Khobe regularly at his Caldwell base in Monrovia where he kept an open door. He was an avid poultry farmer, a habit he brought to Monrovia.
After his tour of duty in Liberia, he went back home where in very quick succession, he held appointments first as head of a special unit formed to protect Lagos against armed robbers, then to Abuja, and to the Armour Brigade headquarters at Yola, not Ear from his hometown, Numan.
In 1985, he turned down a political posting from the military head of state, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. After serving in Ecomog in Liberia, another posting was to follow not long after. The May 1997 overthrow of President Kabbah by the AFRC junta in Sierra Leone offered Khobe another opportunity to work abroad. He was appointed the commander of the Ecomog Task Force in Sierra Leone.
In a lighting action, Ecomog troops marched into the capital and seized the centre of Freetown including the State House with Koroma’s junta in flight. In recognition of his efforts, President Kabbah asked the Nigerian government to second him as chief of defence staff of the Sierra Leone army.
Khobe had been promoted a full Brigadier-General but he hardly had enough time to re-build the Sierra Leone army before the rebels invaded Freetown again on 6 January 1999. In spite of repeated intelligence warnings, no-one would listen.
Weeks before the attack, Khobe went out one early morning and removed the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh from the Pademba Maximum Security Prison where he was on death row. Had he not removed Sankoh, the fate of Sierra Leone and the outcome of the 1999 invasion would have been different.
The rebels broke into the prison on G January and freed all the inmates, but they missed Sankoh who remained in the hands of the government and ended up negotiating for a ceasefire.
Khobe was a joy to watch at the front. He kept encouraging the troops to move forward. Several times we went to the front at first light only to discover that the men had withdrawn from the positions we left them the evening before. Many factors caused the pull back. Ammunitions were not delivered after they ran out or no food supplies came through. Other times rumours circulated that the rebels were coming with anti-aircraft guns, and lacking effective cover the men just pulled back. Wherever Khobe went, the troops seeing him surged forward and just kept going.
Late last year, Khobe came to London to undergo an operation to remove a shrapnel lodged in his back which he sustained on duty in Freetown. He came only after the rebels had signed a peace agreement. His back hurt him most times and he walked with a limp but he rather put up with the pain than abandon his post. The first operation was successful.
In December he had another operation which unfortunately had to be reopened after an abscess was discovered at the airport just as he was about to return to Freetown.
He returned to his post in January this year. His wife, Martina, who was in London throughout his treatment, went along to Freetown to nurse him.
In March, Khobe went to Harare, Zimbabwe, to address an NGO conference on the plight of civilians in a conflict situation. He passed through London on his way back From Harare, and told me that his British doctors had given him a clean bill of health. He planned to come back to London for further check up in April.
But while in Harare, someone had given him a photocopy of New African’s report (NA February) on how Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first premier, had been killed in a Western-backed plot in 1961 while UN peacekeepers looked on. He wanted the original copy badly because UN troops had recently been sent to Freetown to keep the peace in Sierra Leone.
I sent copies of the Lumumba report to him later, but according to Capt. Hassan who was with him in London, Khobe had been unwell since he returned to Freetown on 23 March. Until then, I knew nothing about his sudden poor health.
He died of cardiac arrest in his hospital bed at 10.30 am on 18 April, aged 50. He was buried in his hometown of Numan in Adamawa State, Nigeria, on 29 April. NA
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