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Monday, 1 May, 2000, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Farewell to the general
General Khobie
General Khobie (centre) with members of the Civil Defence Forces
By West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle

A key figure in a war which has destabilised much of West Africa, the commander of the Sierra Leone army, died this week.

Perhaps surprisingly, the general was not actually Sierra Leonean, but an officer from the biggest country in the region, Nigeria. He was General Maxwell Khobie, a Nigerian officer on secondment to Sierra Leone.



He looked at the smoking battlefront and then began walking towards it, saying, as cool as a cucumber, "Gentlemen, let's go".

An official announcement said he had died of a heart attack - an ironic end for a soldier who was a veteran of so many fierce military battles. General Khobie was appointed to head the Sierra Leone army after leading a West African force which ousted an unpopular Sierra Leone military junta, and restored the democratically-elected government there to power.

Life saver

I had a soft spot for General Maxwell Khobie. I think he may have saved my life.

Early last year I was in the Sierra Leonian capital Freetown when rebels were trying to oust the elected government. Half the city was on fire and the rebels were committing unspeakable atrocities against civilians.


Troops in Freetown
Freetown saw heavy fighting in 1999
I was in the small part of the city held by the government. Or, to be more precise - since most of the government army had joined the rebels - I was in the part of town held by General Maxwell Khobie's Nigerian troops.

On this occasion I found Khobie, a stocky, bulldog of a man, in a hilltop military barracks. I asked him if it would be relatively safe for me to take a look in the centre of town.

"I don't think so", he said in his gruff voice. "Best to wait a bit".

Honesty

That was quite a statement. Khobie and I both knew what it meant; that his troops were not in control. Quite an admission for a general to make in war. But I was grateful for his honesty.


Ecomog soldiers
Ecomog defended the elected Sierra Leonean Government
Another foreign journalist who, unfortunately, hadn't heard this advice, was killed by rebels when he went into the centre of town the next day. In the middle of that fierce battle for Freetown, Maxwell Khobie briefly lent the foreign press corps his only helicopter so we could evacuate our colleague's body. Many Sierra Leonean journalists also died in this battle.

General Maxwell Khobie, a true warrior in most circumstances, displayed his soft side to me on a few other occasions as well. When we first met my son had just been born. In the course of one meeting I showed him a photo. Khobie smiled, and I thought no more of it.

But on every subsequent occasion that we met, whether in an office or on the battle front, General Khobie asked after "the little one", as he called him. On the last occasion I met General Khobie before he died, I told him that my now two-year-old son was speaking French as well as English.

This is, in fact, deeply unimpressive to Africans, all of whom speak many languages. But Khobie smiled and congratulated "the little one", before he walked off, with another braided general, to continue military matters.

Cool

General Maxwell Khobie and I weren't always on good terms. Two years ago, he was angry with me when I found myself on the rebel side of a front line which he was attacking. He listened to my BBC radio reports that the rebels were fighting back - which they were - and those reports infuriated him.


Ahmed Tejan Kabbah
President Kabbah's government relied on the Nigerians for its survival
At one point he telephoned me across the front line. He told me he was going to flush out the rebels and that I would be well advised to keep my head down.

Khobie did as he had promised. He arrived with his men, near the Freetown front line. According to a soldier who was there, he looked at the smoking battlefront and then began walking towards it, saying, as cool as a cucumber, "Gentlemen, let's go".

Maxwell Khobie won that battle. A few days later, he was driving through the still burning city in a military convoy when he spotted me on the street. He bounded out of his car, shook my hand, and said he was pleased, though surprised, that I was still alive.

Controversial record

Analysts will no doubt debate Maxwell Khobie's military record for years to come. The war in Sierra Leone has been at the centre of a major African power struggle - the stakes have been high.


Kenyan UN troops
UN peacekeepers are now in Sierra Leone
Some say General Khobie was a brave soldier whose tough and wily tactics overcame the generally low level of training and equipment in the Nigerian army.

Others say that he was beaten by the rebels - who have now won a share in government through a shaky peace deal - because he got sucked in to Sierra Leonean political and business affairs. This, they say, weakened his military professionalism.

But most Sierra Leoneans are very sorry that General Maxwell Khobie, the foreign head of their national army, their Nigerian big brother, has died.

They're looking to the future with trepidation. In some ways it was sad that the elected President of Sierra Leone had to turn to a foreigner to head his army. But so many Sierra Leonean officers had joined the rebels that there weren't many that the President could trust. There still aren't.

The government in Freetown now depends on United Nations troops for its security - along with military officers from the former colonial power, Britain, who are engaged in army training. Many of the Nigerian soldiers who arrived with Maxwell Khobie have gone home.

Knew the enemy

Ordinary Sierra Leoneans fear that if the peace agreement were to break down, the UN troops might not show the same resolve or resourcefulness that the Nigerians used in fighting the rebels.

Certainly, the UN force, led by an experienced and articulate Indian general, is better equipped than the Nigerians. Many of the UN soldiers are also better trained in conventional warfare.

But Sierra Leonians know that the rebels can fight fiercely, and, when necessary, can fight dirty. Maxwell Khobie knew it as well. In public, he was a spick and span soldier who spoke of battle plans, missile trajectories and troop deployments.

But the Nigerian general also used tactics more familiar to the African terrain. These included the widespread use of surrogate local forces and the distribution of patronage. Above all, it involved an intimate knowledge of the enemy which perhaps only an African commander can muster in this sort of war.

That is why the death of the Nigerian commander was such a blow to the confidence of many in Sierra Leone. General Khobie had his flaws, but to most ordinary people there he was a hero, the man who protected their elected President. The mourning for the passing of Nigerian General Maxwell Khobie continues in Sierra Leone today.

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