interview Lagos — The story of the Liberian civil war cannot be complete without references to Nigeria's Major Gen. C.C. Iweze(rtd). Currently, a director with Multimesh Group, (a digital cable satellite pay-TV service provider, based in Port-Harcourt), Major-Gen. Iweze served as Chief of Staff of the West African Peace Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in 1990.
He also led a two-man delegation of the then Military Government of Nigeria to retrieve corpses of the eight Nigerian soldiers killed in a clash with supporters of the late Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid during the United Nations Peace Keeping mission in Somalia. For his gallantry at the ECOMOG in Liberia, Iweze earned the respect of many officers in the Nigerian Army.
Despite his military accomplishments, Major-Gen. Iweze bears a grudge against the military high command . He said he was retired from service because of "greed, back-bitting and inordinate ambition of younger officers."
Thirteen years after his retirement, Major-Gen. Iweze finally breaks his silence in his Hilton Hotel room in Nairobi, Kenya. Enjoy it.
Since your retirement from service, you have remained silent. Does that suggest you are not happy with your retirement?
As a Major-General in the Nigerian Army, I was expected to have gotten at least six months retirement notice.
But in my own case, it was a sudden retirement. I was out of the country where I was representing my nation in a conference abroad, only for me to be retired unnoticed. My retirement was something I did not plan for when it happened.
I cannot understand a system that would prefer to flush out its generals overnight. When I signed to become an army officer, I did not sign to take things unexpectedly. But it happened to me and nobody was ready to give me any excuse for my retirement. To be precise, I didn't like the way I was retired from service. But after 13 years of retirement, I have moved on with my life.
The most important thing is that where I am at present, I appear to be much more comfortable than when I was in the army. While I was in service, I devoted all my life doing what I knew how to do best. And then, my retirement came as a blow. But like I said, it's behind me now and I have moved on.
Can you briefly let us into your various exploits while in service?
No matter how one would want to hide himself or herself, you cannot deny your identity. First and foremost, I am an Igbo man from Delta State. I passed out from the Defence Academy, only for me to face the civil war. Here was I, an Igboman fighting against my brothers.
But at that time, I didn't see the war as Igbos versus other ethnic groups or a kind of tribal affair. Rather, I saw the civil war as a national issue to keep Nigeria as one nation.
In that process, I fought on two fronts: one, I fought against the Biafrans and secondly, I fought to keep my sanity considering my rank in the Nigerian army at that time.
I was viewed with suspicion that I might sell out the Nigerian troops under my command to the Biafrans. However, I thank God that He saw me through to the end of the civil war. That was one of my military exploits I consider very remarkable .
The next exploit I must remember was during the Liberian war. Before then, I was a Brigade-Commander in Calabar. One day, I was listening to BBC news and the correspondent was praising the Nigerian Army, saying that they remained the most equipped institution within the sub-region to bring the situation in Liberia under control.
After listening to that news, I expressed my reservation to one of my brothers who paid me a visit. And true to my prediction, when I got back to my house, I was confronted with a signal that I should proceed to Lagos; informing that I ha been appointed the Chief of Staff of the Peace- Keeping Operation in Liberia(ECOMOG). Immediately the news was relayed to me, I burst into laughter.
The next day, I hurriedly handed over to my successor and left for Lagos. But when I got to Lagos where the Defence Head Quarters was situated then, the brief I got there was quite different from what I met on ground when I arrived Free Port of Monrovia. Monrovia served as the headquartres of ECOMOG at that time. And General Arnold Quainoo, a Ghanaian was the Commander of the Peace Keeping Operation.
Given the directive from my home country and because of my personal relationship with most senior army officers then, I made arrangements on my own to proceed to Sierra-Leone to take up the command of the sub-regional force. When I got to Sierra-Leone, the troops were already on ground and at that point, we started strategising on how to tackle the situation in Liberia. There and then, I appointed staff officers to run the affairs as the Chief of Staff. Then, we prepared to storm Liberia.
I remember that the Ghanaian government released some of their war-ships. Nigerian Navy also was on ground. At the headquartres of ECOMOG, there was this perception that the rebels would abandon their guns the moment the peace enforcement operation arrived in Liberia. But from my experience, I advised against taking the rebels for granted which the Force Commander, General Quainoo ignored.
Not withstanding the consistent threats and reports we were daily receiving concerning how Charles Taylor had boasted of destroying any ECOMOG troop that ventured into the Liberian soil, the Force Commander did not believe we were going to wage a war against the rebels. Under that kind of condition, I didn't see how we were going to keep peace in Liberia.
In the first place, there was no peace to negotiate for . Therefore, I wondered how we were going to keep peace in a hostile environment.
Rather, I stated categorically that we were going to Liberia for peace enforcement operation. All the troops that made up the ECOMOG operation drawn from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra-Leone, Gambia and Guinea, believed that we were going to Liberia on a peace keeping operation . As a result, none of the soldiers was prepared to fight in Liberia.
Some even came there with a truck load of their civil party dresses. But I never believed we were in Liberia to make peace, following the fact that the enemy had vowed to destroy any ECOMOG troop that touched the soil of Liberia. And true to my prediction, the moment our foot touched Liberia, the rebels opened fire on us.
We managed to secure our flanks, moved forward and the rest is now history.
But one thing I noticed during this debacle was that it's a dangerous decision to send officers who are in the infant stage of their career to a peace enforcement operation. When we arrived Monrovia, the Force Commander had no clue whatsoever about what we were to do in Liberia.
I remember that on a number of occasions, when I asked General Quainoo his plans in the event of the possible influx of refugees into the ECOMOG quarters, having been convinced that we would surely play host to some army of refugees, he was indifferent and ignored the need to put into consideration the possible influx of refugees into our base.
At that point, I couldn't understand why a commander of a peace enforcement operation couldn't envisage that in the theatre of war, the refugees usually seek protection in the camp of the troops. As the Chief of Staff, I gave instruction to the troops at designated areas to make adequate provision for the influx of refugees.
And again, true to my prediction, the refugees or better still, the displaced Liberians were the first set of people we encountered on arriving Free-port in Monrovia.
While we strove to advance forward, we had the refugees to cater for and protect. On arrival, the information available to us was that there was a standing cease-fire between Prince Johnson who was commanding the Independent National Patriotic Front (INPF) and Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia( NPFL), as well as Sgt. Samuel Doe, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Strategically, we drafted the Nigerian troop to the East of Liberia, while the Sierra-Leonian troop was positioned at the centre and the Gambian troop was stationed to protect the headuarters of ECOMOG.
Also, the Guinean troop was drafted to the outskirts of Liberia, protecting the Supreme Head Quarters. After establishing a cease-fire, I initiated a peace move between Prince Johnson and President Doe, requiring each one of them to send a representative in form of liaison officers to open up a communication channel between the two forces.
So how was Doe killed?
The mediator then was Guinean Deputy Force Commander, Lamin Mangasouba. But while the peace move was still on course, Johnson formed the habit of visiting the head quarters regularly, pretending to be friendly.
I didn't like the way he was frequenting the headquarters and I summoned him one day and warned against his coming to the head quarters with his men fully armed to the teeth. I insisted that he must leave his arms at the HQ's main gate before attempting to gain entrance into the premises.
However, he pretended to have heard me and then climbed upstairs to see the Force Commander in his office. As soon as he left, I climbed upstairs too to brief the Commander of what transpired between myself and Prince Johnson.
But rather than seeing reasons with me, the Commander disappointedly told me how Johnson did not like the way I was blunt to him. I replied by saying 'of course, I didn't expect him to like it but for our safety, he must comply with my order.'
To my surprise again, the Commander told me that he had countered the order. I felt very bitter and disappointed as I made him understand that he was making us vulnerable . Hardly had we finished discussing when we heard a siren advancing towards the headquartres.
And when I looked through the window, I saw series of assorted cars led by a Limousine, decorated with the Liberian flag and that of the Armed Forces of Liberia. I told the Commander that the August visitor must be President Samuel Doe and suggested that he remained in his office while I went downstairs to receive him.
There and then, I rushed downstairs to receive President Doe but the Commander would not listen and he surprisingly followed me downstairs to receive the President. Protocol demanded that I should be the one that would have ushered the visitor into the Commander's office.
But this was not so in this case. The Commander decided to come down and receive the visitor by himself. At that point, there was nothing I could do, other than to join him in ushering the President and members of his cabinet into the Commander's office.
The Cabinet members were later moved into the Deputy Commander's office, while President Doe was kept in the Commander's office. At the Commander's office, the President berated the Commander, fuming that he desired to be paid a homage by the troops as the President of Liberia, no matter the situation. But as the Commander was trying to apologise to him, he heard another siren advancing towards the headquarters again.
And before he knew what was happening, it was Prince Johnson and his men who had returned to the headquarters. Sensing danger, I advised that the Commandant should remain with the President in his office while I went downstairs to confront Prince Johnson to leave the headquartres or remain outside the quarters with his armed boys.
But by the time I got downstairs, Prince Johnson had already gained access into the headquarters and was giving me option that I must tell Sgt. Doe to join the Ghanaian ship and leave Liberia immediately for peace to return to the country.
I cautioned him and insisted that it was not for him to tell us what to do with the President. I commanded him to leave the headquarters immediately with his troop. As he was attempting to go out, we started hearing continuous gunshots. That was Prince Johnson's men killing the security operatives that came with Sgt. Doe.
What happened? One of the security guys asked to the hearing of Prince Johnson's troops, "What are these rebels doing here?"
KILLING OF SAMUEL DOE
In response, one of Prince Johnson's men challenged him and before we knew what was happening, he opened fire on them, killing all the security operatives. That was the fire that led to the capturing and killing of Samuel Doe. So, while the firing was going on, I commanded Johnson to leave the headquarters immediately.
But the firing was worsened. In the midst of the confusion, I went upstairs to see the Commandant. But lo, he was nowhere to be found. He had escaped to the ship.
Doe was left alone in his office. At that point , I told Doe, "Look, discretion is a better part of valour . Let me take you to the ship so that you remain there until this raging fire is quenched." But he turned down my appeal and rather demanded that I should give him some troops to escort him back to the executive mansion.
But already, I was aware that an ambush had been laid for him. So if I had yielded to his request, they would have killed both Doe and the troops. While the commotion was going on, the Commandant had disappeared into thin air.
I looked for him to persuade Sgt Doe to listen to the voice of reason but he was nowhere to be found, and Doe wouldn't listen.
As I returned to the office to lock up the door, one of Prince Johnson's boys called Rambo traced me to the Commandant's office where he spotted Sgt. Doe and shouted "He's inside the office. He's inside the office."
The shout attracted Prince Johnson who returned to the Commandant's office. But I couldn't let him gain access to the office as I quickly shut the door and stood behind it and ordered Prince Johnson's boy Rambo to leave the place.
There and then, he opened fire around me to scare me away but I stood my ground as I continued to command both Johnson and his boys to leave the place. At a point, something occurred to me. I started asking myself who I was protecting, whether it was Sgt. Doe who had shed a lot of blood and who in the early hours of that fateful day, slaughtered many Liberians? Whether he was worth dying for?
That was how I left him at the mercy of Prince Johnson and his men. Johnson went into the office and fired at his two legs. He advanced to the Deputy Commandant's office and also killed all the members of Doe's cabinet who came with him to the headquarters. Later, he dragged wounded Doe outside the place and began to jubilate that he had captured the President. But somehow, somebody accidentally touched the President's limousine car and the siren went off.
With Doe Afraid that the ECOMOG troops were coming to attack him, he immediately dragged Doe into his car and disappeared to his base.
After the incident, there were dead bodies on the ground and the Chief of Logistics then who was a Nigerian, Major-Gen.(rtd) Rufai, insisted that we must go and rescue the President from the stronghold of the rebels.
But in an operation of this nature, where troops were contributed by different countries, the Force Commander remained the only officer who could issue instructions to deploy troops. But I couldn't find him.
And I was left with no option than to find out the whereabouts of the Commander in order to brief him and consequently obtain order from him to deploy troops to go and rescue Sgt. Doe from the hands of his captors.
Disappointedly, when I finally found him, he was coming out from the Ghanaian ship where he went to take cover. I saluted him and followed him to his office where I briefed him on what happened and asked for his permission to deploy troops to go and rescue Sgt. Doe. I told him it would be scandalous on our part to have allowed such massive killings to happen within the ECOMOG territory. But he was not interested in my opinion or listening to what I had to say.
Rather, he was concerned about taking photographs of the corpses that littered the place. He asked me to wait for him in his office. When he had finished taking the photographs, he returned to his office and out of fear, he nearly screamed when he sighted me in the office muttering, "You nearly scared me, you know".
And I said to him "So sorry, sir. I didn't mean to scare you but at this moment, we need a decision to go ahead and rescue Sgt. Doe from Johnson and his men'. He was not interested in what I had to say. Instead, he was busy gathering his personal effects and handing them over to his boys who were taking them to the Ghanaian war ship in waiting.
The next instruction he gave to me was to summon a conference of Commanders. I thought he was going to give the instruction by himself but it was not to be. While the Commanders converged, he told them he was on his way to Sierra-Leone from where he would proceed to Gambia to see the Chairman of ECOWAS, who then was the President of Gambia, Dauda Jawara.
He told us that we had no business remaining in Liberia anymore and he handed down an instruction to me to tell anybody that asked of him anything I deemed like telling the person.
I couldn't believe my ears. Before we knew it, he had entered the ship and left for Sierra-Leone. I had to summon the troops. I told them that I was not prepared to take this nonsense from Prince Johnson and his men.
I ordered that we should go and invade Johnson's base but it was too late as we later learnt that Johnson had finally killed Sgt. Doe and deposited his corpse in one of the hospitals operated by a Nigerian doctor who was based in Liberia at that time.
That was how Sgt Doe was killed. At that point, as the man in charge, I gave out orders to clear Charles Taylor completely and banned Johnson from entering the headquarters from that day. As far as I was concerned then, Prince Johnson was a hostile enemy that must be checked. The deaths and occurrences are hazy in my mind right now but I think that was exactly how Sgt. Doe was killed by Johnson and his men.
Deal That Killed Doe
On reflection, one wondered how Prince Johnson got to know that Sgt. Doe was coming to the ECOMOG headquartres that fateful day. Immediately after he had seen and discussed with the Commander, General Quanioo, a deal must have been struck between them.
The two liaison officers we established as a channel of communication between President Doe and Prince Johnson, the one representing Johnson's interest must have gone to inform him that Sgt. Doe was coming to the ECOMOG headquarters that fateful day.
And again, with Johnson's visit to General Quanioo on that same day, I strongly believe that a deal must have been struck between the Force Commander and the rebel because later on, we discovered that two container loads of items were in the Ghanaian ship to be moved to Ghana. And that created another problem for us in Liberia.
The second incident was that when we arrived Liberia, he quickly established a refugees' camp but not in the presence of the Commander. Prince Johnson would invade the camp and capture some beautiful women among whom he took away to his base.
The most annoying thing was that he, Prince Johnson, approached the unit commander, requesting us to release some arms for him to attack President Doe then. But I rejected his request. At that moment, the unit commander betrayed us by going to tell Prince Johnson that he had wanted to release some arms to him but Nigerians wouldn't allow him to do so.
Ordinarily, the Ghanaian troop had enough arms. If the Commander had wanted to release some arms to the rebels, he could have instructed the Ghanaian troop to release them to Johnson . But he wanted to indict Nigerians .
That was why he came to us. The implication is that if you give a rebel your arms, he would later turn the arms against you.
The fact that the Commander told Johnson that it was the Nigerian troop that had refused to release their arms to him made Johnson ambush and capture the Nigerian soldiers and took them to his base. When I heard about his action, I was infuriated and had to drive down to his base where I pulled out my hand grenade and ordered Johnson to release my men or the two of us would die instantly.
Out of fear, Johnson ran to his house but I followed him closely, threatening to blow up the grenade before he started shouting out, "Release them, release them." I did not only have him release Nigerian troops, I also recovered our four lorries he confiscated. That was how I got our troops captured by Prince Johnson released.
All this time, Gen. Quanioo had disappeared into thin air. I was the only officer who was spearheading and taking decisions on behalf of the operation until General Dogonyaro was appointed to succeed Gen. Quanioo.
After the appointment of Gen. Dogonyaro cum his assumption of office, we started reorganising ourselves to advance, having had more battalions dispatched to join in Monrovia from Nigeria. That was another un-forgetful incident during my career in the military. Peace operation is not an easy adventure.
You must have the confidence of all the troops that made up the enforcement operation before you can record any success, particularly in West-Africa where our neigbouring countries are often suspicious of their dealings with Nigerian citizens.
Distrust Against Nigerian Commanders
To make a Nigerian the Force Commander in a Peace Enforcement Operation, a lot of diplomacy had to be played out.
Indeed, I remember a situation where we were to move from Sierra-Leone to Liberia. I was the most senior officer in the headquartres then, and by the virtue of my rank, I was supposed to have become the Deputy Commander.
But this was not to be as a low ranking Guinean officer, who was later promoted to a Brigade-General by his home country, was appointed as the Deputy Commander of the enforcement operation.
Also, the inability of the contributing troops to take orders from any senior officer from another troop is another factor that militates against any peace keeping operation in Africa.
For instance, while we were to move to Liberia, from Sierra-Leone, I requested the battalion commanders to report the situation to me so that I could properly hand it to the operation commander.
But the Ghanaian battalion commander turned down my instruction, muttering , 'Me, a Ghanaian, to hand-over my troops to you, a Nigerian ." I replied him by saying that he was not handing over the troops to me as a Nigerian but as Chief of Staff of the enforcement operation. Reluctantly, he handed over his men to me.
That's one aspect of peace keeping operation that bedeviles a situation where different countries contribute troops. The officers find it difficult to take instructions from any other senior that's not from their home country.
Also, distrust is another factor that trailed the operation. Each time, I gave an instruction to deploy troops. Such instruction was never obeyed until an approval was sought for and gotten from the troops' various home countries.
More appalling was when the Nigerian Air Force was sent on a bombing run, under the Joint Command. The Ghanaian Air Force failed to comply until clearance was given from the home government. Those were parts of the problems we faced while we were in Liberia.
Mission To Somalia
Also, I recall as part of my military exploits when I went to receive the corpses of eight Nigerian contingent to the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission who were killed in a clash with supporters of Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid. I was also to give the nation's position on the killings of these soldiers to the Commander of the United Nations Forces in Somalia.
As a matter of fact, I found the killing of these soldiers totally unacceptable to the Nigerian Army.
At that time, no Nigerian military officer was ready to go to Somalia to receive the corpses of these fallen soldiers.
But I opted to undertake the venture as the Chief of Operations then. When I got to Mogadishu, I had discussions with the United Nations Enforcement Commander and later, retrieved the dead bodies of our fallen soldiers.
One thing happened while I was leaving for Nigeria. Nigerian journalists who were at the airport didn't bother to find out from me the position of the country in respect of the killing of its eight soldiers. However, when I got to Liberia, one of the BBC Correspondents cornered me and wanted me to confirm that it was the fault of the UN Enforcement Commander who abandoned the Nigerian troops to be slaughtered like cows. But I refused to confirm the report because I wanted to speak while on the Nigerian soil.
But as I landed at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, I had expected our journalists to have cornered me to give them the situation report but they did not. I would have told them exactly what happened but since they didn't ask me, I went straight to brief the then President.
I told the President that Nigerian troops were slaughtered as a result of the dereliction of duties by the contributing troops who would have otherwise protected them while they were embarking on that dangerous patrol.
But they didn't protect the troops and that led to the killing of eight of the soldiers. That's part of the distrust that I was talking about concerning the Liberian experience. It's also available in any peace keeping operation anywhere in the world. Distrust cost Nigeria its eight soldiers.
At the time Sgt. Doe was captured and whisked away by Johnson and his men from the ECOMOG base, were there no troops on ground that could have countered the crossfire?
The ECOMOG headquartres then was occupied by merestaff officers. And around the HQ, we had the Gambian troops who were stationed to protect the HQ from external attack, though they were not all that experienced and the country's army at that time was made up of greenhorns. We wanted to take our time before introducing them to the theatre of war.
And remember, I told you that I warned Prince Johnson never to enter the HQ again with his men armed to the teeth which the unit commander upturned.
If the troop stationed at the HQ had tried to counter the crossfire, it would have been total massacre. My plans then was if the Commander had obliged me to deploy troops to rescue Sgt. Doe, I would have asked the nearest troop to the HQ , which was the Nigerian troop, to move in and rescue Sgt. Doe from the stronghold of Johnson.
But if I had taken the initiative to deploy troops and in the cause of that action, any troop recorded casualties, the Commander would blame me for illegally deploying troops. That was my fear and why we could not counter the crossfire immediately.
Taylor Killed Ngerians
At this stage of the Peace Keeping Operation, Nigeria recorded many casualties. Was that true?
I must state here that a lot of casualties were not recorded by Nigeria at the early stage of the operation. But it was after we started advancing towards Charles Taylor's territory that we started suffering casualties.
And before our arrival in Monrovia, Charles Taylor and his men had invaded the Nigerian House and killed a lot of our nationals resident in Liberia. It was not about killing Nigerian soldiers but basically, it was about killing Nigerian citizens who were based in Liberia at the time the war broke out.
And again, during that period, we asked so many Nigerians in that country to return home. But they would not listen to us because according to our findings, most of them were married to Liberian women and had children and established businesses.
They did not believe that Charles Taylor would have anything to do with them. But being a rebel, he invaded the Nigerian House and killed innocent Nigerians who had run there for safety.
That brings us to the asylum that was granted to Charles Taylor by the Obasanjo's administration. Was it a right step to have taken by the government?
I do not know what transpired within the government axis regarding the asylum that was granted Charles Taylor in Nigeria. I cannot say whether it was deliberately done to lure him to be captured. But information available to me was that Charles Taylor should not have been granted asylum in Nigeria at all.
Eventually, it facilitated his capture.
Peace Keeping Is Important
Do you think it's still relevant for Nigeria to continue to contribute troops for peace keeping operations?
Yes! I think it's still relevant. Nigeria has been contributing troops to peace keeping operations overseas.
There's no realistic training than what the boys learn while on the battle field. Look at any battalion that embark on a peace keeping operation.
When they return to the country, they appear more seasoned and more trained than they were before they left the shores of the country. We do conduct exercises in Nigeria but those are dry exercises. In peace keeping operations, it's a very real situation and there is no training that money can buy than what our soldiers gain when they embark on peace enforcement operations.
That's the greatest asset that we have gained as a nation from contributing troops to peace enforcement operations.
Would you say the country has been fair to you in terms of your unannounced retirement from service?
I think there's a problem of leadership here. I have been saying time without number that the military incursion into the nation's politics is a very big mistake. And most of the time, when it happened, it's the military boys that suffered the consequences.
This is so because those who took part in any coup got rewarded with juicy appointments. The effect is that when they have gotten to the top, they begin to amass wealth and find themselves no longer amenable to military discipline. So, because of that, indiscipline craved into the military, coupled with greed and extortion.
These happened to be the same set of people that rose to the position of decision making in the army, thereby distorting the normal flow of communication.
They formed what we now call kitchen cabinet, gossiping and back-bitting, all in attempts to get to the top. They are the ones who now advise that if you do not retire these officers, there wouldn't be positions for us to occupy.
Look at countries like Ghana, they hardly retire their experienced officers like Nigeria does. They only re-cycle them from time to time.
Even though they do not promote their officers as frequently as we do here, they usually prefer to keep them to tap from their wealth of experience and allow them to acquire more training in all the branches in the military.
So, my retirement was as a result of greed, gossip and inordinate ambition to become a Major-General by the low ranking officers.
But one thing they fail to realize is that if you become a Major-General, you are also not far from your retirement. So, it's a no win situation. It's definitely going to come back to you. I'm glad that the situation is getting more suitable than it was when we were there.
Now, let's start thinking of how we are going to move the nation forward. Right now, there is a lot of tribal politics playing out in the military.
Do you have regrets fighting against your kinsmen during the Nigerian civil war?
Not all. The situation at that time detected the action I took. I was at the Nigerian Defence Academy struggling to ensure that Nigeria remained one indivisible entity. If that situation repeats itself and I find myself in the same position, I will definitely behave the same way.
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