In the previous column “African History in African Eyes”，we invited our African friends to tell us about the history of their nations, to provide a new perspective for understanding African history. With this column coming to an end, we would publish a new one named “African Stories from Africans”. This time, we would say goodbye to the grand narratives of nation states, and focus on the vivid stories about African heroes and legends. We hope this would help us get close to the history and life in Africa.
From dead end to UNIFIL Commander
By Edmund Smith-Asante, Reporter of Daily Graphic in Ghana
The story of Lieutenant General Erskine
● The beginning
● Life at risk
● Life after UNIFIL
● Army Commande
● Becoming a soldier
● Political adventure
● Biography and early life
A young man of 23 years decided to join the army in Ghana, West Africa, in 1958 right after his secondary school education because he could not get the financial assistance needed to continue his education at the university.
His interest in the army was whipped up after regular visits of senior military officers to his school, Fijai Secondary School in Takoradi, in the Western Region of Ghana, during which they encouraged the students to join after school.
“I was very much enticed to go into the army because I couldn’t continue my education in the university – I didn’t have the money,” the young man, now retired army General Emmanuel Alexander Erskine, said.
But that misfortune of his inability to further his education tended to inure to the benefit of the whole world 20 years later, when he became the first Force Commander chosen by the United Nations to head its Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to advance peace in the troubled Middle East region.
March 19, 2018 was exactly 40 years since the UN Security Council unanimously passed its Resolution 425 that authorised the then Secretary-General, (SG) Dr Kurt Waldheim on March 19, 1978, to set up the Peacekeeping Mission – UNIFIL, for which Ghanaian-born Lieutenant General Erskine was made its first commander.
The mission was ultimately to stop further loss of lives, destruction of homes and property, as well as the immense suffering of the population of the region.
Serving under him were troops from Canada, Fiji, France, Ghana, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Nepal, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Senegal and Sweden among other countries.
Despite the still turbulent situation in the Middle East, it is the work done by Lt. Gen. Erskine and the multi-national forces that served under him and other commanders after him that has prevented the situation from escalating.
⬆Edmund Smith-Asante with the former UNIFIL Commander, Lt. Gen. (retired) Emmanuel Erskine
Narrating how he was appointed the UNIFIL commander in an exclusive interview in Accra; the retired General said “That very day, I received a copy of the Resolution together with the SG’s message (cable), appointing me as the Acting Force commander and instructing me to set up the force.
“I was surprised, excited and overjoyed. I immediately dropped on the floor of my lounge in my residence located on the slopes of Mount Scopus in East Jerusalem, and in a prostrate and prayerful position, prayed.
“I thanked our very kind, gracious and merciful God and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ for giving me the very rare opportunity to serve war-torn Lebanon, and more specifically the heavily war-ravaged South with its deprived south Lebanese, the women, aged and children together with Palestinians expelled from their homes in Palestine as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars and from Jordan in the Black September 1970 episode.
“I also prayed for increase in knowledge and to be imbued with Solomon’s wisdom to execute my functions professionally as expected by the SG in fully supporting him to execute his task to achieve the four thematic objectives demanded by Resolution 425, since the accomplishment of this mission hinged, to a large extent, on me as his representative on the ground.
“I asked for God’s protection from all dangers which were prevalent in all conflict theatres and finally, for common sense.”
Looking back with nostalgia after serving the United Nations and humanity, he recalled the very precarious situations he and his troops always found themselves in.
Life at risk
Recounting when his UN-marked plane was bombed he said; “I was coming from Beirut just outside Tyre, we were just about 300 meters over the Mediterranean when we heard a bang so I asked the pilot and co-pilot if anything has happened. When we got to Naqoura after just three minutes flight and the ground assistants came to open the door (this was where I got frightened), there was no door. Whatever they fired had blown the door and the door fell straight down into the sea,” he said, adding that if the door had touched the propellers the plane would have crashed into the sea.
He said there was another time when after a visit to the Fijian troops at Naqoura shots were fired at the seat of the plane. He was also ruffed up resulting in his ranks falling off; when eight Norwegian soldiers had been abducted from their duty post and he went for a meeting with the abductors at a location in Nazareth to have them released.
Looking back to those encounters he said; “I enjoyed UNIFIL; I loved it but I wouldn’t like to go back again because my sitting here is by the grace of God. My room was bombed. I happened at that time not to be there. I have been manhandled, my aircraft has been shot. I thank God that when I was appointed I went down to ask Him for protection because I am sitting down here today by His grace but I enjoyed it.”
Lt. Gen. Erskine was described as a “one man battalion” because he was the only Ghanaian in the force when UNIFIL was born.
He explained that the war in the Middle East became intense after an Israeli bus carrying Israeli citizens and heading towards Tel Aviv in Israel was attacked near the Israeli coastal town of Hertzliya in the early hours of March 11, 1978, which resulted in the death of about 30 Israelis, and attracted a retaliatory attack on South Lebanon on March 15 the same year.
Palestinians resident in South Lebanon were the immediate suspects of the heinous, murderous attack, he said, adding that “the Israelis were expected to respond to this act of extreme brutality and provocation.”
He continued that “the much-awaited retaliation code-named ‘Operation Litani,’ commenced with air strikes shelling from mortars and other artillery pieces and finally complemented by ground assault troops supported by other heavy weapons. A large number of the villages and houses of the South Lebanese was reduced to rubble and the farms infested with unexploded and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) mostly bombs and land mines, thereby depriving the local Lebanese of their means of livelihood since they could not go to farm. Water pumps and electric poles had equally been destroyed by the constant shelling from mortars, artillery pieces and airstrikes.”
Lt. Gen. Erskine disclosed that UNIFIL suffered lots of casualties because he and his troops had to contend with the several landmines that had been planted all around as a result of the disagreement and unending war between the Israelis and Palestinians, and also because the Lebanese who had become internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their own country were returning in their numbers because of the presence of the troops and needed to farm for food.
Life after UNIFIL
The General completed his work at UNIFIL and he was posted back to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) and to his former position as the Chief of Staff in February 1981. There he was given another job as the Secretary General’s Representative for peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and he retired in 1986.
“I came back home and I was tired. Mentally and physically tired,” he said. He, however, got involved with some international organisations to share his experiences on conflict management. He worked with organisations such as former Nigerian President Obansanjo’s African Leadership Forum, the military staff colleges in Accra, Ghana and Kaduna, Nigeria; the International Peace Academy (IPA), New York and was involved in the Mozambique conflict resolution in the early 1990s.
Before his appointment as the UNIFIL Force Commander Lt. Gen. Erskine was the Ghana Army Commander.
He was before then the Director General, Operations and Planning of the Ghana Army and was made the Commander and a member of the Supreme Military Council when General Acheampong staged a military coup d’état in 1972.
Lt. Gen. Erskine left for the war college – the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) for a year and returned to his position as the Army Commander in 1973.
He left the army command in 1974 when the UN requested that a Ghanaian fill the position of Chief of Staff for the United Nations Emergency Force Two (UNEF 2) established after September 1976 following the Yom Kippur War of October 6, 1973.
There, he worked under Lt. Gen. Ensio Siilasvuo as the Chief of Staff and second in command. He was later posted from UNEF to Jerusalem to head the UNTSO, as the Chief of Staff (Commander) and then became the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in 1981.
The Yom Kippur war also known as the Ramadan War or October War or the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, was fought by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel from October 6 to 25, 1973.
Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar hoping to win back territory lost to Israel during the third Arab-Israeli war, in 1967.
Becoming a soldier
Lt. Gen. Erskine joined the army in March 1958 with intake 10 of the Regular Officers Special Training School (ROST 10), the predecessor to the Ghana Military Academy (GMA) with an interesting mix of colleagues who included General Acheampong who made him Army Commander and former Nigerian President, General Olusegun Obasanjo, with whom still has a very good relationship.
After training in Ghana for six months he proceeded to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (RMAS) in January 1959, finished and was commissioned in December 1960 after a two-year course.
Gen. Erskine said he was commissioned into the Signals Regiment in 1961, after doing his young officers course in communications. “My coming back coincided with the ‘Ghananisation’ of the Ghana Armed Forces, which means the British leaving and Ghanaians taking over,” he said.
He subsequently became the military secretary working under five Generals who were all Chiefs of Defense Staff (CDS) – Kotoka, Ankrah, Ocran, Otoo who later became Air Marshall Otoo and Addo.
Describing how he got into politics, Lt. Gen. Erskine said in the early 1990s he was visited by some elders of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) who asked him to join the party.
He obliged and joined in 1992 but “unfortunately the CPP had been split and I took part of it. We called ourselves the People’s Heritage Party (PHP) and it was interesting. The end result is that I didn’t do well.
“So the end of 1992 was the end to my political life but I learnt. One important thing I learnt in politics is the human being. It was a great lesson,” he stated.
In 1992 he contested the elections with four other candidates, former President Jerry John Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and later the – Progressive Alliance Party, Albert Adu Boahen, New Patriotic Party (NPP), Kwabena Darko, National Independence Party (NIP) and Dr Hilla Limann, the People’s National Convention (PNC).
According to the retired General, he went back to lecturing and being part of conflict issues until 1999 when he had an invitation from the UN headquarters on contract to one of its new units opened to share lessons from conflicts and past peacekeeping experiences so that newly appointed force commanders could stop by and get some briefing because there were no publications to learn from at the time. He worked there till 2001 when he retired fully from the UN.
But just after a year in 2002 he was called back from rest and given a national assignment to serve on the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) through an invitation from President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo who was then the Foreign Affairs Minister.
Describing his serving on the NRC as “a very very interesting assignment in my life” he said he served until 2004, “then I was tired. I was truly tired and ever since I have been home.”
Biography and early life
Lt. Gen Erskine, who hails from Winneba (father) and Ekumfi (mother) in the Central Region of Ghana has a wife, Rose, a retired nurse/midwife and eight children (four men and four women) who sometimes visited him when he served as the UNIFIL commander in Lebanon.
The children, some of whom are in the Bahamas, Canada, London, Ghana and Washington include a dental surgeon, a lawyer, a nurse and a media practitioner Anita Erskine.
A staunch Anglican born on January 19, 1935, he says the military has been good and he had no regrets serving in the Ghana Armed Forces and the UN.
文I 埃德蒙·史密斯 – 阿桑蒂 加纳《每日写真报》记者 翻译|邓哲
在UNEF 2，他曾在中将Ensio Siilasvuo手下担任参谋长和副司令。后来他被从紧急部队派往耶路撒冷担任停战监督组织负责人，担任参谋长（指挥官），并于1981年成为秘书长特别代表（SRSG）。