It was like an old-fashioned colonial show of force. The Nigerian gunners set up two mortars in a convenient open space on the edge of Makeni, Sierra Leone, and, without even clamping the sights on, fired three rounds off into the surrounding bush.
As the sound of the detonations subsided, the few rebels still holding out against the Nigerian infantry were seen flitting off into the countryside. Gunfire crackled from a rocky hillside to the east, but brigade commander Col. Rafui Adeshina, sitting nonchalantly in his open staff car, was unconcerned.
"They are retreating into the bush," he said. "We will follow them later."
Makeni, the main town in northern Sierra Leone, had been captured after less than 30 minutes of shooting. The only casualties were a few bullet-marked houses and a car with a broken window.
In one week, the Nigerian-led advance into northern Sierra Leone finished off the military pretensions of the junta that deposed elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah in a coup last May. In that week, one Nigerian soldier and two rebel soldiers were killed in the fighting. There were no known civilian fatalities as a result of Nigerian fire. A small number of rebels were killed by civilians and dozens more injured.
A couple of battalions of Nigerian troops, acting under the mandate of the West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG), have been enough to send the rebels flying from all the towns and villages reached so far.
With most of the country now under ECOMOG control, the stage was set for triumphant reinstallation of President Kabbah March 10. His return from exile marks the success of Africa's first experiment with using a multinational force to restore democracy.
Jubilant crowds in the capital, Freetown, cheered his return and his promise to rebuild the impoverished country. Though possessing a wealth of gold and diamonds, Sierra Leone has the world's worst poverty, according to a 1996 UN report. And that was before the junta's looting spree.
The ceremony in Freetown was attended by representatives of the UN, the Economic Community of West African States, and Western democracies.
If any of these were embarrassed by the presence of the guest of honor, Nigeria's military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, they did not let it show. As one foreign observer tartly observed, success is hard to argue with.
While the UN imposed sanctions and the West protested, only Nigeria was prepared to use force to restore Kabbah to power. Nigeria, West Africa's giant, was widely suspected of seeking to increase its power in the region. Its offer to depose the junta by military means was rejected, and it was soundly criticized for its earlier failed attempts to recapture the capital and for bombarding military targets in Freetown.
The UN, with the backing of Sierra Leone's respected ambassador, James Jonah, resolved that negotiation was the answer, even after junta leader Major Johnny Paul Koroma announced a merger between his Army officers and Sierra Leone's rebels.
This move put Major Koroma - who is still at large - beyond the pale for most Sierra Leoneans, who detest the rebels' six-year campaign of robbery, rape, and murder against the civilian population. The new alliance began to systematically plunder the capital, robbing people in houses and cars at gunpoint.
Few Sierra Leoneans seem troubled by the irony of a Nigerian military government providing troops and money to overthrow another military regime in the name of democracy.
"You in Europe, don't you have kings and queens still? How then can you talk to us in Africa about the need to have democracy?" demanded one young man.
The Nigerian soldiers themselves seem equally able to live with the inconsistencies in their position.
One senior officer serving in Sierra Leone, who wished not to be named, said that he and many of his fellow officers were embarrassed to be ruled by a military government. But, he added, there was little they could do back home in the face of the systematic purging and prosecution of suspected anti-Abacha conspirators in the military.
"These people in Freetown were dictators and thieves," he said. "It was necessary to get rid of them, and it is good that we have done that."