Lieutenant General Erskine: The politician, proofreader and soldier’s soldier

BY: Edmund Smith-Asante
The late retired General Emmanuel Alexander Erskine. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
The late retired General Emmanuel Alexander Erskine. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE

Describing how he got into mainstream politics during an exclusive interview with the Daily Graphic, Lieutenant General Emmanuel Alexander Erskine, who is mostly known as the first Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), 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.

“The funny thing is that where I voted in Jack ‘n’ Jill, I got zero so I yelled and when I yelled, the zero turned to be 10,” he recounted, breaking into laughter. Changing his countenance, he said: “Today we can laugh about this, but back then it was a very serious matter.”

“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.

Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Erskine standing before Ghana's first President Dr Kwame Nkrumah and his wife FathiaOther candidates

In 1992, he contested the election with four other candidates, the late former President Jerry John Rawlings (NDC – Progressive Alliance Party), the late Albert Adu Boahen, New Patriotic Party (NPP), Kwabena Darko, National Independence Party (NIP) and late former President Dr Hilla Limann, the People’s National Convention (PNC).

According to the retired General, he went back to lecturing and was 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 was nothing written. 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 of President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, who was then the Foreign Affairs Minister.

Describing his service 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”.

Living dangerously

Most people know that Lt Gen. Erskine (retd) was once a Force Commander of UNIFIL but many are oblivious of the near-death experiences he had while leading the UN mission in Lebanon and his stint with the Daily Graphic as a proofreader in the early days of the paper.

In the one-on-one interview at his residence near the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, he narrated his brushes with death both on the ground and in the air while leading the multinational force comprising troops from Fiji, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Nepal, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Senegal and Sweden, among other countries.

Recounting when his UN-marked plane was bombed, he said: “I was coming from Beirut just outside Tyre, we were just about 300 metres over the Mediterranean when we heard a bang, so I asked the pilot and co-pilot if anything had 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 on 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 (retd), described as a “one man battalion” because he was the only Ghanaian in the force when UNIFIL was born, said the war became intense after an Israeli bus carrying Israeli citizens and heading towards Tel Aviv 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 which attracted a reprisal attack on South Lebanon on March 15 the same year.

He intimated that the force suffered a lot of casualties because he and his troops had to contend with several landmines that had been planted all around as a result of the altercation 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 droves because of the presence of the troops and needed to farm for food.

Lt. Gen Erskine with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Perez when he served as UNIFIL Force Commander

Stint with Daily Graphic

Lt. Gen. Erskine, who hails from Winneba (father) and Ekumfi (mother) in the Central Region left behind 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 said the military had been good and he had no regrets serving the Ghana Armed Forces and the UN.

Edmund Smith-Asante, Regional Page Editor, with Lt. Gen. (retd) Emmanuel Erskine during the interview in March 2018


He disclosed that as a young boy of 14 who had just completed primary school, he had the privilege of working as a proofreader for the Daily Graphic in its formative years in 1950 and 1951.

“I spent my primary years here in Accra with my late elder sister’s husband and incidentally he was one of the earliest senior officials – a feature writer called Sorgbordzo. I finished up in Gold Coast International School and on leaving school, I worked briefly with the Daily Graphic and what is more interesting – I was a proofreader, checking the mistakes and spellings, but I worked under one Mr Awuley Mensah,” he said.

According to Lt. Gen. Erskine, when his brother-in-law was sent to Takoradi to open up an office for the paper, he followed him and assisted with the distribution of the papers for two years until he left for Fijai in 1953.

He said he decided to do a write-up on UNIFIL at 40 because he believed it was imperative for the general public to know what the force was all about and to keep the troops better informed about how the mission started and for them to know that it hadn’t been easy and that “they must respect the customs, cultures of the people and the communities where they work”.

“There is the need to respect the Muslim culture, all the taboos because Ghana has a good name in peacekeeping operations and they must not do anything to soil our reputation and not abuse the privileges and immunities that they enjoy because we are with the UN,” he urged all Ghanabatt troops in Lebanon.

Appointment as UNIFIL Commander

When Lt Gen. Erskine was appointed the first Force Commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), he knew he would be exposed to danger, but little did he know that several attempts would be made on his life.

In view of the ‘present and clear danger’ that he knew he would have to contend with as a peacemaker in chief among the Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese, he fell prostrate on the floor, thanked and prayed to God for wisdom, protection and for common sense the moment he received his letter of appointment from the then United Nations (UN) Secretary-General (SG), Dr Kurt Waldheim, on March 19, 1978.

Speaking of that day the UN Security Council unanimously passed its Resolution 425 authorising the SG, Dr Waldheim, to set up UNIFIL, for which he was made its commander, he 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,” he recounted.

Lt. Gen Erskine in a handshake with late PLO Leader Yasser Arafat

Life after UNIFIL

Lt Gen. Erskine completed his work at UNIFIL when he was posted back to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) to his former position as the Chief of Staff in February 1981 and given an additional job as the SG’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 stated.

That, however, did not prevent him from getting 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 and Kaduna, Nigeria, the International Peace Academy (IPA), New York and was involved in the Mozambique conflict resolution in the early 1990s.

Army commander

Preceding his UN days, however, Lt Gen. Erskine was the Director General, Operations and Planning of the Ghana Army when General Acheampong staged a coup in 1972 and made him the Army Commander and a member of the Supreme Military Council, albeit briefly.

He 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 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.

Joining the army

The retired General’s desire to be in the Ghana Armed Forces was whipped following regular visits of senior military officers to his school, Fijai Secondary School in Takoradi, during which they encouraged the students to join, and he opted for the army.

“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,” he said.

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). “Some of my colleagues at that time were General Acheampong, Techie-Menson, General Obasanjo, whose room was just behind mine in Teshie (they still maintain a very good relationship),” he disclosed.

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 ‘Ghanaianisation’ 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 Defence Staff (CDS) – Kotoka, Ankrah, Ocran, Otoo who later became Air Marshall Otoo, and Addo.