37 years Ago; April 12, 1980: When Liberians Got The Taste Of A Military Government

Members of the defunct People’s Redemption Council (PRC)

Exactly 37 years ago today, on that mournful Saturday morning at 5am on April 12, 1980 when Liberians in their perplexity situation were awake with a very strange voice on the national radio station, the ELBC announcing that the Country 19th President, Rev. Dr. William Richard Tolbert had been overthrow by the military led by Sargent Samuel Kanyon Doe.

This unfamiliar voice also justified that the Country’s President was overthrow due to what was described as ‘Rampant Corruption’ amongst other allegations drew the attentions of bewailing Liberians many of whom who felt that the unceremonious arrival of the military was timely and convincible, and further agreed on the justification of the military takeover, but other noted to the contrary.

Later on, that day the military coup, many thought would have been a bloodless takeover turned soured as many officials of the dethroned True Whig Party led government were now a target of members of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC); their arrest for immediate trial by a setup military tribunal was now in full swing, while others who were not in government also went through hardship created by the military government.

Doe’s forces executed President William R. Tolbert, along with dozen officials of the Tolbert’s regime, who were mostly of Americo-Liberian descent. This marked the first time since Liberia’s establishment as a country that it was governed by people of native African descent instead of the Americo-Liberian elite. Doe became head of state and suspended the constitution, but promised a return to civilian rule by 1985.

Many people welcomed Doe’s takeover as a shift favoring the majority of the population that had been excluded from power, my mother said market women would dance and sing songs praising the military government with songs like, ” native woman born soldiers, soldiers killed Tolbert.

But Doe’s government increasingly adopted an ethnic outlook, as members of his Krahn ethnic group soon dominated political and military life in Liberia. This caused a heightened level of ethnic tension leading to frequent hostilities between the politically and militarily dominant Krahns and other ethnic groups in the country.

Prior to the military coup on April 12, 1980, on March 10, 1980, George Boley, kinsman of Mr. Samuel K. Doe was arrested on the street in Monrovia. Boley, in his early thirties, was one of Liberia’s promising young men, an outsider who was becoming a provisional member of the ruling establishment.

That establishment consisted almost entirely of “Americo-Liberians,” the descendants of freed American slaves who settled the country early in the nineteenth century. Boley, however, was one of the “country people,” those who did not have roots in America. He had managed to get to the United States for an education, and won a Ph.D. from the University of Akron.

With his American wife, he returned to Liberia and soon became an assistant minister of education in the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. But Tolbert’s agents kept an eye on Boley, and found that, even as he was working for the government, he was associating with its opponents, members of the Progressive People’s Party. Joseph Chesson, the minister of justice, charged him with treason and sedition and locked him up, along with some twenty other suspicious characters, in the post stockade at the Barclay Training Centre, a military base on the Atlantic in downtown Monrovia.

For a month Boley did not see his family. He was given twenty-five lashes every morning. He had no bath the entire time, and he slept on the bare cement floor of the cell, which he shared with several others. Eating only one scant meal a day, he lost fifty pounds and became very weak. Then came the rumor that on April 14, the first anniversary of nationwide riots to protest an increase in the price of rice, he and the other political prisoners would be executed.

Tolbert was serving his term as chairman of the Organization of African Unity, and to protect his reputation, he had waffled on the issue of dissent. At first, he had responded to the riots with force, calling the organizers “wicked, evil, and satanic men,” and ordering the army and the police to fire into the crowds.

(Dozens were killed and hundreds injured.) But then, following the advice of one half of his entourage, Tolbert had rescinded the price increase (from which he stood to gain personally), released most of the arrested demonstrators, and seemingly liberalized the political system. As soon as he realized that his opponents were more defiant than grateful, Tolbert, on the advice of the other half of his team, reverted to repression. It was at this point that Boley and the others were arrested. Tolbert wanted to use the anniversary of the rice riots to teach an important lesson, by having some of his most articulate opponents shot.

On April 12, 1980, two days before his scheduled execution, George Boley was released from prison by members of the PRC who were described as hungry, angry, illiterate soldiers had killed the President of Africa’s oldest Republic to the utter amazement of the intellectuals who had tried to remove Tolbert through a democratic process, guns now succeeded where reason had failed.

Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, then twenty-eight, a native of the same region of the country as Boley and one of Boley’s former English students in night classes at the Marcus Garvey School, in Monrovia. Doe, who had never been out of Liberia and spoke halting English, asked his mentor to become his minister of state for presidential affairs.

Ten days later, in a ceremony recorded by television and still cameras, the army took thirteen of the wealthy Americo-Liberian officials who had been arrested (including Minister of Justice Joseph Chesson), marched them nearly naked through the streets of Monrovia, to ensure that they lost their dignity, tied them to seaside posts at the Barclay Training Centre, and executed them at point-blank range. A crowd of thousands cheered, and by all accounts there was jubilation throughout the country.

The executions took place within sight of Master Sergeant Doe’s new home, the enormous executive mansion, and perhaps thirty yards from his old one—a roofless hovel the size of a tool shed, with no door, no plumbing, a dirt floor, and windows without glass. There he had lived with his wife and four children.

Many other soldiers who had lived in similar places suddenly felt released from their condition. They moved into the palatial homes of Americo-Liberians who had fled—sometimes three or four families to a single house—and, in the name of the revolution, confiscated their Mercedes-Benzes and other possessions. They harassed businessmen and merchants and freely brandished machine guns to get their way.

Liberia’s coup brought to power an odd pairing of forces. On one side is the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), composed of the twenty-seven soldiers who claim to have helped plan or execute the events of April, 1980. They are a ragtag group, mostly semi-literate and in their twenties, ranging in character from Doe and a few other socially conscious types to Harrison Pennue, who has become notorious because he disemboweled Tolbert. Although some of them state in their official biographies that they are descendants of “warriors,” they are mostly the children of rural laborers and market women, and they joined Tolbert’s army to improve their lot. But the army was hardly an alternative. The soldiers were condemned to live in squalid conditions and were even required to give 10 percent of their salaries to their officers.

On the other side is the civilian cabinet. Some of its members are anomalies, such as Doe’s first information minister, Gabriel Nimeley, who used to do play-by-play broadcast of soccer games for Liberian radio and happened to be on duty when Master Sergeant Doe came to the studio that night in April to break his news on the air. Most, however, like George Boley, are highly educated people in their thirties or forties who obtained American doctorates and worked in junior positions under the old regime but spoke too freely about the need for change. While the members of the PRC give speeches, and make promises, the ministers worry about how to deliver from a virtually bankrupt treasury.

The first major clash in the coalition came within days of the coup. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, founder of the Movement for Justice in Africa and now the minister of planning and economic affairs, recalls that he and several colleagues stayed awake for four straight days and nights, pleading with the PRC to heed the advice from Washington and elsewhere to stop the summary trial and execution of former officials and wealthy Americo-Liberians, lest the new government be completely ostracized by the world community. After about thirty people had been put to death, Doe announced publicly that the executions were over.

Later it fell to the ministers to persuade the soldiers that they could not possibly carry out all their promises. They could not freeze the price of gasoline if the cost of imported oil was skyrocketing; they could not keep increasing salaries of the military and the civil servants if the government had no revenues; they could not offer free primary and secondary education throughout the country if they had few teachers and little infrastructure; they could not even freeze the price of Coca-Cola, or the local franchise-holder, a subsidiary of Firestone, would stop providing it.

But some members of the PRC are resisting instruction. Intoxicated with their newfound authority, they are inclined to call news conferences, during which they detail their recent travels around the country, deliver harangues on the duty of the ministers to correct serious problems, and then upbraid the reporters—Liberians and foreigners alike—for publishing or broadcasting things they do not like. One of the chief showmen is Thomas Weh Syen, co-chairman of the PRC and Doe’s “vice head of state.” Before he began his tirade on one such occasion recently, he and several military colleagues behaved like teenagers at play, mugging for pictures they took of each other with a Polariod camera and then giggling over the results.

The PRC issues a regular newsletter. It includes everything from warnings on the correct spelling of members’ names to homilies against “anti-revolutionaries.” The PRC’s behavior tends to embarrass the civilian ministers, who want to establish international respect for a new Liberia and feel that buffoonery, combined with confiscation of personal property and a lack of respect for due process, will only further damage the country’s reputation. But while the council needs the ministers to keep Liberia functioning, in times of crisis the sophisticates with the American Ph.D.s can easily be overruled by the people who come to work in their military fatigues.

Although the PRC has taken over the Capitol building and constituted itself as a legislature of sorts, complete with speaker and committees, the government headquarters remains in the seven-story executive mansion, where Tolbert held sway. A few bullet holes are left here and there in the heavy metal doors on some floors, but the gold-leaf settees and quaint antique tables still sit under thick oil paintings of Liberia’s various former presidents in plush drawing rooms and antechambers. Now the settees are occupied by the ubiquitous petitioners, men and women with weary faces, bearing grievances, suggestions, or job applications, hoping that some tenuous connection with the new regime will bring them a break.

The man who presides over the awkward new coalition, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, looks less like a genuine “head of state” than like a student who has won the role of the president in the school play and has decided to act and dress the part with particular originality. On each collar of his camouflage fatigues he wears a gold pin that says “Chairman” (of the PRC). He affects yellow sunglasses and, sometimes, a tilted cowboy hat. He carries a machine gun or a two-way radio, depending on his schedule for the day, and most of his formal pictures show him behind a desk with an official-looking pen set.

Doe has been careful about his image—keeping his military rank of master sergeant while others promoted themselves to general, and preferring simple cars to the limousines of the Tolbert era—but some of the trappings of power have crept in. His wife, Nancy, is now routinely called the “First Lady” of Liberia, and she is frequently photographed officiating at dedication ceremonies or announcing her involvement in education projects. Doe himself is now treated as if he were the fount of all wisdom.

Because of the violent beginnings of the regime, Doe initially had trouble establishing credibility outside Liberia. Other African heads of state, old friends and associates of Tolbert’s, would not even let an airplane carrying him land in their capitals for meetings. Eventually, the modest, soft-spoken man charmed them, and persuaded them that he was a moderate, restraining influence within the PRC.

Crucial to this effort were two speeches, drafted with the encouragement and perhaps the direct involvement of the International Monetary Fund and the American Embassy in Monrovia. The first, delivered last November, warned of Liberia’s grave economic situation and criticized excesses among the military. Doe put a freeze on government hiring, required every Liberian wage-earner to forgo at least a month’s salary in order to buy new national savings bonds, and removed the “PRC coordinators” who had been supervising the affairs of private businesses. Finally, he declared:

I shall not hesitate to say that the meaning of the Revolution is misunderstood by many of you. Even after half a year, people are still hoping and dreaming of the impossible. They are thinking that the Revolution means instant prosperity; plenty of new jobs; big cars; big houses; and all of the fine things of the world. In other words, they feel that this is a Revolution of Entitlement. While recognizing the growing wave of your rising expectation, I should let you know that the PRC government cannot solve all the nation’s problems overnight…

In the second speech, on Christmas Eve, Doe announced the release of many of the political prisoners held since the coup, and, declaring that the PRC remained “committed to our pledge to return to the barracks,” said the council would be appointing a national commission to draft a new constitution for Liberia.

Liberia cannot possibly survive on its own. The monthly bill for oil (all imported from Saudi Arabia) is at least $12 million, and when the bill comes due the lights often burn late in the American Embassy as U.S. advisers try to help the Liberians juggle their accounts. Some $30 million in capital fled the country after the coup, mostly in the hands of Americo-Liberians escaping to the States. Now Liberia’s debt is estimated at $800 million, and some economists fear a total economic collapse.

The most obvious place to turn for emergency aid, governmental or commercial loans, and new private investment is the country’s traditional sponsor, the United States. That was not easy for Doe at first, given the revulsion over the coup among Liberia’s American constituency (not to mention an influx of Liberian exiles in the Virginia suburbs of Washington and in several other cities).

The first country to recognize the PRC government was Libya, and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—who already had his troops in Chad and his eye on other West African nations—launched an immediate friendship offensive, inviting members of the cabinet and the PRC to Tripoli. Several went, but the United States apparently weighed in just in time to persuade Doe not to accept. Foreign Minister Gabriel Baccus Matthews (founder of the Progressive People’s Party and a potential future civilian leader of Liberia) thinks it is fine for Liberia to accept American warnings against a change of orientation, but only if Washington backs up those warnings with contributions. Indeed, Matthews warns that aid will be necessary, to protect America’s “important interests” in the country, including the complex communications facilities and other installations that the U.S. has built.

Americans who feel that aid to Liberia is important argue that the country’s position on the coast of West Africa is strategic and that political and economic instability will tempt international interference. The Reagan Administration took a symbolic step toward maintaining influence in Liberia by sending a hundred Green Berets and a naval destroyer there on a training exercise in April, on the first anniversary of the coup. It also carried out the plans for some $2 million in military aid to the Doe regime in fiscal year 1981 and granted an additional $25 million in economic support funds over the $7 million the Carter Administration had already budgeted.

How much has changed or improved in Liberia since the coup? What is the nature of the change and what is it reasonable to expect in the future?

In downtown Monrovia, the soldiers have all but disappeared from the streets. The markets are functioning smoothly, although there have been some shortages. The inflation rate is up to about 20 percent from 14 percent in Tolbert’s last days, but that compares favorably with the situation in many developing and developed nations. Already, however, other people are becoming jealous of the soldiers and civil servants, who were the immediate beneficiaries of the coup. Dock workers in Monrovia went on strike recently, and Doe’s government responded harshly, jailing the strike leaders and firing others from their jobs. Violent crime has increased, especially in the countryside, and Doe has promised that anyone convicted of murder will be executed.

A few Americo-Liberians have managed to stay on, relatively free of harassment, but thirty-five political prisoners (including Adolphus Tolbert) remain in the post stockade at the Barclay Training Centre; government officials say conditions there are much improved, but they will not permit outsiders to verify that claim.

The PRC is constantly alert to the threat of a countercoup, and it regularly accuses former officials, including the former vice president under Tolbert, Bishop Bennie Warner, of planning one. (The various exile groups that have taken shape in the United States, among them the Save Liberia Organization, hardly seem capable of anything more than rhetoric.)

Liberians are still debating whether their society has undergone a revolution or just another garden-variety African coup. Many people—including Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was minister of finance under Tolbert, ran the Liberian Development Bank for a time under Doe, and then returned to an old job with the World Bank—fear that the lot of the average Liberian may not change much, that one elite may simply be replaced by another, defined differently but ultimately no less selfish and ruthless. The Americo-Liberians (now derisively called “the Congo people”) are gone from power, but the technocrats and the soldiers who found themselves in the right place at the right time may prove to be equally insensitive and harsh.

Already corruption has become a problem again. Western diplomats claim to know exactly which members of the People’s Redemption Council are in charge of the illicit drug trade and other profitable illegal operations. One incident in particular has raised questions.

The crew of a Liberian-registered tanker supposedly carrying oil to South Africa was arrested in Senegal and later transferred to a jail in Monrovia. The crew members were released without any judicial proceedings, and the suspicion is that several officials of the new government were paid off; they have refused to comment.

The man named finance minister in a cabinet reshuffle in February was previously fired for corruption by both the finance ministry and the Chase Manhattan Bank. A Monrovia banker tells the story that one member of the PRC involved with bank regulation unabashedly approached him and several other bankers with a request that they buy him a car.

This banker guesses that the total financial burden of the corruption may be as great under Doe as it was under Tolbert, but the difference is simply that many more people are now sharing in the payoffs.

“In the cause of the people, the struggle continues,” according to Doe’s slogan, which appears on every document and at the close of every letter written by a government official. But Doe, like William Tolbert, seems to have little doubt about the source of his authority. “God is the one who chose me to be here,” he said flatly in an interview; “God knows I can better help the people.”

This day, April 12, 1980 will forever be remembered in the lives of many Liberians who felt the rift of the military government at the time.

Credits: The Atlantic online

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About Cholo Brooks 15844 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.