April 12, 1980: The Morning Liberians Witness The Brutal Murder Of A Sitting President – A Reflection
By Joel Cholo Brooks
Today, April 12, 2022, marked exactly forty-two years when Liberians and foreign resident woke up early in the morning of April 12, 1980 of the bitter news of the assassination of President William Richard Tolber, Jr., a renowned Baptist Preacher by 17 members of the Armed Forces by a little known Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe.
The coup was staged by an indigenous Liberian faction of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under the command of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Following a period of transition, this bloody incident which took place at the presidential palace, the Executive Mansion drew chill bombs on the bodies of many Liberians who least expected for such inhumane act of a sitting president of Africa’s oldest Republic, Liberia
According to researchers, the actual cause of the 1980 coup was due to what was then described as ethnic tensions between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians, predatory elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparities.
As a result of this unceremonious occasion which led to the brutal murder of Liberia’s sitting President, on that fateful day, hundreds of Liberians mainly young people took the streets of Monrovia lauding the efforts of the military by singing pro-songs for the coup plotters: “Native Woman Born Soldier, Soldier Kill Tolbert”.
Shops, stores and other business centers were immediately closed, as many glued to their radio and television sets to listen to the leader of the coup, why at the same time former officials of the Tolbert’s government were being hunt for by some members of the military, a situation that made some of the former government officials to go into hiding for fear.
It is reported that Harrison Pennoh was the person that killed Tolbert. Accounts have differed on where Tolbert was killed. In his book Mask of Anarchy Steven Ellis claimed the President was found sleeping in his office, where Doe’s men shot him, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s biography, This Child Will Be Great says Tolbert was seized and killed in his bed.
By the end of April 1980, most of the cabinet members of the Tolbert administration had been put on trial in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death. Thirteen of them were publicly executed by firing squad on 22 April at a beach near the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia.
Those executed by the military were:
Frank E. Tolbert — brother of President Tolbert and President pro tempore of the Senate
Richard A. Henries — Speaker of the House of Representatives
Reginald Townsend — National Chairman of the True Whig Party
Clarence Parker II — Chairman of the National Investment Council and Treasurer of the True Whig Party
James A. A. Pierre — Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Joseph J. Chesson Sr. — Minister of Justice
Cecil Dennis — Minister of Foreign Affairs
Cyril Bright — former Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs
John W. Sherman — Assistant Minister of Commerce and Trade
James T. Phillips — former Minister of Finance, former Minister of Agriculture
David Franklin Neal — former Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs
Charles T. O. King — Deputy Minister for Agriculture
Frank J. Stewart Sr. — Director of the Budget
Cecil Dennis was the last man to be shot and was reported to have defiantly stared his killers down whilst uttering a prayer before his execution.
Only four members of the Tolbert administration survived the coup and its aftermath; among them was the Minister of Finance and future President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Vice President Bennie Dee Warner and agricultural minister Florence Chenoweth. Chenoweth was able to escape to neighboring Sierra Leone before making her way to the United States while Warner was out of the country at the time of the coup. Warner unsuccessfully tried setting up a government in exile before Doe offered him clemency and permission to return to Liberia in 1984. Sirleaf was initially detained but subsequently offered a position in Doe’s government which she initially accepted, but later fled the country for the US after she publicly criticized Doe’s policies. Both Sirleaf and Chenoweth later returned to Liberian politics after Doe’s death.
Following the coup, Doe assumed the rank of general and established the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), composed of himself and 14 other low-ranking officers, to rule the country. The PRC was dissolved after the 1985 general election, in which Doe was elected president; he was sworn in on 6 February 1986. Although Doe presented himself as a liberator and someone who would bring relief and more democracy to the country, his administration became accused of authoritarianism and of violently discriminating against other tribes. Doe continued to rule the country until he was murdered on 9 September 1990 by the INPFC, led by Prince Johnson, during the First Liberian Civil War.