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Why the Military Failed in Liberia

by Charles L. Massaquoi (September 13th 2005)  

"... Politically Doe represented a leader hungry for power. As the Nigerian journalist Ray Ekpu put it, “power like liquor, has a strong aroma and like liquor when taken in large quantities, it is capable of intoxicating the consumer”. Doe was power intoxicated and saw enemies where there were none and saw no friends where there were many. It was as if the gods were angry and intended to destroy him. He was power intoxicated, mad with the power that he had ruthlessly acquired and ruthlessly maintained, until
the very intoxication led to his fall....."


Coups and sudden military takeover in Africa were common occurrences in the late 70s and early 80s. When I was a student in Senior High School, we often heard about military coups on the continent. The media immediately captured and published such events.

On television and radio, and in the newspapers journalists and political analysts described in details how certain governments had been destabilize as a result. For instance correspondents from the BBC or the Voice of America, the common and easily accessible media for the poor in Africa, and arguably the most reliable at the time, told stories of how the army ruled in Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda. I never imagined the same would happen in Liberia. However, I was short sighted and wrong because Liberia could not escape from the cruelty and insurgency of the military. On April 12, 1980, the military overthrew the Government of Liberia. Seventeen young enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia stormed the Presidential Mansion, and assassinated the Chairman of the Organization of African Unity and President of Liberia, William Richard Tolbert. Over a dozen officials of Tolbert’s region, mostly of Americo-Liberian descent, commonly referred to in Liberia as the“congo”, were also publicly executed. The Liberian experience was described as one of the bloodiest in Africa.

The military seized power thereby launching Liberia’s first “revolution”. Americo-Liberian political domination of over a century ended with the formation of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) headed by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. The young revolutionaries promised that once again the Liberian people would be treated humanely and would be given equal opportunity to realize their full potentials. This was overwhelmingly welcomed by many Liberians because in the first place Doe was an indigenous Liberian just like many native Liberians. In fact he was not a “congo”, and that was enough. Secondly Liberians were convinced that they were finally in control of their own destiny and their country without
outside influence. They believed that many of the Americo-Liberians at the time had some link or relationship with the United States one way or the other. So all was well when Doe and his men seized power. For them the time for the common and indigenous Liberian had finally arrived.

Sergeant Doe became the Head of State; Sergeant Thomas Weh-Syen, the Vice Head of State; and Sergeant Thomas Quiwonkpa, "Strongman of the Revolution", was announced the Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia. The PRC was thus formed to “redeem the Liberian People”. What better opportunity can one ask for? However, this joy and relief were short-lived.

Instead of changing the old system, they succeeded in creating another system, which many deemed was far worse than their predecessors in terms of inequality, human rights violation, poor economy, deplorable education and health care system, to name a few. The military completely worsened the political and economic conditions in Liberia. What was known as military coup d’etat became a coup de gráce.

The military government condemned the old regime and accused their predecessors, but from time to time we saw how lavishly the new regime lived, soldiers drove in luxurious cars with tinted glasses, and occupied split level mansions while social services standards in the country including health, education and employment plummeted. The flamboyant life styles of the military were observed by all Liberians because for the soldiers, their lifestyles were a reward and a result of their “hard work”. After all taking power away from the Americo-Liberians was worthy of celebration. Hence there was no point hiding their reward and accomplishments. For them it was time to demonstrate a form of superiority and power as they publicly displayed what they have “earned”.

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. The Doe regime was an extraordinary brutal one that not only disenfranchised many Liberians, but it also effectively erased the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate political action.

Doe accused the Americo- Liberians of corruption. He may be right on that because the ethnic Americo-Liberians also publicly displayed their enormous resources of wealth and connections garnered during the many years they ruled. However Doe’s Administration was said to be one of the most corrupt and profligate in Liberian history. Instead of building an honest and capable civil servant, many government workers were hired based on their linkage or relationship to top government officials rather than based on their academic qualifications. Further more, Government workers were forced to contribute 25% of their salaries towards the celebration of Doe’s birthday—officially declared a public holiday each year— when he was in power. In addition, all civil servants were also forced to pay into the coffers of the ruling party. He championed the cause of mainly the Krahns, his ethnic group, rather than act as a figure-head for all.

Doe became insensitive to the plight of the poor by allowing foreign insatiable interests and, like many other developing countries, allowing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictate the nation’s economic course. The plight of the common Liberian was unbearable. The country’s human rights record became stained and yet unquestionable for fear of being labeled or branded as an enemy. Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia had greater access to the media compared to other parties during the period of elections, thereby giving him the upper hand in the campaign process.

Tubman’s Era Dr. William V. S. Tubman, the 18th President of Liberia ruled for 27 years. His Vice President, William R. Tolbert ruled Liberia for 19 years. Their party, the True Whig Party (TWP), reemerged in Liberian politics in 1877 as the dominant party with its candidate Anthony William Gardiner as the winner of the elections. Hence forth, the TWP became the only political party in Liberia to have ruled the country for 133 uninterrupted years.

That was definitely a grave mistake because what it meant was that the country became a one-party state though there was no ban on multi party politics. But the TWP, like any political party system, had its shortcomings. Its strength lied not on serving the people of Liberia but on building a network of loyal families entrenched in the political root of the country so that the party stood for over a century without a major opposition. Consequently until April 12, 1980 Liberia was considered a primary country among the politically stable countries in Africa. Regrettably Liberia could not escape the wrath of inequality, oppression and revolution. The Liberia we all knew before became that of the past.

Many African countries like Liberia are grappling with the aftermath of years and centuries of social, economic and political injustice. In Africa today Ghana is one of the most stable and economically viable countries. A rank once reserved for Liberia.

Tubman’s legacy of “Open Door Policy” geared towards attracting foreign capital into the country, and his policy of unifying indigenous Liberians and Americo-Liberians were perhaps well-intended policies to cover up the underground inner workings of his network of leaders. Unfortunately establishing power made up of a small number of prominent families who led factions and formed alliances within the party existed far before Doe’s arrival in Liberian politics. Hence it is no wonder that native Liberians were full of joy when the military overthrew the civilian President William R. Tolbert on April 12, 1980. The same people, however, were later to be victimized by General Samuel K. Doe. He ruled Liberia for ten years, a period some journalists and political analysts have described as a reign of terror. During a discussion with me of the Liberian situation, a Liberian Educator Mr. James S. Bartee once said the late Head of State Samuel K. Doe will be remembered not for his bravery for taking power away from Americo-Liberians, but as the man who introduced “DOEMOCRACY” and not “DEMOCRACY”. His description illustrates the degree at which Doe was obsessed with power. It describes how Doe, like his predecessors, established a network of tribal loyalists in his government.

Out of Liberia’s 21 past presidents, Samuel K. Doe made history on January 6, 1986 to have become the first indigenous person to be inaugurated as elected president.

Following the social, economic and political problems that the country encounter even long after the rule of the string of Americo-Liberians, some argued that Doe exemplified the incapability of native Liberians to govern themselves.

That not withstanding it is worth noting that Doe indeed registered some marks of achievement during his rule as president. For instance it is in Doe’s era that a truly autonomous constitution was drafted. The creation of four more counties and the introduction of a multi-party system of government all occurred during his rule. However, it is believed that his misdeeds outweigh his achievements. He completely lost a unique opportunity to radically change the country and head it in the right direction where Liberians would take charge of their own destiny without any fear of intimidation and discrimination. Instead he failed to unite all Liberians, and intensified the practice of tribalism thereby heightening tribal sentiment coupled with social and economic turmoil.

It is these characteristics that led to the crumbling of military rule and fueled the over 10 years of civil crisis in Liberia.

Politically Doe represented a leader hungry for power. As the Nigerian journalist Ray Ekpu put it, “power like liquor, has a strong aroma and like liquor when taken in large quantities, it is capable of intoxicating the consumer”. Doe was power intoxicated and saw enemies where there were none and saw no friends where there were many. It was as if the gods were angry and intended to destroy him. He was power intoxicated, mad with the power that he had ruthlessly acquired and ruthlessly maintained, until the very intoxication led to his fall.

The United States of America (USA) cannot go without blame for the political nightmare in Liberia. The US supported the ruthless dictator for 10 years. The US Department of State endorsed the disputed results of the 1985 elections. Between the 1980’s and 1990’s, US aid to Liberia stood at 500 million dollars. But this is another topic, which I hope to revisit. sometime soon.

About the author:

Charles L. Massaquoi, International Journalist, Poet, Media Analyst/ Consultant, and Scripturologist studied Religion and History at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan USA. He received his Bachelor of Biblical Theology from Therapon University, St. Thomas USVI, and the Master of Journalism from the Nordic College of Journalism, Mullsjö,
Sweden. Mr. Massaquoi is a published writer, a number of his articles have been published on the internet. Some of his writings had been published by well-known magazines such as Time Magazine, Focus on Africa Magazine, The Pepper Bird Magazine.The Lundian, The Radiation, Foot Print Magazine, and Africa Forum. In addition, he has written twenty one poems. His poems have been published by Poetry International, Maryland, USA. One of the
poems, A New Liberia is a masterpiece.

As an International Journalist, he had traveled to many parts of the world. He speaks English, Swedish, and three African languages from Liberia, West Africa. He is the Publisher/Managing Editor of Africa
Talking Drum online magazine. Africa Talking Drum has become a reliable source for African News.

Mr. Massaquoi was born in Firestone, Margibi County, Liberia. His hobbies are playing basketball, reading, writing, traveling, Athletics , listening to music, and teaching.

Mr. Massaquoi and his family currently reside in Malmö city, Sweden.

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