By Thomas Kai Toteh ~ April 29 2006
"...After the rice riot, soldiers’ partisanship in the Progressive People’s Party was rapidly growing to a record number. Gurley Street was like a military barracks. The sleeves of soldiers’ military shirts swiveled above their elbows. They answered PPP’s battle cry with their fists up while some of them passed through the crowd and headed to the military barracks. Some soldiers would stand around the dusty and small pink building situated in the slummy part of Gurley Street to listen to political rhetoric..."
When a group of young political activists arrived from the United States, they brought with them a message of liberation. Their message received overwhelming support from the people of Liberia because it contained hope for social, economic, and political reforms.
Under the banner of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) later renamed Progressive People’s Party (PPP), the new breeze of political activists soon won the support of the old and struggling Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA). The old progressives and the new progressives united in purpose and launched a sweeping political campaign to dismantle the one party rule in Liberia.
The Liberian people, being cognizant of their constitutional rights, rose to the cause of democracy by attending political meetings, peaceful rallies, and campaigns throughout the country. From the onset the political movement aimed to use the Liberian Constitution to empower the people to change the then present Liberian political system. Under Chapter I Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution, all power is inherent in the people. In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided by the Constitution, to cause their servants to leave office and to fill the vacancies by regular elections and appointments.
Paradoxically, the constitutional mandate as stipulated in Chapter I article I was replaced with violent protests and street demonstrations. Before the so-called rice riot, non commissioned officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia became regular participants of political meetings mainly at the Gurley Street headquarters of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). The constant street chaos that ended in a deadly demonstration on April 14, 1979 was later realized as a prelude to a series of aggressive measures to force the Tolbert administration to accept reforms. This then signaled the resolution of the progressives to undemocratically remove the one party system. This new method termed “political violence Theory” was said to be the only alternative for a political reform because the present administration was unwilling to accept the constitutional mandate.
It was not a surprise or an isolated event then, when a significant number of the Armed Forces of Liberia sided with the civilians during the rice riot on April 14, 1979, though their action was construed as a manifestation of their solidarity with the struggling class of which they were part. The soldiers were considered the least underprivileged group in the Liberian society. Hence their clash with the Liberian National Police (LNP) on April 14, 1979 was highly adored both by the progressives and the populace.
After the rice riot, soldiers’ partisanship in the Progressive People’s Party was rapidly growing to a record number. Gurley Street was like a military barracks. The sleeves of soldiers’ military shirts swiveled above their elbows. They answered PPP’s battle cry with their fists up while some of them passed through the crowd and headed to the military barracks. Some soldiers would stand around the dusty and small pink building situated in the slummy part of Gurley Street to listen to political rhetoric.
The fact that the progressives allowed soldiers to gain full access to political meetings convinced farsighted people that something terrible was about to happen. Following the rice riot, tension continued everyday in the markets, schools, and strongholds of progressives; including West Point, New Kru Town, Duala, and Logan Town. The call for the late William R. Tolbert’s resignation was the last move the progressives thought would have a serious repercussion. But their close ties with the soldiers assured them that victory was certain at any cost. “Tolbert must resign, Tolbert must resign” resonated from the guttered encircle little pink building of PPP to the lips of school children throughout Monrovia. Chilly feelings enthralled older folks who for the past decades did not witness any such thing like children calling for president’s resignation in such a disorderly and impolite manner. Experienced and telepathic citizens knew Liberia was heading in a different direction.
Truly, the progressives were arrested and jailed on charges of treason. Not too long then the national anthem played in the early morning of April 12, 1980. A trembling voice of a non-commissioned officer hit the airwave of the state own radio, ELBC. A man who did not have the slightest thought of becoming a platoon leader was flanked by progressive leaders and guarded by his fellow coup makers at the Executive Mansion. The inexperienced and half educated soldiers, stupefied and anxious, were left at the mercy of their political collaborators to begin decision making, including setting up of the new government and eliminating potential threats. Information from insiders at the Executive Mansion revealed the following dialogue between the coup leaders and the progressive politicians: Mission is accomplished, gentlemen! Here is the thing. You can handle it from here. No! Not a good idea. Taking over from you will send a bad message out to the international community. This is a military takeover. We can only guide you for now. But you have to return to the barracks when situation stabilizes.
Both the politicians and the political soldiers were celebrated as heroes during the early hours of the coup throughout the country. People who were politically sentient to the unfolding events at the time saw a danger. People in other parts of Africa and Liberia’s neighbors who had earlier tasted and were still suffering from the wrath of military involvement in politics wondered why Liberians did not consult them first. On the first anniversary of the coup, the late Honorable H. Boima Fanbulleh, Sr., in his anniversary message, metaphorically told members of the People’s Redemption Council to be mindful of wolves in sheep clothing.
The late Fanbulleh’s metaphor became a reality when the vice head of state, Thomas Weh-Sen, on his way back from a football game in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County was arrested and charged along with five other PRC members for plotting to overthrow the PR C government. The nation was stunned. The People Redemption Council had only celebrated one year anniversary. One of Liberia's senior politicians, Togbah Nah Tipoteh got stuck at the Abidjan airport while in route to Liberia from official duty. He was accused of collaborating with top PRC members in plotting to overthrow the PRC government and usher in a socialist government.
Liberian people became suspicious of the military’s capability to maintain a stable nation. Others began to question the relationship between the progressive politicians and the junta. Togbah Nah was one of the brains the PRC depended on for political and economic advice. Liberian People started to wonder as to what might have gone wrong. “How possible could this be and what is the raison d'être or how truthful is the PRC’s allegation?” These were some of the many questions typical Liberians asked each other during those days. But as the old saying goes, “Where there is smoke there must be a fire.”
In a quarterly electronic Sea breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings, H. Boima Fanbulleh, Jr. wrote: What violence is justified in history: that of the tyrant and his cronies or that of the people?” But there were forces that did not want a democratic transition in Liberia. They understood that a democratic transition with popular support was dangerous to certain interests and thus the military coup in 1980! I do not believe that Samuel Doe and his colleagues were intelligent enough to stage a coup of that magnitude. I worked with them for three years and there was nothing to convince me that they had the ability or aptitude for political interaction. I have looked at the records and still not convinced that they have could have carried out that coup on their mind!
Are patriots to refrain from decisive action against injustice because people will die in the process? History does not move in this way. In our case, after 1985, there was nothing to show that the regime would not go on killing, terrorizing and brutalizing the people as was done between 1980 and 1984.
For Samuel Doe, a year and half was enough to make him primed and plucky to handle the political affairs of the country. He double-crossed the progressives by swiftly instituting his own political agenda. Samuel Doe’s constant reshuffling and dismissals of cabinet ministers including, his progressive friends, were warning signs that the progressive-junta honey moon was over. But eliminating the progressives and his second in command marked the beginning of the junta’s trouble and the continuation of the struggle in the cause of the people.
The junta’s trouble surely began when the strong man in the junta, Thomas G. Quinwonkpa was ordered removed from the Barclay Training Center (BTC) where he resided as a commanding general of the Armed Forces of Liberia. He was stripped of his strong man position and transferred to the Capitol as a speaker of the Interim National Assembly (INA), a new body formed to replace PRC as a way forward to a democratic government. The general refused to honor Samuel Doe’s order. Tension built up in the capital for hours, but later calm returned when the general disappeared from the barracks.
Information from family sources and friends revealed that General Quinwonkpa was granted political asylum to the US. Soon after the alleged rigged election in 1985, rumors began circulating that General Quinwonkpa was constantly contacted by politicians in the US to stage a coup to remove Samuel Doe. Samuel Doe, being aware of the repercussion for refusing to return to the barracks, reshaped the first infantry battalion at Camp Shufflin to encompass almost all his brave and trained tribe men. Backed by Romanian armored fighting vehicles and an Israeli trained Special Anti- Terrorist Unit (SATU), Samuel Doe was set for the showdown on November 12, 1985.
At 5:a.m. on Tuesday, the national anthem played. The voice of former PRC strong man and commanding general, Thomas G. Quinwonkpa jingled on the state radio: Fellow citizens, this is Thomas G. Quinwonkpa. The Patriotic Forces under our command had seized power. Samuel Doe is in hiding. There is no escape for him. Our forces have completely surrounded the city. We call on the men and women of the Armed Forces of Liberia to join forces as we take on the ultimate mission to remove the tyrannical regime of Samuel Doe. Victory to the Patriotic Forces, God blesses you.
Eight hours later, the situation changed as forces loyal to Samuel Doe backed by Romanian communication network fought back bitterly and sent General Quinwonkpas’ patriotic forces in disarray. On the next morning, General Quinwonkpa was captured and killed. Civilians hurried to the barracks when they first heard that the general was captured. But the ghastly situation on the ground of the Barclay Training Center took citizens aback. The manner in which the General's body was handled reminded Liberians who were at the scene how dangerous political violence or violent regime change is. Cold feelings toke hold of those who saw the inhumane panorama. “Oh my God, What brought this man back here,” a woman running from the scene asked. “That’s politics,” another woman answered. An intelligent young looking man asked, “What does the military have to do with politics? “That’s African politics. African politics is nothing but violence,” a foreign looking man remarked as they walked away from the scene.
Samuel Doe had proven to be a hard-hitting and unapproachable general. The forces that facilitated his coming to power regretted and cursed the day the plan was made to lead him to the Executive Mansion. But who knows what the General would have turned out to be if he had successfully overthrown Samuel Doe. Well since General Quinwonkpa did not succeed in removing Doe, hope was still there. That hope was in a man who allegedly embezzled approximately US$1m and ran to America.
Charles Taylor was arrested and jailed at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Boston, Massachusetts. Circumstances surrounding his disappearance from the US after he broke jail remain a mystery. But on the home front, eye brows are raised at politicians’ connections. The true story has not yet come out, but observers believe Charles Taylor did not act alone in planning the invasion that gravely devastated the lives of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans. Those who facilitated Taylor were double crossed as well.
The last violent regime change campaign which brought Charles Taylor in to hold Liberians hostage for 14 years has put the populace against the progressives. It is not known how long it will take the populace to confide in the progressives. But the fact of the matter is, politicians are also affected by violent regime change. They were always double crossed. Their aims and objectives were always thwarted. There is a great lesson here that every Liberian regardless of political affiliation, ideology, ethnicity, and religion must learn. A violent regime change does not promise well for our situation. A violent regime change does more harm than uniting the people of Liberia. Violent regime change should not be the last option to remove tyrants as believed by some senior radical politicians. The people-power has proven very productive in some countries. Corazon Aquino of the Philippines was brought to power through the people’s power when Marco Ferdinand refused to accept defeat in the presidential election in 1986. Marcus was one of the most ruthless dictators in the world, yet he was forced into exile by the Pilipino people.
What Liberian political activists need to do, is to conduct a political awareness campaign throughout the country. When almost every Liberian is conscious of the Constitution of Liberia, the people’s power will triumph over violent regime change. Let Chapter I Article I of the Liberian Constitution be put into practice in the new Liberia.