Monrovia — J. Rodney Chesson reflects on one of the most memorable days in Liberia's history. The author is the son of the late J. F. Chesson, Sr., who served as Minister of Justice under President William R. Tolbert. Chesson was one of 13 officials executed on the fateful date of April 12, 1980.
The late Liberian President, William R. Tolbert, was killed on April 12, 1980 in a bloody coup d'etat. Thirteen members of his government were executed on April 22, 1980.
Although I had not taken the time to seriously consider what "April 12, 1980" means to me, it was thought-provoking when someone asked about my personal feelings of what that day means to me.
For the benefit of those who do not know what April 12, 1980 is, it is the day on which the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. of Liberia was overthrown as a result of a military coup. President Tolbert was assassinated, and thousands of Liberians were killed. A further result of the coup was that on April 22, 1980, 13 officials of Tolbert's government were killed on a beach in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city. My father, the late Joseph J. F. Chesson, Sr., was Minister of Justice and one of the 13 men killed. During that time, I was a senior at Cuttington University College (CUC) in Suacoco, Bong County, in central Liberia.
Now that I have had the time to reflect on that day and to ask myself what it means to me, I would like to share my thoughts and emotions. I was and am still hurt and saddened by the deaths of my father, some of the people that I loved, adored and respected, and by some of the personal challenges that I experienced during and long after that period. Nevertheless, I am thankful to God that I have been able to look beyond my personal feelings and emotions to see and appreciate the greater events of how he spared my life and the lives of many members of my family on April 12th and throughout the ordeal that followed the coup. Furthermore, I am thankful that many more Liberians did not needlessly die, and nor were there more than the 13 men killed on that dreadful April 22nd day. I view the deaths of President Tolbert, the 13 men, and of all our people as sacrificial lambs.
April 12, 1980 was a significant day of change, not only for Liberia but for the entire continent of Africa. Prior to that day, Liberia and Liberians played an important role in the progress, advancement, and security of the African continent. The Republic of Liberia was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mano River Union, and other continental, regional and local organizations. Various nations and people on the continent became independent of European colonial rule because of Liberia's financial and moral support, involvement, and assistance in their struggles. For example, Liberia was a supporter of the African Natonal Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela during South Africa's struggle for liberation from its partheid regime. Liberia served as a beacon of hope and a light in the darkness for many African nations and peoples. Also, as Africa's first independent republic, Liberia was an inspiration as well as a positive example, not only to Africans but also to all people of color in the world.
As such, with the military coup of April 12th, the subsequent killing of 13 government officials, and the mass exodus of educated Liberians from Liberia and Africa, the country and continent alike were deprived of some of the most enlightened minds that had been instrumental in leading and perpetuating such organizations as the OAU, ECOWAS, etc. For example, look around Africa today and you will see that these organizations have lost the effectiveness and functionality they had during the 1970s. The OAU is non-existent today, and ECOWAS is far removed from being an economic force on the continent. Today it is more of a peacekeeping force than an economic one. As such, the contributions that Liberia and Liberians have made towards promoting and advancing the interests of Africa was and is evident by the changes that have occurred on the continent since 1980.
As a Political Science student at CUC, my class had conducted a study of the political situation in the country prior to the coup. Every one of my classmates, including myself, came to the conclusion that there would be an attempted coup in Liberia for the following reasons:
Copycats - During the late 1970s, there was a new wave of radical changes occurring in Africa. Military coups were occurring in a number of countries that made it appear as though it was a new way of changing African political leaders. In West Africa, the coup led by Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings of Ghana was in close proximity to Liberia and had a profound impact on me. I had heard of the coups occurring in distant African countries; but it was not until the military coup in Ghana that I began to ask myself, "what happened to the children of the government officials in those countries where there were military coups?" We had often heard of the executions of many of the former government officials of those countries, but nothing was ever said of what happened to their wives, children, or families. The silent answer was that perhaps many of them were also killed. Furthermore, I began to believe and realize that a coup attempt was inevitable in Liberia -- not only because of the political problems faced by the government and leadership of the country, but primarily because I believed and knew quite well that once a military coup had been successful in Ghana, it was very possible that some of our soldiers would try to do the same thing in Liberia. In spite of mine and my classmates' strong beliefs and feelings of an imminent coup attempt, my father and other government officials did not seem to share the same opinion. I tried to warn my father of our findings, but he failed to heed them.
National Security - Unlike the administration of the late President William V. S. Tubman (under whose administration most adolescent and adult Liberians of the 1970s had grown up) which placed a high priority on the security of the nation, the Tolbert Administration had a more "liassez-faire" type of approach where matters of national security were concerned. There were too many significant events and warnings to alert the government that a coup attempt was inevitable; but they were either ignored, taken for granted, or were not given the priority attention they needed. In a nation where Tubman had ruled with an "iron hand" for nearly three decades, such unrestrained, unchecked, riotous and unruly behaviors as were permitted against the government were a clear indication that President Tolbert was either too weak or that the government was not the sacred or powerful institution that they though it was. As such, it could be challenged, shaken, and/or removed by force by the sheer actions of a few defiant and strong-willed men; and it was.
Political Changes - Where Tubman had been a strong African politician in the true sense, Tolbert lacked the political savvy of his predecessor and failed to make decisions that were wise, politically astute, and would have helped to sustain him in power. One of the most fundamental examples of his lack of wisdom was his failure to select Jackson F. Doe, an indigenous son and highly qualified Liberian, as his vice president. I believe that if Tolbert had followed through with his initial decision to select Doe, he could have gravely improved his political situation in Liberia.
Second, for a nation and people who had not experienced and exercised the fruits of their constitutional "freedoms of expression, assembly, or association" for perhaps their entire lives under President Tubman, Tolbert permitted the exercise of these constitutional ideals and rights by some Liberians to go unrestrained and unchecked, especially where they proved to be detrimental to maintaining law, order, and security in the country. Never in the history of Liberia had a group of people openly insulted and humiliated our president and leaders and gotten away with it, as it was done under the Tolbert administration. Tolbert permitted his opponents to say and do anything they wanted to do with impunity. Although each and every Liberian is entitled to exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech, that does not mean that they can say or do anything they want without being held accountable and responsible for expressions that transcend the bounds of their constitutional rights. As such, it appeared as though Tolbert did not know where to draw the lines between where the freedoms of some Liberians began and where they ended.
Nevertheless, there was and still is a strong and urgent need for social change and reform in Liberia. For too long, one group of people had dominated the political and socio-economic life of the country. As such, all Liberians did not share the same sentiments of loyalty, patriotism, and dignity which the majority of a country's people should share for the protection and advancement of their country. Consequently, the time was ripe for some kind of change. Tolbert, God bless his soul, provided the atmosphere for change.
However, it is sad that many Liberians lost their lives during and after April 12, 1980. It is also sad that, in spite of the losses suffered, Liberia still does not have in place the institutions or means of appropriately promoting and protecting the freedoms and liberties of all Liberians. It is understandable nonetheless, that when the "head" and "eyes" of the body are cut off, the rest of the body will have no direction or insight to move about coherently. This has been the Liberia's predicament since the 1980s. Because nearly all of our statesmen and leaders were killed in 1980 or left the country soon after, Liberians have been operating without qualified and efficient leaders. We have followed a path that was laid out for us in the past that apparently is not the right path for us to continue to pursue in this millennium. There have been no leaders who have demonstrated that they are capable of providing the leadership to move us away from the old path unto a new course of progress and advancement for the future. That is why instead of things getting better in Liberia, they are getting worse. Rampant corruption, disregard for the rule of law, and inefficiency in government are some of the worse that we have seen in our lifetime. We are still in a pilotless mode, while our plane is headed into uncharted territory today.
So, to answer the question, "what does April 12, 1980 mean to me?" I pose the following summary:
April 12, 1980 was a time that was ripe for change in Liberia. Whether it would have been a peaceful or violent change, the time for change had come, and it was inevitable.
Although we lost many of our loved ones, April 12, 1980 signified a new day and era for Liberians. It was and is still an era of moving away from the "so-say-one-so-say-all" days, the "monkey work, baboon draw" days, the "trust and don't pay" days, the "bit and blow" days, the "You chop-I-chop" days, and any other days that are reminiscent of the old Liberian era, into a new era of leadership accountability and responsibility to all Liberians.
To me, April 12, 1980, signifies the birth of a new Liberian era. An era in which Liberians will not depend upon people from far away nations to provide their daily bread or livelihood for them; an era in which Liberians will not sit supinely and wait for other people to come from overseas to ensure their national security, or defend their country and way of life; an era where Liberians will not be identified by which tribal or ethnic group they belong to but by the contributions they can make to the progress and advancement of their country and people; and an era in which the majority, if not all, Liberians will share the same sentiments of patriotism, loyalty, and dignity for Liberia.
To me, April 12, 1980 is a significant period in our history because it was a period when all of our people sacrificed their lives to close the "old pages" of Liberia's history and to open the pages of a new era of solidarity, unity, and oneness for all Liberians.
That is why I pray that all Liberians today will set aside our anger, hatred, bitterness, and animosity and look at the greater picture of what this day symbolizes. It is not a time for us to mourn for the deaths of those we lost on that day. But it is a day of celebration for their lives and a time for us to come together and live together as one people and one nation. The time has come for us to take our country from its pilot-less existence, study the new territory and challenges that we are about to engage, and set a new course together for the progress and advancement of our people and country in this millennium.
Just as Tolbert and our fathers and mothers had a choice, today, we also have a choice. We can choose to unify ourselves and become masters of our own destiny, or we can remain divided and continue to let other people to tell us what to do and what is right, wrong, and in our best interests. But whatever we decide to do, that decision has to be made today. And our collective actions will demonstrate to the world what April 12, 1980 means to all of us.
Twenty five years have lapsed and Liberia is still in a time warp. The time has come for Liberia and Liberians to wake up. It is time to rebuild our country with sound principles of loyalty, patriotism, growth and development. We have to invest in the future of our people through education and loving leadership. Such leadership must:
· Be dedicated to the people
· Improve the quality of life for all Liberians
· Invest in institutions of higher learning
· Invest in health institutions
· Rebuild and restore the productive lives of Liberians
· Establish a war crimes tribunal to punish those responsible for killing our people and stealing from Liberia. Confiscate their possessions and show our people that they too will be held accountable and responsible for their actions
· Serve as role models of good governance for the country, etc.
So, as we reflect on what April 12, 1980 means to all of us, let us keep in mind that our past is intended for us to learn from and be our guide as we come together to set in motion our plans for the future. Liberians should and must always remember that it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that such tragedies and atrocities suffered by our people and nation be avoided at all costs. Liberians must know and understand that our national security and the perpetuity of our country and way of life are first and foremost.