12 April 2013

Liberia: Remembering April 12, '80 Coup, Changes Through The Eyes Of Surviving Associates

Photo: Wade C. L. Williams/ IPS
Liberians protest.

Today is April 12 accidentally national Fast and Prayer day, but the day itself bears more significance in the events thirty three years ago that would forever reshape the historical and political dynamics of a tiny West African state founded by freed American slaves called Liberia.

The Coup d'etat of April 12, 1980 by Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe and his fellow lowranking military officers of the People's Redemption Council would lead to the assasination of Liberia's twentieth President William R. Tolbert and the subsequent mass execution of thirteen high ranking government government officials and the unseating of the True Wig Party of the political elites that ruled Liberia for a hundred years.

It is amazing how time flies but the changes that swept across Liberia due to that fateful day in 1980 forever remains an indelible mark in the sands of times for the country.

Some former officials who worked in the PRC government thirty plus years ago vividly remember what it was like to serve in Liberia's first government cast in a military setting and led by indigenous persons.

"The military government did not have to ask the citizens what they wanted but they simply issue a decree and told you what was to happen," said Rev. Emmanuel Bowier who served as Minister of Information in the PRC government.

Bowier recalls what it was like at the time when the young and inexperienced officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia took control of the country and governed it according to the dictates they knew.

"A military government, is a dictatorship form of government, they don't need the consent of the people to rule, they do not rule by condensers or persuasion, but by cohesion, force, demands and commands," he said.

Yet under these circumstances Liberia thrived seemingly well as the boys of the regime would promise that they only wanted to bring the long awaited emancipation to the native and that they after five years would restore civilian order by returning the state to democratic rule.

As Retired Lieutenant General Henry Duba, the man who recruited Doe and many of the 17 into the army would come to recall, the plan of the PRC was not to hold on to power indefinitely but was to return to the barracks after ensuring that soldiers no longer slept in squalor but what he calls in accommodations with 'hot and cold water'.

"The intent of the PRC government a government where you execute people; you want to turn it over to people you trust. So when the U. S. government came, they said what necessitated the coup, because they don't support coup government," said Rtd. Lt.G. Duba.

"We told them the deplorable condition of the barracks throughout the Liberia and they said 'ok, let's cut a deal. If we build the houses for you; build new barracks will you return to the barracks?' and we said yes."

He said the Americans listened to them and therefore pumped resources into the errection of several up to date military barracks all across the country, as a inducement to sending the army boys back to where they belong- the barracks.

"They built BTC, Shefflin; all over the country; Todee, Naman, Sanniquelle, Zwedru; all hot and cold water," he said.

PRC's succession plan

The 71-year-old and now senior military advisor to the Ministry of national defense recalled that the plan was in place to chose a sussessor to the military regime, but the PRC at the time wanted to nurture its own from the then intellectual class of the country consisting of the Progessive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), but that decision would be deeply flawed leading to an irremediable crack in the rank and files of the PRC.

"So when the five years was coming to an end, who do we leave the government with? They call the intellectuals among us, the Bacchus, Tipoteh, Fahnbulleh all those people and said 'work with us with honesty and sincerity, at the end, we will support one of you to become the President of Liberia," said.

Continued Rtd. Lt. G. Duba:"That was the bad thing the PRC ever did. Weh Syen was powerful so all the cabinet ministers from Sinoe went to him for future recommendation. People from Nimba went to Quiwonpka for recommendation at the end of the five years, the whole PRC split. We from Grand Gedeh went to Doe; that's how the PRC was penetrated. Good intention but bad outcome."

Elimination begins

Many of the original 17 men who staged the coup plus Doe himself , who served as chairman of the Council, when they seized power were either eliminated by the Commander-In-Chief Doe or died under misterious circumstances with four still alive today.

In less than a yearof the coup the PRC began to list the death toll of its members, the first casualty was secretary general Lieutenant Colonel (formerly Corporal) Fallah Varney was believed to have been killed in a mysterious automobile accident.

By the full year of the regime Commander I-Chief Doe was becoming uneasy and insecure with the men with whom he had launched what many saw as a noble duty at the time, siezing power from the African American elite and giving it to the people to whom it belonged and then one by one he began the elimination spree.

In August 1981, Thomas Weh Syen and four other members of the Council were arrested and executed for allegedly plotting to assassinate Doe.

"Five men were executed along with Weh Syenincluding Henry Johnson, Robert Sumo, Nelson Toe and another person I cannot remember. I heard Swen Dickson and Larry Borteh were killed 1990 by Prince Johnson group," said D. Kahn Carlor, Coordinator of PRC at the time. He recalls that the original 17men were joined by othersbringing the number to 28 men in all.

Gen. Quiwonkpa, in a failed attempt to seize power on November 12 , 1985 was killedafter fighting in Monrovia.

The good, bad and ugly

For many in the generation of General Duba as he is commonly called, the April 12, 1980 coup was a necessary end which would lead to the long drawn out war of division that claimed over 250, 000 lives.

Dubah recalls that as a 14-year-old boy coming to Monrovia from the interior specifically Grand Gedeh in 1956, he like many others in his category did not have the luxury of finding a job in the government if they ever grew up and got the best education.

He said Liberia at that time was meant to be for the elite class- the Americo Liberians and that the indigenous no matter how hard he worked his way up was not sure of a good life. He said government at the time was the exclusive club of the sons and daughters of these elites.

"At the time, there were four indigenous cabinet ministers; Momolu Dukule- Secretary of State, Oswald Norman-Secretary of the Interior, Nathaniel V. Massaquoi, Secretary of Public Instruction which is now Education right on Benson Street before you get to Lynch Street; and Joseph N. Tokpa, he was Director general for WHO which is equivalent to Ministry of Health now," he revealed.

"Four indigenous people were cabinet ministers. Then later on, Joseph Boayou of Nimba County he graduated with Master degree in engineering, he was minister of Public Works. Then later on it was Jackson Doe- education, then Troy Kpagai-postall affairs."

He said it was this exclusion that brought about the coup, as the people were tired of being treated as second class citizens in their own land and therefore decided to revolt against the establishment.

"The indigenous people were well educated, that started coming home in the 60's. You have Dr. Bernard Blamo, Dr. Kesselly, Dr. James Tarpeh, all those people coming with master degrees, but they could not be full cabinet ministers because of their indigenous background," said the man who has been in the army since age 19.

"Dr. Tipoteh all those people; they either sent you to the university to teach their children or they make you assistant minister to write for the man with a BA."

The current senor military advisor to the ministry of national defense acknowleged that the 1980 coup left some scars on the country, even though it was meant to make things right..

"Innocent people died, yes of course, you see the indigenous people in the legislature; they even became President Pro Temp, which had never happened before in history," he said.

"All that happened in 1980 is the sacrifice. No more one party system, no more country man, no more congo man; we're all one now. You don't hear that talk again. It unified the whole country. Both the rice riot the coup, the 13 people that were executed, people that died after the 13 people were executed were more."

He admits that there is no revolution without blood adding that no nation on the face of the earth is free from vivil strife as the one Liberia found itself in.

"These are the things the 1980 Coup brought; though it was bloody; yes to have changes, there must be sacrifices," he said.

"This is why when Presidents move; that red carpet, it represents blood, valor. It means people that died before the country became a state."

The era of enlightenment

The rice riots of April 14, 1979 during which the government fired on peaceful demonstrators would set the stage for the coup the following year and this would led to uncommon personalities occupying the corridors of power along with the soldiers, though top cabinet positions.

"G. Barcus Matthews who was the minister of Foreign affairs was chairman of the PPP, I was a member of the PPP, and Minister of Internal Affairs Oscar J. Quah was a member of PPP, Chea Chepoh, and Minister of Justice was a member of PPP," said Carlor who is now at the ministry of internal affairs.

"For MOJA, we had Boimah Fahnbulleh, Minister of Education, Tokpa Nah Tepoteh, Miister of Planning and Dew Masion, Head of National Investment Commission (NIC)."

These individuals many of whom were university professors as during the Tolbert era, would go on to use their time at the university to introduce students to rebelious tactics aganst the state according to Rtd. Lt. G. Duba. As the university were their area of confinement by the government, apparently designed to keep them from holding political office, these young professors would make good use of their time in the classroom as a period of political enlightenment for the people, leading them to openly challenge the government without fear.

"And so when Bacchus and others came, the Moja people took to the university to brainwash the university students. The university and high schools, Moja took that area," he said.

"Bacchus and his group; Dr. Dahn, Oscar Quiah they took to the street people, public; their newsletter used to sell like hot cake. Things that people didn't used to say; they write about government, it was the first in history- Tolbert time and so that's how the 17 were brainwashed. So the MOJA, the PAL, they brainwashed the whole story and so you had the rice riot of 79, that broke the fear out of the Liberian people."

PRC Affiliates and the many roles

The officers of the new regime were eager to transform the country and create the much needed inclusion that had for so long evaded the indigenous but the would come to mix elements of the Tolbert regime who were outspoken at some point according to Rev. Bowier and that is how the then minister of Finance under Tolbert now President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf found a place in their ranks though her affiliation with them would only be short lived.

He said Sirleaf had three positions during the PRC government and that many people who are around today, worked with the regime.

" She was ambassador extraordinary, legal advisor to the Head of States and president of Liberian Bank for Development and Investment LBDI," he said.

" Because of this, the PRC members were angry with Doe for doing that so they would always stop Madam Sirleaf from seeing Doe, so she got vex and said she was no longer comfortable with the job and want to leave. And Doe told her to hand pick someone she trusted to leave in her place and was going to appoint that person, so she handpicked David Vinton."

Former President Charles Taylor would take over the General Services Agency (GSA), after jailing Harry Mongur who was the GSA Director at South Beach Prison according to Rev. Bowier.

He said Taylor demanded a military rank from Qwinwonkpa and he was made a major because he was having affairs with Qwinonkpa's niece Tupee.

"He got seven of everything for the original PRC members. I know because when Taylor took over as GSA boss, he arrested me and said as a General coordinator of True Wing Party (TWP), I knew where the TWP people had their money," he said.

"So I rode around with him when he went shopping for 17 living room set, 17 bathroom set, Air Conditioner, Ice Boxes, Television, Radio and everything for the 17 enlisted men of the PRC, so Taylor was known to be a good man to the PRC. So Taylor was the first man who attended cabinet meetings."

The secret behind the rivalry

Master-Sergeant Doe was Commander-In-Chief but he sure did not command all the respect he deserved to hold the regime together, even the very men in his ranks would come to undermine the young and inexperienced soldier according to Rtd. Lt. G. Duba who somehow recruited them all . He said the most powerful among the men were Weh Syen and Quiwonkpa, and they would demand respect from Doe because of the role they played in the assassination of President Tolbert.

"What made him powerful from stories we've heard, I was not there; he and Quiwonpka during the time they went to the mansion, I was not here, I was in Grand Gedeh, the part they played in their zoe bush- they said Quiwonkpa was the one that everyone stood on his back to jump over the fence," he said.

"That's why they call him strong man and Weh Syen and the late Harrison Pennoe and Nelson, they were the three who went in the room to carry on the work. They played the real part; so they demanded their respect."

Doe even though he was head of the regime was seen as the intruder who only assumes power because he was the most senior officer in the building at the time.

"They said Doe and Podier were standing on the first floor but because of his rank- he was the most senior officer; so that's how he became powerful. So when he's (Doe) talking, they say where were you, when I did this, you were all the way on the first floor," he recalled.

"No too much democracy in the army, when your boss says do this you say yes sir; you can't ask why you should do it. That kind of democracy, freedom does not happen in the army.The only thing we don't obey is unlawful order."

Thirty three years on after the PRC came to power Liberia has seen greater economic and political inclusion, but with a hard price, the long drawn out civil war that had no meaning but lead to the death of thousands. Liberia has its first woman President in office and the Legislature is full of indigenous people, it was a long and bloody effort but indeed an effort that was necessary to set the records straight.

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