A few years before the slaughter, Doe could remember that the country had been awash with anguish and anger. There had been much criticism about the practices of the ruling True Whig Party (TWP) and the Tolbert-led government, made largely up of Americo-Liberians, or Congo people. These were thought to be of lighter complexion, many of them crops of American colleges and universities, and more educated than ordinary Liberians. One account was that ever since independence they had dominated the country and the disparate ethnic groups that made up the bulk of the population. Although Tolbert had started a program to bring more indigenous, or country people, into the government, many Americo-Liberians had been dissatisfied, accusing him, as it were, of “letting the peasants into the kitchen.” Thus while the ordinary people, the educated ones especially, who could have been appointed to government positions but were still seen as backward, considered the changes made by Tolbert as occurring too slowly, many Americo-Liberians felt it was moving too fast.
Then came the rice riots of April 14, 1979. President Tolbert, along with his Finance Minister Florence Chenoweth, had increased the price of rice and the nation’s staple food, leading to outcries throughout the country. It had been twenty dollars for a one hundred pound bag of rice and would now be raised to twenty-six. One story was that the Tolbert and Chenoweth families were in possessions of huge rice farms, primarily stood to gain large amounts of income from the price increase, and many saw this as a self-serving gesture. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), led by Liberian university professor, Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, and economist Tobga Nah-Tipoteh (then Rudolph Nah-Roberts), had called for a peaceful demonstration. Before long, they were joined by thousands of “back street boys.” There had then followed a wave of looting and plundering. Police and soldiers were sent to suppress the riots. Met with an ever-increasing state of lawlessness, they had responded by firing live bullets into the crowd, turning everything upside down. President Tolbert had then turned to his ally and fellow Guinean counterpart, Ahmed Sekou Toure. In response,
Toure had dispatched hundreds of Guinean troops to Liberia. But the Guineans had done only so much as to pour gas on the flames and were believed to have raped and tortured a number of the protesters. By the time the rioting ended the country was estimated to have lost about 60 million dollars in private property.
Samuel Doe could recall that the very day following the rice riots, President Tolbert, looking traumatized and upset, had spoken with hundreds of soldiers in the yard of the Executive Mansion. Bearded, disheveled, dressed in his nightgown, the president’s had quivered as he spoke, his voice the sound of a man talking with his mouth full of water. With him were some of his cabinet ministers, many of whom would be killed in the few days that were to follow. Their knees knocking together, they had all looked suspiciously at the armed soldiers in front of them, suspecting that a plot had already been hatched to topple the regime. When President William R. Tolbert ended his speech – a monologue that lasted for almost three hours – many of the soldiers had left convinced of their own importance and that the days of the Tolbert regime were numbered.
Back at their Barclay Training Center barracks, Samuel Doe had broached the subject, making particular emphasis on the President’s apprehension. Doe had told the gathering that Tolbert’s uneasiness was a clear and evident signal that he was aware of his own dismal failure and could therefore not be trusted to run the country any longer. Hundreds of soldiers had applauded, rallying around Doe. Their pulses throbbing, thoughts of hijacking the rice riots left them as though possessed.
That had then led to the April 12 coup d’état of 1980, which saw seventeen noncommissioned officers, led by Samuel Doe, entered the Executive Mansion. Tolbert was killed. Doe had then announced over state radio and television the entrance of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC).
After a 1985 presidential election considered fraudulent by international observers, he had ascended the steps to the presidential palace. And now it would no longer be as an obscure AFL soldier but as Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, President of the Republic of Liberia. Whether he had rigged the election was no longer an issue. He was, of course, being backed by the United States of America, which after the Cold War had emerged as a world superpower. Besides he could recall that the days during his presidential campaign his supporters had gone cheering and singing:
Who you voting for? Doe!
Who you voting for? Doe!
Who you voting for? Doe
But years later that same crowd, made up of diehard market women, had gone running through the streets again. This time they were angry and had shouted at the top of their lungs:
Monkey come down!
Monkey come down!
Monkey come down!
He had responded by dispatching soldiers that fired live bullets into the mob. Wounding and killing a number of the rioters and thus ruthlessly crushing the insurrection, he had made it known in no uncertain terms that they were, in fact, the monkey.
But a month after the election, on November 12, 1985, came a counter-coup d’état to topple his regime. This had been led by Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia, whom he had demoted. The invaders had entered the country through neighboring Sierra Leone. Within a few days they were in Monrovia. But the coup was soon suppressed and the leaders were rounded up. One report has it that Doe had received a tipoff from the American Embassy in Monrovia, warning him of the invaders. In any case, Quiwonkpa was himself killed, so the story went, and eaten. Samuel Doe had then within a few minutes of suppressing the rebellion taken once more to the airwaves. Denouncing the unsuccessful coup and proclaiming that he was still in full control of the country, he had warned potential coup-makers that any further attempts to depose his government would be met with the same brutality.
But now who could have foreseen a civil war of this magnitude, since the nearly ten years he and those non-commissioned officers had deposed the Tolbert administration? To hell with the Americans, the President shouted inside his head and began to pace the floor angrily, his hands behind his back. No one other than the Americans was to blame. If only they had extradited Charles Taylor to Liberia then the situation would have been different. Yet they had chosen to tell him a pack of lies. Anyone could see that Taylor had not broken out of the detention facility the Americans claimed to have put him but that they had actually allowed the thieving former government minister to escape. It was always like that when you fell out of favor with the Americans. Soon they began to plot your downfall and would stop at nothing until they brought your utter destruction.
They had started with Tolbert when after many years of the pro-Western policies of William V.S. Tubman and of the Americans literally licking their elbows the former president had begun to look towards the Soviets, the Chinese, the Cubans, and a few eastern bloc countries. Concession contracts signed with the Americans had been renegotiated, forcing them to pay back taxes in millions of dollars. That was why they had remained quiet when he killed Tolberts, courting him with millions in economic aid until he felt as though he would be suffocated. But he himself had since fallen out of favor with the Americans and could remember that at the beginning of the war he had called them on a telephone and told them pointedly: “America wants to overthrow Doe because Doe is trying to build Liberia. But I remain here to say no to America and no to the supporters of Charles Taylor. Period,” he had concluded, banging down the edge of his hand on the table for emphasis.
The Americans had life and death in their hands and could, if they choose, decide the fate of the whole planet, which they had shown when they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But being a friend of the Americans, as much as being an enemy of them, he knew often spelled disaster. They were given to double standards and one could hardly tell the extent to which they were plotting one’s downfall. Obviously you found yourself in a better position when you were an enemy of the Americans, thought the president, because then you could see clearly that they were nothing but turncoats, extorting on the pretext of economic aid a feeling of fear and subservience from weaker nations. But this foresight had arrived too late. Now here he was at the mercy of the very Charles Taylor who, along with thousands of armed gangs, should have been rotting at the Belle Yella prison or probably thrown from a military aircraft, as he had shown the ill-fated A.B. Tolbert.
But despite all this he had one consolation. When he thought of it he couldn’t help smiling to himself: Nancy and the children, including a few of his relations, he had sent ahead of him to England aboard his government only passenger aircraft. And they would be saved.
An army orderly came in to report that the newly arrived ECOMOG peacekeeping force had docked at the Freeport of Monrovia and that they had already set up their headquarters. President Samuel Doe stopped pacing the floor and, for the first time since the civil war broke out he saw a flicker of hope, this time solid and palpable rise on the horizon.
To be cont’d.