Liberia: Reflections of December 24, 1989

By Lekpele M. Nyamalon

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and the 32nd commemoration of the beginning of the Liberian Civil war. Tomorrow also represents a day of solemn reflection of the major questions pouncing in a stampede of our collective memory or perhaps our collective amnesia.

The Liberian story is a journey of many facets:  the black experience, burst out of slavery to build a nation on the mantra of love and liberty; the journey of African migrants moving across borders for commerce and trade, the journey of people fleeing conquests from intra African conflicts and the journey of African brotherhood and sisterhood finding a land for self-actualization. Somewhere along those lines, a common vision of one nation, one people, one destiny, has never been realized. 

Unfortunately, however, the lines of diversity have been overly drawn, phasing out the beautiful bounds that should unite the men and women of sainted memories, who sons and daughters have been in search of a place to call home.

December 24, 1989 was a culmination of anger, vengeance, animosity and long standing disaster waiting to happen.  For starters, the coup d’etat of 1980 by non-commissioned soldiers toppled the government of President William R. Tolbert Jr and brought to end a more than a century rule of the Grand Old True Whig Party- one of Africa’s oldest political institutions.

IA small group of some 17 non-commissioned officers stormed the execution mansion, dethroned the government, killed the president, and a few days later, publicly executed several of his cabinet ministers and other senior officials of government.

  The leader of the coup, Master sergeant Samuel K. Doe, in a nationwide broadcast, listed rampant corruption, abuse of power, nepotism, amongst others as the raison d’etre of the coup. A few years down the line, the military government of Commander-in-Chief (CiC) Doe became a culprit of its rule. The military government had promised to return the country to civilian rule but reneged on its promise.

Bemused by the trappings of power, the military morphed into a political party and presided over a highly controversial election in 1985, widely believed to have been rigged. President Samuel Doe was announced the winner of the 1985 elections and inaugurated into office in 1986 as a civilian President. The period of 1986-1989 was marred by political turbulence that exploded on December 24, 1989.

I was a six year old kid by 1989 on a family vacation in Margibi County, when the news had broken of a rebel invasion in Nimba County, north-eastern Liberia. The leader of the movement- Charles Taylor, a former official of the Doe regime who had fled the country amid corruption charges, surfaced in neighbouring Ivory Coast and mobilized former disgruntled citizens living in exile and launched the civil war in the historic town of Boutou in Nimba County.

The Liberian civil war is a gallery of carnage, stolen innocence, rape, and torture, dismemberment of the socio-cultural environments, and the loss of over 250, 000 lives. Thirty two-years after, the perpetrators have ‘rebranded’ and ushered themselves as statesmen and stateswomen using position of power to shield themselves from any responsibility whatsoever. Today, Liberia stands as a fragile state, susceptible to recurring violence because the minds of its people remain unrehabilitated, hundreds of youth are hooked on drugs and crime, many families remain broken, national reconciliation is illusive and the nation is on the brink of a relapse if caution is not taken.

December 24, represents a tunnel of reflections, of the road back 32 years ago, and perhaps a stretch of 41 years ago, and a careful recollection at every milestone to probe history and to find answers to the questions we’ve skipped or simply ignored or wrongly answered. What does the Liberian Civil war represent to the generation of Liberians born during or after the conflict? What does it mean to the generation of Liberians who did not hear a gunshot but live with the burden of conflict? What does it mean for the development of the Liberian nation now? What does it mean for sustaining the peace?

 As we reflect on December 24, we come to a place of collective solitude, a place of genuine inward search of where we are as a people and our aspirations for posterity. The intersection of national reconciliation and state building is indispensable to the future of the Liberian nation. However, since the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003, successive governments have been unable to forge a genuine pathway towards national healing and reconciliation.  As we go towards the future, the questions of national reconciliation, justice and peace building should define our national discourse. The Liberian people should rise up and be deliberate in their choices for national leadership at all levels and to demand that the daring questions that would define our sanity as a country are answered in honest terms.

Thirty two years on, December 24 remains a scar on our memory as a people and a compass for the rest of our journey if we watch the lines correctly.

Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a Poet, Writer and Author of Scary Dreams: An Anthology of the Liberian Civil War. He is an OSIWA Poetry Fellow and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He can be reached at