36 Years Ago Today

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Today, April 12 should remind Liberians of a tragic event that was born out of an unfavorable political climate that led the country on a journey to find itself. It was a day when Liberia lost focus and set the country on what observers watching the scene from afar would call a course of self-destruction.

Today, April 12 or rather April 12, 1980, 36 years ago, a momentous but sad incident took place that changed the course of Liberia for … well, your conclusion could be as good as mine. To give a brief historical significance, since the founding of Liberia, 1847, Liberia was a one-party state, under the True Whig Party, which meant that only one political party had ruled the country. After President William V.S. Tubman died in 1971, Vice President William Tolbert was sworn in as the 20th President.

By 1978, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) of the late G. Baccus Matthews gained recognition as a political party, drawing its members from indigenous Liberians, which served as a headache to members of the grand old True Whig Party. One year later in early April 1979, President Tolbert’s minister of agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to continue farming instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations. Political opponents criticized the proposal as self-serving; pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.

The Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase on April 14, 1979, and on that day about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion, which increased dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 others, causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of rioting and destruction, along with widespread looting. In the course of time, PAL leader G. Baccus Matthews and several of his officials were arrested and detained, waiting for the fate.

However, in the early hours of April 12, 1980, 17 non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe launched a violent coup d’état against President Tolbert and his ministers. The soldiers reportedly entered the Executive Mansion and killed President Tolbert. His remains were buried in a mass grave together with 27 other victims of the coup. By the end of April 1980, 13 government officials were summarily tried, sentenced to death and publicly executed on the beach at the Barclay Training Center (BTC). And ironically, four cabinet members who survived the mayhem included Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then Minister of Finance.

Samuel Kanyon Doe and his People’s Redemption Council (PRC) accused the thirteen officials of abuse of power, rampant corruption and human rights violations.

But thirty six years later, are we better off and proud of what we have achieved? Can Liberians stand proudly and narrate events of April 12, 1980? It’s true that 36 years ago something happened, and it changed our country forever.

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