‘Time to Build National Monument to Honor Tolbert,’ Says former VP

Dr. Tolbert, former VP Warner and Mrs. Cassell at the Palm Grove Cemetery last Friday

Former Vice President of Liberia, Bishop Bernie D. Warner, believes that it is about time the Government of Liberia accepts his recommendation to build a national monument to honor the memory of President William R. Tolbert.

He was vice president to President Tolbert (1977 to April 1980), until the military coup de’tat of the People’s Redemption Council.

Speaking to the Daily Observer on Friday, March 17, 2019, at the Palm Grove Cemetery in Monrovia where the remains of the 13 former True Whig Party (TWP) government officials, were buried after their execution by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) military junta, Bishop Warner said “Tolbert was a friend and a good man but the soldiers killed him along with his officials, for nothing.”

This portion of the Palm Grove Cemetery remained undecorated and overgrown with weeds

Bishop Warner, who left the country five days before his colleagues were summarily executed by firing squad by the PRC junta, said he survived to declare to the Liberian people that the Tolbert Administration was working in the best interest of the country.

“I have said it again and again that we need a National Monument and an annual honoring celebration nationwide to memorialize President Tolbert, who was elected by the people but was murdered, along with his friends on April 11, 1980,” he said.

The second Wednesday of March every year is Decoration Day in Liberia, a day Liberians memorialize their dead by decorating their graves. Decoration Day was made an official national holiday on 24 October 1916 through an Act of the National Legislature. On Decoration Day, March 13, Liberians turned out in their numbers to decorate the graves of their deceased relatives with flowers or wreaths and trimmed overgrown grass or plants near the grave. The Liberian flag was flown at half-mast to mourn for the nation’s fallen heroes, and those who employed had a day off.

According to reports, after the execution of the 13 former government officials, the government allowed their families to collect their remains and give a decent burial where every year, the family, including Dr. Richard Tolbert, son of Frank Tolbert (brother of President Tolbert), gathered with families and friends, to remember their relatives. At the same time, Dr. Tolbert and other family members provide lectures on nationalism and good citizenship that their forebear, (President Tolbert) promoted as President of Liberia.

One of the graves at Palm Grove Cemetery, overflowing with garbage.

So, as thousands last Friday converged at the Palm Grove Cemetery and other cemeteries, across the country, to renew the memories of their dead, Dr. Tolbert’s family members and others surrounded him, as Bishop Warner, 83, said he survived the tragedy of April 12, to tell the story. Looking at the tragic consequences of Liberia’s political history and the death that had reaped a terrible harvest since 1980, along with the revolutionaries and those who supported it, the question that came to his lips was: “Where are those who caused the tragedy in Liberia in 1980?”

The tragedy of Bishop Warner’s question was too telling to be ignored because such PRC members like Thomas Weh Syen, Thomas Quiwonkpa, Fallah G. Varney, Abraham D. Kollie, Nelson Toe, Larry Borteh, Harrison Pennoh, Albert Toe, Robert Zuo, William Gould, Robert Nuwoku, Jerry Friday, J. Nicholas Podier, Joseph V. Tubman and Kortonseh Gonyon are all dead, answering his question. So, he said, while he escaped the execution because he left the country five days before the 1980 Revolution, difficulties that have assailed the country suggest without much brain-searching that the struggle of the people is yet far from over.

“We should not lose the sight of all Liberians’ ability to exercise our political franchise,” a second-year student at the University of Liberia said. Whatever the conclusion of the argument, the student admitted the tragic history of Liberia which Liberians need to recognize to transform the country.

Some of the at-risk-youth engaged to clean some graves at the Du Port Road Cemetery in Monrovia

Though there were a sizable number of people at the Palm Grove Cemetery it was apparent that for any of the many obvious reasons, the spirit of the event is losing steam and others have lost the interest to participate in the clean-up campaign that is cardinal to the exercise, a middle-aged woman who was there to clean his father’s grave said.

“Look over there,” she pointed finger at a large bush on the side of the cemetery on Gurley Street that no one cleaned at the end of the exercise, “Who’s supposed to clean those graves?” There was also a large body of garbage at the cemetery, obviously dumped by residents near Gurley and Center streets and even beyond. There was a pungent odor of human feces from the cemetery, indicating the continuous abuse of the cemetery.

What was also observed was the presence of a large body of young men and women, known as ‘zogos’ who were engaged by others to clean their loved ones graves for a fee. At the same time, there were also those who were prepared to weep along with anyone for a fee.

“The graves are built without lanes and therefore it is even difficult to go areas where some relatives were buried,” she said. Additionally, hundreds of graves are broken into or have broken down and do not befit the memorial of loved ones anymore, she added.

This building, is known as Pelham House, is abandoned by the owners and inhabited by at-risk-youth or ‘zogos’ and it is near Palm Grove cemetery on Center Street

While there is a contrast between where former President Tolbert and his cabinet are buried and the rest of the cemetery, there is an element of togetherness where the remains of the former government officials are buried. The 13 officials, their names inscribed on a low monument, include Frank Tolbert, brother of President Tolbert and President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate; Cyril Bright, Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs; C. Cecil Dennis, Jr., Minister of Foreign Affairs; James A. A. Pierre, Chief Justice of Liberia; Richard A. Henries, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Frank Stewart, Director of the Budget, John Sherman Minister of Commerce; Clarence Parker, Chairman of the National Investment Council and J. T. Phillips.

As the day wore on, and many of the people returned to their various homes, the sun lowered its swelter and, as the ‘zogos’ or at-risk-youths chased after each other and jumping over one grave after another in the Palm Grove cemetery, they would all return next year to once again give the cemetery a facelift to remember their respective loved ones long gone.

Pictures of former government officials executed by the PRC junta in 1980

But for former vice president Bennie Dee Warner (born 30 April 1935), he continues to plead with the Liberian government to build National Monument to honor President William R. Tolbert. Bishop Warner succeeded vice president Greene. He named his father as Charlie Zeonbartaye, a member of the Bassa tribe and his mother was Eli Nboramba, a Namibian woman, that his father brought from Windhoek, Namibia. He was 42 when he was selected as Vice President of Liberia.


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