November 12, 1985: Any Lessons Learned?

Today, November 12, 2021, marks the date of another watershed moment in contemporary Liberian history. This is the date in 1985, on which Liberia actually began its descent into a 14-year civil war that would break out only four (4) years later in 1989.

The Daily Observer was a witness to those tragic events of our history and the build-up of events that led to that watershed moment. 

This recollection of history is important, given the glaring fact that a significant portion of our population, age 1-40, may have little or no information or knowledge of that part of our history. 

It is also important because it can serve to remind leaders of political parties and this government especially of the critical need to create a level playing field for elections.

This is all the more important given the crucial role elections play in maintaining peace and national stability, recalling to mind the October 1985 elections and its aftermath. 

Thirty-seven (37) years ago, on this date, former Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa launched an invasion of Liberia from Sierra Leone with the objective to topple military ruler Samuel K. Doe.

And his stated reason was because military incumbent Samuel Doe had stolen the results of the October 1985 elections and imposed himself as President of Liberia.

Quiwonkpa, popularly referred to as “Strongman”, was one of the seventeen (17) enlisted men of the AFL that overthrew the government of President Tolbert in 1980 and brought down the True Whig Party (TWP) dynasty, marking the end of settler monopoly and domination of politics.

The invasion came on the heels of the October 1985 referendum and elections. The elections were marred by reports of irregularities, including intimidation, burning of ballot boxes, illegal vote counting procedures, etc. 

Two political parties, the United People's Party (UPP) and the Liberian People's Party, were banned and proscribed from taking part in the elections. 

This was apparently intended to give the ruling National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) a leading edge.

However, by all accounts, Jackson Fiah Doe of the Liberian Action Party (LAP) was widely perceived to have won the elections but Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe proclaimed himself winner.

This development created in the public strong feelings of national ill will which, amongst others, could have been a key driver prompting Quiwonkpa’s armed invasion on November 12, 1985, almost a month following the October 1985 elections.

The November 12, 1985 armed invasion, however, proved abortive. General Thomas Quiwonkpa was killed along with several of his alleged collaborators. 

What followed were bloody reprisals targeting mainly Quiwonkpa’s ethnic Nimba kinsmen (Mano and Gio).  Thousands fled into exile. Calm, however, was eventually restored to Monrovia. But the tension remained hanging like a poisonous cloud over the nation.

Only four (4) years later in 1989 another armed invasion of Liberia took place led by the mercurial NPFL rebel leader, Charles Taylor. 

The invasion triggered off a 14-year period of mass violence, characterized by a wide range of gross and egregious human rights abuses.

As we approach the 2023 elections, several issues remain of common concern. Key amongst others is the cardinal issue of a credible Voters Registry (VR).

The 2017 decision of the Supreme Court mandating the National Elections Commission (NEC) to clean-up the VR has since been generally ignored, following several alleged failed attempts.

Another key issue is that of the credibility and integrity of members of the electoral body. Some of its members have been known to be associated with and maintain strong ties to the ruling CDC.

Others are known to have been involved with vote count and ballot fraud, while others, according to insider accounts, are incompetent.

Now more than ever is the need for political parties to engage constructively with this government to commence the process of preparing a level playing field for elections.

This is important, keeping in mind the tragic events of 1985 which should not be allowed to repeat itself. This is because the consequences will be too dastardly to contemplate.

As can be recalled, the last senatorial elections were marred by violence, especially in Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties. In both instances, the violence was attributed to the actions of supporters of the ruling CDC.

Illegal cross-border voting was also an issue of concern in both counties. Locals in both counties were said to have expressed extreme displeasure at the presence of foreign nationals on their soil queuing up to vote, sporting official Voting ID cards.

This was one factor which, more likely than not, served as triggers of violence during those elections in Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties. 

Another issue of concern is the demarcation and delimitation of constituencies following the conduct of a national population census. 

The National Legislature is charged, under the Constitution, following the conduct of a census to establish a threshold figure in order to assist the process of delimitation and demarcation of constituencies.

The key question is whether our legislators will be able to muster the requisite political will to establish a new threshold to reflect current realities of population growth and movement. 

The current outlook does not look good, given what appears to be a lack of progress on this score. It is indeed appalling that political parties appear bogged down with issues of lesser concern.

This malaise also appears to affect the media as well. For months, most media institutions, rather than focusing on more urgent matters, appear to have instead riveted their attention to internecine party warfare involving personalities with seemingly inflated egos.

And so there is much to be learned from history because it can serve as a guide to action to prevent a relapse into the bloody past. 

What lessons, therefore, have we or can we learn from the tragic events of November 12, 1985? Only time will tell.