Monrovia – This year marks the 41st commemoration of two significant events of April in Liberia: The April 12, coup d’état of 1980 that toppled the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. and the April 22 murder of 13 senior officials of the Tolbert government, including members of the Cabinet, the Legislature, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President Pro-Tempore, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, officials of the True Whig party, etc. One of the Sons of President Tolbert, Hon. A. Benedict Tolbert, also a member of the legislature, was murdered several months after, by members of the People’s Redemption Council- the military government that had replaced the Tolbert government. Only four (4) members of the Tolbert Cabinet survived the coup, including the Minister of Finance Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who would later become President.
A precursor to the 1980 coup d’état was the deadly April 14 rice riots of 1979, when the opposition movement led by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) opposed a proposed increment in the price of rice – the country’s staple. The government of President Tolbert had reportedly proposed the increment as a growth incentive for local farmers to boost rice production, whilst the opposition had accused the government of profiteering at the expense of the poor and destitute – many of whom, as suggested by the opposition, could not afford the increment. The opposition had announced a demonstration as a protest to the increment and the government’s attempt to negotiate with the opposition ended in a deadlock. Thus, the planned demonstration, allegedly infiltrated by street urchins, turned rowdy with reports of looting and vandalism. The police response by firing at the protestors turned it into a bloody déjà vu. The Nation had smelled blood!
The spillovers of the rice riot, along with other interconnected chain of events, set the country on a path of self destruction for one of West Africa’s bloodiest coups, and would change the course of Politics of Africa’s oldest Republic for decades.
The Events of 1979 & 1980 in April trace their roots to political undercurrents occurring from the inception of the birth of the Liberian nation. The American Colonization Society, in 1822, began the repatriation of former slaves to Africa as part of the US government’s attempt to relocate former slaves back to Africa. One of the areas chosen was the then trading Coast of West Africa, known as the Grain Coast. That land to be named as Liberia, became a Republic in 1847. Political tension over land and other rights existed, from its inception, between the inhabitants known as the aborigines or natives and those arriving known as the settlers. The Political and Social tension morphed into several layers, often infiltrated by demagogues and political opportunists using psychological warfare, propaganda and other instruments to flip a genuine political and social cause for personal benefits.
The People’s Redemption Council (PRC) accused the Tolbert government of rampant corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, amongst others as raison d’etre for the coup. Howbeit, the PRC appeared clueless of the real issues at bay and, midway into its five-year stint, it had unveiled itself as a rag-tag movement with no clear ideological drive. Headed by semi-literate soldiers, the PRC had assumed Political power at the height of the Cold War and was obliged to exhibit apt diplomacy in pursuing its development goals, which was unattainable due to inherent political incompetency. One major foreign policy misstep could alter a nation’s trajectory for decades, especially in the case of developing nations. Beginning on a faulty footing of annihilation through its public execution of senior members of the Tolbert regime, the PRC had planted a political minefield it was to sleepwalk into. With high expectations from members of the Liberian military and a good segment of the Liberian population, the stakes could only go higher. Populism has its downsides when public expectation flips to disillusionment, resentment and anger. Naïve of the realities breeding at home and clueless in the art of International Relations, the bomb was ticking for the showdown.
I was born 3 years after the military coup d’état of 1980 and was six (6) years old when the civil war began in 1989. In my book, “Scary Dreams’, I tried to trace the intersectionality of war, youth delinquency and the New Liberia. What is the net effect of the Liberian civil war on the future of the Liberian youth? What is the prospect of the average Liberian in my generation, some of whom have never recovered from the effects of conflict? The loss of lives, property, the separation of family, the breakdown of family structures, recruitment of child soldiers, gang rape, trauma, and many others have inflicted psychological scars that would take generations to heal. Who pays for that?
The month of April is a rallying point of the Liberian quagmire and a point of sober reflections to ponder upon some vexing questions that are imperative to the sanity of the Liberian Nation.
Liberia cannot move forward if it ignores the stubborn questions that announced themselves in April of 1980: class struggle, social dichotomy, chronic illiteracy and a nation divided to the core. April brings us to a sober reality that a bunch of enemies cannot build a house, irrespective of their core competencies. We’re brought to the mirror that the greatest threat against a nation is disunity. The underlying antidote for the malady affecting the Liberian nation has to redefine the revolution not as a tug of war for successive change in regimes but a battle for the soul of the nation-the minds of its people. The rallying of the mind around a common identity- one people threatened by the same enemies, as defined by President Tolbert as Ignorance, Disease and Poverty. One people shaped by the same history – black men and women in search of a place to call home and build a nation under God’s command.
The Month of April in 1980 connects the dots from 1822 to 1979 and those of 1989 to 2003 and serves as a midsection point of reflection. Every April gives us an opportunity to reflect, recollect and reassess our approach to politics and history and to take the lessons, even those that don’t affirm our biases.
The People of Liberia should pause and take a breath of just a moment and answer the questions more than four (4) decades after, no matter which side of the fence we sit, and take just one moment of silence or risk the gloomy prospect of a vicious cycle of misdirection. We cannot afford that again.
Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a Poet, Writer, Speaker 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.