Domestic Imperatives that Underlie the Assassination of President William R. Tolbert, Jr


By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

I read a recent article by Mr. Ijoma Flemister on the Front Page Africa website dated April 12, 2017. It deserves critical reflection. He alleges that named US government officials, including a former president were responsible for President Tolbert’s assassination. Mr. Flemister does not provide any evidence for his charge other than his own memory of what transpired. Does he expect for readers to take his word for it, without offering a single iota of proof to support his claims? Were other people privy to the events cited? Does Mr. Flemister have any documentary evidence for his assertions? It might sound convenient to use foreign policy imperatives and not their domestic counterparts for prompting the coup. But balance is required in such sensitive matters. I am not a proponent of violent overthrow of any democratically constituted government. I believe that the April 12, 1980 coup was a miscarriage of justice. President Tolbert’s assassination and the subsequent killing of officials from his government and others by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), though prompted in part by domestic policy failures of the Tolbert government, set the stage for a series of events whose negative repercussions were not envisaged by the coup makers and their supporters. Hence, the harmful consequences continue to reverberate today. Indeed, the causes of the 1980 coup deserve to be situated a much fuller context. It arose from so many factors. Domestic conditions impelled it alongside other variables. All such underlying factors must be brought to bear on our national conversation objectively to enable long-term solutions to our lasting governance challenges.

Mr. Flemister asked: “What was the rush?” There were domestic imperatives that propelled and/or accelerated the pace of the coup, which he ignored inadvertently or intentionally. In this article I restrict the work to the domestic issues, which I am unable to exhaust here. These can be summed up as socioeconomic factors, the existence of undemocratic political institutions, lack of social cohesion (interethnic and class-based clashes) or the lack of cohesive national identity, and the tremendous influence that the opposition movements wielded over the military, particularly its lower brass. The latter can be explained by the subservient roles that military personnel played as domestic servants, drivers, and others for government functionaries.

One of Liberia’s perennial challenges have always been its dependence on raw materials such as iron ore, rubber, timber, diamond, and gold for export and the country’s shipping revenue as its key sources of income. Unfortunately, the prices of these products on the global market have always tended to sway the Liberian economy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Liberian economy boomed based on the strength of iron ore and rubber sales. In 1978, iron ore constituted 55 percent of the nation’s $486 million export earnings. As a country heavily dependent on the developed/industrialized nations, when the global economy slowed, Real GDP dropped accordingly. It is also important to note that in 1979, Liberia hosted the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit. It is reported that $100 million USD was spent on the OAU conference, exorbitant by any standard, and worse when the economy was declining. In the same year, the new Foreign Ministry Office was erected. The Unity Conference Center hosted several villas, a hotel and more. The nation faced pervasive unemployment (industrial employment dropping from 71,000 to 3100) according to a commission instituted in 1978 by President Tolbert headed by Clarence Parker, who later headed the National Investment Commission (NIC). Ordinary Liberians interpreted it as spending on luxuries while they suffered sharp ill-effects of the failing economy. They also saw it as justification for disgruntlement. Also in 1979, the government under President Tolbert was doubling its external debt at $661 million USD.[1]

Pertaining to matters of social justice, this was a nation that offered lopsided privileges to Settler Liberians who constituted 5% of the population at the disadvantage of the indigenous majority who constituted the latter 95%. The country suffered from aging or underdeveloped roads, schools, healthcare facilities and other critical infrastructure, coupled with nearly asymmetrical illiteracy rates. Inequalities between urban and rural residents were inaptly high. On grounds of such distributive injustice, the nation was poised for communal violence as most of the indigenous populations felt systematically excluded from opportunities for self-advancement. It is true that President Tolbert’s integration, open door and unification policies made viable contributions to fostering social cohesion. However, he faced significant resistance from conservatives in the TWP who kept him from implementing his policies full-steam.[2] This is how the Brownell Commission, which investigated the Rice Riots captured the causes of the national tragedy. “The Commission sees in the civil disturbance of a manifestation of serious socioeconomic and political problems with deep roots in our national society. These problems of justice, liberty, and equality, are neither exclusively the outcome of the national policies of the incumbent administration, nor yet convincingly characterize them as conspiratorial designs externally motivated. They are in a real sense a culmination of more than 100 years of a national leadership that appears to have eroded its constituents’ participation in a meaningful way. The surfacing of these problems which April 14 occasioned could nevertheless be viewed as a consequence of the continued decline of the quality of the social morale and principles provided for in our constitution. Despite the fact that the constitution guarantees to all the enjoyment of fundamental human rights including the rights to a decent standard of living and in spite of the lofty, yet timely goals which this administration has set in pursuit of these constitutional guarantees, there are serious ills which plague our society…..It is our view, based on all that we have seen and heard, that it is economic disparity that are at the roots of the present tensions. It is not “Congo” versus Aboriginal, resident versus citizens, White versus Black” It is simply that there are vast numbers of poor in our society that are finding it extremely difficult to cope. What then has been responsible for these conditions of a widening between the few highly privileged and the many desperately poor, of continuing over centralization of the decision making process, of an unreliable national security establishment all of this in spite of the pronouncement of our president.” [3]

One can add that the riot was a conduit through which President Tolbert’s assassination passed. When the leaders of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) who led the demonstration were arrested an imprisoned, it brewed fears amongst their sympathizers , principally those in the military where the activists wielded great deal of influence among the lower ranking officers, especially those that attended the Marcus Garvey High School, where the National Security Agency (NSA) staff reported to the Tolbert government that the Progressives were teaching them revolutionary and communistic tactics. The school was later ordered closed by the Ministry of Education along with other adult night schools and told to reapply for accreditation, according to Emmanuel Bowier then Special Assistant to Dr. Hoff. They all applied and were opened, except for Marcus Garvey High School, where the military youngsters attended. That decision, which was made by then Education Minister Hoff bred disgruntlement amongst the military personnel who were students at the school way before April 14 event. This potentially politicized the military personnel and made them sympathetic to the agitating opposition groups[4]

On the political front, when Vice President James E. Green died, President Tolbert recommended Jackson F. Doe to the TWP to succeed Green. However, the conservatives in True Whig Party who were bent on maintaining the status quo refused to accept his recommendation. They warned Tolbert that it was too soon to integrate the indigenous population so close to the seat of power. Tolbert then got discouraged and chose Bishop Bennie D. Warner of the United Methodist Church who had no previous government experience.[5] As the status quo prevailed, President Tolbert then settled on a candidate who was a fellow member of the cloth, a minister of the Gospel like himself – who could possibly not rock the boat since he formed part of the social elite. President Tolbert may have failed to fully appreciate the enormous power that Jackson F. Doe would have brought to the position. While then Bishop Warner was a safe choice for the conservatives, Mr. Doe was one who could have satisfied the opposition movements’ demand for change, and bough the government a lot of time, thus perhaps delaying the inevitable until the 1983 elections. But President Tolbert’s vacillation between the conservatives and his own ideas for change led in part to his assassination. Bishop Warner was a complex character, who did not satisfy the demand for change, hence, fostered an acceleration of the coup.

In June, 1979, the Brownell Commission which investigated the April 14 incident diagnosed the governance crisis in the country at the time succinctly: “There are, from our analysis based on suggestions from the public, a number of contributory factors, foremost among which a lag in implementation resulting from the lack of political will to execute policies and pronouncements of government. This problem of a lag in implementation, glaring defects in the structure of implementation result, in the view of this commission from the prevailing social norms and practices which takes precedence over law and public policies and consequently renders ineffectual any meaningful change. In such a situation, therefore, where progressive policies confront old structures and attitudes, the result can only progress circumvented.” Also include the fact that the TWP Special Task Force appointed by President Tolbert in October 1979, led by Emmanuel Shaw, including George Boley, Emmanuel Bowier, Reginald Nance and others. In its report, the Taskforce wrote: “The TWP now find itself poised at a crossroad in its history and on the brink of a new decade. There is much to be done if the party is to survive; we must not only stamp out the evil, we must begin to build for 1983 (next presidential elections) and beyond. There alternatives are clear, the options well-defined, this first congress if it can find the wisdom and the courage, can catapult a revitalized TWP, confidently, into the turbulence and uncertainty of the 80s as an enlightened, united, democratic party of the people, or, if narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness prevail, the first congress might well go down in history as the party’s last. We hope and trust that this latter course will be avoided at all cost – for the good of the party and posterity of the Republic.” [6] This was the party’s last.

Today, after 12 years of sustained peace, the foundations of the state remain fragile even with democratic institutions emerging. Freedom of the press, individual rights against the state, separation of powers (checks and balances/rule of law), and clear division between the state and religion are still in undeveloped stages. Ethnic antagonism caused by the dominance of the minority over the majority has since cascaded into interethnic divides. Gender inequities have also not been mitigated as yet. Transparency and integrity, which are the most important characteristics of democratic governance, have yet not been embedded in the society. Socioeconomic inequalities are widespread. Class tensions are also seeping into most of the nation’s political narratives. The internal characteristics of the military which made the lower brass sympathetic to the progressive movements and made them part of the interest/agitating group against the elites still remain as well. More importantly, the communal family system has been weakened by the war. Formal sector work opportunities for most citizens are limited, work and family life balance, childcare, after school programs, care for the elderly, family support services, and the enforcement of child protection services are yet to be realized nationally. The latter makes the case for a National Family Policy.

The coup makers in 1980 repudiated the Tolbert government for “rampant corruption” as the basic rationale for their coup. They were unfaithful to the very commitments that they made to the Liberian people. What could have happened had they utilized the analysis made by the Brownell Commission and other reports cited to build an inclusive society? Would the Liberian people had forgiven them for their lapses and let the country heal? Instead, their actions and inactions led the country directly to December 24, 1989 when the country broke into war. They did not overcome the persistent vices in our national life – corruption, inequality, and ethnic bigotry. Instead, they magnified the exclusion and illicit acquisition of wealth. Thirty seven years later, we have yet managed to build an opportunity-based society. The place and condition of one’s birth still continues to determine one’s life outcome and the nation’s prospects remain bleak.

As I close, I should state emphatically that the underlying causes of the 1980 coup are complex. They involve both domestic and foreign policy components. We should therefore not look on one side of the equation and neglect the other. We cannot dismiss the fact that President Tolbert pursued a foreign policy that began to lean toward the Eastern Bloc as opposed to the West. Clearly, I am no student of foreign policy, but for the sake of balance, I need to invite a dual perspective on this matter. Perhaps those adequately trained in foreign policy will chose to address this issue from that vantage point.

[1] Leon Dash (March 3, 1980). Liberia Woos Foreign Investors to Promote Stability. Washington Post.

[2] Dolo, E (2006). Ethnic Tensions in Liberia’s National Identity Crisis: Problems and Possibilities. Africana Legacy Homestead Publishers. Cherry Hill, NJ. Dunn, E. & Tarr, B. (1988). Liberia: A National Polity in Transition. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.

[3] Report of the Presidential Commission on National Reconstruction (Counselor Nete Sie Brownell Commission) to Dr. William R. Tolbert – June 12, 1979.

[4] Dolo, E. (2006). Ethnic Tensions in Liberia’s National Identity Crisis: Problems and Possibilities. Africana Legacy Homestead Publishers.

[5] Personal Interview with Emmanuel Bowier, General Coordinator of the True Whig Party (2017).

[6] Report of the Special Taskforce on Party Reform. Submitted at the First Quadrennial Conference of the True Whig Party of Liberia, Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Republic of Liberia. October 24-26, 1979.


  1. Dr. Emmanuel Dolo; thanks for a very imformative and impressive commentary. This is one of the most brilliant commentaries. It is balanced. Indeed! I certainly agree with you. W. R. Tolbert’s biggest mistake, was his shift in foreign policies; that clearly began to lean towards the COMMUNIST/EAST EUROPEAN Nations; during the peak of the cold war. Of all places, that should have never been Liberia. [email protected].

  2. Dr. Emmanuel Dolo; thanks for a very imformative and impressive commentary. It’s well balanced. Indeed! I certainly agree with you; W.R. Tolbert’s biggest mistake, was his shift in foreign policies; that clearly began to lean towards Communists/East European Nations. This was happening at the peak of the Cold War between the United States and the then USSR. That was Tolbert’s primary down fall. Of all places, that should have never been Liberia.

  3. This is very interesting, well written and easy to follow. I am South African and very interested in Liberia and her development. Thank you!

  4. Dr. Emmanuel Dolo, thank for these exciting narratives that help explains to us the actual details that led to the Assassination of President William R. Tolbert Jr.
    For many of us the new generations of Liberia, always over heard from our older people saying to us that people saw a white hand shooting, and kill President William R. Tolbert Jr, at the executive mansion, and these narratives to me are not sufficient to be the actual cause of President Tolbert death.
    While others believe President Tolbert was assassinated because of the high cause of bed of Rice in the country.
    To me, the opportunity afforded me to read your article regarding the cause of President William R. Tolbert Jr, death enlighten my mine to the truth stories that led to his assassination.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here