By Lamini A. Waritay
The night before the April 12, 1980 coup was very serene and the ambience generated was highly romantic. Although the Dry Season was in its last official month (April), there was scarcely any threatening clouds. In fact, the cloudless skies were adorned with sparkling stars that night, with the moon illuminating the creepy dark corners of the city. Driving through the long Tubman Boulevard stretch from Paynesville, through Congo town and Sinkor, and savoring the calmative breeze from the Atlantic Ocean that wafted across my face, nothing could have been more heavenly for me that night.
It was past midnight, and as I drove through the virtually deserted streets, I was having a ball listening to Fred DeShield’s (now deceased) The Late Night Jazz show that ran from midnight to 2.00 a.m. on the state-owned FM station. Enjoying every bit of Mother Nature’s atmospheric gifts that night, little was I aware at that point in time, that what seemed a perfectly peaceful Friday night, would, in a few hours, in fact turn out to be a false calm before a cataclysmic political and military storm.
Meanwhile, at my residence on 9th Street, my mother and her first cousin were fast asleep in one room. In another room (mine, that is) were a few visiting friends, including a military pilot (now deceased), caught up in a colossal argument over an issue I had written a story on in the government-owned New Liberian Newspaper barely six months before. That is, whether then President William R. Tolbert, Jr. would voluntary leave office in 1983 as he had indicated. The piece, with a three-worded headline—Is Tolbert Sincere?—became the front Page lead story that day, thanks to one of the most fearless, independent–minded and professionally experienced editor-in-Chiefs I have ever met in my professional life, Rufus Marmah Darpoh (long deceased).
As I disembarked from my vehicle and made my way up the few steps leading up to the kitchen of my residence, I heard a rumbustious debate going on in my room involving my friends on whether President Tolbert would live up to his promise of quitting office in 1983. He had signaled this in the aftermath of the famous “Rice Riot” of April 14, 1979, when throngs of mostly young people under the leadership Gabriel Baccus Mathews (since deceased), staged a dramatic mass action against the politically anachronistic True Whig Party (TWP) oligarchy.
Once I got in the room, the guys immediately demanded of me my take on the acrimonious discussion. At that point, after having had a good time of it while earlier visiting a friend who lived behind ELBC compound in Paynesville, and having spent some time (on my way home) with Fred DeShield as he churned out his jazz sounds in his studios, all I needed was a good night’s sleep. But tried as I did to wiggle out of the invitation to make my views known, my friends kept coming after me.
I eventually obliged them by referencing the story I had written on the topic in late 1979 after interviewing many ordinary Liberians and political pundits. I had concluded the article with the assertion that many readers thought yes, as a Baptist leader and given the very challenging April riot that clearly rattled the establishment, President Tolbert would live up to his promise.
It was around 1:00 a.m. now. And just as I was about to dismiss my rancorous friends, we heard the sound of a burst of gunfire coming from the direction of Capitol Hill. At first, after initially attracting our rapt attention, we shrugged off the gunfire sounds as the action of some drunk and indisciplined security personnel merry making in the small hours of the morning. But then a few minutes later, the staccato sounds from the same direction persisted.
At that point, I noticed my tall, army pilot friend smiling and asking us whether we were afraid. In hindsight, his relaxed and jovial demeanor left me in little doubt that he may not have been totally in the dark on what was obtaining that night. And when I later learned that he had generated the debate on the issue in the first place by wanting to know from the others whether President Tolbert would in fact leave office in 1983, I became even more convinced about his pre-knowledge of what eventually morphed into one of the bloodiest coups in African political history.
The persistent ra-tata-tatata sound of small arm fire that kept disrupting the otherwise tranquil night brought the spirited discussion in my room to a halt and to my great relief as I was then feeling tired and sleepy. I am not sure how much sleep I had between when I finally hit the bed and when I instinctively reached for my radio a few hours later. What I remember though was that my mother and her visiting cousin had woken up early, as they often did, to pray. And that their movements and hushed conversation about some shooting in the neighborhood (Ninth Street is of course not too far from the Capitol Hill or the Executive Mansion) had contributed to ejecting me from my slumber.
With the shooting becoming even more disconcertingly regular, I tuned in to ELBC Radio, where I noticed some confusion going on in the studios—with someone in the background half shouting, “Go ahead, you talk,” and another saying, “No, you talk”, as if it was not clear among those in the studios as to who should be talking what.
As this was an unusual On-Air situation, I took a blank cassette and started recording what I suspected was something linked to the unfolding gun-firing situation overnight. And rightly so. For momentarily, I heard someone referring to himself as “Master sergeant Samuel K. Doe” trying to read from an obviously prepared speech, declaring that the government of William R. Tolbert Jr. had been overthrown, for “rampant corruption”, “misuse of public office”, etc., etc.
A first, I had to listen very keenly, as not only was he stuttering in reading the statement before him, but I could hardly understand whether it was English or some other language that was being spoken. (Doe was by then far less schooled than he subsequently became during his 10-year leadership).
Initially, as the Master Sergeant ended his speech with ‘In the cause of the People, the struggle continues’, which had become the signature political rallying mantra of Baccus Mathews’ PAL, it was not clear what had become of President Tolbert. It took between two to three hours or so before the coup makers felt sufficiently assured enough to announce that the 66-year-old President Tolbert had in fact been killed while, according to the coup makers, “resisting” the coup.
When I broke the news to my mother, her first, almost reflex reaction was to wonder over what may have happened to the President. Even though I already knew what had befallen the ill-fated leader, I murmured back something to the effect that “I am not too sure”. I however prepared her for the worse by adding that coups in Africa, especially those carried out by lower-ranking angry soldiers, often end up with the ousted leader dead.
Subsequently, as I informed her about the death of the President she sat down dejectedly in the sofa and held her palm under her chin. I could sense that she was getting teary—and this, for a person who had never met the President and had no political affiliation or connection whatsoever with the overthrown leader or his government beyond the fact that her very young son was working at Ministry of Information (as a staff of the government-owned New Liberian newspaper). “Motherly instinct”, I said to myself in describing the reaction of a woman whose sense of empathy I was all too familiar with.
“Why did they have to kill him, now that they have seized power?” she asked rather rhetorically and innocently. I remember encouraging her to take her breakfast as I walked back into my room where two of the debating friends the previous night (excluding our Armed Forces of Liberia pilot friend) were waiting to express amazement over the bloody regime change–against the backdrop of their late night debate a few hours earlier on whether the now deceased President would democratically exit power in 1983.
Clearly, the correct answer to that question, thanks to the coup makers, would forever remain in the realm of supposition, as President Tolbert was gruesomely murdered in his Executive Mansion bedroom during a deceptively pleasant and calm night—and three years before the promised elections in which, he had promised, he would not stand.
(Part 2 and final piece to follow—RECALLING APRIL 12, 1980 COUP: President Tubman’s Chickens Come to Roost).