REMEMBERING THE APRIL 12, 1980 COUP: Tubman’s Chickens come Home to Roost

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By Lamini A. Waritay

Part 2 (Final)

Following the nocturnal military activities a few hours earlier, Liberians on the morning of April 12, 1980, suddenly found themselves catapulted into a different sociopolitical era from the one they had hitherto known. For many, the situation was palpably surreal. It was an earthshaking political upheaval comparable to George Orwell’s Animal Farm revolution–with the once powerful and mighty changing places with the downtrodden they had been ruling ad infinitum.

Clearly, a few bullets, a fatally bayoneted Head of State still dressed in his pajamas, and a brief radio statement announcing the dissolution of the government and directing all army, security and government personnel to take note and act accordingly, had brought to a bloody end the grand old True Whig Party (TWP) governance. Even those who had staged the coup—mostly young, often hungry and poverty-stricken, unexposed and functionally illiterate lower-ranking soldiers—seemed bewildered by their relatively easy success in uprooting a long lasting oligarchy.

They and some other fellow Liberians were not alone in their incredulity of what they were beholding that fateful April morning. To the outside world, Liberia, under the dominance of the so-called Americo-Liberians, was an oasis of peace and tranquility in a continent where coups and other forms of violent political/military disruptions had become commonplace. And so any idea or expectation that a military takeover (let alone one pulled off so virtually effortlessly by elements considered then as the dregs of the army hierarchy), could ever befall this largely Christian oriented West African country was unthinkable.

But for those who had been following the Liberian story under what clearly had become known and acknowledged as a ‘minority class’ governorship for 133 years, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) putsch came as little surprise—never mind the swiftness and surgical precision with which the dozen or so men had carried it out.   Indeed, for many keen observers of the situation then obtaining in pre-coup Liberia, the country of less than two million citizens at the time was a messy socioeconomic and political disaster waiting to happen. And so to such analysts, it was less a question of why, but when and how the demise of the system would come about.

Several scholarly publications and write-ups have since detailed the fundamental as well as the proximate causes that led to the 1980. And so a newspaper article of this kind cannot venture in that direction. All that is perhaps worth stating in this brief recalling of the coup is that the reasons for the ‘1980 Revolution’ ranged from socioeconomic and political injustices and contradictions, to insensitivity on the part of the elite bordering on social stratification and arrogance of power.

Otherwise, how can anyone rationalize a governance system in which less than 5 percent (%) of the population controlled 90% of the commanding heights of the economy? Similarly, how come the ‘minority class’ perpetually dominated all three branches of government–Executive, Legislature and Judiciary–to the blatant disadvantage of the so-called ‘indigenous masses’ of the people, during which time nepotism became the stock-in-trade among the elite?

‘Nut Parade’ and Executions

It was this prevailing state of affairs in pre-coup Liberia that influenced editors of a major African magazine then being published in the United Kingdom to come up with a very insightful cover story titled`: ‘Tubman’s Chickens Come Home to Roost.’ The well written narrative encapsulated the features of the ever-enduring rule of the Americo-Liberian class, and highlighted the prolonged and muscular presidency of the country’s leader, William V. S. Tubman, who had the good fortune of peaceably dying in office, as opposed to his ill-fated Vice President, William R. Tolbert Jr.–an otherwise well-intentioned Baptist minister and relatively liberal leader who ended up paying for the ‘sins’ of his forbears.

Notwithstanding the assassination of the President and the events that followed, the coup was hailed nationwide. For weeks and even months on end, throngs of Liberians in various parts of the country jubilated, sang and danced, waving palm fronds and describing and treating the coup makers as heroes and liberators. Most of the people interviewed while celebrating the coup made it clear that the day was like Independence Day for the country–the declaration of July 26, 1847, notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, while the carnival-like atmospherics spawned by the overthrow went on endlessly on the streets, equally appalling happenings beyond the killing of a leader (never mind his many imperfections) were taking place. A few days after the coup, many former regime officials (including top ranking cabinet ministers in the TWP government), who had been rounded up and detained, were given the ‘nut parade’–a degrading political punishment in which the victims are paraded in the streets virtually naked. When questioned why this was, some of the coup sympathizers retorted that they were simply imitating the cruel treatment perfected by elements of past TWP administrations against their political opponents.

What many did not notice at the time was that the parade was a prelude to an even worse fate awaiting the now cowed ex-government officials who were already being tried at a hastily organized military tribunal at the Barclay Training Center (BTC). (The new leaders cared less that all those on trial were civilians, and not enemy combatants captured in a wartime situation).

The executions of the 13 hapless erstwhile officials took place barely ten days after the coup. (So much for transparent trial). Earlier that day (April 22) the young military leader (Master Sergeant Doe) had held his first press conference at the Executive Mansion, where he was repeatedly pilloried by foreign reporters attending the media event to provide justification for the killing of an ageing civilian President instead of arresting him. Doe simply repeated that President Tolbert had been shot because he “resisted arrest.”

Minutes after Doe’s press conference, and while we were streaming out of the Mansion, the then civilian Information Minister, Gabriel Nimley, almost as an afterthought, called back the foreign and local media representatives and announced that those media personnel wishing to witness a pending execution at the BTC were welcome to do so at that moment.

No one among us had the slightest hunch that he was referring to the detained ex-government officials. Many thought it had to do with common criminals caught in the looting spree that characterized the immediate aftermath of the coup. Because of this, some reporters, including a few colleagues with whom I had gone to cover Doe’s press conference, turned down the invitation and simply went about other activities. Not for me. Ever the curious, I decided to go see what the heck Minister Nimley was referring to. And lo and behold, the unforgettable event turned out to be the pointblank shooting by an enthusiastic firing squad (including a female sharpshooter) of 13 former government officials tied to electric poles lining the beachfront.

As the shooters released volleys at their targets, the crowd that had gathered at the grisly event vigorously applauded and sang. I recall a female BBC reporter (Ann Bolsover) standing by me at the scene asking why the civilian spectators were happy and cheering at such a gory sight. Even for me, who was aware of the depth of anger bordering on hatred that the ‘masses’ nursed for the overthrown government, I couldn’t quite come out with a ready answer for her. The public spectacle became so unbearable for me that I literally fled the scene—walking briskly along the BBC correspondent who was at the same time rushing to the Liberian Telecommunications Corporation’s facilities on Lynch Street (Mobile phones were light years away by then) to send her dispatch on the dramatic executions.

As if to reflect the spine-chilling nature of the executions, even the weather that day suddenly turned dreary. It took quite some time for most residents of Monrovia to know about the executions, as there had been no prior public announcement or notice to the effect. Except for a few relatives of the former officials who had gone to see them on a routine visit only to be subsequently caught up in the rather bizarre situation, most other family members only came to know about what had befallen their fathers, brothers and uncles by way of word of mouth as the shocking news gradually spread in the city.

Gunpoint and Excesses

Meanwhile, incidents of rape of particularly women previously considered fashionable and socialites, multiplied in and around Monrovia–with undisciplined, often intoxicated armed soldiers forcing their way into homes of those associated with the overthrown government. (A typical example of such a real life experience has since been captured by Helene Cooper, a Liberian author, in her celebrated book, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood).

Just a few weeks earlier, these out-of-control soldiers could only dream of having such women. The coup and the gun they carried now offered them the opportunity to have such women at will. In addition to what author Cooper had revealed about her own family’s experiences during those tumultuous post-coup times, there were many publicly untold stories/reports that were even worse, including instances where mothers and daughters were all simultaneously violated in the same house, with just the walls between the rooms separating the awful incidents.

One such reprehensible act told to me by a victim particularly stands out for me and has never left me: a soldier forcibly violating a woman while her teenage son was hiding under the very bed where the act was taking place. The mother, sensing that soldiers were coming into her house and may possibly sexually assault her, had told her son to hide under the bed lest he be killed. Hardly did she know that she would momentarily be in that same bed with a drunken soldier.

Truth be told, the April 12, 1980 coup was undoubtedly highly popular. For most Liberians at the time, it was a necessary change of the guard, and a much-needed opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. But the excesses that accompanied the military takeover were becoming so sickening that the late Rufus Darpoh (then Supervising Editor) and I (in my capacity as Editor-in-Chief) took an editorial policy decision to restrain the new regime by writing editorials and ghost commentaries critical of the regime.

This rearguard journalistic action predictably landed us in one trouble after the other with the increasingly intolerant junta. We were repeatedly summoned to either the Executive Mansion or the Ministry of Defense for questioning. In one particular frightening case, a dozen heavily armed soldiers entered our newsroom at the Ministry of Information and led us at gunpoint first to the Defense Ministry then on Benson Street, and then to BTC, where we were detained and threatened with execution if we persisted in using the government-owned newspaper to publish anti-regime materials.

At one point, we were detained at the MP quarters at BTC for a whole day without eating, awaiting the then very powerful Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa to decide our fate. Luckily, just before we were about to be locked up in the famous (or is it the infamous) Post Stockade pending our transfer to the notorious Belleh Yallah maximum prison, a few media guys, including the present Minister Counsellor at the Liberian Embassy in Abidjan, Mohammed Kenneth, came to intercede for us, after BBC’s Focus on Africa had broadcast our arrest and detention.

With time, and as we became more and more disenchanted with a coup that we had initially supported and defended, and with the efforts of certain individuals who kept bad-mouthing us to Gray D. Allison, the soldier Minister of Information (killed subsequently by NPFL fighters during the civil war), Mr. Darpoh was fired from the paper and I was transferred from my Editor-in-Chief position to the Ministry of Information’s Public Affairs department as Deputy Director (a sort of demotion made to seem in my letter of appointment as a ‘promotion’). Subsequently, Tom Kamara (deceased) took over the editorship of the paper, and I was fortunate enough just at that time to clinch a coveted Fulbright scholarship to study at Boston University—despite efforts within government circles to deny me the opportunity to leave the country.

Recalling the causes cited for the coup that fateful morning, and juxtaposing these with what is obtaining now in the ‘indigenous’-dominated dispensation largely characterized by greed/avarice, selfishness and nepotism, one is left to wonder now whether what appeared to have been a necessary corrective military/political action on the morning of April 12, 1980 (with all its bloody aftermath and other excesses) was ultimately worth the effort.

Some may say it was worth the struggle and spilling of blood irrespective of the military dictatorship that it ushered in because it brought about majority and multi-party rule. Others may argue that even after 37 years, some, if not most of the fundamental/underlying causative factors that led to the coup remain bubbling beneath our body politic. The jury may still be out on this other less acrimonious debate than that which my friends were having in my room (see Part 1 of this article) during the deceptively tranquil night before the April 12, 1980 coup. What remains clear, though, is that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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