Remembering The Quiwonkpa Invasion: The Hunted And The Naked Prey

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While throngs of Liberians and residents took to the streets on Tuesday, November 12, 1985, dancing and chanting revolutionary songs and heaping praises on Quiwonkpa and his men, and as total strangers happily hugged each other in the streets as a way of signaling support for the ‘invasion’, very few, if any, of the jubilating crowds were aware of what the real state of play was militarily. In their convivial carnival-like activities on the streets, most of them cared less about what the reality was at that point.

All they thought was that the game was over for Doe. But as events painfully and dramatically bore out later, nothing could have been further from that feel-good assumption.

Even those of us who had attempted to get closer to the combat zones couldn’t be sure about what was obtaining at the Executive Mansion, where Head of Sate Doe was reportedly ensconced and protected by heavily armed loyalists on one of the upper floors. We knew even less so about ongoing communication between Doe and the Camp Schieffelin Military Barracks (now renamed after Edward Kessely), where Colonel Moses Wright (the quiet and unassuming commander and a close member of Doe’s family) was mobilizing and readying his troops for a confrontation with the ‘invaders’.

Meanwhile, by around 11.a.m, based on the rather opaque and amorphous atmospherics I had noticed at some of the places we visited during our drive-around, including the Ministry of Information (close to the Executive Mansion) and the Benson Street armory (where we saw gunmen whose identities were anything but clear), I suggested to Sando Moore that we should get back home and observe the situation from there. I stressed to him that as things stood, the situation was becoming fuzzier by the minute. In any case, I reminded him, I was more than famished at that point as he (Sando) had not given me the space to have breakfast when he literally jerked me out of my sleep earlier that morning.

When I got back to my compound, I learnt that an ELBC Radio/Television crew had earlier driven in my yard and asked about my whereabouts. Among them were senior television reporter Charles Beyond (one of the first media casualties of the ‘invasion’) and a very telegenic radio/television newscaster Ms. Rolande Wright (unfortunately deceased a few years ago in the United States). The experiences of these young state-owned radio/television journalists and those of their colleague Kwame Clement (once a superstar of ELTV news department), during the heat of the turmoil that day and afterward requires a whole chapter by itself based on eyewitness accounts.

One of the aspects of Quiwonkpa’s radio statement announcing the ‘coup’ that day was that Doe had gone into hiding. Some political analysts have since attributed the eventual collapse of the coup attempt partly to that statement. They argue that by giving the impression that Doe was still alive and at large, many AFL soldiers who would have otherwise given up knowing Doe had either been ‘captured’ or ‘killed’ (even if a propaganda ploy) now opted to instead err on the side of caution by not joining or sympathizing with the rebellion.

Others have suggested that the ‘invasion’ failed because the junta leader turned civilian President had been given a heads-up on the planned ‘invasion’ from Sierra Leone, but that instead of opting to nix it in its embryonic stage, he had decided to set a trap for the ‘invaders’; so that once they were in the country, he and his elite security forces would move against them—as they surely did with spectacular success a few hours after Quiwonkpa and his men had taken over the radio station and broadcast their statement.

Still others say the ‘invading’ force was not only numerically small to take on Doe’s relatively well equipped loyal army, but also that Quiwonkpa and his men quickly lapsed into complacency in the mistaken belief that they already had victory in their bag as they enjoyed a groundswell of open support the ‘invasion’ generated among civilian residents during its early stages. Reports later surfaced about incoherence in coordination and poor intelligence gathering on the part of the ‘invaders’. At some point, according to reliable sources, the situation in the rebel camp became so bad that communication between Quiwonkpa and his men in the field broke down—leading to allegations subsequently that ‘malfunctioning’ of Walkie Talkies the rebels were using was a function of jamming by pro-Doe Israeli advisers.

Whatever it was that eventually got the rebels on the back foot, two hours after I had settled down at home following our drive around town, I got a hush-hush message from a female lawyer friend telling me to quickly tune in to the Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) radio station located by the beach on the Roberstfield Highway. I did that in no time, only to hear a recorded broadcast from the ‘President of Liberia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces of Liberia’, declaring, among other things, that the attempted ‘invasion’ had been foiled.

My mind then immediately went out to the hundreds of jubilating compatriots who, unaware of the recorded announcement on ELWA Radio (as most people were tuned more to ELBC radio), were still dancing up and down the streets. Many of the lucky ones were later whipped with rattans and dispersed by Doe’s troops; some less lucky ones were arrested, beaten and taken either to the Mansion or to holding cells for interrogation. Yet, much less lucky folks (especially persons from Quiwonkpa’s Nimba County) “never lived to tell the story”—to borrow a favorite expression of Doe in those days.

What had happened militarily resulting in the ELWA radio broadcast was a textbook tactical maneuver on the part of Colonel Moses Wright and his Camp Schieffelin combat unit. Having probably sent in agents on reconnaissance to ELBC where Quiwonkpa, his bodyguards and a sprinkling of AFL soldiers sympathetic to his cause were assembled in front of the radio house and facing the main street, Colonel Wright (I think he was later promoted by Doe) first attacked the lightly defended religious radio station reportedly using the beach route as a decoy. Little wonder that the first recorded broadcast from Doe came over that station.

The Colonel then stationed some of his men at the radio station and then led the main force to ELBC; not by using the main road via the ELWA junction, but by cleverly crossing the highway from the sprawling ELWA compound and then using a little known and little used dusty road that took them through the brushes on an elevated perch of land overlooking the ELBC building. It was from this rear end of the radio station that the Colonel and his men launched a fierce and tactical surprise attack on the building, and on Quiwonkpa and his men, who were only concentrating on the front side of the building facing the main road leading to Red Light.

The rest, as they say, became history: Quiwonkpa and his men, according to several accounts, scattered and fled in all directions in a manner akin to a cat being thrown among the pigeons. Little wonder why he was eventually cornered in a nearby neighborhood hungry, exhausted and abandoned. The hunting party later claimed that the once powerful and highly popular General was shot and killed while he tried to resist—a similar copout Doe had blurted at his first major international press conference at the Executive Mansion in 1980 when asked why the coup plotters had to kill President William R. Tolbert instead of arresting him. Replied Doe at the time: “He tried to resist arrest!” The circumstances of his capture have never been clear; with some saying he committed suicide by taking a cyanide compound, while others say he simply surrendered and begged for mercy. (Whatever the truth is about his capture, Quiwonkpa remains a hero to many who perceived him as a patriot who died in the cause of his country).

In the days following the bloody confrontation, Monrovia and its environs were enveloped by an eerie silence. Many persons – military and civilian – were rounded up. Demonstrations and gatherings of any kind were banned as were political activities and student groups. The Press Union was also subsequently proscribed and prevented from holding any meetings. (When, several months after the ‘invasion’ and the banning of the PUL, we went to the Justice Ministry to let the then Minister of Justice – Jenkins Scott, deceased – know that the PUL would go ahead to defy the ban imposed on its meetings, he threatened to have his police open fire on any such meetings. But for the intervention of religious leaders who dissuaded us from holding meetings at the last minute, we were hell-bent on standing up to him).

As the hunt of perceived and real supporters of the coup attempt began that day, some family members came to my residence and literally ordered me to leave my apartment, after a good-hearted security officer at the Executive Mansion (who knew my family), had surreptitiously informed my brother that Doe’s Press Secretary at the time had fingered me and Sando Moore for “supporting” the coup attempt. He claimed he had seen us driving around and jubilating. The officer had strongly advised that I leave my residence immediately. As hard as I tried to convince my relatives that the Press Secretary’s allegation was downright false, no family member was interested in listening to my denial. For them, my explanation would have to wait for another time.

I hurriedly packed a few belongings and, after sending word to Sando to do the same, I sought refuge in one of a few safe houses I had in those activist days. I remain very grateful to that fearless lady (who is today a highly qualified professional working in the service of her country) for putting her life and those of her family at risk for me during those very dangerous days. There were many such good and brave women who, at various times during our media freedom struggle, gave us sanctuary when we needed to temporarily switch sleeping places. (Since that monstrous allegation I have never had the opportunity to meet that press secretary – said to be leaving in the United States since then – and ask him to his face whether he made any such claim that could have cost our lives).

Meanwhile, as I remained in my hideout, I heard gut-wrenching stories of how Quiwonkpa had been killed and his body reportedly cannibalized, and how TV reporter Charles Gbeyon had met his death after being stripped virtually naked, brutalized, bloodied and thrown into the back of one of the jeeps in Doe’s convoy and driven first to Broad street, and then to the Mansion almost half-dead. This was after the TV reporter had rather unsuspectingly gone to ELBC Radio compound and attempted to interview Doe, who had gone to the station to formally announce his triumph over the ‘invaders’.

(Charles was apparently unaware that some of Doe’s men had bad-mouthed both him and fellow reporter Kwame Clement to Doe, accusing them of being supportive of, if not complicit in the attempt to remove the military cum civilian leader from power. Kwame was less unlucky when he was later only arrested and incarcerated for a while after immediate post-coup tensions had notched a bit).

I got to learn further that successful businessman Jim Holder (affectionately called ‘Big Jim’) had also been arrested and severely beaten with gun butts, and was undergoing brutal interrogation at the hands of Doe’s henchmen—most of whom were by now in a bloody state of mind and all too disposed to dispensing swift and bloody vengeance against perceived and real foes. Jim was later arrested and detained along with the current Liberian leader and charged with treason. (Although they were later freed following intense international pressure, Big Jim passed away some four years later while serving in the Amos Sawyer-led Interim Government—with many anti-government critics attributing his death to the manner in which Doe’s security forces had manhandled and maltreated him during his detention and ‘interrogation’).

As I sat on my bed in my safe house and internalized the disturbing news, I reflected on two issues that still stood in my mind at that point: the somewhat mysterious and fearsome gunman Sando and I had encountered near the statue of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ on the Tuesday morning of the invasion’ (wondering whether he was still alive); and the conversation I had with my visiting Liberian Business Caucus guy – who had cryptically raised with me the issue of the Press Union of Liberia providing a platform for an unknown important person and for an undisclosed statement – just a few weeks before the November 12, 1985 showdown in Monrovia.

Some thirty one years later, I have never again asked that individual what he meant at the time when he had posed the PUL forum question. And consequently, I have never been certain whether what he was referring to at the time had anything to do with the abortive ‘invasion’—a military and political upheaval that further nudged the country closer to the all-out bloody guerilla war and generalized destruction and mayhem that eclipsed Liberia four years later and eventually claimed the lives of reportedly hundreds of thousands of Liberians, including Doe himself.

(Excerpts from an unpublished monograph titled, Reporting Liberia—In The belly of the Beast).

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