For those who lived through it and survived, including this writer, the day an exiled former junta general led a lightly armed and numerically disadvantaged ‘invading force’ into Monrovia, will go down in infamy. Yes, November 12, 1985 is indeed a date many residents in Monrovia, the epicenter of the political and military volcano that erupted that day, will never forget in a hurry. For some, it brought about high hopes for national renewal; for others, it led to untold suffering and ghoulish bloodletting.
The night before General Thomas Quiwonkpa (long deceased) and his group (made up of Liberians and hired Sierra Leonean mercenaries) drove into Liberia through the Sierra Leone-Liberian border crossing at the Mano River bridge, I had returned home late from a friend’s birthday party. As I retired to bed and willed myself to sleep, my mind curiously focused for a while on the increasingly suffocating sociopolitical state of affairs in the country then. And this, without the least awareness of what would happen only a few hours hence.
In particular, I reflected on the escalating tensions that had been generated by the failure of the ballot box to mirror the collective aspirations of most Liberian voters a month or so earlier. Soon it became difficult for me to sleep as I thought about the squandered opportunity by the government to redirect the country’s path away from a possible if not probable political Armageddon. As I often do when sleep becomes elusive, I remember reaching out to jazz music to help lull me to sleep, as the clock on the wall registered 2.30-something a.m. This night, it was the Crusaders’ ‘Keep That Same Old feeling’—a popular piece among jazz fans worldwide in those days.
In no time, sleep overpowered me and I never of course was unaware of or recalled anything again until a few hours later when I was awakened by repeated knocks on my window in the early hours of that fateful day, followed by whispering shouts of “Prof; Prof; Lamini; Lamini; mah meh wake up; Quiwonkpa has overthrown Doe.”
Still literally drunk with sleep, I managed to open the window. There stood Sando Moore, a well-known ace Liberian photojournalist, with his small transistor radio tuned in to the ELBC Radio station. “Quiwonkpa has overthrown Doe,” he matter-of-factly repeated. I remember murmuring something to the effect that “(But) Quiwonkpa is not in the country, Sando”- a view belied by repeated broadcasts of the ex-Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia’s announcement, with my friend making a point of it by increasing the volume on his handheld radio just in case I needed any more convincing.
As I came to grips with the unfolding reality, a flood of issues and questions took over my mind: Given the perceived military and security invincibility of Doe’s Israeli-trained Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU), had Quiwonkpa really pulled off such a military feat by dint of his singular courage and determination to oust his one-time closest but now estranged military buddy? Had Doe been captured or killed in the process, even though the former general’s well-crafted nation-wide broadcast kept saying Doe was in hiding’? Would Quiwonkpa simply replace Doe as another military or ‘milivian’ leader, or would he call for fresh elections? And, typical of the Liberian penchant for seeing America’s influence and hand behind any major political/military undertaking in the country, I wondered whether in fact Uncle Sam had not green-lighted the former general’s derring-do?
While I pondered these and many other questions and issues, my mind also briefly tried to make some connection between the unfolding drama and the Press Union forum suggestion my visiting friend (referenced in Part One of this article) had tried to bounce off on me a few weeks earlier without making himself clear. But I had no time to properly think all these issues through, as Sando was on my back to drive him around in my little Ford car (which I had earlier purchased from a departing U.S. Embassy official) to enable him capture on his camera the activities of the day.
For a moment I hesitated; not only I was feeling a bit lazy that morning, but also that my sixth sense kept holding me back from embarking on what I thought (as events will dramatically bear out later) could be a high risk venture to jump into the streets when an active coup (a coup attempt it turned out) was in its infancy, especially recalling how several previously less publicized attempts to get rid of Doe by his numerous enemies had all come to naught.
Not wanting to let Sando down in his very visible quest to capture historic pictures, I eventually obliged him as we drove from Sinkor – first heading toward the Executive Mansion. Sando had granted me no luxury of time to even have breakfast.
Monkey with the Banana
As we made our way towards the Executive Mansion and driving past City Hall and part of the University of Liberia main campus perimeter fence, we saw a lone gunman (not sure whether he was a rebel or a Doe loyalist soldier) positioned at the ‘Unknown Soldier’ statute. (Until it was demolished years later, the statute symbolized a tribute to those soldiers who had lost their lives during the lower rank military revolt that had swept away the oligarchic True Whig Party regime on April 12, 1980).
The unidentified soldier waved us off toward the Bye-Pass Road without so much as talking to us at all. We attempted to remonstrate with him by letting him know we were pressmen but he couldn’t budge and he did not talk to us. He only signaled a detour. We decided not to push our luck any further. “Strange,” I remember murmuring to Sando. Meanwhile, traffic was very light, and except for sporadic outbursts of small arm fire from no clear direction, nothing militarily spectacular could be observed. Later we leant that the relative quiet we were experiencing was a mere veneer of deception.
In fact, according to corroborated reports, just a few hours earlier, when cocks (adult male domestic chickens) were crowing to herald the morning light, and early morning Muslim worshippers were heading for their mosques, fierce fighting involving close combat had actually taken place around the Mansion and on its ground and first floors, which the ‘invading’ force had managed to infiltrate. That initial rebel success, we gathered, was attributed to a courageous and determined well known Liberian activist (now a self-declared pacifist) who led the vanguard force against the usually heavily fortified Mansion using the University of Liberia campus as his launching pad.
The full impact of that Mansion showdown was borne out by bloody bodies (rebels and soldiers, but mostly rebels) lying in such areas as Buzzy Quarters (around where a gas station and the Total Petroleum company office are currently located). Mansion security sources also gave account of blood splattered walls of the first floor. The greatest casualties were among especially the Sierra Leonean mercenaries – most of whom reportedly were coming to Liberia for the first time and therefore had no familiarity with the layout of the city, much less that of the Mansion they were led to attack.
As we drove along the streets, it became difficult to distinguish between rebels and loyal soldiers. Both forces had on fatigues. This was a very dangerous confusion, because smiling to a loyalist soldier would be intercepted as support for the rebellion, while the opposite in regard to a rebel could be seen as unsupportive of their enterprise. Making it even more complicated was the fact that some soldiers had already surrendered to Quiwonkpa and pledged their loyalty to his cause – with some singing that “the monkey that has the banana is the one we (are) behind”.
To be sure, the coup (or the attempt at it) was initially largely successful: Quiwonkpa was in control of the only major radio station in the country, some armories, and telecommunications facilities. His forces had also crucially taken into custody several government officials (including Doe’s Vice President at the time, Dr. Harry Fomba Moniba (late), ministers, senior military and national security personnel, heads of state enterprises, etc.). Most of these frightened officials had been shepherded into the Barclay Training Center (BTC) where the rebel general received a rousing welcome by soldiers, many of whom had lived with him in the center when he was then a most popular commanding general in the months following the 1980 coup.
However, what Quiwonkpa and his small size spearhead force were probably not aware of was that they were not up against the once generally taciturn, unpretentious and less sophisticated Master Sergeant he had known. You now had a Samuel K. Doe who had grown in strength militarily and politically; one who had since surrounded himself with some of the best trained men in urban warfare and close combat – as if he had strategically anticipated such a scenario happening in the fullness of time.
Combine this with the fierce loyalty of such a force (which was understandably largely made up of members of his ethnic group), and you had a daunting military challenge of taking on Doe in Monrovia—that is, short of a guerrilla warfare.
As Sando and I drove back toward Sinkor (Tubman Boulevard and Old Road), we again saw, as we had earlier seen on Broad and other streets downtown, hundreds of residents jubilating and heaping praises on Quiwonkpa, the “strong man” and the “Redeemer”, while cursing Doe and calling for his head. In the meantime, as we drove past 16th and 17th Streets, I couldn’t help but take note of a 1965 western movie that was scheduled to be screened that day at my favorite cinema, Relda. It was amazingly titled, ‘Blood at Sundown’, starring Anthony Steffen.