Yesterday, November 12, 2019, passed off as just another ordinary day in the life of Liberians especially for residents of Monrovia. The historical significance of that date, perhaps with the exception of a few, mainly those 50 years and above, was just about lost on everyone else.
Hardly anyone gave it a thought. But thirty-four (34) years ago on November 12, 1985, the seeds of 14 years of violent civil conflict in Liberia were being sowed.
On November 12, 1985, the nation awoke to the sound of the national anthem played on radio station ELBC. Seconds later a male voice crackled on radio announcing the overthrow of military leader Samuel K. Doe who, he said, had gone into hiding. The voice was that of fellow 1980 coup maker and former AFL Commanding-General Brigadier General Thomas Quiwonkpa who had invaded Liberia from Sierra Leone.
The invasion however proved abortive and within barely twelve hours following Quiwonkpa’s early morning announcement, he had been captured and killed and the entire affair fizzled out. Bloody reprisals soon followed against perceived supporters of Quiwonkpa as well as those of ethnic Nimba origin. Thousands of his kinsmen including soldiers fled into exile in the Ivory Coast.
It was from this pool of disaffected people that rebel leader Charles Taylor and his supporters recruited to launch later a devastating 14 yr. civil war on December 24, 1989.
General Quiwonkpa’s November 12, 1985 abortive invasion was preceded by general and presidential elections only one month earlier in October. Although Jackson F. Doe of the Liberia Action Party (LAP) was widely perceived and acclaimed as the winner, military strongman Samuel K. Doe appointed a special committee outside of the Elections Commission to count the ballots. In the end, Elections Commission chairman Emmett Harmon declared Doe winner.
It can be recalled that during the electoral period preceding November 12, 1985, there were several media reports of harassment and threats and use of violence by members of the NDPL Task Force. Opposition political rallies were often violently broken up by the thuggish NDPL taskforce. Political intolerance was at its height.
President Doe, apparently believing he could stamp out opposition to his corrupt and repressive rule, resorted to a clamp down on the media. Several journalists were arrested and jailed for their reportage, including virtually the entire staff of the Daily Observer. Its offices were even burnt on three occasions by state security.
Opposition figures including student activists were arrested and imprisoned for prolonged periods at the Post Stockade and Belle Yalla prisons. Before long, headless bodies and decapitated heads were appearing on the streets of Monrovia.
At that point, the slide into violence and anarchy had become virtually irreversible. President Doe had by all accounts lost the mass popular appeal which greeted the coup on April 12, 1980.
Elections were due in 1991 but, by the close of 1988 it began dawning on the public that given the then existing climate of fear, the elections in 1991 would have more likely than not been rigged in favor of the ruling incumbent. The economy was at the time experiencing a downslide made worse by uneasy and tenuous relations with the IMF.
Thus, when Charles Taylor and his band of insurgents struck on December 24, 1989, it was by no means surprising that he received popular support initially. The seeds of conflict had already been sowed. Taylor’s action watered those seeds and they of course would sprout with deadly effects. For fourteen years Liberians were subjected to repeated cycles of violence that finally ended in 2003 through peace brokering efforts by ECOWAS and the international community.
Two successful back to back elections in 2005 and 2011 cast a strong impression that Liberia had successfully emerged from its dark past. The 18,000 strong UN peacekeeping force, which had provided for the country’s security needs since 2003, completed its drawdown in March 2018 shortly after the 2017 elections that brought President Weah to power. Liberia’s security needs, going forward, were to be addressed by the government of Liberia.
Since the withdrawal of UNMIL public concerns have heightened about the conduct of the nation’s security forces, particularly the Liberia National Police whose officers, have opened live fire on unarmed protesters. Further, as evidenced by the recent spate of political violence during by-elections in which the Police have stood down as pro CDC supporters attacked opposition rallies and campaign headquarters.
In retrospect, it appears the developments of yesterday bear close parallels to ongoing developments today. President Weah for example has as some of his closest advisors, elements who were yesterday close advisors to President Doe. He purchased a private jet at a time when the country was faced with immense economic difficulties. President Weah has also purchased a private jet at a time of great economic difficulties facing the nation.
President Doe erected a luxurious mansion in his home village in Tuzon, Grand Gedeh County, President Weah has erected a string of apartments since his assumption of power. And like President Doe, President Weah travels with large delegations.
Similarly, too, are tenuous relations with the IMF whose requirements for extension of credit are stiff, requiring enormous amounts of fiscal discipline which this government has yet to demonstrate. Under Doe, Liberia was suspended from IMF membership, a threat which now hovers over this government.
Looking back on history, reflecting on the present and envisioning the future, this newspaper warns that the nation appears to be retracing its steps to yesterday’s dark past. The lessons of November 12, 1985 should never be lost on us. We owe it to ourselves and to our dear country, Liberia, to remind ourselves, particularly our youths, of the dangers inherent to retracing our steps to the past. We must tell our children the truth.
We must also tell our leaders the truth. We must tell them to avoid repeating past mistakes. We must, above all, remind our leaders that the Liberian people will never accept another dictatorship, no matter how benevolent and well-intentioned it might be.