Reflections on the September 9, 1990 Capture of President Samuel Doe

Samuel Kanyon Doe.

Thirty-one (31) years ago today, Liberians bore witness to a watershed moment in their country’s history. It was the capture of President Samuel K. Doe by the then rebel Independent National Patriotic Front (INPFL) leader, Prince Y. Johnson.

Three decades later, questions are still being asked how and why it happened. Most of all what lessons have been learnt from such tumultuous but tragic events.

Just why did President Doe take a very risky decision to go to the Freeport of Monrovia has been the lingering question on the minds of most Liberians. According to former US Secretary of State Herman Cohen, testifying before the TRC in Minnesota, the US wanted to see Doe leave but Doe had proved adamant.

Further, according to Cohen, the US had tried to broker an arrangement between Charles Taylor and Doe that would guarantee Doe and 500 of his men safe transit through INPFL and NPFL lines to the Sierra Leone border. But the plan fell apart when Prince Johnson expressed concern about his safety and that of his men because by August 1990 NPFL rebels had virtually surrounded Monrovia attacking both the INPF and remnants of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) loyal to Doe.

Monrovia had by then become a virtual killing field with all sides carrying out extrajudicial killings. Clearly the US was pressed and wanted a way out of the quagmire. Doe had to somehow be lured out of his fortified enclave and either taken into exile or killed.

On a video Prince Johnson is seen and heard asking Doe why he entered his controlled area -- Bushrod Island -- without prior consultation. Doe while under torture responds saying he had sent an emissary (name withheld) to Prince Johnson. And from what we can piece together a grand conspiracy has been pieced together.

A former Special Security Service (SSS) officer (name withheld) in Doe’s security detail told the Daily Observer that when they got to know that Doe had decided to go to the Freeport of Monrovia, the commander of the motorcade Spartacus Smith ordered his men to disconnect the batteries of all the vehicles in the motorcade in protest fearing death would have been.

And he was right according to the former officer who survived the incident. He furthered that when Doe got wind of what had unfolded, he ordered Smith under threat of execution to reconnect the batteries. But, according to the officer, except for a few close relatives and advisors, not many others knew of his intent to visit the Freeport. It was a clear give-away sign of desperation he declared.

 But a key question is if the US so badly wanted Doe to leave they could have easily ferreted him out aboard a military helicopter. At the time there were five thousand US troops aboard a flotilla of ships lying just offshore either idling or evacuating US citizens.

On reflection Doe had been a darling of the US having emerged as leader of a military junta which overthrew President Tolbert something which according to Oxford Professor Niels Hahn was masterminded by US covert operatives. Over the ten (10) year period of his rule, Liberia became the largest per capita recipient in Africa of official US assistance totaling over US$500 million.

Much of this money went into the pockets of his officials. Corruption and the gross abuse of human rights including false imprisonment, repression of the media, torture and extrajudicial killings were hall marks of his rule. Although US policy makers knew Doe was corrupt yet they pampered him apparently because they saw him as a loyal Cold War partner- stooge some would call it.

The 1985 elections in which he was a candidate was characterized by fraud. But US Secretary of State George Shultz gave it a seal of approval declaring the elections “FAIR BY AFRICAN STANDARDS”. At the end of the day, Liberia lapsed into conflict-a 14-yr bloody civil war.

But the cost to the nation has been enormous: 200,000 people killed: millions internally displaced or exiled: social infrastructure destroyed etc. Thirty-one years later, the nation still appears to be finding its footing even after 16 years since the return to democratic rule.

Indeed, the developments in Afghanistan bear strong parallels to the situation in Liberia. For twenty long years the US turned a blind eye to gross corruption on the part of Afghan officials. According to analysts, the Afghan government was a virtual kleptocracy, hated by the people but was encouraged and pampered by official US policy.

 At the end, under pressure from the Taliban, it collapsed and along with it, the Afghan national army on which billions had been spent on training and weapons and leaving the Taliban with a treasure trove of military hardware worth US$85 billion.

But it is important that these issues be revisited or reviewed, at least for the sake of history and future generations so that questions arising therefrom be addressed. Such a review in the opinion of a Liberian historian becomes compelling because it bears strong hints of official US policy failures.

As the nation approaches elections in 2023 the signs point to danger. A highly compromised electoral body composed of some individuals with integrity issues is to oversee the elections. Also in place to adjudicate electoral issues is a judiciary which according to US State Department reports is very corrupt while real threats of electoral violence hang in the air.

The events of September 9, 1990 and the September 5, military coup in Guinea should serve to remind all Liberians especially those in political leadership to govern right with the approval of the people and not on the approval of patrons be they Americans, Chinese Russians or even French. This was made clear in Guinea by widespread popular support for the coup.

It is now high time that the US take stock of such policy failures because such failures have dangerous implications for the safety, security and wellbeing of millions of people the world over, particularly Liberia.