By Leeroy Wilfred Kabs-Kanu
God, in his wonderful mercies, has made me witness many dramatic and historic events in my life. But nothing prepared me for the cataclysm of Saturday, April 12, 1980. As another Saturday, April 12 comes on us, 34 years after 1980, it is yet another time to have a flashback of the events of Saturday, April 12, 1980, and the enduring lessons we must continue to learn from the social and political upheaval that rocked Liberia that day.
The bloody military coup that took place in Liberia on Saturday April 12, 1980 did not only reverberate across the country’s borders but it is the one singular event that Sierra Leoneans have rued for decades and will forever curse, because it was the event that set adrift a devastating sequence of events that led to our 11-year rebel war whose effects we have still not recovered from, despite our best efforts. It is therefore a day that we will never forget and time and again we will re-examine its salient lessons so that it does not happen again. When a nation sneezes, the neighboring country catches cold. This is one of the lessons we must never forget.
As Sierra Leone continues to make dramatic progress under the productive governance of President Ernest Koroma, we must also learn from the Liberian experience not to ever trample our pearls under foot as the Liberians did. We must appreciate a good government that is producing tangible socio-economic and political developments, whatever its challenges. We must never cast our pearls before swine as Liberians did on Saturday April 12, 1980 and have lived to regret.
Saturday April 12, 1980 was indeed a day like none.
I had woken up early that torrid Saturday morning to take bath and prepare to go downtown Monrovia to conduct regular Saturday remedial classes for my students at the then Charlotte Tolbert Memorial Academy. My students were preparing for the forthcoming high school students’ national exams. As I crossed the street over to the landlord‘s house overlooking Stockton Creek, where the bathroom was, a heavily-armed soldier hurrying past asked me where I was going. In those days, Liberian soldiers were so harmless (They were mostly used for parades) I had no fear talking with one bearing an AK-47 in the darkness of dawn. Resting my bucket of water on the ground, I told him I was going across to the landlord’s place where the bathroom was, to bathe, as I had to go downtown to conduct Saturday classes for my students. The soldier looked at me incredulously and sucked his teeth and said “Ma meh, you’re not serious. You better go back into your house” and without explaining why he just continued heading towards the other end of Stockton Creek.
It was indeed very early in the morning , around 5 am, but I wanted to get an early start on the Douala buses , which were becoming scarce since the political situation in Liberia started escalating, with President William R. Tolbert and the pressure group, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia ( PAL ) engaged in a war of words and wits everyday on national TV, radio and the newspapers, especially since the arrest of PAL members and the PPP party loyalists the government had locked up after they called on the President to resign . I also had to set the desks and chairs under the foyer of the school building in readiness for the class, which was a lot of work. Usually, some students arrived early to help me but I did not like taking chance.
After leaving the bucket of water in the bathroom, I had gone back to get my soap dish and towel when my friend, Osman Bangura , who lived in the landlord’s house , rushed across the street and barged in on me, whispering: “They have killed the Pa ! ! ” They have killed the Pa!! ” . I thought it was the landlord, Old Man Lahai Johnson, who had been killed, because there had been quite a frightening number of ritual murders lately and Caldwell Road then had the inglorious distinction of being one of regular haunts of the ‘Heartmen’ (Ritual murderers who terrorized Liberia then. “Heartmen” extract human parts from unfortunate souls to use to make “Sumu”–Juju). Three of them had even chased me and the very Osman by the bushy part of Caldwell Road late one night on our way home from accompanying to the Douala bus halt a colleague teacher, D.D. Borbor , who had visited us and we had stayed up very late enjoying refreshments in a nearby shop , owned by a Nigerian businessman we called Lucky’s Pa ( He had a daughter called Lucky ).
No, they had not killed Pa Lahai Johnson, our landlord. They had killed the President of the Republic of Liberia and Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Dr. William R.Tolbert jr , one of the men I loved so dearly in life because in the Africa of those days he was the most progressive and democratic Head of State, though he stood accused of not doing enough to stop the settler Congo people from oppressing and denying the indigenous countrymen and women their rights. The once-docile soldiers of Liberia had killed him.
We rushed to the radio in the living room and tuned it on. Coincidentally, the National Anthem of Liberia was being played. Almost to the middle of the first stanza, it was interrupted and we heard a somebody speaking in broken English, saying: “We want you’all to know we finish killing Tolboh. De meh not our President no more. In fact, he dead” It was a soldier, we would learn later and because he was having problems expressing himself, in English, his fellow soldiers were whispering to him: “Speak in your dialect. Speak in your dialect”. They did not even know how to operate the radio and their background conversation was being broadcast. I guess it was before they captured one of our former students, Gabriel Nimley, a broadcaster (According to rumours), and frog marched him to the studios to show them how to broadcast. Another soldier then came on the air and spoke profusely, but nervously in Krahn, continuously mentioning the names Tolboh and Master -Sergeant Samuel K. Doe.
As we stood there stunned and paralyzed, the radio broadcasts in Krahn continued by the still nervous soldiers. Osman and I continued to whisper to ourselves in the dark parlour whether it was really true or whether we were dreaming. Liberia had become unstable since the previous year’s chaos–The April 14, 1979 rice riots. But frankly, soldiers of Liberia were the last persons any one would have expected to stage a coup. Because it was not known then that they were ever benefiting from professional combat training and because as an institution they were marginalized, seemed to lack capacity and exposure to the necessary weapons or abilities to stage an intricate task like a coup and the opportunity to mobilize , nobody ever dreamt that they would have ever committed the cardinal sin of African soldiers of those days–overthrow a government.
Gradually, Stockton Creek started waking up and news of trouble downtown soon started hitting the rumour mills. Everybody was rushing to their radio sets but initially all we could get was the National Anthem and frenzied, nervous and uncoordinated statements in the local dialects. Heavy gunshots in staccato bursts were re-echoing across the city. Then as anxiety heightened and the street began to be filled with worried and concerned people wondering what was going on, radio broadcaster Gabriel Nimley came on the air and read this stunning announcement, which I have never forgotten all these years: “Liberia’s President and Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Dr. William Richard Tolbert jr has been assassinated in a coup staged by enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia”. The announcement went on to say that a full statement by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) would soon be made and it advised citizens and foreigners to remain calm, as the situation was under control. The announcement, which finally confirmed the rumours that there had been a coup and President Tolbert had been killed, threw the whole town and Caldwell Road vicinity into confusion. People stood in numbers talking and everybody wondered what had befallen their nation.
Then we started seeing trucks carrying heavily-armed soldiers speeding by from Logan Town heading for the city. Other trucks of soldiers drove in from the city and took positions on the Caldwell Bridge, setting up a checkpoint. Many public officials lived in the upscale township of Caldwell and it was obvious the dragnets had already been cast for them. Some armed soldiers on foot materialized and confirmed to us that indeed, “We finish killing Tolboh ” . “Tolbert is no more”.
“Our new chief is Samuel K. Doe “. The name sounded so obscure to many, though it rang a bell to me as I will explain later. People were wondering who this Samuel K. Doe was, while some others kept saying that he was a Krahn. The name was so unfamiliar.
Before long, kids and youths in commandeered trucks from downtown were seen passing and singing : “Tolboh f—up ! ! Who f—- up? Tolboh f—– up ! ! ”. My first thought was that these kids and youths were too brave. What if the coup got reversed? The war of wits, ideologies and political sloganeering between the Tolbert Government and radical forces in the country led by Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, George Boley, Oscar Quiah , Boima Fahnbulleh, Togba Nah Tipoteh, Marcus Dahn, Chea Cheapo and others had got the whole nation petrified that trouble was stalking Liberia but nobody expected that it could have boiled down to this –a coup in which the President would be brutally killed . People used to say Liberia did not have a fighting army. The soldiers were only used for marching and parading during public functions. Nobody ever expected the army to deliver the final blow to bring to an end the ongoing rift between Tolbert and the reformers who had been staging street and beach rallies and only two weeks ago had publicly called for the resignation of the President , for which their leaders were in jail when the soldiers struck.
Soon, barely dressed women, faces painted with charcoal and blue and waving palm fronds, materialized from Douala dancing and rejoicing. They were “Contry” women rejoicing for the overthrow of the “Congo ” (Kongor ) Government. The Congos were descendants of ex-slaves from the United States who were brought to Liberia. The jubilation would later spread throughout the nation and last for months –valuable months that were wasted dancing “Country Devil” all over Liberia for a coup that even saw 13 members of the overthrown government executed by firing squad after a sham trial for rampant corruption and misrule.
Gradually, Stockton Creek too exploded into joy, but for some of us, we remained circumspect. First of all, I never understood what the coup was all about. Even the periodic chaos was surprising to me because frankly speaking, Liberia was a far better nation in terms of socio-economic and political circumstances than most of the countries in Africa. The Liberian economy was most buoyant; In fact, it was the strongest economy in West Africa. Liberia paid far better salaries than most West African countries. Employment opportunities abounded, with large companies like MESURADO and Telema fishing companies, LIBTRACO, Bong Mines, LAMCO, Firestone, Guthrie rubber companies and the government providing lucrative jobs, evidenced by the huge influx of aliens in Liberia from all parts of Africa.
When I arrived in Liberia in 1978, I found, to my great surprise, a country that could be rightly decribed as a paradise on earth. The economy was booming and prices of food and basic commodities, including clothes were so cheap, compared to Sierra Leone that I wondered why there was such a huge gulf between the two countries.
I often argued in class with my Liberian students who had become very militant and hostile to the Tolbert Government. They could not accept my characterization of their country as a paradise, compared to other West African nations. One of the students, Joe Wylie, who was one of the most militant students, describing himself as a freedom fighter, accused me of suffering from a “Subservient colonial mentality”. Joe was a radical individual who would go on to play a leading role in the political metamorphosis of his country. He took part in the 1985 Quiwonkpa abortive coup and was one of the rebel leaders during the war. He served as Deputy Minister of Defence in the transitional government led by Gyude Bryant in the early 20002.
But back to Saturday April 12, 1980. Despite the jubilation going on , there was always that glimmer of hope that an announcement would soon be made by the Government saying that the radio announcements about a coup were false and that Tolbert was still in power. The great and unconquerable True Whig Party (TWP), which had been in power for over a hundred years, certainly would not go down without a fight. As a matter of fact, the very last program on ELTV the previous night was a SPECIAL FEATURE showing President Tolbert meeting with a high-powered delegation from Cape Mount that had come to the Mansion to pledge their loyalty to him. They were following the examples of similar strong delegations from other counties which had been marching to the Mansion every day to pledge their loyalty in previous weeks, in the process interrupting our classes at the Charlotte Tolbert Memorial Academy, which was situated at the foot of the hill between the Mansion and the infamous Barclay Training Centre (a military barracks by the sea that hosted the notorious Post Stockade Prison) . It was not a good season for learning at CTMA because living close to the Mansion, the Temple of Justice and the military barracks, we were always caught up in the maelstrom of political events, parades and demonstrations by contending parties in Liberia’s volatile and deteriorating political crisis. Curious students would dash to the windows to watch as each delegation passed with its own sets of microphone-wielding orators, masked dancers, clowns and men and women with painted faces.
In that TV program the night before the coup, President Tolbert had talked tough as he had been doing in recent times on TV and in the newspapers, threatening that Bacchus Matthews and others would never be allowed to prevail in Liberia with their socialist and destructive ideas. He threatened to deal severely with troublemakers. He assured the Cape Mountonians that the nation was safe and they should return to their farms and vocations in peace, assured that the TWP Government would do whatever it took to protect life and property . His Minister of Justice, Mr. Jefferson Chesson, had also been staging his own media spectacle daily on TV, when arrested reform-advocating elements were brought to his office for chastisement before being bundled to the Post Stockade Prison. I remember him taunting a handcuffed Oscar Quiah and George Boley and threatening them that they will never succeed in their quest to bring down the government and that those fighting the government will perish .He put fear in the men before they were taken away to jail. It turned out that it was Chesson who perished as he was among the ministers and government officials tied to stakes by the seaside and executed by firing squad few days after the coup-one of the most heartless and wicked acts of the so-called redeemers.
It turned out also that Tolbert was really gon, as the soldiers bragged to us. He did not come back. Guinea did not send troops to put down the coup, as some people expected, acting on the letter of a defence pact signed between both nations the previous year, after the April 14, 1979 rice riots. Doe and his men had stormed the Mansion overnight and murdered the President. Monrovia exploded with jubilation and trucks of people rejoicing and heading for the city kept speeding past. Throngs of men and women painted their faces and held palm fronds celebrating their “Redemption “. Not until November 12, 1985 when Doe himself was overthrown by fellow coup-maker Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa for many hours before he foiled the coup did I see Liberians rejoicing as they did that day. But with the jubilation interspersed with looting , rapes and other atrocities that accompany African coups, it was a redemption they had lived to regret as Samuel K. Doe turned out to be the worst political monster of our times, committing horrific murders and other atrocities and turning the then Paradise of Africa into a nation of horrors.
Saturday, April 12, 1980 holds no fond memories for Liberians and should not for Sierra Leoneans either. It was the day that the seeds of the instability that led to the Liberian war were planted. Many Liberians would point beyond April 12 to the day the ex-slaves from America came to Liberia and set up a political, social, and economic system that marginalized the indigenous people. But whatever the case, April 12, 1980, played a significant role and it revives the age-old argument about military coups and undemocratic changes of Government not being the solution for African countries.
The April 12, 1980 coup promised Liberians so much. It promised them paradise but it only delivered a theatre of horrors in a once peaceful and progressive country. In his first address to the nation, the new military leader, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe promised the Liberian people: “Our dear Liberian people, let us assure you that this new government is in the interest of all our people … The Government shall undertake to bring about equal economic and social opportunities for all …There will be justice for all without regards for social status or place of origin.” The complete opposite happened as the new military government turned out to be the most corrupt, ineffective, useless, oppressive, economically clueless and tribalistic government in the history of Liberia . It divided the nation on both tribal and regional lines and murdered its citizens and packed its prisons with people whose only crime was expressing their opinions. The soldiers became a danger to life and property and brought a once-flourishing nation to its knees.
Anybody who has followed the history of Liberia and Sierra Leone knows that April 12, 1980 was the day our political and economic doom were sealed in Liberia and Sierra Leone;
It was April 12, 1980 that destroyed the best economy in West Africa and caused the most indescribable suffering in the land, destroyed tourism, investments, education and every social, political and economic institution and led to the polarization of the whole nation on tribal lines that resulted in a most calamitous war that spilled into Sierra Leone, leaving in its wake almost a million dead people and infrastructure in rubbles. It was a day of grief, infamy and shame for our two countries which suffered the worst civil wars ever in the continent as a result of conditions set in motion by that bloody April 12, 1980 coup.
April 12, 1980 killed a progressive and democratic President, saw his cabinet executed and their dead bodies trampled upon like mongrel dogs. Such bestiality by the soldiers would come back to haunt the very initiators as it enthroned the notion that the best treatment to mete out to one’s political enemies is not dialogue but physical decapitation. Doe’s forces decapitated Weh Syen, Nelson Toe and others by firing squad; Podier was decapitated by Doe’s soldiers when he tried to re-enter the country after leaving for exile; Quiwonkpa was publicly decapitated when his 1985 coup was crushed. Doe himself was decapitated when he was captured by rebels seeking to overthrow him in 1990. The evil that men do lives after them.
For us in Sierra Leone, the lesson we must learn from Saturday April 12, 1980 in Liberia is to always appreciate a good government that is delivering socio-economic and political developments. When a nation has a productive President and a government that is addressing the welfare of the people, listening to extremists and radicals who promise the pie in the sky is never a wise decision. They will always disappoint and fail to deliver. There will always be extremists and radicals with utopian ideas and promises but we must view them with suspicion, because they have the capacity to take the people for a ride. Political and economic vampires must never be allowed to take control of a country.
No government is perfect and nobody is saying that a government that is performing in the interest of the people will not have challenges. There will certainly be challenges, but overthrowing it is never the solution. President Tolbert had his challenges but one thing that is now certain is that if Liberians had appreciated him and allowed him to continue ruling them, their country would have been sitting on top of the other West African nations in socio-economic developments .Liberia was moving fast to the top and would have been one of the most developed African nations today.
Democracy, political tolerance and dialogue should always be the best option to address national problems. Violence does not pay. If the Liberians had relied on these methods to solve their problems. Sierra Leone too would have been a better nation today.
We hope our people in Liberia and Sierra Leone have also learnt their lessons from Saturday April 12, 1980 that the most -criticized civilian government is always better than a military or rebel government. Only a civilian government has the moral will and the capacity to respect fundamental human rights and the Rule of Law. Nobody can pinpoint any African country that ever prospered from a coup or war. We must continue to support the sanctity of the will of the people through the ballot box.
With both nations soon to become oil-producing countries, the future is bright for Sierra Leone and Liberia. But we must avoid the mistakes of the past and continue to embrace democracy.