The Tragedy of Liberia: Part II… The Civil Wars

Kpelle footbridge near Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

The devastation of the civil wars impacted the lives of everyone in Liberia. Those who could escaped. The luckiest made it out to the US or Europe. Tens of thousands ended up in refugee camps in the surrounding countries. Many simply disappeared into the Liberian rainforest, crossing over bridges like the one I am standing on, in desperate hope that the war wouldn’t follow.

At one a.m. on April 12, 1980– one year after the rice riots and ten days before the executions on the beach, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, Liberia’s highest ranked non-commissioned officer and a member of the Krahn Tribe, led a group of 16 soldiers into the Executive Mansion in a coup d’état and assassinated Tolbert.

The majority of Liberians considered Doe’s rise to power positive. For the first time, tribal Liberians, along with the more liberal, change oriented Americo-Liberians, would have a chance at governing. While Doe’s military-based, People’s Redemption Council would rule temporarily, he promised a return to constitutional government. Open elections would be held by 1985. Doe also took an anti-communist stand and offered Liberia as a staging area for American troops if necessary. The US was pleased; aid to Liberia was doubled.

Ultimately, however, Doe was unwilling to relinquish power. He returned to using tactics that Americo-Liberians had used for decades.  Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were curtailed. Dissidents and opposition leaders were thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. Doe and his military junta began accumulating wealth. “Same taxi, new driver” became a common motto of the opposition by 1984. With the approach of the 1985 elections, Doe moved to solidify his power and emasculate or eliminate any challenges. When students and faculty at the University of Liberia protested, he sent in the troops. Open elections became a farce. Violence and intimidation became the rule. When elections were finally held in 1985, Doe had his own people count the ballots. Nobody was surprised that the final tally showed that he had won by 50.9%. The only surprise was that the percentage wasn’t higher.

The US, unfortunately, turned a blind eye toward the political corruption and intimidation. Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State, Chester Cocker, reflected the administration’s position by declaring that the “election day went off very well… and was a rare achievement in Africa…” As was often the case during the Cold War, a leader’s position on Communism was much more important than his or her position on democracy.

To make matters worse, Doe surrounded himself with members of his own Krahn ethnic group and stirred up a toxic brew of tribal animosities. An armed invasion of Monrovia and assassination attempt by Thomas Quiwonkpa from Nimba County led to a brutal repression of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups by Doe’s Krahn led military. This, in turn, led to the next step of Liberia’s descent into dark chaos.

The perpetrator, Charles Taylor, was locked up in an American jail at the beginning of 1985. By the time Taylor’s reign of terror was over in Liberia in 2003, he would be the first sitting head of state since the Nuremberg trials to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in an international court.

Charles Taylor’s father was Americo-Liberian and his mother a member of the Gola ethnic group. Like many Liberians, he obtained his college education in America. After attending Bentley College in Massachusetts, he returned to Liberia where he served as Director of the General Services Agency under Doe until he was accused of embezzling 900 thousand dollars in 1983 and fled to the US. Taylor was arrested and held in a Massachusetts jail at the request of the Liberian government. He managed to escape in 1985, probably with outside help. He would later claim that the CIA enabled his escape. Maybe, but the exile community of Americo-Liberians living in the US is another possibility. Many initially supported Taylor.

His escape led him to Libya where he received training and support under Muammar Gaddafi. By 1989 he was working out of the Cote d’Ivoire organizing a military force from Mano and Gio ethnic groups who were eager for revenge on Doe. Taylor’s objective was to exploit their tribal anger to attack and overthrow the government. One of his former commanders struck first.

In 1990, Prince Y. Johnson, a commander of Taylor’s from Nimba County, split off to pursue his own ambitions. Such disaffections of military commanders became common during Liberia’s long civil wars. These ‘warlords,’ operating on a regional basis, controlled subsections of Liberia. Johnson’s forces made it into Monrovia before Taylor. He seized Doe and then tortured him to death– an event that was captured on video and turned over to the press.

The twist and turns of what would happen between 1990 and 2003 are beyond the scope of this book, but what ensued was an almost constant, brutal civil war where various groups vied for power. The depth to which Liberia fell is best illustrated by the rise of General Butt Naked, Joshua Milton Blahyi. Blahyi earned his nickname in the early 90s by going into battle wearing nothing but shoes. Being naked, he believed, provided protection against bullets. He also believed that sacrificing children and practicing cannibalism were important to his success. Many of his soldiers were young boys who fought drugged and naked or wearing dresses. After he was “saved” and saw the light, Butt Naked claimed, “The Devil made me do it.” Today he is an evangelical minister in Monrovia.

With Prince Johnson occupying Monrovia, Charles Taylor used Gbarnga for his headquarters. A brokered peace by the United Nations in 1997 ended the first civil war and allowed Taylor to run for President of Liberia, which he won in a landslide. One of his more popular slogans was, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him.” As President, he mounted a PR campaign in the US to re-engineer his image. Among the stranger aspects of the campaign was providing the Baptist preacher, Pat Robertson, with gold mining rights in Liberia. Robertson went to bat for Taylor, but it wasn’t enough.

Taylor’s efforts at re-engineering failed. Liberia was soon engulfed in a second civil war. Taylor’s participation in another civil war, next door in Sierra Leone, and active involvement in the blood diamond trade eventually led to his being tried and convicted at The Hague.  In 2003 he was forced to resign and in 2006 was arrested. In 2012 he was found guilty or war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Among the charges were terrorism, murder, rape, conscription of children, and enslavement.

NEXT BLOG: The incredibly difficult challenges of recovery.

16 comments on “The Tragedy of Liberia: Part II… The Civil Wars

  1. Your final chapter is summing up well what went on there after you left. Must have been awful watching it from afar but things didn’t sound easy when you were there either.

  2. Curt, I am truly gobsmacked! I only knew bits and pieces of this history, and you brought it to life with flair and compassion. Your statement, “As was often the case during the Cold War, a leader’s position on Communism was much more important than his or her position on democracy.” How stunningly true. If history students could read your words, they’d all be scholars. ~Terri

    • Thanks Terri. There were several points where things could have been turned around. Certainly the US could have done more. I guess that is the meaning of tragedy. –Curt

  3. I need to dig out my passport and see exactly when I was back in Monrovia. The date doesn’t matter as much as the memory. I was in a taxi, on my way back to Sinkor Market, when the taxi was stopped, I was ordered out and my passport was taken. It was clear that the exercise of power was pleasing to that young soldier in front of me.

    And so it goes. Those who feel powerless themselves console themselves by exercising power over others. Exhibit A around here? The TSA, and perhaps individuals within an increasingly militarized US police force. At least we don’t yet have a parallel to General Butt Naked.

    I will say this: when I watched “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, I was both horrified and inspired by various events it portrayed, but I also had a bit of a sick feeling when I recognized identical tendencies among some of our own leadership. The hunger for power and the willingness to do anything to achieve and maintain power seem to be universal.

    • Feeling powerless is one of the worst feelings in the world. No doubt about it. I also agree that people who have been beaten down sometimes abuse power when they get it.

      There are certainly people in our country who have the capacity to abuse power. Think about Joseph McCarthy. Thankfully, we have checks and balances, even if they are slow to act on occasion.

      The tragedy of Liberia and so many other third world countries is the lack of checks and balances and the power this gives to the Taylors of the world, not to mention the Butt Nakeds. –Curt

  4. Very sobering. I’m sure you were right about the causes in Part 1; while people (anywhere in the world) owe allegiance to an in-group, it enables them to feel and behave to out-group people as if they were no longer humans sharing the same pain.

  5. My gosh, Curt. The plays for power at the cost of civilians always repeat themselves, no matter what part of the world you’re in…and the world is shrinking, perhaps too far. This happened in feudal Japan dozens of times in her history. Admittedly, with my living in my sheltered world trying to advance in the workplace blinded me from all this terror and violence. It is still happening today unfortunately.

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