The Doe Era

Samuel Doe (center) and others after the 1980 coup
Credit: African Arguments

Doe came to power through the 1980 coup that toppled the Tolbert administration, and ended the True Whig and Congo dominance of Liberian politics. This 28 year old army sergeant with no government or administrative experience was now the Head of State. For the tribal people, it was a time of rejoicing as this was an end to their oppression by the Congo people.

During the coup, or revolution as they termed it, 17 men from the Armed Forces of Liberia charged the Executive Mansion and killed President Tolbert and about 27 other people. Tolbert’s body was on display at the JFK Hospital morgue and all 28 were later buried in a mass grave. Shortly after the coup, thirteen high ranking officials from Tolbert’s administration were tried for treason and corruption before a six-judge military tribunal and found guilty. They were publicly executed via firing squad on South Beach in Monrovia.

The People’s Redemption Council (PRC) headed by Doe and comprising the other officers that assisted in the coup, became the governing body of the nation. Military presence was very obvious as army men and their guns were seen in public places. They engaged in some unlawful acts like unapproved arrests and extorting money from the citizens. However, the PRC punished some of these to keep the military under control. In due course, the PRC was able to restore public order and have guns stored in the barracks again, thanks to General Thomas Quiwonkpa and his command of the military.

The Revolution of April 12, 1980
After more than 133 years of independence, the system of government in this country had ceased to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people.

The gap between government pronouncements and performance incrieasingly widened. The social contract between the government and the governed was rendered meaningless. Thus by 1980, the national consensus was that a change in the national leadership was necessary and imperative.

Consequently, that having determined that all avenues to peaceful change were closed, the men and women of the armed forces of Liberia, under the leadership of seventeen gallant non-commissioned officers overrthrew the True Whig Party Government on April 12, 1980.

The overwhelming support with which the masses of our people greeted the April 12th revolution and the testimonies from the trials of political prisoners thereafter confirmed the necessity for such a change.

-Samuel Kanyon Doe, December 11, 1985 (Elwood Dunn)

Doe refused to be called President as he was not elected to the office. Instead, he was called Master Sergeant in the early years and later, Commander in Chief and Head of State. He gradually changed from the military fatigues to three-piece business suits. He was no longer the shy officer forced into the limelight but grew in the position, becoming more versed, educated and presidential.

Divisions and mistrust led to many conflicts in the PRC and the military. Two months after they took office, 13 soldiers were executed for plotting a coup against the administration. A year into the PRC rule, five of its members who had resisted some or Doe’s decisions, including Major General Thomas Weh-Syen, were charged with plotting a coup and assassination against Doe. After a speedy trial over a few days, they were executed via firing squad.

There was some backlash to the new leadership by other countries that caused Liberia’s exclusion from the OAU and ECOWAS Summits. Nevertheless, some of these nations continued their relationship with the new administration and eventually Doe’s government was recognized by the international community due to Sekou Toure’s influence and reconciliation meetings with other African nations. Doe continued Liberia’s pro-Western policies and was eventually accepted by the West.

Protests at the University of Liberia in 1984 led to an army raid on the Campus, beating students and professors, raping and killing some people. Professor Amos Sawyer, a dean at the University, had challenged Doe to resign his post and run his presidential campaign as Doe had recommended of government officials who intended to run for public office. Doe then claimed that Sawyer and others were trying to overthrow him and setup a socialist government. These men were arrested and this led to the UL protests.

Doe had said that the nation would return to civilian rule after the coup, but the taste of power made it difficult and he did not relinquish control. The constitution of 1847 was suspended and a Constitutional Commission headed by Dr. Amos Sawyer was taxed with creating a new constitution that would represent the entire citizenry. The constitution was created in 1984 and nation voted on the referendum to adapt it in 1984. Following the referendum, the PRC was dissolved and Doe formed the Interim National Assembly as a legislative governing body of the nation leading into the 1985 elections. He appointed himself as the President of the Assembly. The new constitution finally came into effect in 1986.

National elections with multiple political parties were held in 1985, with Doe winning the election and becoming Liberia’s 21st President. The elections were described as neither free nor fair, and Jackson F. Doe of Nimba County was considered the winner. Many tribal Liberians now held high positions in the government, but like nepotism in previous administrations under the Whig leadership, many top officials were from Doe’s Krahn tribe.

Shortly after the elections, former PRC member, General Thomas Quiwonkpa led a coup to overthrow the Doe government, seeing they had stolen the elections. Tired of Doe and seeing this as a relief, the nation rejoiced over the coup. However, it failed and Quiwonkpa was killed. Political opposition leaders were arrested and detained and it was clear that Doe’s regime would be extremely difficult to unseat. Quiwonkpa was also from Nimba County and following these events, there was news of Krahn soldiers killing people of the Gio and Mano tribes in Nimba. Political opponents were threatened or banned just like the True Whig era. The press was stifled and told to focus less on politics when they could report somewhat freely.

Liberia was in economic trouble with the IMF refusing to release funds as the nation had defaulted on her loans. The US State Department also decided to reduce/withhold some funds from Liberia until she got her political and economic affairs in order. There was also shortage of some imports including gasoline and rice. Government employees including teachers were unpaid for months.

Samuel K. Doe
Credit: Liberian Observer

In an attempt to improve the economic situation, Doe asked the IMF and other foreign financial lenders to help in collecting government revenues and the government also started paying off her loans. The Green Revolution program encouraging Liberians to go back to the soil and grow their own food was introduced. There was also a family planning campaign to control population growth.

Another effort of the Doe government was constructing public office buildings to relieve the government of paying rent on its offices that were held in buildings owned by Americo-Liberian families. This measure led to the construction of the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Health offices in Congo Town, Monrovia. Both buildings were still under construction when the war began.

His administration also expanded the University of Liberia Fendell Campus, planning to move all of the colleges except the Law school from Capitol Hill. Doe also continued some of Tolbert’s infrastructural projects like completing the Samuel Kanyan Doe Sports Complex. As adulation of the Liberian president had become a norm, the stadium was named after him.

In promoting agriculture, his administration encouraged Liberians to “Go Back to the Soil” and grow their own food. Government officials especially were urged to make farms in their counties to help curb food import and reduce the price of rice which is Liberia’s staple.

The Population Growth campaign admonished Liberians about family planning and not having too many children. The message was that population growth was a national problem and people should prepare before having children. The administration also promoted environmental and sanitation measures encouraging Liberians to keep their neighborhoods clean.

The Civil War and Doe’s Death

The Civil war began on December 26, 1989 when Charles Taylor and his rebel forces known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) crossed into Nimba County from the Ivory Coast. Prince Johnson, one of Taylor’s fighters, broke away and created the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) rebel group. Doe’s reign came to an end when he was killed at the Freeport of Monrovia in September 1990 at the hands of Prince Johnson, current senator of Nimba County and former presidential candidate.

Many in Liberia were discontent with Doe’s governance and welcomed Charles Taylor with open arms. However, for most of Liberia that believed Charles Taylor and his rebels were freedom fighters and would liberate them from Doe, the next 13 years would be telling.


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