Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Brief History of Liberia: Part 2

On the evening of April 12, 1980, Liberians went to sleep never dreaming that they would wake up the next morning with a new government in power. Unbeknownst to them, a semi-literate sergeant in the Liberian army and 16 of his cronies had different ideas. His name was Samuel K. Doe. He was a member of the Krahn tribe from the northeastern County of Grand Gedeh, near the Ivorian border. Just after midnight, they attacked the Executive Mansion, killed 26 members of the Presidential Guard, fought their way into the Mansion itself and brutally murdered (and dismembered) President Tolbert and his wife in their beds. A new age of brutality was  born, to be repeated time and time again during the civil war.

The next morning Liberians woke to the news that President Tolbert was dead and a new regime was in power. At first, there was relief at having the repressive Tolbert out of office. That relief did not last long, however, with the realization that the people now in power were both unknown and extremely inexperienced. Neither Doe nor any of his comrades had even a high school education, and yet, incredibly, they were now in charge of running a country. They called themselves the "People's Redemption Council" (PRC) and anointed themselves with ostentatious titles, with Doe as President. One of their first  acts was to charge certain members of Tolbert's cabinet and other leading political and government figures of the time with treason. In a hastily convened kangaroo court, all thirteen were convicted and sentenced to death. In an infamous  moment in Liberian history , the accused were taken to the beach in front of the Presidential Mansion, tied to stakes and  summarily executed, broadcast live on national television, by firing squad. Liberia would not be the same again for decades.

President Doe was, of course, not competent to run a government. He realized that he needed help from technocrats and others with the skill set to do so. Two of those were Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Charles Taylor. Johnson Sirleaf was working the Finance Ministry at the time. She was subsequently jailed by Doe on at least two occasions for being critical of the government, but was ultimately released. Shortly thereafter, she left for the United States where she pursued a career in international finance and investment banking. Taylor was living in the US at the time of Doe's coup. He returned shortly thereafter and was eventually made Deputy Minister of Commerce. In that position, he was caught pilfering US$1,000,000 and he fled back  to the United States to avoid prosecution. He was arrested there and while awaiting his extradition hearing back to Liberia, he escaped from prison and eventually made his way to Côte d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, Doe's regime proved incompetent, corrupt in the extreme and incredibly brutal. As a result, various factions began to form to overthrow him. One of these factions was led by Charles Taylor. From his base in Côte d’Ivoire he launched an attack, invading Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989. At the same time, another force led by a man named Prince Johnson also led an assault on the Doe Government, essentially from the north and western portions of the country. To make a long story short, both insurgents were successful and pretty much had Monrovia surrounded with Doe holed up in the Executive Mansion. His regime was on its last legs by 1990. Incredibly, Doe did not flee the country, but one Sunday inexplicably left the safety of the Executive Mansion and ventured into Prince Johnson’s territory (in the port area of Monrovia), possibly to try to negotiate with him. That mistake led to his brutal and sadistic murder, captured on video tape, by Prince Johnson (definitely for adult audiences only – I have seen it and don’t recommend it to anyone).

At that point in the proceedings ECOMOG (see previous post re who they are) invaded Liberia, ostensibly to try to restore order and keep the peace. This move effectively denied Taylor the Presidency as he was very close to a total military victory. After many further skirmishes between the warring factions and ECOMOG and several failed attempts to reach peace agreements, peace was finally restored in 1996. Elections were held the following year and Charles Taylor was elected President. Many theories abound as to why he was elected, given the brutality and cruelty shown by his troops during the fighting. The most likely explanation is that Liberians were afraid to vote against him for fear that if he lost he would simply start fighting again, bent on total victory and annihilation of his opponents. As Taylor ruled however, it became clear that nothing had changed from the Doe regime. Those in power regarded themselves as entitled to the riches that came with it. As a result, the Liberian treasury was looted and Taylor and his cronies amassed personal wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

Eventually, military opposition rose to combat Taylor's incompetent and corrupt rule. Starting in 1999, a rebel group called LURD, with the support of the Guinean government and others. invaded Liberia and started to fight its way south the challenge Taylor’s regime. Many lost lives and atrocities later, LURD prevailed. By 2003, they had Monrovia  surrounded and enjoyed wide popular support. Taylor was therefore forced to negotiate for peace. This led to the Peace Accord signed in Accra, under which Taylor agreed to relinquish the Presidency. A new transitional government was formed, to be in power for two years to restore order and to prepare for open and democratic elections. The Peace Accord held. Taylor relinquished power and fled to asylum in Nigeria. The 2005 elections resulted in the victory of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President.

As many of you will know, President Johnson Sirleaf, now a Nobel laureate, recently won re-election for another six year term. Meanwhile Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, sitting in the Hague, for the atrocities he funded and contributed to  in that country during their own, equally brutal civil war.

The bottom line, therefore, is that Liberia, after decades of turmoil, casualties and destruction, is now governed by a competent and duly elected government, headed by President Johnson Sirleaf, under whose regime Liberia has made tremendous strides toward reconstruction and revitalization. The era of one party rule by the Americo Liberians died with President Tolbert's assassination in 1980, and will never return.

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