No doubt circumstances surrounding the April 12, 1980 Coup D’état in which Pres. Tolbert and 13 of his Cabinet Ministers were lined up and executed remain one of the mindboggling factors in Liberia’s history; how it started at the Mansion and ended up on:
Several years after going through plummeting moments including one of world’s cataclysmic civil wars which also preceded a coup d’état that also shocked the world, Liberia still struggles for real political, social and economic direction. A near-lifetime one-system of governance crumbled and a very energetic sitting President, William R. Tolbert, slaughtered in cold-blood and body dumped from the eight floor of the Executive Mansion. The nation accordingly cascaded into turmoil, and 37 years down the line, the stacking realities of the incident remain ingrained. The New Republic reflects on the incident from the Executive Mansion, to the beach and then the poles.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017 marked the 37th Anniversary of one of Liberia’s unforgettably bloody nightmarish coup d’états when so-called seven enlisted officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) on April 12, 1980turned their rusty guns against the government of President William Richard Tolbert, killing him instantly at the Executive Mansion.
The coup characterized the end of the decades-long oligarchy of the True Whig Party which subjected the country to one-party system.
The unfortunately political cataclysm that also changed Liberia’s social and economic outlook began on the 8th Floor of the Executive Mansion where Pres. Tolbert was murdered and later cascaded ontothe Barclay Training Center (BTC) where several poleswere erected on the beach to cause more harm.
It was on the poles erected on the sandy beach behind the BTC some of Liberia’s illustrious sons were gunned down in cold blood by drunk officers of the AFL acting on the order of a so-called Military Tribunal presided over by ill-fatedly trained officers.
The men were found guilty following what experts said was a kangaroo trial and sentenced to death by firing squad. Though almost all of the coup plotters are out of the picture, Liberia is yet to fully recover from the shocks of the coup several years down-the-line and the day itself remains a stacking reminder of how far the country has come with governance and politics and power.
Eyewitnesses said the gray April skies along the beach hung brightly over the Atlantic Ocean as the poles were soaked with moist from the morning dew,as death in cold bloodand vicious evil await senior public officials that were soon dragged to their deathbeds.
According to some accounts, besides Tolbert who was killed on April 12, 1980 by Samuel Doe led a military coup in the Executive Mansion, twenty-six of his supporters were also killed in the fighting.
As if killing the president and those who fought to abort the coup was not enough, 13 cabinet ministers were walked publicly around Monrovia in the nude and then summarily executed by a firing squad on the beach.
Officials say the military coup is still surrounded by mystery, given also that the preparations for it went unnoticed. The military takeover was a bloody one, labeled ‘a revolution’ by the 18 men of the AFL who toppled the government of the 66 year-old President Tolbert.
Though other accounts speak to the involvement of foreign agents in the coup, Tolbert was said to be savagely murdered by private soldier Harrison Pennoh, who later proved mentally unstable.
Before the end of April the entire cabinet had been put on trial and sentenced to death-with no right to be defended by a lawyer and no right to appealto the verdict. The 13 men had been accused of treason, corruption and violation of human rights.
Frank Senkpenni, was an army colonel and the judge who presided over the kangaroo court trials, who ordered the defendants to “keep it short” with their answers. Most defendants tried to briefly discuss their contributions to the Liberian people, as a clerk typed away on a typewriter taking their testimony and minutes. The court also asked each man how many houses, lots and businesses they owned. Again, the “haves versus the have nots” in full effect, the indigenous Liberians versus the Americo-Liberian. It was pure class struggle at its finest.
The dead men were tied to stakes on a beach next to the army barracks in the capital, Monrovia, and shot. However, only four were condemned to death after their trial by a military tribunal.
But the tribunal's verdicts were overruled by the so-called "Redemption Council", headed by Sergeant Samuel Doe. Sergeant Doe seized power 10 days after a coup during which President Tolbert was shot dead.
Ten days later after the coup, and following a puppet show trial headed by a military panel of the PRC, Cecil Dennis and twelve other government officials were taken to a beach, a block south of the Barclay army barracks west of the Executive Mansion, and murdered in front of screaming crowds of jubilant indigenous Liberian citizens. It was a nightmarish scenario.
Cecil Dennis faced death very bravely, staring at his killers while awaiting his fate. When he mouthed a prayer before being shot, a soldier loudly shouted “You lie! You don’t know God!” After the order to fire was given, his drunken executioner may have winged him but the other bullets missed altogether, splashing into the Atlantic Ocean behind him. He was the only person still alive after the first barrage of gunfire. Two more soldiers finally approached and sprayed Cecil with an Uzi and pistol at point blank range, hitting him in the face, body and head, until he was deceased. Each man was later hit with 50 or 60 extra bullets by the drunken soldiers.
Oddly enough, after the execution, Doe called for Cecil Dennis to be brought to the Executive Mansion because Doe had questions about certain foreign affairs. Cecil Dennis was already dead, executed. In the days prior, Doe was shown the execution list but never fully read the list of those to be executed. Either Doe was only semi-literate or obviously did not bother to read everything put in front of him. The court recommended death for only three men: Chief Justice, James A.A. Pierre; Speaker of the House, Richard Henries; and Frank Tolbert, President of the rubber stamp Liberian Senate.
However, there was space on the page showing the remaining men below as getting prison terms or other sentences. Regardless of whether he read the list or not, Doe may have simply said to kill them all to avoid them starting a counter-coup. It could also have been a misunderstanding, especially since not enough poles were installed on the beach to begin with and more poles had to be brought in later, further delaying the executions that day.
Four men had to wait on the bus, while the first nine were being shot. P. Clarence Parker Jr., one of the four prisoners on the bus, smiled and waved weakly to a reporter who had interviewed him in February. Parker had been one of the harshest critics of the corruption that riddled the Tolbert government, but he had also been treasurer of the ruling True Whig Party and a millionaire paint manufacturer.
Parker, with the three others, walked quickly to a pole, faced the firing squad and smiled slightly before a single shot cut him down. As the cheering civilians surged forward, the spectator soldiers sprayed all 13 bodies with automatic rifle fire, replacing their ammunition clips as they emptied one after another.
A few of the other men executed that day included former Justice Minister Joseph Chesson; former True Whig Party Chairman E. Reginald Townsend; former Chief Justice James A. A. Pierre and former Budget Director Frank J. Stewart. All died very stoically and seemed resigned to their fate. There were several elderly men being killed that day, and one of them was Frank Tolbert. Frank was President William Tolbert’s older brother. Mr. Tolbert was the smallest in stature and as his shaky legs gave out; he slouched as the shots rang out and killed him. While still tied to the pole, his small frame was nearly sitting on the ground as he lay dying with drool running out of his mouth. A foreign journalist stated that Richard Henries and Frank Tolbert had already died of a heart attack or had both passed out somehow before being shot.
Journalists who had been taken to the barracks to watch the executions said they were cruel and messy. They said four men were forced to watch the others die before being shot themselves as there were only nine stakes.
More awaited trial:
Since then Sergeant Doe has since been trying to rally support for his regime with promises of economic recovery. He has already doubled civil service and army salaries and announced free tuition for students.
Another 80 people associated with the deposed government are awaiting trial by the tribunal. Most of the deposed Tolbert government belonged to Liberia's elite -the descendants of freed slaves from the United States who founded the country 133 years ago.
However, the so-called "Americo-Liberians" now make up only 5% of the population and resentment has built up over the years at their dominant social and economic position.
Last year riots occurred when the government proposed sharply increasing the price of rice, the nation's staple food.