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The US was deeply involved in the overthrow and assassination of Liberian President William Tolbert that led to a 14-year civil war in which as many as 250,000 Liberians perished. Subsequently, America was also implicated in the removal from power of two other Liberian heads of state. The truth of this extensive meddling is important for genuine reconciliation among Liberians.

 “You are one of those Tolbert bitches? Strip his ass, carry him inside!”

Thirty-five years later, Richard Tolbert vividly recalls the words that were barked at him after armed soldiers raided his office at the Mesurado Group of Companies, Liberia’s largest and most successful private enterprises.  He was bundled into a Cadillac and driven to the Post Stockade, a military prison on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Richard had just come out of hiding after receiving assurances he would not be subjected to such treatment. Several weeks earlier his uncle, William Tolbert Jr., the President of Liberia, had been murdered in a bloody coup that ended 150 years of political domination by the nation’s American descended settler elite. 

In the early morning of April 12, 1980, as the President prepared to go to sleep, a small group of enlisted soldiers shot their way up to the presidential suite on the eighth floor of the Executive Mansion and executed their Commander-I-Chief.  At least six of the attackers had been trained by the US military.

Several days later Richard watched in horror as his father Frank, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, was executed live on TV. He and a dozen others crumpled before a firing squad as hundreds of Liberians cheered the beachfront spectacle.

Thirty-six years later, the families of the old ‘Americo–Liberian’ elite continue to grapple with these events. Indicative of the complex historical relationship between the US and Liberia, the surviving family members entertain the possibility that the coup was enabled by American Cold War interests. In her autobiography, President Tolbert’s widow, Victoria, noted that her husband’s killers exclaimed they would receive a $25,000 bounty for their handiwork. Her youngest son, William Tolbert III., laments that the successor government formed by his father’s killers received more aid in just five years than the country had in its entire history.

I spoke to members of the Tolbert family, members of his government, and the political opposition.  Now in their twilight years, many of them are haunted by the idea that US actions led to the demise of Tolbert and gave way to a 14-year civil war in which as many as 250,000 Liberians perished.

Shortly before he was named the Government’s Peace Ambassador in 2015, Tolbert III. publicly addressed the critical need for Liberia to uncover the truth behind his father’s death.

“We remind government of our desire to bring closure to those tragic events of April 1980.  Our desire should be linked to their commitment to assist us and ensure accomplishment of this goal. However, there are questions which remain unanswered.  These affect genuine reconciliation, peace and security, for all Liberians.”

The closest that Liberia has come to closure was the 2009 release of the final report of the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Most international media attention centered around the Commission’s recommendation that the sitting President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, be barred from office for 30 years. The report’s allegation that during the Tolbert era “both the CIA and the Pentagon were now prospecting for leadership change in Liberia” was largely overlooked.  Likewise, Beneath the Cold War: The Death of a Nation, a highly critical book on US policy towards Liberia by the husband and wife team of Sadie and Leonard Deshield, mid-level operatives in Tolbert’s True Whig Party, has gone unnoticed outside of Liberian circles.

Tolbert III. and other family members of those who lost loved ones during the coup have established the “April 22nd Memorial Group” to push for further disclosures. Although its activities are primarily confined to annual commemorations of the coup, Sirleaf’s successor will be elected next year.  A new political dispensation in Liberia may represent the best chance for the group to uncover the whole story.

Rupture of the ‘special’ US – Liberia relationship

Liberia is one of the few African nations without a European colonial history. The West African nation was settled throughout the 19th century by black Americans with the support of an under-resourced white American led resettlement organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS).  The Americo–Liberian settlers alternately fought and assimilated with the indigenous Africans.  They forged an uneasy arrangement that resulted in what was nominally the first African republic in 1847, after a quarter century of ACS rule.

Richard praises the efforts of his uncle to help Liberia emerge from this historical burden. “Willie genuinely tried to reform the Americo–Liberian class, he was a part of that class and that’s what he paid the price for.” 

Throughout the 1970s, Tolbert struggled to balance a reform agenda and international leadership aspirations against pressure from the governing True Whig Party, an emboldened opposition, and the US.  Tolbert assumed office in 1971 after 19 years as Vice-President.  Displeased with the extent of support traditionally offered by the US, he quickly signaled that in the Cold War struggle, Liberia would shift toward the non-aligned camp.

In 1973, he severed relations with Israel.  Richard believes that this was “one of his greatest foreign policy mistakes that could have led to his demise.”  Liberia also established relations with a number of America’s Cold War enemies, including Cuba, Libya, and the Soviet Union.  Winston Tolbert, the president’s biological son who was legally adopted by his uncle, Stephen, says that these actions had consequences: “the US government looked at him as a radical, a leftist, and that he was not in support of their Cold War policies…he was an irritant to the American establishment.” 

As Tolbert consolidated his authority, he not only engaged in dialogue that displeased the US, he pursued policies that undermined the ability of American companies to exploit Liberian resources.

Stephen Tolbert was the president’s University of Michigan educated minister of finance and the founder of the Mesurado Group.  He maintained a vacation home at Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. and irritated the Americans considerably more than his brother.  He went after a number of US companies operating in Liberia.  His most notable target was Firestone, the Ohio-based rubber conglomerate. 

Richard Tolbert was then a law student at Columbia University and sat in on the negotiations.  He reflects: “[Stephen] saw how they were screwing us.  He tightened up all the loopholes, but he did it in a brusque manner.” 

In April 1975, Stephen Tolbert died in an airplane crash.  The Nigerian press suggested that the CIA had tinkered with the plane (incidentally, Liberia was home to a CIA listening facility).  The Liberian government investigated – with US support.  Although no foul play was proven, Winston notes that the demise of his adopted father was the beginning of the end for his biological father.  “My dad helped [the President] a lot with security.  He watched his back.  To get President Tolbert out of the way they had to get [Stephen] out of the way first.” 

Further damaging US–Liberian relations were contentious remarks made by Liberia’s Foreign Minister, Cecil Dennis, at US Independence Day celebrations at the American Embassy that same year.  His brother, James, says that Cecil took the opportunity to express the administration’s view “that the US should have given [Liberia] much more than what they did.  They had not shown what the British and French did for other African countries they were close to.”  Ambassador Melvin Manfull resigned not long thereafter.

Rising domestic pressures

By the mid-1970s, domestic political opposition to the Tolbert government and 150 years of settler rule was coalescing. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) was formed in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1974 by Liberians studying in the United States.  It was led by G. Bacchus Matthews who had close ties to the Tolbert family.  However, he bore a grudge against the president due to his dismissal from the Liberian Consulate in New York as a result of alleged financial improprieties.

Marcus Dahn was a senior member of PAL who graduated from the University of Akron.  He notes that it has American roots.  “We call [PAL] the product of the Peace Corps, they did such a good job for us when were in high school.” 

A homegrown campaign, the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), led by the University of Nebraska-educated Togba Nah Tipoteh, emerged at the same time.  MOJA indoctrinated a number of members of the Armed Forces of Liberia in its pan-African ideology, including the future coup leader, Samuel Doe.  The young soldiers attended night classes at MOJA’s Marcus Garvey Memorial High School.  Winston believes that both groups were supported by the CIA.  Tipoteh would not confirm this, but he does claim that Matthews, now deceased, was “a paid agent of the CIA, at the level of $25,000 a month.”

The US government would not have seen PAL’s radical young leaders as a palatable alternative to the Tolbert administration.   When it came to destabilization of the government, however, their aggressive style would have made them a useful tool in waging what Winston Tolbert terms “psychological warfare against the people of Liberia.”

In the late 1970s, President Tolbert again angered the US by refusing around the clock access to bunkering facilities at Liberia’s international airport (which was constructed during World War II by the US).  Richard says his uncle informed the Americans that they would only gain such access over his dead body.  He adds that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy as his uncle died shortly thereafter and Liberia’s Robertsfield International Airport was soon facilitating US arms shipments to Iran and the UNITA rebels in Angola.

In April 1979, the CIA saw some of the most overt rewards of its alleged assistance to the opposition.  PAL led a violent march through downtown Monrovia on the Executive Mansion protesting the government’s plan to raise the price of rice, Liberia’s staple food.  Dozens (possibly as many as hundreds) were killed and the government relied on its neighbor, Guinea, a strong ally of the Soviet Union, to restore order. Nonetheless, in January 1980, PAL registered as a legal opposition party, the Progressive People’s Party.

Two months later, following a mysterious late night PAL demonstration at the Executive Mansion, the government swiftly retaliated. Tolbert accused Matthews and his associates of masterminding a coup in a legislative address. “Intelligence reports reveal that the Progressive People’s Party had designed a plan to execute an armed insurrection with intent to overthrow the duly constituted Government of the Republic of Liberia.”

Who really killed Tolbert?

Despite being on heightened alert, Tolbert was massacred just one month later. When asked if he believes that the US played a direct role in the coup, Richard Tolbert replies:

“I can’t say for sure.  I would love to know.  I hope that one day it will be revealed.  It was very professional.  Liberia did not have the trained experts who could overpower forces all the way up from the ground floor to the 8th floor.  There is no question that the CIA supported the opposition to Tolbert.  As to direct involvement, I couldn’t say.”

James Dennis echoes this assessment. Asked if the 17 soldiers were capable of carrying out the coup alone, he forcefully responds, “No way!”  He adds that his brother’s secure phone line at the Foreign Ministry was cut, something that he does not think the low-ranking soldiers were capable of carrying out on their own.  Dennis’s suspicions were also aroused by a neighbor, a US Embassy employee (who Dennis believes was a CIA agent) who reported at around 2am that the coup was successful.  To Dennis, this indicated that the US Embassy was in close contact with those leading the assault.

Tolbert III. notes that Samuel Doe, the figurehead of the coup, was sleeping on the grounds of the Executive Mansion while the assault unfolded.  He asks, “if President Doe did not kill Dr. Tolbert, who did?” 

Tipoteh claims that an American was in the Mansion yard as the coup was unfolding, providing one possible theory.  Emmanuel Bowier, Doe’s Minister of Information, observes that the local rumor mill alleges that a gravely wounded Caucasian in military fatigues was seen outside the Executive Mansion during the coup. 

Elwood Dunn, a member of Tolbert’s cabinet, embarked on a noted career in academia in the US following the coup.  He has been trying to determine if the US played a role in Tolbert’s ouster.  He has not found a paper trail, but says that the US – Liberia relationship was severely strained and believes that “if the US found a way covertly to remove [Tolbert]…. then I think they would have done so.” 

Liberia’s descent

Following the coup, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. On April 22, tied to poles with their backs to the beach, 13 officials in the Tolbert government, including Frank Tolbert and Cecil Dennis, were executed.  Tolbert’s eldest son was seized from the French Embassy and disappeared several months later.  Other Americo–Liberians were imprisoned for up to two years.  William Jarbo, a US trained Ranger with close ties to the US military mission in Liberia, was shot down by Doe loyalists while trying to escape the country a few weeks later, a twist of events that has never been adequately explained.   Bowier alleges that the US initially looked to Jarbo to lead the coup, only to backtrack once the Embassy discovered the he was related to Tipoteh, the pan-African firebrand.

In 1982, Doe was warmly welcomed by President Reagan at the White House around the same time Tolbert III. was released from prison.  The Master Sergeant’s intolerance for dissent was just beginning to crystallize however.  Just days before he arrived in DC, Doe presided over the execution of 5 of his comrades who had played a role in the coup.  The Washington Post reported that they had “criticized what they perceived as the Doe government's "errand boy" relationship with the United States.”  Doe was expected to make way for a civilian government in 1985 but rigged elections that year with US acquiescence.

His inability to step aside prompted an almost immediate unsuccessful coup attempt from one of his fellow 1980 conspirators.  The assault was led by Thomas Quiwonkpa who lived in the suburbs of Washington, DC after he fell out with Doe. Doe and most of his fellow coup makers were dead by the early years of the Liberian civil war, which broke out in December 1989.  However, at least one survivor, Jeffrey Gbatu, now lives in the United States. 

America’s ties to Liberian conflicts are numerous. Prince Johnson, a sitting Liberian Senator who presided over Doe’s videotaped execution in 1990, attempted to reach the US Embassy to obtain instructions on how to handle his captive.  Liberians hope the final chapter in their crisis closed in 2006 when George Bush backtracked on his promise not to pursue the extradition of Liberian President Charles Taylor, whose departure to Nigeria finally ended the war in 2003.

Amidst contemporary violence in Burundi and the Congo as leaders seek to extend their rule, Richard takes pride in the way his uncle managed opposition to his administration.  “The Tolbert family does not have blood on our hands.  The Tolberts can go anywhere in Africa and hold their heads high.”  Richard’s words stand in stark contrast not only to African leaders who have relied on nefarious means to stay in power, but also to the global superpowers who have a dubious history on the continent. 

While the former American Ambassador, Deborah Malac, denied that the US makes “secret handshakes” with Liberian leaders, the historical record in Liberia and elsewhere leads Africans to believe otherwise.  It has been widely alleged that the CIA supported regime change in nations like Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960s as Africa struggled to emerge from colonialism.  The academic Neils Hahn has written about US covert and overt actions in Liberia and notes that the US played a prominent role in pushing out three successive Liberian heads of state, most recently Charles Taylor in 2003.

The early meddling established a precedent.  The Liberians who attribute the eruption of violence in their country to a history of American initiatives characterized by paternalism at best and outright maliciousness at worst are not alone in their struggles.  Since 2012, military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso have been led by officers with close ties to the US military. 

On the 35th anniversary of the coup, Tolbert III. reiterated the importance of uncovering the truth behind the coup.  He spoke before the April 22nd Memorial Group at the crumbling Palm Grove cemetery in downtown Monrovia, where the remains of up to 200 officials of the Tolbert government lie in a mass grave beneath overgrown tropical bush. 

“I am of the opinion that as long as these lingering questions remain unanswered, they undermine [the] genuine reconciliation in Liberia that we all yearn for.  Now is the time for Government to mobilize resources to promote and support all initiatives that will guarantee genuine reconciliation amongst all Liberians.”

Dennis, nearly 90 years old, mourns the demise of his brother, the destruction of the printing presses that provided his livelihood, and the dissolution of his marriage in the aftermath of the coup.  Now married to a relative of Benoni Urey, a leading opposition presidential candidate, he pleads:

“We are still asking the question, why?  Why is [my brother] dead when he should be alive? We need answers.”

Unless the political equation within Liberia changes this year, it seems unlikely that the April 22nd Memorial Group will uncover any answers.  Adoring audiences recently flocked to Broadway to enjoy Lupita Nyongo’s performance as a Liberian child soldier in Eclipsed.  Neither there nor elsewhere do serious questions of American culpability in the Liberian tragedy arise.  When contacted for comment, the US State Department’s Office of the Historian responded, “our office does not provide commentary or take positions on historical events.”

* Brooks Marmon is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre of African Studies.  He previously worked in Liberia.  Follow him on Twitter @AfricaInDC.



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