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The swift rise and fall of Samuel Doe

By | October 19th 2008 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

The swift rise and fall of Samuel Doe

By Rashid suleiman

Samuel Doe considered few events in his short life as unlucky; not even the fact that he couldn’t go to school as a boy because of poverty.

The bloodthirsty former Liberian leader’s rise to power was swift. Barely a year after he became Master Sergeant in the country’s army, he took over as president.

Former President Moi with then Liberian President Samuel Doe during the defunct Organisation of African Union summit in February 1982.


Though his ascent to power in April 1980 was a bloody affair, many people welcomed his presidency, through his Peoples Redemption Council (PRC), as a shift favouring the majority of the population that had been excluded from power.

At the age of 28, Doe snatched power from President William Tolbert who was also head of the now defunct Africa Organisation Union.

It is said a bunch of semi-illiterate servicemen tortured and brutally murdered Tolbert ending his ten-year rule.

The soldiers gouged out his eyes, dismembered him and pumped three bullets into his head. Two days later, Tolbert and 27 soldiers who died trying to defend him were buried in a shallow trench in a corner used for dumping garbage at Palm Grove Cemetery in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

The brutality meted out to the 20th Liberian president and the humiliating treatment after death horrified the world.

Tolbert, who was 66 when he was murdered, was a highly respected statesman and ordained church minister. He was the first black man to be elected president of Baptist World Alliance.

Unwittingly, Doe achieved the dubious distinction as the first coup merchant to slaughter a respected African president like a goat and humiliate him even in death by according him a demeaning send-off. Right from the day he executed the coup, the

Master Sergeant never hid his thirst for blood.

Ten days after he brutally murdered Tolbert, Doe was the chief guest at a Monrovia beach where 13 of the 14 Cabinet ministers of the former regime were executed by firing squad.

All the ministers were put on a farcical trial by a military tribunal with no lawyer or right to appeal. Like Tolbert, all the Cabinet ministers were in their underpants.

Rise to ignominy

On the night of 12 April 1980, Doe and 19 colleagues with the help of rebels in the presidential guard scaled the iron gates of the Israeli-built Liberian State House (Executive Mansion). They overpowered the loyalist guards in a bloody battle that sealed Tolbert’s fate. It is said that during the exchange, a bullet severed the telephone line and effectively prevented Tolbert from summoning the army to rescue him.

Doe and his band stormed into Tolbert’s penthouse suit and murdered him. Some reports say that Doe gouged out Tolbert’s right eye and disembowelled him. Others say a mentally unstable soldier, Harrison Pennoh, did the ‘honours’.

Arrogant and drunken soldiers swarmed the streets and assaulted civilians. Others stormed hotels and robbed residents both local and foreign. The thugs raided residences of Tolbert’s associates in an orgy of looting and plunder.

Like a new kid who has just acquired a fast motorbike, Doe raced around Monrovia with an escort of outriders as he presided over the execution of his perceived enemies through secret trials and public executions.

In the first years of the coup, Doe seemed mesmerised by the opulence and glamour of power and living in State House. As his thugs were terrorising the people, he swaggered through the Liberian State House, mostly clad in a beret or a wide-brimmed army ranger hat, crisply pressed military fatigues and combat boots. On his belt hung a ceremonial sword and a .357 magnum revolver. Every morning a hair dresser came to State House to fluff-up his luxuriant Afro.

Unkept Promise

Of the 20 Non-Commission Officers (NCOs) who executed the coup, he was the most senior in rank and automatically became chairman of the PRC, the junta that ruled the country after the takeover.

Doe promoted all the privates and NCOs who participated in the coup to ‘Generals’. He became chairman of the PRC and Head of State with Sergeant Thomas Weh Syen as his deputy in both posts. The post of military chief went to another Sergeant Thomas Quiwonkpa.

When Doe came to power, he announced that his was a revolution that was meant to be brief because he intended to return the country to civilian rule in 1985. But he suspended the constitution and mastered how to stay in power and entrenched his position through a combination of terror tactics, murder and political machination.

Soon after he finished with members of the ancient regime, Doe turned to co-coup plotters he thought posed a threat to him. In August 1981, his deputy Syen and four others were executed after they were accused of planning a coup. However, it is believed Syen was victimised for opposing Doe’s fawning loyalty to America.

Soon after, Doe sacked his respected civilian foreign minister, Gabriel Bacchus Mathews, a former opposition leader under Tolbert’s regime. Several non-military Cabinet ministers quit the Government and fled Liberia.

Doe promoted his Krahn people to positions of influence as he suppressed and murdered members of the other ethnic groups. The Gios and Manos, who were the main opponents of his rule, bore the brunt of his brutality.

On the positive side Doe opened Liberian ports to American, Canadian and European ships and traders and the country earned vital foreign exchange and became attractive as a tax haven.

Doe was one of the staunch Cold War allies of the West who fell out of favour after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. So loyal was Doe to the US that he severed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and challenged diplomats who criticised America to a fistfight. Another US enemy who suffered the ignominy of a closed diplomatic mission in Monrovia was Libya.

In 1981, Doe started a stage-managed charade to return Liberia to civilian rule by 1985 as he had promised after the coup. He appointed a commission to write a constitution, which was approved in 1984 in readiness for elections the following year. He lifted the ban on political parties, dissolved the PRC and appointed a 28-man Interim National Assembly (INA) to rule the country. Doe headed the INA, which had all the members of the defunct PRC and civilian representatives from all Liberia’s counties.

Because of his age, Doe was barred from contesting the 1985 elections. He was two years short of the constitutional 35-year threshold. In addition he did not have a political party. Hence as the date for the elections approached, Prof Amos Sawyer, head of Political Science Department at University of Liberia and ex-Foreign Minister Bacchus Mathews emerged as the leading candidates for the presidency.

Change Of Game

But the game changed after Doe was allegedly convinced by tribal chiefs to contest the polls. Then 33, he adjusted his age upwards by two years to conform to the constitutional requirement. He then formed the National Democratic Party of Liberian (NDPL). Next he took overt measures to rig the elections in his favour.

All the country’s civil servants were forced to join NDPL. He announced fake coup plots to allow him to arrest and discredit his opponents. That is how he arrested Sawyer, Quiwonkpa and other colleagues who helped him in the 1980 coup.

Second, Doe made it very difficult for opposition parties to operate and proscribed Bacchus Mathews’ powerful United Peoples’ Party.

He ordered a crackdown on the press and banned Liberia’s most prestigious newspaper, the Daily Observer, for "giving prominence to less newsworthy information". When arsonists set fire to Sawyer’s house while he was asleep with his family, accusing fingers pointed at

Doe. In October 1985, he won Liberia’s discredited elections after getting 51 per cent of the vote. A month after the ‘victory’, Quiwonkpa—whom he had sacked but pardoned for fomenting a coup—launched a revolt from his native Nimba County. Within no time, the rebels had swept into the capital and attacked the Executive Mansion. However, in the subsequent battle, Quiwonkpa was killed and his mutilated body was displayed in public as the rebellion collapsed. The Krahn-dominated Liberian army waged a vindictive war against the Gios and Manos.


The crackdown was to eventually lead to the downfall of Doe. It was Nimba County, the land of the Gios and Manos, that Charles Taylor used successfully as a launching pad for the 1989 insurrection that ended Doe’s rule and life. Taylor raided from neighbouring Ivory Coast with 150 men but quickly built a force that swept aside the Liberian troops with ease. By the time Doe requested and got help from West African countries, he had lost control of the country to Taylor. Doe was trapped in the Executive Mansion on the Atlantic rim and rebuffed offers of a safe passage out of Liberia.

When he left the Mansion to visit the headquarters of the regional peacekeeping force ECOMOG in 1990, he never came back. A rebel faction, led by the deranged Prince Yormie Johnson, captured him outside the force’s headquarters and killed him in a more brutal way than Tolbert.

Johnson ordered his men to mutilate, torture and then kill Doe, recording all the gory details on video that sold fast in West Africa. The video showed Johnson lolling in a chair and quaffing canned Budweiser beer as he ordered his men to systematically cut up Doe. Johnson would frequently burst into boisterous laughter whenever Doe cried out in pain. Doe was finally shot dead after Johnson and his men had their fun.

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