Apologies Require Historical Context: A Rebuttal to Mr. Mohamedu F. Jones
and Dr. Amos M. D. Sirleaf

By William E. Allen, Ph.D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 24, 2005


Dr. William E. Allen
Two articles I recently read enjoined Liberians to apologize to the families of the late President William Tolbert and the thirteen government officials that were executed on April 22, 1980. In this short rebuttal, I am not questioning the merit of the calls for an apology; rather, I am questioning the justifications presented for the apology and the narrow focus of these calls. It is a common principle that the acknowledgment of wrongdoing is the beginning of genuine reconciliation. Equally important in reconciliation is that apologies should be made in full recognition of all the relevant facts and circumstances; this act is called placing the apology in historical context. Historical context is significant because it reveals causes and motives, and consequently enables all parties to see and acknowledge past errors. As a result, when apologies are subsequently made, they will be genuine, not superficial. The current calls for Liberians to apologize to the aggrieved families disregard these time-tested maxims in conflict resolution.

The first call for an apology, made by Mohamedu F. Jones, is entitled "The Unlawful and Wrongful Killing of 13 Liberians" (thePerspective.org, March 17, 2005). Dr. Amos M. D. Sirleaf, the second advocate for repentance, made his recommendation at the All Liberian National Conference recently held in Washington, D. C. (liberianobserver.com, March 21, 2005). Mr. Jones gave the following reason for the apology: "Tens of thousands of Liberians have been murdered since then [1980], and their deaths are no less unlawful and wrongful than those 13 men. What marks the murders of these 13 men is that they were killed by an official act of the government, supposedly acting under the color of law... ." [Emphasis added.] Mr. Jones’ assertion is obviously misleading. Liberia’s history is checkered by political violence, such as murder, carried out "by an official act of the government ... under the color of law."

No doubt, publicly shooting the thirteen men without the transparent due process as defined under Liberian law was cold-blooded, barbaric, and uncivilized. While the executioners and a relatively small group of supporters cheered, the vast majority of Liberians were visibly saddened and traumatized. However, this was not the first killing "by an official act of the government ... under the color of law." Here are some prominent examples in Liberian history. The "extra-legal action" by the Liberian Senate and House of Representatives in 1871 to depose President Edward J. Roye, was indeed "an official act of the government." That deposition resulted in the violent death of Roye. Although the official version was that Roye drowned while attempting to abscond, contemporary sources whispered that the president was murdered in prison. In the 1900s, President William Tubman would lament publicly that Roye (first standard bearer of the True Whig Party) was murdered by the Republican Party while in detention where the current E. J. Roye building stands on Ashmun Street. Roye was not the only victim of the coup d’état of 1871. A number of his supporters were reportedly killed during Liberia’s first bloody coup d’état. A contemporary noted that "One hardly knows when he lies down at night whether he will not be murdered before morning" (Hollis Lynch, 1967, p. 52). The slaying of Roye and his followers was "an official act of the government ... under the color of law." In the eyes of the True Whig Party and some eyewitnesses, it was "clearly arbitrary and wrongful" to use Mr. Jones’ characterization.

A more recent example will further disprove Mr. Jones’ inference that prior to 1980, political violence was unheard of in Liberia. The brutal killing of opposition leader Samuel D. Coleman and his son John on June 27, 1955 by the security forces of President William Tubman is a case in point. The official press report was that the Colemans were shot and killed on a sugarcane farm in a gun battle with law officers who had warrants for their arrest. The Colemans were not the sole victims of this macabre 1955 episode. Twenty-four others (all members of the opposition Independent True Whig Party) were charged with conspiracy to kill Tubman, "tried in a court of law," and found guilty; this was the so-called "Plot that Failed." Non-government sources would later recall how the whole "plot" was orchestrated by Tubman and the True Whig Party to eliminate the more popular opposition Independent True Whig Party following the May 1955 election. Moreover, it was rumored that Samuel Coleman and his engineer son John were deliberately murdered while attempting to escape. On the orders of Tubman, the disfigured and grotesque corpses of Samuel Coleman and his young son John were dumped in the Barclay Training Center (B. T. C.) for display. Throughout the day, large crowds (apparently saddened and traumatized) thronged the B. T. C. to gaze at the bodies. (See Tuan Wreh, 1976.) Once again, the Colemans were killed "by an official act of the government ... under the color of law," even if you accept Tubman’s claim that they died in a gun battle with officers of the law.

Undoubtedly, the most widespread political violence carried out in the name of law and order prior to the execution of the thirteen men in 1980, occurred just over two decades ago, within less than a generation. That was the April 14, 1979 massacre of an estimated one hundred Liberians by the security forces of President William Tolbert. Erroneously dubbed a "riot" ---that is the "Rice Riot" ---peaceful demonstrators were carrying out their right under the constitution by marching in protest of a proposed increase in the price of rice. Fully armed soldiers were specifically instructed to shoot into the crowd of hundreds of demonstrators. About five years later, President Samuel Doe would issue a similar order when he sent soldiers to the University of Liberia to stop a peaceful student demonstration. The victims of the invasion of the university included several dead students. In the 1990s and just recently, President Charles Taylor would repeat the process with alarming regularity during his own bloody reign of terror, resulting in the death of hundreds as well. All these killings were carried out "by an official act of the government ... under the color of the law." It is therefore incredible that Mr. Jones would suggest that political violence, carried out as "an official act of the government," was non-existent prior to the public execution of thirteen former officials of government in 1980.

The story in the Daily Observer about Dr. Amos Sirleaf's call for an apology lacked details, other than his claim that "U. S. President Bill Clinton apologized to former President Nelson Mandela... for 27 years in prison." Dr. Sirleaf may someday present his whole case. For now however, his argument is shallow and without historical context and further demonstrates the narrow focus of these calls for an apology. The Clinton apology that Dr. Sirleaf alluded to is like comparing rice and cassava. I would assume that President Clinton apologized because of decades of U. S. complicity in shoring up the detestable racist government in South Africa; President Ronald Regan's so-called "constructive engagement" is an example of U. S. duplicity. Is Dr. Sirleaf suggesting that the Liberian masses (themselves victims of violence by the True Whig Party and Samuel Doe) are responsible for the execution of the thirteen men? Who will offer public apologies to the families of the late Samuel David Coleman and John Coleman murdered on the order of President Tubman? Who will apologize to the families of the approximately one hundred innocent women, men, and children killed by the Tolbert government on April 14, 1979? And finally, who will offer repentance for the hundreds killed by President Charles Taylor?

The advocates for apology appear to conveniently forget that political violence did not start in 1980. They also seem to ignore the historic fact that the violence of 1980 and thereafter was a culmination of past injustice, especially under the more-than-century rule of the repressive and corrupt True Whig Party oligarchy. Violence as a means to achieve political goals gradually ascended following the overthrow of president Roye in 1871. Whether it was publicly killing opponents (e.g., the Colemans under Tubman) or the cold-blooded and unlawful murder of peaceful demonstrators (innocent victims of April 1979 under Tolbert), the slaying was done "by an official act of the government ... under the color of law." These historic facts must not be obscured because they provide the context that would allow for genuine reconciliation. The precondition of true reconciliation is to honestly confront the past. Any attempt to "sweep the past under the rug" will only further fragment our deeply divided, beloved nation.

About the author: Dr. William E. Allen teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at: Weallen@theperspective.org