A Witness To Pres. Doe's Last Major Public Appearance
By Gardea Varney Woodson
Few months ago, I documented my admiration for my fellow journalists who have detailed and consistently chronicled their experiences of the civil war in Liberia. And my promise was to attempt to wear similar shoes, but not as big as theirs. So, I visited Arthington and came up with: In Search of Charles Taylor's Mother. Now, my second article is my experience at covering President Samuel Kanyon Doe's final and major public appearance at the Executive Mansion (EM). A recent viewing of a youtube clip of this historic moment brought back fresh memories of government officials at the occasion who have since gone to the great beyond. The dignitaries included Vice President Harry F. Moniba, Senate President pro tempore Tambakai A. Jangaba, Internal Affairs Minister Asumanah Kromah and President Doe himself, among others. The video spurred this write-up.
Twenty-five years ago this year, for me, it was just an ordinary assignment to cover the University of Liberia's students present a petition to the chief executive on the alarming deteriorating security situation in the country. As it turned out, my presence at the EM would be my last coverage of the Liberian leader and also his final major address to his fellow countrymen. Let me be quick to add that with the failed students' request behind him, Doe on one or two occasions put up a show of force around Monrovia to deceptively reassure the country that the Government was in complete control, with the army having the upper hand against the rebels. What was thought of as a mere invasion by some disgruntled Liberians in foreign parts had turned into an undeniable full scale civil war. The students' petition was therefore born out of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia's (NPFL) rapid advances on Monrovia, and was also necessitated by dreadful predictions in some diplomatic quarters that a century of backwardness awaited the country should there be street battles in the capital. Already, reports of unleashed death squads in and around Monrovia and their gruesome handiwork of regularly beheading suspected rebels or their sympathizers were making headlines in independent media. These discoveries, coupled with the rising cost of living across the country, I believed then, jolted the students' collective conscious to arrange a petition to solicit a presidential negotiated settlement to the armed conflict.
If Varfley Dolleh, the students' spokesman, at any stage while readying himself to deliver the statement, harbored any fears of being the point man for such an important message to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), he must have overwhelmingly felt reassured as hundreds of his fellow students thronged the grounds in solidarity with the cause they stood for. Standing up on the veranda with dignitaries, senior aides to the President and himself, I was both bewildered at the sea of students that turned out and prematurely hopeful that a positive result would come out of the petition. The students/petitioners, representing the views of the Liberian society, came armed with numerous placards pleading for an end to the war that was already consuming and displacing the countryside. There was a time in Monrovia when anyone who innocently wore a red t-shirt was branded a rebel. The widespread speculations were that the rebels' identifiable uniforms were red t-shirts and jean pants. This put the population in a state of predicament. The easiest way out of this conundrum was to resist the temptation of wearing anything red or that had the semblance of it.
On a personal note, a heart-wrenching moment came for me when I witnessed first hand at three separate locations unidentified men being hauled away from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICAT), Camp Johnson Road and Capitol Hill. At MICAT, as soon as I hit the security booth on the first floor from the Liberia News Agency's newsroom on my way out of the building to an area shop, there was this loud commotion from the upper floor. Out of curiosity, my instinct held me back to await the outcome of the roving noise. Initially, I thought some employees were going at it. Moments later, however, a shabbily dressed guy was seen being guardedly shoved down towards the security booth. In the process of getting him to the desk, he created the impression that English was out of his reach. Notwithstanding, when a higher-up said the EM had been notified about his mysterious appearance in the building, he immediately unbuckled the accented French-English he spoke. His accent gave the employees the belief that he must have been a remnant of the invaders from Cote d'Ivoire that law enforcement had told the media were arrested with a cache of weapons around the Rally Town Market. According to security sources then, the invaders were poised to attack the Barclay Training Center when they were apprehended. In this alleged attack, my Robertsport home town man, Henry Gray, was accused of berating Liberian women that under Doe's watch a woman's value was equivalent to a sardine can price. The second area was around Camp Johnson Road's A-Z Supermarket, where I watched from afar Special Security Services' officers, with all their strength, tried to push head-in-first into a Mansion Chevrolet like vehicle a man who was determined not to go without a fight. Each time they thought they had a better hand of him, his withering resistance would overpower them. Finally, the number game caught up with him as he was overpowered and thrown into the vehicle. The Capitol Hill was the third place where a guy was handcuffed and taken to the EM. The arrests and the outcomes of their investigations were never released to the public..
Back at the EM petitioning program, following protocols, Dolleh read the students' statement which central theme was for the President to negotiate a peaceful end to the civil war. While the statement itself received thunderous applause from the students themselves, President Doe and aides gave it a mild one, an indication of what was to come. When President Doe took to the microphone his defiance was well noted as disappointment fell upon the enthusiastic crowd. Against the students' plead, the president said he was going to fight “Charle Tayla” until the last soldier dies. A sentiment that was well received by his senior aides, but not by the students as they reluctantly left the EM grounds at the end of the program. The chief had set the tone and so the military was to obey. Let me tell you how Doe's defiance immediately resonated with one of the soldiers at the petitioning program. While I wiggled my way out of the crowd back to base, an unarmed AFL soldier, who I assumed was a ranking officer, was more upset than the president had demonstrated. In the mind of this officer as he uttered his frustration and anger, he said the students were “ungrateful” to the Visitor to the university given the unmatched assistance he had rendered the nation's highest learning institution since he became the nation's leader. I guess his understanding was that by Doe negotiating with the rebels, that would be tantamount to sinking to the level of the NPFL's leadership, thereby diminishing his prestige as leader of a sovereign nation. As we all left the grounds, my own fears began to settle in, reflecting on the level of secret killings that had engulfed the city. My fears bordered on the scenario that if the soldier had known any of the rally organizers, it was possible that he could send a death squad upon them. Off track I may have been with my fears, but it was a period of mounting tensions as trust was in short supply. Also, as I was, the population was equally demoralized and frightened as the people could not rule out the possibility that the chief executive's defiant statement of not talking with the rebels could officially license marauding death squads to hunt real or perceived enemies of the state in the capital and its surroundings.
Months later, when the civil war finally hit the outskirts of Monrovia and the entire city became paralyzed, a new hope developed for me not out of Emmanuel Bowier's delegation to the Freetown Peace Talks, but a short lived one from acting Information Minister G. Moses K. Washington. Also filled with hope himself from one of his frequent visits to the EM, the acting minister joined us in front of the MICAT building and confided in the LINA reporters and Television department crew that President Doe had agreed to leave the country. This news brought great relief and excitement to us who braved the worsening conditions, including the lack of public transportation to report to work at a time when equipment that provided citywide water and current were either destroyed or switched off. Contrary to Mr. Washington's upbeat, President Doe stuck to his gun. And in defense of his pride, he threw the prospect of any talks out of the window and the war raged until densely Monrovia became a death zone for all. The rest is history. I would argue, which is debatable, maybe if President Doe, who also went by SKD, had willingly accepted the students' petition, or heeded the international community's advice to seek asylum elsewhere, he would be alive today. Many of his colleagues, faced with similar rebel incursions, fled the comfort of their palaces to live another day. A typical example is Ethiopia's Mengistus Haile Mariam.
For a background to the Liberian civil war, it began in 1989 on Christmas Eve in Nimba County and developed into a full blown armed conflict in the 1990s. Nine months after the invasion from neighboring Ivory Coast, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a splinter group of the NPFL, captured and tortured President Doe to death.
Gardea Varney Woodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org