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The April 12 Coup

Early in the morning of April 12, 1980, a successful coup d'etat was staged in Monrovia by a unit of the National Guard loyal to a group of 17 noncommissioned officers and other enlisted men who had constituted themselves as the People's Redemption Council (PRC). Led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, they entered the Executive Mansion, where they killed Tolbert and 27 members of the president's security guard. The bodies were disposed of unceremoniously in a common grave. A curfew was imposed on Monrovia, and the borders of the country were closed.

Acting as chairman of the PRC, Doe ordered the Constitution suspended, banned political parties, and released political prisoners from jail. Doe pledged that the PRC would respect private property and reassured foreign?owned businesses that commitments previously made to them would be honored. Justifying the action taken by the PRC, Doe cited the political oppression practiced by the Tolbert regime as well as the corruption, unemployment, and the high cost of living that burdened the poor. The coup was greeted in the capital and throughout the country with popular approval (see People's Redemption Council, ch. 4). Vice President Warner, who had been in the United States at the time of the coup attending a conference of Methodist bishops, returned to Ivory Coast, where he proclaimed himself the legal successor to the presidency, but resistance to the military action was isolated and ineffective. An attempted countercoup failed for lack of support. Some National Guard officers suspected of being unsympathetic to the coup were arrested, and several were shot by their troops. Others who had fled were hunted down or captured trying to escape across the border.

Several hundred government officials, politicians, and leaders of the True Whig Party were rounded up and were either detained or placed under house arrest. Many others were advised to make themselves inconspicuous. Fourteen of the most prominent members of the old regime were immediately brought to trial before a military tribunal and found guilty of a variety of offenses. The tribunal recommended the death penalty for four of those convicted: House Speaker Henries, the president of the Senate, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the chairman of the True Whig Party. Despite an appeal from the OAU for clemency for the four, Doe ordered the execution of 13 of the convicted men, including the former ministers of justice and foreign affairs. The sentence was carried out on April 22 before television cameras by a firing squad on a Monrovia beach. The fourteenth official was sentenced to life imprisonment. Although the tribunal continued to sit in judgment of others who had been arrested, Doe refrained from further executions.

Executive authority in the new government installed after the coup was vested in the PRC, which was assisted by a cabinet of 17 members, of whom 11 were civilians. These included representatives of both the PPP and the MOJA as well as three members of the former Tolbert government. Among those named to the cabinet were Matthews, who became foreign minister; Cheapoo, who replaced his onetime patron Chesson as justice minister; Tipoteh, who was placed in charge of planning and economic development; and H. Boima Fahnbulleh, who was appointed minister of education. Reforms to reduce social disparities and the economic hardships of ordinary Liberians were promised. The military rulers, however, made no immediate commitments to an early return to normalized civilian rule.

J. Gus Liebenow's Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege and Martin Lowenkopf s Politics in Liberia: The Conservative Road to Development offer a survey of the country's history while focusing from different perspectives on the Tubman and Tolbert years. A concise, scholarly review of contemporary political history is found in Christopher Clapham's Liberia and Sierra Leone: An Essay in Comparative Politics. Charles Henry Huberich's two volume The Political and Legislative History of an exhaustive documentary constitutional history covering the period from the founding of the colony to 1944. Tom W. Shick's Behold the Promised Land and Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia, 1833?1869, edited by Bell I. Wiley, provide readable accounts of the early history of Liberia and the migration of the Americo?Liberians. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

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