A Nation In Terror,
The True Story of the Liberian Civil War - James Youboty
(A book review)
September 8, 2004
|A Nation In Terror, The True Story of the Liberian Civil War By James Youboty
Parkside Impressions Enterprises, (2004)
389 pages, illustrated
Whatever the theories may be, Liberians would have to come to terms with the fact that they destroyed what it took so long to build and that they killed their brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors for no apparent reason. In his recent book, first written in 1992 and published in 1995 and now edited and updated with the most current events, James Youboty, testifies for history and future generations in his well researched book A Nation in Terror, The True story of the Liberian Civil War and writes his personal story from a front seat row in the theatre of absurdity that Liberia turned into for a quarter of century after being an animal house for more than a century.
Whenever those who are ostracized and kept in darkness have a chance to revolt, and they always happen do some day, they use the same tools that kept them in bondages to express their newfound freedom. From the legend of Matilda Newport a longtime heroine of the Americo-Liberians who is said to have killed scores of natives to the shiploads of “countrymen” enslaved and sold by President Charles Dunbar Burgess King to Spanish plantation of Fernando Po (Equatorial Guinea) and to the PRO – People Reporting Others - of the Tubman administration, and through the stories of natives carrying Americo-Liberians “big shots” in hammock under the tropical sun, Youboty hints at cases and memories of oppression and humiliation, that somehow explained the mass hysteria that followed the Samuel k. Doe military coup in 1980, one of the most brutal on the continent.
Starting with the Rice Riots of 1979 and ending with the 2003 indictment of Charles G. Taylor by a UN Special Tribunal in Sierra Leone, the book describes in very personal details the past twenty-five years of Liberian history. Richly detailed and mapped with dozens of pictures of actors of the most dramatic quarter of century of the Liberian history, it could also be titled The Rise and Fall of Samuel Kanyon Doe. In the end, Liberians are still dealing with the aftermaths of Doe’s rise to power, or William Tolbert’s inability to deal with history as it evolved.
A graduate of the Booker Washington Institute and Schiller International University’s European study centers in Madrid and Paris, a photographer and a journalist, the author finds himself in the eye of the storm, in a unique position during the conflict, escaping death on more than one occasions as it happened to those who cover wars. However, in his case, his near-death experiences were not occasioned by stray bullets or “rebels” trying to attract attention, he got almost killed simply because he was member of the “wrong tribe.” And this was just one of the many irrational aspects of the Liberian civil war that the author describes in grueling details: one could be killed for one’s looks, name, religion or tribal affiliation… or a wristwatch!
Youboty starts his book by crediting William Tolbert with attempts to make reforms in the unilateral system that gave one class of people total control over a whole nation for generations. Tolbert, who had been vice-president to Tubman for almost two decades, tries to change the political culture of the Americo-Liberian decaying dominance. However, caught between the impatience and boldness of the new political class - personified by such young actors such as Amos Sawyer, Oscar Quiah, Chea Cheapo and Baccus Mathews among others - and the fierce opposition of the aging but tenacious ruling oligarchy, Tolbert vacillates so much that he ends up falling/failing. By the time he was killed, Tolbert was a hero or leader to neither the young political class nor to the Americo-Liberian conservatives likes his brother Frank Tolbert who accused him of opening the floodgate of hell by courting with “natives”. Writes Youboty, “This made him a victim of his own creation,” comparing then Liberian president to Soviet Mikhail Gorbachev and through their examples, Youboty tells us that there is no such thing as a “mild revolution.”
The first twenty pages of the book set the background to the advent of the Doe regime. And the next 300 pages describe the PRC - People Redemption Council - era and the return of Charles Taylor at the head of his “freedom killers” and the war to unseat Doe. The last pages of this 389-page book deals with the most recent peace process, including negotiations in Accra that led to the formation of the current political arrangement and the inaugural speech of transitional chairman Gyude Bryant who promised to fight corruption and change things around during his two tenure. The reality of power turns always different and change is hard if not impossible when dealing with the same actors in the same context.
Political figures in the book are presented as they come into the world of Samuel Doe. Here, one does not look for a critical approach to a reality that is given to us through a very personal point of view. There is no disguise or attempt to be “balanced”: on one hand, there is Samuel Doe, the liberator who, at the end of the story becomes the sacrificial lamb, at the hands of bloodthirsty criminals. And on the other hand, we have the Americo-Liberians, and all those who, one way of another opposed Samuel Doe and his reign of terror. The evil is not the politics of corruption, state terror that turned Liberia into a military dictatorship at the hands of all almost illiterate soldiers whose dictatorship only approach to politics seem to be brutal force of or magnanimous in any case a total disregard for human dignity.
The villains are numerous, starting with Amos Sawyer who is clearly linked to the 1984 coup attempt of Nicholas Podier. He is also presented as one the architects of the Taylor war. He writes: “Amos Sawyer considered himself a Frankenstein. Sawyer felt that since he contributed in creating the monster killer Charles Taylor, then he was going to intervene and save his life and later quiet him down.” There are many cases where one could accuse the author of over-simplification in his attempts to justify actions of the Doe regime. Was it an attempt to stay “objective” or was it simply a way of diluting the truth? Or was it a case of lack of analytical approach to politics? Sawyer on many occasions denies having ever supported Charles Taylor. Both gentlemen are still alive, so, time would tell.
The author credits Samuel Doe with much magnanimity in instances where historical facts point to different directions. The raid on the campus of the University of Liberia and its subsequent violence - rapes and murders - against students protesting the arrest of Amos Sawyer is described as a “rumor” because no relatives spoke out after Doe challenged them and this led to the enactment of the famous decree 88A to legislate and criminalize rumormongering. He says that Moussa Traore was toppled in Mali because of the grandiose welcome he offered Charles Taylor. Are these due to political naïveté or pure bad faith?
There is a lesson of history here to be learned: one can only duplicate what one knows. Doe said he had come to power to eradicate corruption and oppression. The author points to many occasions where Doe does exactly what he intended to correct. Tolbert had thrown Baccus Matthews and others in prison and accused them with “treason and sedition” simply because they called for his resignation. Samuel Doe arrested Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for saying that the country was run by “idiots” and she is sentenced to 10 years in prison where she could have received the “death penalty for treason and sedition.” The same treatment was given to Amos Sawyer because he refused to be Doe’s running mate for the presidency. Alhaji Kromah lost his job as minister of information for saying that Liberians would never again accept “one-party” rule. One after the other, every dissenting voice in the PRC is arrested and executed after summary trials. One after another, every dissenting voice in the nation was silenced one way or another. The 1985 electoral fiasco is credited to the fact that many pool workers were “secret agents” working for opposition parties. The elections commission banned Baccus Matthews’s party on the grounds that it “professed socialist ideology.” And as self-aggrandizing as it may sound, the only civilian airplane the country owned was named EL SKD as was the stadium and the market Nancy Doe.
History is never objective because it is always seen through human eyes, therefore Youboty should not be asked to have a different interpretation of his given reality. His understanding of politics and power is inline with what Liberians were taught: the chief is mighty. There is no doubt that the author sees Doe as “a liberator”, victimized by his surrounding and the many conspirators who line up to take a shot at him. As the story evolves and other actors enter the frame, Doe remains in his initial position that goes from that of the prodigal native son and liberator to that of the sacrificial lamb betrayed by those he trusted the most. And the list of betrayers is long; Quiwonkpa, Podier, Sawyer, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Prince Johnson, Charles Taylor, Charles Julu, Larry Borteh, Ezekiel Pajibo, Jerry Friday, and it goes on.
At the other end of spectrum, there is evil personified by Charles Taylor and his army of “freedom killers”. Between these two extremes, the narrative rarely provides space for any other Liberian armed with decency or courage or patriotism, except if that person happens to be amongst the last men standing besides Commander- In-Chief Dr. Samuel Kanyon Doe in his last hours. There is no mention that Taylor was a creation of Doe, long before the Sawyers and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf got to know him, if ever they did. As time went by, Doe found pride in surrounding himself with Americo-Liberians rather than other “country-boys”.
Under Doe and from the day he entered the Executive Mansion, guns became mighty and education suspicious – violence as a political tool became the determining factor to rising in society. If there is a danger ahead in peaceful Liberia, it is certainly the fact that for a whole generation of Liberians, the heroes are those who carried the biggest guns: Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Prince Johnson, Alhaji Kromah, George Boley, Sekou Damateh and others. They all made their mark on society not because they went to school and earned knowledge that contributed to building a peaceful nation, but rather, that through violence and corruption, they imposed themselves on the people and contributed to the total destruction and bankruptcy of a country so richly endowed.
Could Doe have changed the structure of the Liberian society? Certainly he did have the momentum but as the author writes, two years after taking power in a general euphoria, the PRC was losing its appeal and Doe maintained his grip on power through “escaping” assassination attempts. There were more “coup attempts” against Doe certainly more than any president in world. From the relatives and associates of those who were overthrown – and executed – to those who were denied power because of his coup and to the many Liberians frustrated by his policies, Doe created many enemies.
Doe was aware of his limitations and the fact that he decided to go back to school pointed to this awareness. But that lack of basic understanding of certain issues made him vulnerable to the influence of those who wanted to “use” him. The spectacle of college professors entering the Executive Mansion to teach the president of the republic is not a flattering one. There is no doubt that the future of Liberia would have been different had Samuel Doe decided to support the candidacy of a Dr. Harry Moniba or Dr. Harry Nayou for the presidency in 1985 and taken advantage of the many scholarships that were available for him.
The narrator seems offended by the fact that Sawyer once said that the lack of formal education had been one of the weaknesses of Samuel Doe. The late president developed an uncommon sense of survival and lot of common sense that helped him to navigate the sphere of powers. However, formal education brings another dimension to common sense and that is critical thinking and the knowledge of basic political issues indispensable for any modern leadership. By the end of the book, the author himself reaches that conclusion when he writes that the president had been “brainwashed” by his teachers and had turned critical of the US policy towards Liberia.
Future generations of Liberians will always ask the question as to what Doe could have done with the great powers that befell on his lap on that fateful night of April 1980 just as they will speculate as to what led him to the Executive Mansion at the head of 17 enlisted men to kill William Tolbert. Was he a revolutionary or was he the object of manipulation as he would be throughout his presidency? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, for this generation, what matters is that it was a missed opportunity for real change, a change that could have given Liberia back to the majority of its people.
By the time the Taylor invasion took place, the author says that things were on the verge of falling apart. Corruption was as high as ever. A good example was that the presidential jet was grounded in London because the Minister of Finance, Emmanuel Shaw’s company had sued the government over money owed to his company, LPNC. Doe initiated some changes; the most notable was to build office buildings so that government would stop paying rent to private owners, many of whom were high government officials. According to the author, this and the fact that she could not get the presidency were some of the reasons Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf opposed Doe.
This story on the rise and fall of Samuel Doe is well documented. Beyond the many photographs, there are also copies of rare speeches and letters, be it a fund raising letter for the NPFL from the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL) signed by Harry Greaves, Jr. to dialogues between captive Samuel Doe and his interrogators Noah Bordello and John Yormie on the base of Prince Johnson just before he was killed.
The narrator of this story, a photographer and journalist, is also a Krahn. This tribal affiliation becomes important in the story for two reasons: how he perceives the political era of Doe and how he lives through the war. This tribal affiliation gives him a proximity to the Mansion in the last hours of Doe as well as exposes him to death because Taylor’s army of Gio seemed bent on killing every Krahn, Mandingo and anyone who worked for the government. In this position, he is a first hand witness to activities of the death squad, led by Major George Dweh, current speaker of the House and Colonel Talley, both of whom were volunteer fighters who joined the army after massive defections. He relates how these two were left alone with guns to rampage through the area under their control; killing hundreds of people among other places at the Lutheran church and Johnny Kpor a Gio and close friend of Doe. The narrator sees first hand how little control Samuel Doe had on his entourage and how his powers really in the hands of others.
This book is must read not because it brings much to our understanding of Liberian History, but it allows us to see a certain era of the national tragedy from the perspective of those who were in the eye of the storm and saw reality from one perspective. The fact that the narrator perceives Doe as a liberator or a faultless hero does not blind him to other realities, even if he decides to be “an objective observer” and does not think twice about events.
It is therefore a chilling part of our collective memory that all Liberians should read. And it is a courageous book.
At the time when Liberians are trying to hold their very first free and fair elections in 157 years and as they debate the means to revisit recent history through war crime tribunals or national reconciliation, this book can help remind all of how deep the nation plunged in madness.