April 12, 1980-April 12, 2005: 25 Years of Challenges for Democracy, National Reconciliation, Unity, Peace and Stability

By James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 1, 2005


As we approach the 25th anniversary of the April 12, 1980 Revolution (though we may still be hesitant to call it by that name, but how else could one classify an event that has tragically changed the physiognomy of an entire nation and the destiny of its people?), there is much to hope and celebrate. Under the watchful eye of the United Nations and its strong force of 15000 soldiers and policemen, Liberia is gripped with an unprecedented democratic fervour; countless political parties and presidential candidates are gearing up for the coming October general elections. And if all goes accordingly, April 12, 1980, would have achieved one of its “raisons d’être” that is, the unhindered participation of the people in choosing their national leadership. In other words, a major leap into the fulfilment of our incessant democratic aspiration.

Then what remains would be the second most important raisons d’être” of this same April 12, 1980 Revolution – that is, the process of a genuine national reconciliation, unity and lasting peace and stability. To this end, and while we strive and await the establishment of a National Truth Commission and the appearance of Mr. Taylor before the International War Crime Tribunal of Sierra Leone – two recent articles took our attention. The first, entitled: Memorial Set for April 12th Coup” (see AllAfrica.com – March 15, 2005), read that the families of 13 government officials executed on April 22, 1980 have planned a simultaneous requiem mass both in the United States and Liberia to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their deaths. And the article continues:

“Families got together to memorialise the 25th anniversary because our fathers have not been properly laid to rest. It is a format we hope will foster reconciliation and create a platform for us to move ahead…[Emphasis added]

“It is the least we could do for them. If you don’t close a chapter you won’t be able to move ahead…[Emphasis added]

“It is about unity. Our fathers were not given a Christian burial, or were they buried according to their faith. We hope that by finally laying them to rest, our country will be able to mend the fences and build a stronger Liberia…”[Emphasis added]

Indeed, these are very strong words of sincerity, honesty and patriotism; we do see in them a genuine will and a burning desire for self-healing and national reconciliation and unity. Because while the April 12, 1980 military coup d’état could have passed hardly unnoticed as just another of Africa’s 100th coups (with yet another “corrupt” president and few bodyguards assassinated), the summary execution of those 13 government officials was a fatal error on the part of the military junta. And as Dr. Allen rightly said: “While the executioners and a relatively small group of supporters cheered, the vast majority of Liberians were visibly saddened and traumatized” (“Apologies Require Historical Context: A Rebuttal to Mr. Mohamedu F. Jones and Dr. Amos M.D. Sirleaf”). In our view, it was this execution that was one of the most determinant factors in the trend of events leading to our national tragedy since then. And now that 25 long years have passed, and their families and friends are getting together to memorialise these men and close the chapter in order to forge national unity – is the most welcome news for Liberia.

Shouldn’t we emulate them, all Liberians, 25 years later, get together and memorialise the tens of thousands that have died since, and let’s close this very painful chapter in our history?

The second article: “The Unlawful and Wrongful Killing of 13 Liberians” by Mohamedu F. Jones, was an exhaustive legal exercise that made an interesting reading. Here below is the conclusion of Mr. Jones, which, for the longest that we have been trying to draft this paper, has already been contested with rebuttals, arguments and counter-arguments. We are obliged to also quote it in order to pinpoint our observation, from a different perspective.

“Tens of thousands of Liberians have been murdered since then, and of course their deaths are no less unlawful and wrongful then 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 colour of law and in accordance with due process and in the name of the people of Liberia; they had proclaimed that they were acting in our name. These 13 murders were actually the first public act of the new military government following the coup. Because their killings were official acts, but nonetheless carried out in violation of Liberian and international law, Chairman Gyude Bryant, acting in his capacity as Head of State of the Republic of Liberia should officially declare their so-called “execution” unlawful and formally extend the nation’s apologies to them and their families in this 25th Year of their murder.”
If, and indeed, we were seeking a genuine closure of this very painful chapter of our history, as strongly manifested in the words of the families of the 13 government officials executed on April 22, 1980, then I beg to differ from Mr. Jones on three counts. First, from a pure legal point of view (and don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert), the military junta itself was an illegal body (despite the fact that it had launched a popular revolution; but then again revolutions –as popular as they may be -are also illegal events); thus the murders it committed, precisely from its inception and as a means simply of establishing its powers (and when in fact, it was not even recognized as yet by any state), cannot be construed today as committed “in the name” of the Liberian people. And we must recall also that every mad man who has taken up arms since then, has done so in “our name”, only for history later to tell us otherwise. Second, from both moral and legal stand point of view, a government that should be empowered to clear or pardon in “our name” on such an important issue relevant to our process of national reconciliation – must be a government elected by the people and for the people; and not the Bryant administration – a mere interim arrangement with a clear and precise mandate.

And to do so would mean that we have given Mr. Bryant the de-facto powers to also pardon Mr. Taylor and all others within his own government who have blood on their hands. And lastly, among those “tens of thousands of Liberians murdered” were also my Dad, two sisters and one brother, two uncles, one aunt and a score of other relatives. Thus reading the article at first sight, I felt some stint of bias -that out of the lot of tens of thousands murdered, only 13 were singled out for presidential pardon on purely legal grounds (because at least they were privileged to a pseudo-legal process as opposed to the majority unfortunate ones who were not paraded and ridiculed before a kangaroo military tribunal). But after having read Mr. Jones’ later explanation in “The Logic of Necessary Mutual Exclusivity”, I deduce the appeal to pardon only these 13 government officials was meant to be a symbolic gesture understood to also be in representation of those other grave less tens of thousands of our compatriots. If this was the intent, then it is reassuring that we have perceived our entire national tragedy as the embodiment of a whole; and thus cannot be treated in a piece-meal manner. In other words, genuine national reconciliation, unity, lasting peace and stability will not be achieved unless we see the sequence of events in our national tragedy as inseparable; they must be examined and treated in their totality, - that is, being objective to accept that the tens of thousands of our compatriots who have been sacrificed since the April 14, 1979 rice riot and up to date (including presidents Tolbert, Doe and the 13 government officials) – have lost their lives for the achievement of Love of Liberty, Freedom and Justice For All. And in that sense, we must be forever determined, hereto forth, to make democracy our unified and common cultural value.

That said, our impression from this discussion is that after these 25 long years – a quarter of a century into our national tragedy - we have finally reached the limits of our soul-searching; we are all eager, one way or other, to close this painful chapter of our history. But how? In pursuit of the patriotic example of the families of the 13 government officials executed on April 22, 1980, here are our ideas, which we have persistently repeated elsewhere:

1. Of course, first and foremost would be the establishment of National Truth Commission by a government elected by the people and for the people. The work of this commission would bring about a psychological deliverance and establish the basis for a collective and durable healing process, national reconciliation, unity, peace and stability. It would help us identify our culprits; enable their fair trial and punishment, so that we can do away with this culture of impunity that has been our long-standing political taboo. Then we could finally lay to rest our tens of thousands of national martyrs, and we will be able to mend the fences and build a stronger Liberia.
2. That National Memorial Monuments be constructed throughout the length and breath of the country in honour of all our fallen compatriots since April 14, 1979. For the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust, the state of Israel dedicated this huge ultra-modern Holocaust memorial museum to honour the 6 million Jews killed at the hands of the Nazis, and under the same token, to perpetuate the Jewish unity: that never again would they allow themselves to be persecuted. In our own weak way, we can also attempt similar ventures so that never again will we allow personal greed for wealth and power to confiscate the destiny of our nation and people. To launch this objective, we would like to make this personal appeal in this very public manner - to the families and friends of late presidents Tolbert and Doe, of the 13 government officials executed on April 22, 1980, Mr. Mohamedu F. Jones, Dr. William E. Allen, John F. Josiah, Esq. and all interested compatriots (especially within the Diaspora), to join us in establishing a Trust Fund and a non-political movement to promote, encourage and facilitate the implementation of this project. Our initial pledge is 500 euros; having survived this quarter of a century, let us come together for once and vindicate our generation (that we were not just mere destructive fanatics, mad men and women) by initiated these positive symbols that would give some lasting sense of direction, stability and prosperity to the generations behind us and those that are to come. Less we forget, our founding fathers also did the same to perpetuate their hegemony and national unity; they left us the Pioneers and Unification monuments around the country that we have also destroyed (because, precisely, what historical significance they stood for were not adequately inculcated nor clear to the majority); errors that we must now seek to avoid.
3. That April 12th be declared as a National Reconciliation or Unification Day. It is about time to accept that April 12, 1980, has tragically changed both our nation and lives; and as such, it is an important historical date to remember in honour of all our tens of thousands of grave less compatriots. Not to do so would be to yet again negate another important historical past; and thus we can never plan any positive future. It is no secret that at the approach of each April, more than 25 years on, our nation and people are wearied, nervous and filled with anxiety not knowing what to expect. We can now make them to expect something positive – a sober national day of reflection and remembrance.

4. Education. National reconciliation and national unity will not be achieved and sustain durably if we do not teach the truth and know more about ourselves as a people: our tribes, traditions, natural resources, food, etc., etc. To this effect, we propose that a Education Commission, with our best academics, be established to advice on our educational system and draft the nation a new academic curriculum to impact our political, economic and social realities.
5. And lastly, we cannot escape the fact that this is an election year, and national reconciliation must also start at the political top to reassure our polarised society. Therefore, a presidential aspirant who still considers himself or herself as an indigenous-Liberian would do our country a great service to have an Americo-Liberian as vice president. And likewise, a presidential candidate who still sees himself or herself as an Americo-Liberian should have an indigenous-Liberian as vice president. This same trend of reaching out and sharing among the various components of our society should also be the norms and reflexes in all our political, economic and social institutions. No one political party, a government minister or director, should be allowed to fill at random ministries and state agencies with only party or tribal affiliates.

Let me close on this personal reflection. In April 1980, most of us were in our early and mid-thirties, with families and a promising future, and since then 25 years have expired, blown up our lives into the wilderness. At almost age sixty and above (there is nothing more to lose, but all to gain), so, I dare say we have become the custodians of wisdom; and having such an honour bestowed upon ourselves, let us now take a seldom oath that, on this date of anniversary, we are bond in unity and action to redeem our nation. Let us join hands, now and forever, in a common national cause!

Related Articles:

The "Logic of Necessary Mutual Exclusivity"

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

The Unlawful and Wrongful Killing of Unspecified Liberians

The Unlawful and Wrongful Killing of 13 Liberians

"Where have we been" and "Where are we now?"

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