"Coups" & Building Tyranny
By J. Kpanneh Doe and Siahyonkron Nyanseor
April 17, 2001
From its founding in 1822, politics in Liberia has been defined as one's ability to destroy opponents and entrench tyranny. Thus framing opponents in coup d'etats, throwing concocted treason charges on them, have all been key strategies aimed at silencing opposition. Failing and crumbling regimes benefited from this destabilizing political tactic for decades, and evidence is that Charles Taylor has fallen back on it for his political survival.
Under pressure for change and lacking the capacity to foster orderly change, various Liberian regimes discovered scapegoats, throwing blames on an unknown "external forces," to entrench tyranny at national expense. The aftermath is that consensus competitive politics have been replaced by the politics of the strongman capable of bringing everyone to his knees.
Hence, faced with mounting pressure, Taylor is constantly borrowing pages from the books of fake coups written by his predecessors in order to solve its self-inflicted problems. The pending UN sanctions, which will take effect by the beginning of May if his support for the rebel RUF continues, and his illicit trade in the trafficking of blood diamonds-for-guns, all indicate his need to suffocate internal opposition as struggles with external disapproval. Then there is the Clinton Administration travel ban imposed on Taylor, his family, and senior civilian and military officials, is still in effect and may be reinforced by the new Bush administration. Now more than ever before, his external headache is complicated by a contemptuous US Congress determined to halt his adventures in West Africa.
In the midst of this, Liberia's neighbors of the Mano River Union -Guinea and Sierra Leone - are forming a common position to isolate Africa's oldest republic now a world known pariah-producing refugees by the hour.
But the Taylor regime has an even more difficult problem to confront, which is the growing pressure coming from within. The long-running rebel incursion in Lofa County, difficult to contain, is becoming a menace to the regime. Then there are reports of an emerging or an imminent rebel incursion in Nimba County. With increasing domestic and international pressure growing by the day, the Taylor regime has become reactive, giving rise to heightening repression in the country as charges of coup plots against political opponents flare.
Plagued with a scenario of uncertainty, the ex-warlords look to precedents for survival. Historically, whenever Liberian regimes find themselves in such predicament, they resort to coining coups to entrap opponents in the failed belief of consolidating power. This strategy has become particularly common in Liberian politics since 1955. When President William V. S. Tubman was faced with a strong opposition in 1955, his supporters staged a "fake assassination plot". The alleged conspirators were former president Edwin J. Barclay, Nete Sie Brownell, Samuel David Coleman and Paul Dunbar of the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP), all political heavyweights viewed as alternatives to Tubman authoritarian and corrupt rule. Paul Dunbar was made the scapegoat in this alleged plot. In the process, Samuel David Coleman and his son, Joseph S. Othello Coleman were killed. In the stampede to wipe out opposition, many opposition leaders were charged with "conspiracy" to kill the President, key officials of his government, and finally overthrow the Government. Nete Sie Brownell, then vice presidential candidate, and father-in-law of Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh, Sr. was charged with treason, disgraced and imprisoned. Later pardoned, his humiliation taught him never to challenge the president in the contest for power. The opposition was silenced. This fiasco became known in Liberian History as "The Plot That Failed".
Subsequently, in 1968, Liberia's ambassador to East Africa, Henry B. Fahnbulleh, Sr. was arrested, tried and convicted on a treason charge. The public trial was preceded by government-sponsored demonstrations and newspapers editorials condemning the accused. The prosecution emphasized the alleged "penetration of Liberia by foreign agents", and it was on this ground that the jury found Ambassador Fahnbulleh guilty of treason. He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment with hard labor by the court, and some of his family and their associates harassed.
This bandwagon of coups carved to eliminate the opposition was again concocted by the Tolbert Administration after the death of the ruthless patriarch Tubman. On March 15, 1973, former Assistant Defense Minister for Coast Guard Affairs, Prince N. A. Browne and Lieutenant Colonels William Saydee and Moses Kpardeh were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate President William R. Tolbert, Jr. and his two brothers, then Finance Minister Stephen A. Tolbert and Senator Frank E. Tolbert, and to overthrow the government.
At the end of the public trial of almost five weeks, the three accused were found guilty of conspiring against the state and sentenced to death. In an appealed review, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict by four to one with dissenting Associate Justice S. Raymond Horace contending that the sentence was excessive. The condemned men subsequently received executive clemency.
When the real coup in 1980 took place, it caught many by surprise. Soon, the coup makers themselves became masters at implicating their opponents as they learned from their country's bloody history. The first victims were Vice Head of State Thomas Weh Syen and several Army officers who staged the coup of 1980. In August 1981, Weh Syen and four of his colleagues in the People's Redemption Council (PRC) were charged with plotting to overthrow the Head of State, Doe. They were found guilty and swiftly executed on August 14, 1981. From then onwards, orchestrated coups became standard policy against real or suspected opponents.
In August 1984, Interim National Assembly (INA) Speaker Major-General J. Nicholas Podier was arrested and charged with a plot to dethrone the government. His uncle, the former Justice Minister Isaac Nyeplu surrendered to security forces and later appeared on ELTV to implicate his own nephew, Podier.
In Nyeplu's confession statement, he said that the INA speaker visited him and requested his collaboration in the plot that involved Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, INA members Colonels Larry Borteh, Jerry Friday and others. The confession led to the arrest of the implicated men.
The arrest of Dr. Sawyer then a University of Liberia professor brought about a rally organized by the students at the University. And in response to the rally, the government dispatched police officers to disperse the students and ordered the University close immediately and the premises vacated.
When the students refused and demanded the immediate release of their professor, the government sent Defense Minister Major-General Gray Dio Allison accompanied by well-armed soldiers. When the students refused to adhere to the orders by the soldiers, the soldiers went rampage, whipping students with cartridge belts, gun butts, etc. - the students ran helter-skelter, and the University was vacated.
In the aftermath, the government reported that about 74 students sustained injuries. However, another unconfirmed report alleged that 50 students were killed and the soldiers raped most of the female students. Alhaji Kromah, then the Minister of Information reacted strongly to discount the stories as malicious fabrications "intended to tarnish the government image".
The Ministry of Information released a statement that read:
"Anyone who has a relative who has been missing since the campus incident should freely and fearlessly contact the Ministry of Information or Justice with a full description of the person and a photo." No one came forward for fear of the consequences.
Following the release of this statement, the government felt that the way to handle what it termed "rumor mongers" bent on tarnishing the government image enacted the famous Decree 88A - which was intended to eradicate or minimize the spread of (so-called) lies.
On April 1, 1985, Colonel Moses M. D. Flanzamaton deputy chief of the Executive Mansion Guards appeared on ELTV to confess to a plot. He said that some opposition parties' executives promised to reward him with a million dollars upon the assassination of the President (Samuel K. Doe).
It was alleged that the President assured him that when he and his co-conspirators came up for trial, he (Doe) would make sure he would be exonerated. Flanzamaton went on to name his alleged accomplices, all opposition party leaders. They were arrested, brutalized, and paraded naked on television. But in a coup plot gone awry, Flanzamaton never survived and became victim of the game plan, dying in the process.
Before this incident, John G. Rancy allegedly authored a letter based on a request from then Head of State Samuel K. Doe. In 1983, Doe intended to consolidate his power in order to move from a military leader to a civilian president. He therefore, consulted his close advisors regarding his plan. The Rancy Letter served as the blue print for Doe's civilian presidency.
The following recommendations were made to President Samuel K. Doe:
1. Remove all known MOJA and PPP sympathizers from the public eye through re-assignment or dismissal from Government and private positions.
2. Re-establish diplomatic ties with the State of Israel.
3. Adopt a sharp stance in both the domestic and international arenas against Soviet policy.
4. Dissipate all domestic opposition through strategy if possible; crush with force if necessary.
When the famous "John Rancy Letter" was made public, John G. Rancy denied that he ever authored such a letter. However, all of the recommendations made in that letter, became a reality, later on.
The strategy of coups has therefore been used by various Liberian regimes to silence, intimidate or eliminate critical voices or members of the opposition. Perfecting this strategy, President Charles G. Taylor on the other hand, have implored the "treason and sedition" schemes to silence the press and those he considered threat to his government.
Last year, for example, he charged four journalists of the British ITN with espionage, who were visiting Liberia to do a documentary on the country. And again, as recently as a month ago, he charged four journalists of the local independent, "THE NEWS" newspaper with similar charge for reporting about government misuse of public funds on the repair of helicopters and the purchase of personal gifts, and neglecting other more basic and pressing needs (such as JFK Hospital) faced by the country. But as this strategy is becoming outdated, and its utility inadequate, the wheels of "fake coups" reminiscent of the past is about to be reinvented. The cascading of recent events portends echoes of the drumfire of April - a mythical month when Liberia experienced much turbulence.
In a recent article published in The Perspective newsmagazine's Internet Edition of April 2, 2001, under the title: Alleged Trap for Opponents Leaked, it was reported that the paper has been bombarded with periodic leaks from Liberia, and that while the editors face difficulties in verifying the authenticity of these leaked stories, it was understandable for the sources to prefer anonymity - for fear that they and those who associate with them would be harmed. And due to the fact that journalists are randomly charged with espionage and thrown into prisons, frequent disappearances and summary executions taken place all over Liberia, The Perspective published the story.
Few days after this magazine received the alleged secret coup plot, a leading opposition politician, Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, standard-bearer of the Liberian People's Party (LPP), expressed concern of security threat to his life. As a matter of fact, in an April 6 Interview Tipoteh had with BBC, he said, "My life has been threaten. The latest in a series of this is information given to us by a certain Mr. Flomo who was part of a meeting held on March 8, of this year where security officers are alleged to have launched the plan for attacking me which will be for my elimination andattacking other politicians in the country." But prior to this, human rights advocate, James Verdier, Director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC), complained of threats on his life and reported that he had received information that "prominent" members of the Taylor Government were plotting to kill him. A few hours later, after receiving information about the threats, Verdier's car was vandalized, reported by the Pan African News Agency (PANA).
When people are desperate, like the case of President Taylor and his "inner circle" of cronies, they are most likely to draw from their old bag of tricks - using denials upon denials, like in the case of J. Milton Teahjay. Teahjay does not deserve to die as he is presumed to be. His presumed tragic fate can be explained by an old African folktale. According to the folktale, a naïve woman took pity on a badly wounded snake, only to have the snake reward her with a deadly bite, after she had cared for it. "Hey", the snake said as she lay dying, "you knew I was a snake when you took me in, didn't you?" Here lies Teahjay's mistake and it may happen to others if they are not careful! Therefore, as a people, we need to pay close attention to the advice of Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune. He reminds us that "When justice hangs in the balance, the silent people can be the most dangerous."