President  Samuel K. Doe

The Master Sergeant-President



Samuel Kanyon Doe was born on May 6, probably in 1951. He was born in Tuzon, a small town in Grand Gedeh County, in the Southeastern part of Liberia. His parents were poor and uneducated, like most rural Liberians, and they belong to the Krahn tribe. Samuel Doe had only accomplished primary education when he became a career soldier, presumably because of lack of ot�t job opportunities. In October 1979 he was promoted Master Sergeant in the Liberian Army. He was in his 4th high school grade and attending night school classes when he and a group of soldiers seized power, assassinated President William R. Tolbert, Jr., and established, for the first time in Liberia�s history, military rule over the country. It was April 12, 1980. Since Samuel Doe was the highest ranking non-commissioned officer of the 18 plotters, all but him ordinary soldiers, he became Chairman of the People�s Redemption Council (PRC) that was created.

The military coup is still surrounded by mysteries. Apparently, the preparations for it went unnoticed which is astonishing, given the fact that there was considerable political tension and also in light of the well-staffed U.S. Embassy in Morovia (over 500 people). In an interview which the present author (FVDK) had with the then U.S. ambassador in Liberia, Julius Walker, he confirmed that the events had taken them all by surprise. Samuel Doe was not a publicly known figure in Liberia before April 12, 1980. That soon changed after that date.

The military take-over was a bloody one, labelled �a revolution� by the 18 enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia who toppled the Government of William R. Tolbert. The 66-year old President was savagely murdered by private soldier Harrison Pennoh, who later proved mentally unstable. Before the end of the month the entire Cabinet had been put on trial and sentenced to death - with no right to be defended by a lawyer and no right to appeal to the verdict. In a horrific scene they were all but one publicly executed on a beach near Monrovia. The only cabinet member who escaped from being shot was the only minister of tribal origin, raised in an Americo-Liberian family that was part of the Tolbert-clan.(*)


(*) An attentive reader drew my attention to the fact that this is not correct. Many thanks to him - and my apologies to all readers.

A) Four ministers were not killed: Estrada Bernard (Minister of Labour Youth and Sports, Elwood Dunn (Minister of State for Presidential Affairs), Johnny McClain (Minister of Information) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Minister of Finance).

B) Johnny McClain (Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism) was not the only cabinet member with tribal roots, but also Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, see:
'Her tribal roots and Americo-Liberian background'  (also see her autobiography, Chapter 1).

It proved rather difficult, however, to trace the names of those executed. Below the list of the executed (former) government officials and TWP leaders (based on the autobiography of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf).

The thirteen men executed on the beach were:

1) Frank E. Tolbert, President pro-Tempore of the Senate, brother of President William Tolbert;
2) Richard A. Henries, Speaker of the House;
3) E. Reginald Townsend, National Chairman of the True Whig Party;
4) P. Clarence Parker, General Tresaurer of the True Whig Party;
5) James A. Pierre, Chief Justice;
6) Joseph J. Chesson, Minister of Justice;
7) C.Cecil Dennis, Minister of Foreign Affairs;
8) Frank J. Stewart, Director of the Budget;
9) James T. Phillips, former Minister of Afrigulture, former Minister of Finance;
10) Cyril Bright, former Minister of Planning and Economic Afffairs;
11) David F. Neal, former Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs;
12) John W. Sherman, Ass. Minister for Commerce and Trade;
13) Charles T.O. King, Dep. Minister for Agriculture;

Source: Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf, 'This Child will be Great. Memoirs of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President'
, p.102.


Larry C. Price / Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1980, via The New York Times

Chairman � later Head of State - Samuel Doe at numerous occasions reiterated the army�s pledge to return to the barracks. On April 12, 1981, on the first anniversary of the coup, he announced the creation of a 25-member Constitutional Commission under the leadership of a reknown Liberian, Dr Amos Sawyer. A new constitution �should pave the road to a genuine democracy�. 

However, within the four years that followed everything changed. Chairman Doe started to like the taste of power. He increasingly surrounded himself with members of the (small) Krahn-tribe, in number hardly exceeding the Americo-Liberians who now were excluded from power. The USA were greatly relieved when Doe maintained the country�s pro-Western stance and Doe was even invited at the White House.
It was here that President Ronald Reagan made his historic blunder when he cordially greeted �Chairman Moe� when he warmly shook his hand. Nevertheless, Liberia received more political and military assistance from the USA in the decade of Doe�s rule than it had ever received, despite an increasingly deteriorating political climate and human rights record. 

When in July 1985 the ban on politics and political parties was lifted President Doe created his own party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). He was the NDPL�s candidate for the presidential elections slated for October of the same year. The elections were neither free nor fair but Doe was declared winner with nearly 51 percent of the poll. There were numerous accusations of fraud and indications that the opposition Liberia Action Party (LAP), led by Jackson Doe (not related), was the real winner. The international community did not react, the US State Department �was pleased�. Dr Samuel K. Doe � he had received an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Political Science from the University of Seoul during one of his numerous visits abroad � was sworn in as Liberia�s 21st President, and First President of the Second Republic, on January 6, 1986. 

Related to the October 1985 presidential elections three incidents are worth mentioning. 

First, when Samuel Doe started to prepare for the race to the Executive Mansion, he consulted Dr Amos Sawyer, a highly popular politician, intellectual and academician. He wanted Amos Sawyer to become his Vice-President, but Sawyer declined. Subsequently, he fell into disgrace, was threatened, and his house burnt. His political party, the Liberia People�s Party (LPP), was accused of endangering the democratic process and subsequently banned from the presidential elections.

Second, since one of the clauses of the new constitution stipulated that the new president of the country was to be at least 35 years of age, Samuel Doe had his year of birth changed. Whereas ever since the military coup it was mentioned that it had been led by a 28-year old master sergeant, from now on Samuel Doe�s official date of birth was May 6, 1950.

This has led to hilarious situations. In his book �The road to democracy under the leadership of Samuel Kanyon Doe�, Willie Givens writes in �A brief biography of Dr Samuel K. Doe� that he was born on May 6, 1950. He also shows a picture taken May 6, 1981 with the sub-title �the man who changed the course of Liberia�s history three weeks before the age of 29, celebrates his 30th birthday� (Givens, 1986: 98).

The third incident perhaps is the most important and severe. One month after the elections Doe�s former right hand, Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa led an armed invasion from Sierra Leone, crossing the Mano River Bridge at Bo. Soon the rebels were in Monrovia where they attacked the Executive Mansion. Two years earlier, Quiwonkpa, who hailed from Nimba County, had been accused of an attempt to overthrow the Government but was granted clemency. This time, during the November 1985 revolt, he was killed, his mutilated body publicly displayed. The excessive and brutal reprisals of the Krahn-led Liberian Army against the Mano and Gio, in Nimba County, proved to become important stepping stones to the civil war that officially began in December 1989 � also starting in Nimba.

On Christmas Eve 1989 an alliance composed of Americo-Liberians and Mano and Gio people, united in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPLF), invaded from Cote d�Ivoire. The NPLF was led by Charles Taylor, a corrupt former civil servant under Doe, who was born from an Americo-Liberian father and a Golah-mother. An internal rift between the Americo-Liberian and tribal fighters in the NPFL resulted in a split led by the mentally defective �General� Prince Johnson, from Nimba County, who created the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The Liberian army was soon losing control over a large part of the territory and Doe asked Nigeria�s president Babangida, with whom he presumably had common business interests, for support. In August 1990 the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a 4,000 men peacekeeping force to Liberia, known as ECOMOG.

On September 9, 1990 President Samuel Doe, on a visit to ECOMOG-headquarters in Monrovia, was captured by Prince Y. Johnson. How this could happen is still unclear. Doe was tortured, mutilated and finally brutally killed by Johnson and his men, among whom John Yormie, while all gruesome details were videotaped. The tape later found its way all over West Africa, images of the videotape shocked civilized people all over the world. In the confusing period following Doe�s assassination, the psychopathic Prince Johnson claims to have been acting President, for three months, before the arrival of the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) headed by Profesor Amos Sawyer (see Pah K. Suku, Jr's comments in my guestbook).

Ironically, Samuel Doe died in the hands of a mentally defective Liberian, like his predecessor who had also succumbed in the hands of a mentally unstable person. Doe�s repressive military dictatorship and his transformation from a shy, thin, softspoken Master Sergeant into a corpulent, well-fed and well-clad Commander-In-Chief earned him a place next to other notorious heads of state like Idi Amin (Uganda), Jean-Bedel Bokasso (Central Africa), and �Baby� Doc (Haiti). The greed for power, the corruption, nepotism and the abuse of human rights which Doe had reproached Tolbert had become a trademark of his regime. 

Not surprisingly, Liberians, with a remarkable sense of humour, had re-baptized his Revolutionary Council, known under the acronym PRC, as �People Repeating Corruption�. Who said �when history repeats itself, it first is as a tragedy, then as a farce�?



Givens, Willie A. (ed.), �The Road to Democracy Under the Leadership of Samuel Kanyon Doe � The Policies and Public Statements of Dr Samuel K. Doe� (Bucks, England, 1986). 

Okpowo, Blessyn, �Interview with Prince Yormie Johnson: My deals with Presidents Babangida and Abacha�, distributed by (November 4, 2000).

Van Der Kraaij, Fred, Personal recollections. 

Recommended literature:

Boley, George E. Saigbe, �Liberia � The Rise and Fall of the First Republic� (London, 1983).

Brehun, Leonard, �Liberia � The War of Horror� (Accra, 1991).

Ellis, Stephen, �Liberia 1989 � 1994, A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence�, in: African Affairs (1995), 94, 165-197.

Ellis, Stephen, �The Mask of Anarchy � The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimensions of an African Civil War� (New York, 1999).

Givens, Willie A. (ed.), �The Road to Democracy Under the Leadership of Samuel Kanyon Doe � The Policies and Public Statements of Dr Samuel K. Doe� (Bucks, England, 1986).

Korte, Werner, �Ethnische Tradition und militaerische Intervention in Afrika, Essay ueber den Putsch von 1980 in Liberia� ((Bremen, 1995).

Kraaij, Fred van der, The Open Door Policy of Liberia � An Economic History of Modern Liberia (Bremen, 1983).

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, �Liberia: A Promise Betrayed, A Report on Human Rights� (New York, 1986).

Liberia Alert, �Neither free nor fair� (Monrovia, 1986).

Liebenow, J.Gus, �Liberia � The Quest for Democracy� (Indianapolis, 1987).

Moniba, Harry Fumba, �Liberian Politics Today � Some Personal Observations� (Monrovia, 1992).

Sawyer, Amos, �Effective Immediately � Dictatorship inLiberia, 1980 � 1986: A personal perspective� (Bremen, 1987).

Sawyer, Amos, �The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia � Tragedy and Challence� (San Francisco, 1992).

Walraven, Klaas van, �The Pretence of Peace-keeping � ECOMOG, West Africa and Liberia 1990-1998� (The Hague, 1999). 

Wonkeryor, Edward Lama, �Liberia Military Dictatorship: A Fiasco �Revolution� (Chicago, 1985).


fpm van der kraaij