Samuel Kanyon Doe (May 6, 1951 – September 9, 1990) was the 21st President of Liberia, serving from 1986 until his assassination in 1990. He had previously served as Chairman of the People’s Redemption Council from 1980 to 1986. He was the first indigenous head of state in Liberian history.
Doe was a part of a rural tribe in inland Liberia. The Krahn are a minority ethnic group but part of the large majority of the Liberian population that are of indigenous descent. These groups faced economic and political domination by the Americo-Liberian elites, who were descended from free-born and formerly enslaved blacks from America who founded Liberia in 1847.
Under Doe, Liberian ports were opened to Canadian, Chinese and European ships, which brought in considerable foreign investment from foreign shipping firms and earned Liberia a reputation as a tax haven.
Doe attempted to legitimize his regime with a new constitution in 1984 and elections in 1985. However, opposition to his rule only increased, especially after the 1985 elections which were declared to be fraudulent by the U.S. and other foreign observers. In the late 1980s, as fiscal austerity took hold in the United States and the threat of Communism declined with the waning of the Cold War, the U.S. became disenchanted with entrenched corruption in Doe’s government and began cutting off critical foreign aid to Doe. This, combined with the popular anger generated by Doe’s favoritism toward his native Krahn tribe, placed him in a very precarious position.
A civil war began in December 1989, when rebels intent on toppling Doe entered Liberia through Côte d’Ivoire. Doe’s forces were defeated, and in September 1990 he was captured, tortured, and killed.
1980 coup, new government
On April 12, 1980, Doe led a military coup, killing President William R. Tolbert, Jr., in the Executive Mansion. Many[who?] claim that Doe and some of his men disemboweled President Tolbert in his bed while he slept. Twenty-six of Tolbert’s supporters were also killed in the fighting. Thirteen members of the Cabinet were publicly executed ten days later. Hundreds of government workers fled the country, while others were imprisoned.
The early days of the regime were marked by mass executions of members of Tolbert’s deposed government. One of Doe’s first acts after seizing power was to order the release of about 50 leaders of the opposition Progressive People’s Party who had been jailed by Tolbert during the rice riots of the previous month. Shortly after that, Doe ordered the arrest of 91 officials of the Tolbert regime. Within days, eleven former members of Tolbert’s cabinet, including Tolbert’s brother Frank, were brought to trial to answer charges of “high treason, rampant corruption and gross violation of human rights.” Suspension of the Constitution allowed these trials to be conducted by a Commission appointed by the state’s new military leadership, with defendants being refused both legal representation and trial by jury.
Thus ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination. This coup was hailed as the first time since Liberia’s establishment as a country that it was governed by people of native African descent instead of the Americo-Liberian elite, although persons with no Americo-Liberian heritage had held the Vice Presidency (Henry Too Wesley), as well as Ministerial and Legislative positions in years prior. Many people welcomed Doe’s takeover as a shift favoring the majority of the population that had largely been excluded from participation in government since the establishment of the country. However, the new government, led by the leaders of the coup d’état and calling itself the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), lacked experience and was ill prepared to rule. Doe became head of state and suspended the constitution, but promised a return to civilian rule by 1985.
Theories on the genesis of the coup
In August 2008, before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Monrovia, Former Justice Minister under Samuel Doe, Cllr. Chea Cheapoo who contested the 2011 Liberia Presidential ellections, alleged the American CIA had provided the map of the Executive Mansion, enabling the rebels to break into it; that it was a white American CIA agent who shot and killed Tolbert; and that the Americans ‘were responsible for Liberia’s nightmare.’ However, the next day, before the same TRC, another former Minister of Samuel Doe, Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh, testified that ‘the Americans did not support the coup led by Mr. Doe.’
Some facts of the 1980 coup are still clouded by reports of an “Unknown Soldier”. It is reported that an “unknown soldier” was one of the “white” mercenaries who would have staged the 1980 military take over of the century-long one party state. According to the autobiography of Tolbert’s wife Victoria, the First Lady witnessed a masked man with a “white” hand stabbing her late husband.
Relations with the United States
During his first years in office, Doe quickly re-established diplomatic relations with the United States. He openly supported U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Africa during the 1980s, severing diplomatic relations between Liberia and the Soviet Union.
The United States valued Liberia as an important ally during the Cold War, as it helped to contain the spread of Soviet influence in Africa. As part of the expanding relationship, Doe agreed to a modification of the mutual defense pact granting staging rights on 24-hour notice at Liberia’s sea and airports for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Forces, which were established to respond swiftly to security threats around the world.
However, in 1985, while the U.S. C.A.R.E. organization was actively shipping thousands of tons of rice into the port of Monrovia for the people’s consumption, Samuel Doe’s army would guard the port, and the rice was removed from the ships and placed in warehouses at the dock and then turned around and loaded onto Soviet-flagged ships. There were also occasions when the army shot people working as longshoremen that tried to steal from the cargo to feed their families. 1985 saw many protests of the man they called Sergeant Doe that were suppressed by the Liberian army.
New constitution and elections
A draft constitution providing for a multiparty republic was issued in 1983 and approved by referendum in 1984. On July 26, 1984 he was elected President of the Interim National Assembly. Doe had a new constitution approved by referendum in 1984 and went on to stage a presidential election on October 15, 1985, giving himself 51% of the vote. The election was heavily rigged, as he took the ballots to a secret location and had 50 of his own handpicked staff count them, and prior to the election he had murdered more than 50 of his opponents. It is also thought that Doe changed his official birth date from 1951 to 1950 in order to meet the new constitution’s requirement that the president be at least 35 years old. Thomas Quiwonkpa, who had been a leader of the 1980 coup along with Doe, attempted to seize power on November 12; the attempt failed after fighting in Monrovia and Quiwonkpa was killed. Doe was formally sworn in on January 6, 1986.
In the elections of 15 October 1985, nine political parties sought to challenge Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), but only three were allowed to take part. Doe was elected with 51% of the vote, and the NDPL won 21 of the 26 Senate seats and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. Foreign observers declared the elections fraudulent, and most of the elected opposition candidates refused to take their seats.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker testified before Congress that the election was imperfect but that at least it was a movement toward democracy. He further justified his statement with the claim that, in any case, all African elections were known to be rigged at that time.
Doe’s corrupt government became more repressive, shutting down newspapers and banning political activity. The government’s mistreatment of certain ethnic groups, particularly the Gio (or Dan) and the Mano in the north, resulted in divisions and violence among indigenous populations who until then had coexisted relatively peacefully.