On April 12, 1980 I woke up by the sound of automatic gunfire. It must have been around 6 AM. I was staying with a friend who lived in the Sherman Compound, in Congo Town, then one of Monrovia’s outskirts. My first reaction when I heard the rattling sound of semiautomatic weapons and the sound of single gunshots outside was one of amazement, soon followed by disbelief. I immediately turned on the radio and what I heard gave me goose pimples and cold shivers down my spine despite the tropical heat and the humid air that characterizes April in Monrovia. I heard a news-reader who with a monotonous, nasal voice read the following text:
‘God is tired. After 133 years the enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe have toppled the Government because of rampant corruption and continuous failure to effectively handle the affairs of the Liberian people. No plane is allowed to come in. No plane is allowed to go out.’
The military coup was a fact. The 18 plotters labelled themselves the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). For the first time in Liberia’s history the power of the Americo-Liberian elite was crushed. At least, that was what the conspirators, their followers and the majority of the Liberian people thought. Now, after 20 Americo-Liberian Presidents since the creation of the Republic in 1847, a Liberian of tribal descent assumed the Presidency: 28-year old Samuel Doe, soon called the highschool kid-President since he attended a night highschool, the Marcus Garvey Memorial High School, at the time of the coup.
However, things were, fast, getting wrong. Monrovians soon joked that PRC stood for People Repeating Corruption. Overall, by the mid-1980s people agreed: it was ‘same taxi, different driver(s)’.
We know the rest. The failed invasion of former PRC Co-Chair and former Chief of Staff of the Liberian Army, Thomas Quiwonkpa in 1985 – was Ellen really involved in this attempt to seize power?, as Tom Woewiyu asserts –, the creation of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) that started a violent uprising against Doe’s brutal regime – was Ellen yes or not a founding member of the NPFL?, as former President Charles Taylor claims?, the torture and murder of President Doe by Prince Y. Johnson, why was he never arrested?, followed by two cruel and devastating civil wars (between 1989 and 2003), the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and, finally, the democratic election of Africa’s and Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005.
Are Liberians nowadays better off than in the 1970s? Thirty-four years after the military coup that shocked the world – remember the Monrovia South Beach execution of 13 Americo-Liberian ‘big shots’ as important people are called in Liberia: former ministers of the slain President Tolbert and top officials of the once powerful True Whig Party – 34 years after that historic day of April 12, 1980, I still struggle with that question.