Routine Horrors

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
President Yoweri Museveni, Entebbe, Uganda, November 2007

When I was twelve years old, a new man-about-town arrived in Monrovia, the city of my birth. His name was Captain Stevens, he had a mysterious job in the United States military, and he had just been detailed to the American embassy in Mamba Point. He showed up at parties hosted by my aunt and uncle, sipped cognac, and charmed the Liberian ladies, who all whispered about the handsome African-American military officer.

What I would find out two years later was that Captain Stevens was spending much of his time in Liberia meeting with disaffected men in the Liberian military who were plotting to overthrow the government. A century and a half of rule by the descendants of freed American slaves who had established themselves as the ruling elite while the rest of the country made do with scraps meant that Liberia was ripe for a coup, one that would be supported, at least in the beginning, by most of the population.

President William R. Tolbert, the latest heir to the dynasty begun by the freed slaves who founded the country, had been cozying up to the Soviet Union, even approving the opening, in Monrovia, of a Soviet embassy. In 1980, during the height of the cold war, when African countries were seen by American officials as being allies of either the US or Russia, it was anathema indeed to the American government for Liberia to even consider such a thing.

And so it was that on the night of April 12, 1980, when twenty-eight enlisted soldiers in the Armed Forces of Liberia stormed the executive mansion, killed the presidential guards, and disemboweled Tolbert in his pajamas, there was not much outrage coming out of the American embassy. When Tolbert’s minister of foreign affairs, Cecil Dennis, arrived at the embassy a few hours later to ask for sanctuary, he was turned away. He later surrendered to Liberia’s new military government, which executed him—along with twelve other former government officials—on the beach by firing squad ten days later.

And Liberia? The country plunged into eight years of mismanagement, brutality, and tit-for-tat ethnic killings under its new American-backed president, the former master sergeant Samuel K. Doe. The US kept Doe’s government afloat with a flood of American dollars, and when Doe ran out of those, he just ordered his printing presses to issue Liberian dollars. The Liberian currency, once pegged to the dollar, quickly became worthless.

Doe soon turned on many of the men who helped him storm the executive mansion and executed them one by one, accusing them of trying to kill him. When one of his former friends snuck into the country from exile and tried to seize the government, the president had him hunted down and executed; his body was paraded through the streets of Monrovia…

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