Liberia's decline due to death squads was swift and complete
March 14, 2004
For 8 years between 1978 and 1986 I worked in Africa from a base in Abidjan capital of the Republique Cote d'Ivoire (RCI). My job involved regular visits to 24 countries stretching roughly from Morocco to Zaire. It was during this period that I first became aware of the existence of death squads in at least 2 of the countries I frequented. In both instances the official titles used had a more salubrious coinage though extra-judicial killing was in fact their single currency.
In the case of Liberia neighbouring the RCI, the death squad seems to have emerged after April 1980 when a group of soldiers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe entered President Tolbert's residence killing him and 25 others. Historically a major ethnic distinction had been made between the native Liberians and the so-called Americo Liberians, the progeny of freed American slaves who settled in 1822, in what became known as Liberia. After the coup Doe, an ethnic Liberian, a krahn, took the presidency and governed Liberia as chairman of the People's Redemption Council (PRC). To quote Doe during his first public engagement in the United States at a luncheon tendered in his honour by Ronald Regan at the White House on August 17, 1982.
"The Black People who returned to the West Coast of Africa, in the 19th century, were determined to build a society which reflected the dignity in their souls and the hope in their hearts." Doe went on to say that in Liberia these pioneers joined with their African brothers, the country's indigenous population, in a common longing for a better life for everyone. These two streams then united to establish the first independent Republic in Africa. But, unfortunately, over the years, the vision of a common destiny turned into a dying hope as political power and national wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few who "began unleashing furies of indignities and showering injuries of unyielding economic frustrations and uncertainties on the vast majority of the people". Then comparing the "Liberian Revolution" of April 1980 and America's own Civil War of the 1860s Doe went on to say "the two events demonstrate that if we are shortsighted and let inequality, selfishness and injustice persist, there will be suffering for all. The need to preserve genuine stability must therefore be measured against the need to anticipate changes that must inevitably come".
Doe actually ran the country after a fashion with 10 soldiers of NCO rank and below. Closest to him were fellow krahns and at least one very close relative who was assigned the task of setting up and managing a death squad. This individual was known to have an insatiable appetite for violence and an established criminal record. For the purposes of this letter I shall refer to him as Uncle George. At the beginning it appeared that the squad's main agenda was to hunt down and exterminate members of the old Tolbert cabinet, prominent members of his True Whig Party, and members of the Tolbert family. It would appear that freemasons and non-compliant criminal types were added to the target list as an afterthought. Many of these hapless Liberians were arrested, charged with a variety of crimes and executed - a process that took hours in some cases rather than days, months or years as would have been likely had normal judicial procedure been followed.
Many others were shot on sight or killed in less immediate and human ways. There had been little outrage or public sympathy and few reprisals when the inner circle of Tolbert's administration and others were killed off extra-judicially. Sometime between 1981 and 1983 the death squad widened its agenda significantly. Wealth, acquired assets, drugs, greed and immunity from prosecution as well as power beyond belief convinced the squad to expand its range of services. By now internal disagreements and fighting over spoils had caused the squad to splinter into 2 main units. One headed by the feared Uncle George and the other by another psychopath cum homicidal maniac. "Guns for hire" became the advertising slogan used by the death squads to attract clients. At one stage rival squad members even boasted that if another contractor offered a better price it would not be for long. The old, well-used marketing message "Never knowingly undersold" was modified by the squad to "never knowingly undersold - for long". Such marketing acuity would have been commendable had it not been that the service on offer was invariably murder. Doe, when he realized that the squad was acting independent of his command and eventually even that of his notorious Uncle George tried to bridle the zeal and initiative of the killing machine. Though salary increases and better all round remuneration were given these paltry benefits could not match average earnings from free lance activity. By 1982 squad hits had become an expensive but definitive way of settling conflict - the ultimate conflict resolution tool as it were. Before long the forces of price competition within the squad had lowered the going rate to little more than the cost of a night out with friends. Interestingly the range of conflicts being 'resolved' by the squad had grown to include land and property disputes, marital difficulties, relationship problems, problems involving wills, inheritance, the settling of a variety of scores, business differences and every type of contention known to man.
It was widely rumoured that Uncle George, who saw himself as a marketing guru for squad services, on occasion took payment from both sides in a dispute and invariably met his obligations to both. In a real sense the Liberian Police Force and the judicial system almost became obsolete as the fragmented death squad units competed against each other as individual, autonomous groups.
In between trying to curb the excesses of the death squads Doe busied himself with the establishment of a democratic government. Doe promised a new Constitution which was duly
prepared. The preamble proclaimed that "all of our people, irrespective of their history, traditions and ethnic background, are part of one common body politic". The chapter devoted to Fundamental Rights defined these in 16 articles and also stipulated the manner in which they would be observed. The supreme irony was Article 20 which stated:-
"No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, security of the person, property, privilege or any other right except as the outcome of a hearing and judgments consistent with the provisions laid down by the Constitution and in accordance with due process of law". Amazingly it went on to state that: "the right of habeas corpus being essential to the protection of human rights, shall be guaranteed at all times and any person arrested or detained and not presented to court within the period specified may in consequence exercise this right."
Like a Janus - headed monster the new Constitution with its lofty ideals of true democracy had another more pernicious face - one characterised by extra-judicial killing, torture and atrocities beyond imagination. These were all directed against the very Liberian people the new Constitution was meant to protect.
In what was described as an historic address to the Liberian nation on December 1, 1982 Doe said that "Liberians should take a leading role in operating neighbourhood shops, restaurants and other small business - in addition the construction industry will be Liberianized with respect to government construction activities.." Indications were that after this address a number of squad members diversified their business interests and went into construction and the restaurant business. Before long it became apparent that squad business had so permeated the fabric of normal commercial activity that it was almost impossible to avoid commercial interaction with squad owned or controlled enterprises.
It is questionable if Liberia will ever fully recover from its embrace of death squadism and extra-judicial killings. Many Liberian observers believe it will take a very long time, generations in fact. Since the1980 coup Liberia's decline has been swift and complete. Doe, Uncle George and most of the original death squad members were themselves killed - many before the dawn of the nineties. My curiosity has always been directed at those who supported or engineered not just the coup but the establishment of a death squad as well as those who openly or silently welcomed it. For some obscure reason they must have seen themselves and families as out of reach and outside the target groups. I suspect not many of them are alive today. The Liberian death squads experience begged the question - how widespread must extra-judicial killings become before it touches raw nerves and compels strong public response? If statistics alone could inflame concern, the point would have been reached in Liberia after the first few hundred killings. The facts about the scale of death squad murders in Liberia failed to ignite a popular outcry because of initial false notions that one ethnic group was being targeted and others ignored or protected. Also, part of the explanation was the reticence of rich and poor alike. The rich, mainly Americo Liberians and Liberian Lebanese felt their survival lay in ingratiating themselves with squad members by doing continuous deals in which members would clearly be the major beneficiaries. There was an equal silence from the poor who hoped to benefit from squad largesse and bounty. Such self-serving expediency only made the squads aware that sections of society had created a space for them - an accommodation. This did nothing to discourage excesses of violence, terror and mayhem by the squad. In fact society's refusal to robustly denounce squad killings made it an unwitting accomplice in its own devaluation and eventual demise.
At an interview with a Washington Post correspondent not long before he was brutally killed Doe was asked to comment on the rapid growth of death squads during his tenure. Doe by now was often heavily under the influence of drugs. He practically admitted that a "disciplined" special force, established after the 1980 coup had spun out of control and he was having difficulty reining them in. Doe was reported as saying "This is Liberia today...these are the problems which face us. The question is, what are we going to do about them?" Emotionally he then broke into the Krahn dialect, one of the many dialects of Liberia, and said:
"Ta Ka a mu mwean bwa sodaah?" In English this means:- 'where do we go from here?"
F. Hamley Case