Samuel Kanyon Doe
On May 6, 1951 Doe was born in Tuzon, a small inland village in Grand Gedeh County. His family belonged to the Krahn people, a minority indigenous group important in this area. At the age of sixteen, Doe finished elementary school and enrolled at a Baptist junior high school in Zwedru.
Two years later, he enlisted in the Armed Forces of Liberia, hoping thereby to obtain a scholarship to a high school in Kakata, but instead he was assigned to military duties. Over the next ten years, he was assigned to a range of duty stations, including education at a military school and commanding an assortment of garrisons and prisons in Monrovia.
He finally completed high school by correspondence. Doe was promoted to the grade of Master sergeant on 11 October 1979 and made an administrator for the Third Battalion in Monrovia, which position he occupied for eleven months.
1980 Coup, new government
Commanding a group of Krahn soldiers, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe led a military coup on 12 April 1980 by attacking the Liberian Executive Mansion and killing President William R. Tolbert, Jr. His forces killed another 26 of Tolbert's supporters in the fighting.
Thirteen members of the Cabinet were publicly executed ten days later. Other public demonstrations were made to show his power and humiliate Tolbert's people before killing them. Shortly after the coup, government ministers were walked publicly around Monrovia in the nude and then summarily executed by a firing squad on the beach.
Hundreds of government workers fled the country, while others were imprisoned. After the coup, Doe assumed the rank of general and established a People's Redemption Council (PRC), composed of himself and 14 other low-ranking officers, to rule the country.
The early days of the regime were marked by mass executions of members of Tolbert's deposed government. Doe ordered 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, 11 former members of Tolbert's cabinet, including his brother Frank, were brought to trial to answer charges of "high treason, rampant corruption and gross violation of human rights."
Doe suspended the Constitution, allowing 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, virtually ensuring their conviction. Doe abruptly ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination.
Some hailed the coup as the first time since Liberia's establishment as a country that it was governed by people of native African descent instead of by the Americo-Liberian elite. Other persons without 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, Doe's former justice minister, Councillor Chea Cheapoo - who contested the 2011 Liberia Presidential elections - 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 takeover of the century-old 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 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.
New constitution and 1985 elections
A draft constitution providing for a multi-party republic was issued in 1983 and approved by referendum in 1984. On July 26, 1984, Doe was elected President of the Interim National Assembly. He had a new constitution approved by referendum in 1984 and went on to stage a presidential election on October 15, 1985.
According to official figures, Doe won 51% of the vote-just enough to avoid a runoff. The NDPL won 21 of the 26 Senate seats and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. However, most of the elected opposition candidates refused to take their seats.
The election was heavily rigged; Doe had the ballots taken to a secret location and 50 of his own handpicked staff counted them. Foreign observers declared the elections fraudulent and suggested that runner-up Jackson Doe of the Liberian Action Party had actually won.
Also, prior to the election he had more than 50 of his political opponents murdered. It is also alleged that he 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. Doe was formally sworn in on January 6, 1986.
Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, who had been a leader of the 1980 coup along with Doe, attempted to seize power on November 12, 1985; the attempt failed after fighting in Monrovia in which Quiwonkpa was killed. Doe's corrupt and repressive government became even more repressive after the attempted coup, shutting down newspapers and banning political activity.
General Thomas Quiwonkpa
The government's mistreatment of certain ethnic groups, particularly the Gio (or Dan) and the Mano in the north (Quiwonkpa was an ethnic Gio), resulted in divisions and violence among indigenous populations who until then had coexisted relatively peacefully.
Samuel Kanyon Doe, army officer and Master Sergeant, was the unelected President of Liberia from 1980 to 1990. Notorious for his human rights violations, Doe seized control of Liberia in the April of 1980 through a bloody coup. A polarizing figure throughout his tenure, Doe was both loved and hated within his own country.
Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe is shown shortly after he took control of the Liberian government in 1980.
Prolonging his power by brutally stifling all forms of opposition, by 1989 Doe’s actions created a resistance movement that eventually toppled his government.
Liberia's former President Samuel Doe, at his office in Morovia, Liberia, 1990.
An ethnic Krahn, Samuel Doe was born on May 6, 1951 in Tuzon, Grand Gedeh County, in southeastern Liberia. Having come from humble origins, at age eighteen he enlisted in the Liberian army, completing his military training at the Communications School in the Ministry of Defense in Monrovia in 1971.
Exhibiting remarkable leadership capabilities, Doe in 1979 was selected to be trained by United States (US) Special Forces in Liberia, and within a year was promoted to Master Sergeant.
Samuel Doe and Caspar Weinberger, early 80s. This was Doe’s finest hour. During the first four years of Doe’s regime, the US gave him over $500 million dollars in “aid”. Weinberger’s deputy once flew to Monrovia to deliver $5M cash and later stated “I did not take this job in order to deal with people like him”
On April 12, 1980, Doe seized control of Liberia along with seventeen other soldiers in a coup d’état. During the coup Doe’s men executed Liberian president William R. Tolbert, Jr. in the executive mansion along with thirty other guards and personnel.
Samuel Doe (center right), on the scene with his “Generals”, attempting to quell the rebellion in Nimba County.
Upon seizing power Doe immediately promoted himself to commander in chief of the armed forces. Hoping to strike fear in the heart of potential opponents, shortly after the coup Doe had thirteen of Tolbert’s ministers publicly executed on a Monrovia beach.
These former soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia were part of 17 officers, who executed the coup
A Liberian Army soldier stands ready to execute a former cabinet minister following the 1980 coup.
A Liberian execution squad fires a volley of shots, killing cabinet ministers of Liberia.
A cabinet member killed
A crowd gathers to view the bodies of 13 former cabinet members.
Throughout his tenure Doe promoted members of his own Krahn clan, marginalizing all other ethnicities for fear of a possible counter-coup. Censoring all media that criticized his government, Doe regularly interrogated, imprisoned, and killed journalists who exposed his heavy-handed tactics.
Some of Doe’s generals, posing for the camera in the last month of Doe’s life.
He openly supported U.S. Cold War policies in Africa and cut all diplomatic relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which gained for him an exponential increase in aid from the U.S. under the Ronald Reagan administration.
One of Doe’s henchmen, Colonel Michael Tilly (right center). Seen here at the Executive Mansion, not knowing what to do a few days after Doe’s capture, torture and execution.
After rigged elections in 1985 kept Doe in power, an opposition movement began to evolve. By late 1989 numerous dissident groups sought to oust him from power in a contest that nearly culminated in a civil war. One of the groups, the National Patriotic Front, was led by Charles Taylor, the future president of Liberia.
Samuel Doe down naked
As Taylor and his followers were ethnically Gio, a small-scale ethnic war occurred between Doe’s Krahn and Taylor’s Gio civilian supporters in late 1989. Concomitant with these events, tens of thousands of Krahn and Gio civilians alike fled to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire to escape the violence.
President Doe inflamed ethnic politics and eked out a suspiciously close victory in the 1985 elections, before he met an even less dignified end than his predecessor. At the end of the Cold War, his previously unwavering support from the US evaporated and, as Liberia erupted into civil war, Doe was left vulnerable.
Nine months into the conflict on 9 September, 1990, Doe was captured on a visit to the recently deployed ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in Monrovia. Hours later, he was dead, though Liberia’s civil war would continue for another 13 long years. In his last hours, Doe was stripped to his underwear, interrogated on film, and his ear was sliced off.
Rebel leader Prince Johnson nonchalantly presided over the affair. Prince Johnson, for instance, is today a Liberian Senator, while a range of actors tied to Doe’s overthrow, including current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, remain prominent in politics. Although he has been gone for a quarter of a century, Doe set in motion a chain of events that continue to make their impact felt across the nation he once led.
Charles Taylor, a former ally of Doe, crossed into Liberia from Ivory Coast on December 24, 1989, to wage a guerrilla war against Doe. Taylor had broken out of a jail in the United States, where he was awaiting extradition to Liberia on charges of embezzlement.
The conflict quickly flared into full-fledged civil war. By mid-1990, most of Liberia was controlled by rebel factions. Doe was captured in Monrovia on September 9, 1990, by Prince Yormie Johnson, leader of INPFL, a breakaway faction of Taylor's NPFL.
General Quinoo, the head of ECOMOG, had invited Doe to the ECOMOG headquarters for a meeting and assured him of his safety from the rebels. On the morning of September 9, 1990, Doe arrived at a precarious time during an ongoing change in guard duty from the well-armed and better equipped Nigerian team of peacekeepers to the weaker Gambian contingent.
The Nigerian team had just withdrawn from the scene when Doe’s convoy of lightly armed personnel arrived, all cheerful anticipating no trouble. Doe was escorted to General Quinoo’s office where he was formally welcomed while most of his team of aides and guards waited outside.
Johnson’s rebels surprised everyone by arriving on the scene uninvited, heavily armed, overwhelming and disarming everyone of Doe’s team encountering no resistance. They started shooting Doe’s team in singles and later in groups. Upon hearing the gunshots from outside, Doe expressed concern to Quinoo, who assured him that all was fine.
Quinoo later excused himself to check up on what was going on outside and was followed by his ADC Captain Coker of the Gambian contingent. They both took cover upon assessing the situation. Johnson’s men moved indoors, finished off Doe’s remaining team, shot him in the leg, and took him captive.
When the dust settled, over 80 of Doe’s men lay dead. Coker characterized the incident as not even a fight but a brutal massacre. Remarkably, none of the ECOMOG personnel was shot in the carnage. Doe was taken to Johnson's military base and tortured before being killed and exposed naked in the streets of Monrovia.
To prove that he was not protected by black magic, his ears were cut off, then some of his fingers and toes, finally he was murdered by decapitation; his body was later exhumed and reburied. The spectacle of his Torture was videotaped and seen on news reports around the world. The video shows Johnson sipping a beer as Doe's ear is cut off.
Prince Yormie Johnson in 1989
Prince Yormie Johnson in 2021
Towards the end of his ten-year reign Doe was unequivocally viewed as a dictator by both Liberians and the international community. As aid was cut off from the U.S, Doe lacked the resources to continue fighting. Attempting to flee the country, on September 9, 1990 Doe’s sixty-man troupe was intercepted by a prominent opposition group under the leadership of Prince Yormie Johnson. The following day on September 10, 1990, Samuel Doe was executed.