Liberia’s April 12, 1980: A Curse or a Blessing?

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(Original Caption) 4/18/1980-Monrovia, Liberia: President Samuel K. Doe (dark glasses) is surrounded by members of his "Peoples Redemption Council" as he speaks to nation 4/14. eh/Eugene Shaw

By: Julius Kullie Kanubah

The military coup of April 12, 1980 that led to the killing of President William R. Tolbert and then, 13 officials of his government, must NOT be seen as a ‘curse on Liberia’.

Doing so is historically fundamentally flawed. What happened on April 12, 1980 was the greatest rupture in the struggle for political power and authority in Liberia in the middle of the second half of the twentieth century.

Between 1822 and 1980, Liberia experienced many deadly conflicts in which indigenous Africans (natives) and their rival settlers – the so-called Americo-Liberians – lost their lives.

The academic historian Jeremy Levitt has convincingly documented 18 deadly conflicts that occured in Liberia in the aftermath of the arrival of settlers from the United States in 1822.

In these deadly conflicts, many natives or indigenous lives were lost as much as those of the ‘African-American’ settlers who were brought to what is today Liberia under the aegis of the American Colonization Society (ACS).

The struggle over the definition, control and enforcement of property and citizenship rights as much as the distribution of resources underpinned most of the deadly conflicts in Liberia. The dynamics of April 12, 1980 reflect this pattern of rule and rupture within a contested territorial space.

While the April 12, 1980 military coup represents a violent overthrow of a particular administration and a specific class of people rule, it must be said violence can represent politics by another means.

This means, the violent overthrow of Tolbert and the killing of his officials were not in isolation of the historical injustices that underpinned the rule of the minority settlers over the majority indigenous Africans.

Until 1946 and up to 1963, indigenous Africans significantly constituted a segregated territorial configuration and citizenship rights and entitlements were never formally bestowed upon them.

Rather, the settlers who formed a separate coastal territorial dominion called Liberia through the visible and invisible powers of the American Government, exercised and enjoyed the power and privileges associated with juridical state sovereignty, manifested by the exclusive definition and enforcement of property and citizenship rights as well the taxation of its subjects – the excluded indigenous people.

A majority people marginalized and excluded from property and citizenship rights as well as broader governance and development processes is a recipe for social uprising. Thus the inevitability of the April 12, 1980 violent overthrow in the proximate shadows of the April 14, 1979 ‘rice’ demonstration/riot and the changing realities brought about by the end of high-colonial dominance in Africa.

Since the April 12, 1980 military coup, Liberia has been a national politic in a permanent transition. Two violent armed conflicts were fought between 1989 and 2003; many interim and transitional governments were installed between 1990 and 2003; and since 2006 Liberians have collectively and massively enjoyed political rights and civil liberties to varying degrees.

In fact, it is the first time that the 1986 mostly all-inclusive liberally-oriented Constitution has been living – in terms of attempts to effectively respect and enforce its provisions.

That all Libeians now have rights to enjoy despite the many and considerable challenges and patterns of misrule should be seen as part of the fruits of the April 12, 1980 military coup. Whether bitter or sweet, fruits are meant to be tasted and eaten!

While the counterfactual can be difficult to detect, it can be tempting to argue that without the April 12, 1980 coup, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and George Weah would not have been democratically elected as Presidents of Liberia. The long push for popular democracy in Liberia did not yield results until late 2005.

The military coup, while violent, effectively expunged the oligarchy of Americo-Liberian domination over the vast majority of indigenous Africans within what they considered as their territory within ‘Hinterland’ Liberia – a product of international sovereignty.

Of course, military coup and violent armed conflicts can represent ‘development in reverse’ as the scholars Paul Collier and his colleagues have argued. ‘Development in reverse’ is not a blessing than a state of under-development – of both physical and structural violence.

Consequently, April 12, 1980 represents neither a curse nor a blessing on Liberia. It was simply a rupture in rule. Rupture constitutes ‘open moments’ of the multiplicity of opportunities and risks. One opportunity of April 12, 1980 – in terms of legacy – is the 1986 Constitution of Liberia. The risks – whether pre-existing or emergent – (re)produced by April 12, 1980 are too visible for all to see.

Liberia remains a society of vast inequality and poverty and the state has remained perpetually fragile and weak in the exercise of its basic functions in delivering basic social services to Liberians. If our patterns of post-war mis-governance continue, it might be the case that there would be another circumstance of April 12 for Liberia and for Liberians. It does not have to be April. It can be another month and another day.

I do not agree that April 12, 1980 is a ‘curse’ on Liberia; neither do I agree it is a ‘blessing’ than a rupture in rule.

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