1980 Liberian coup d'état

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1980 Liberian coup d'état
A CIA WFB map of Liberia
DateApril 12, 1980
LocationMonrovia, Liberia
TypeMilitary coup
CauseEthnic tensions between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians
MotiveRegime change
TargetExecutive Mansion, Monrovia
Organised bySamuel Doe
Participants17 members of the Armed Forces (NCOs and soldiers)
OutcomeCoup succeeds

The 1980 Liberian coup d'état happened on April 12, 1980, when President William Tolbert was overthrown and murdered in a violent coup. The coup was staged by an indigenous Liberian faction of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under the command of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Following a period of transition, Doe ruled Liberia throughout the 1980s until his murder in 1990 during the First Liberian Civil War.


Historians have argued that a series of complex events led to the coup of 1980. The first of which was the imbalance of power between the native population of Liberia and the Americo-Liberians.[failed verification] The Americo-Liberians were descended from African-American (and a minority of Afro-Caribbean) settlers, some of whom were freed slaves and their descendants who emigrated to Liberia with assistance from the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Americo-Liberian settlers did not relate well to the indigenous peoples they encountered and following Liberian Declaration of Independence in 1847, they held an elite position over society while native tribes lived within poorly developed rural communities.[1][original research?][page needed]

Over time, the two communities did start to integrate and intermingled but in the decades prior to the coup, Americo-Liberians still controlled much of Liberia's political institutions (despite making up a smaller percentage of the total ethnic population) and were reluctant to cede power to the natives at the time. A majority of Liberian presidents were of Americo-Liberian descent and belonged to the True Whig Party (TWP). While opposition parties were never banned, the TWP effectively governed the country as a one-party state.[citation needed] Although Liberia saw a period of economic prosperity in the 1960s and rapid development, there was still a disparity between the Americo-Liberians and the natives.[citation needed] After coming to power in 1971, William Tolbert sought to address imbalances and introduce liberal reforms including recognizing opposition groups.[citation needed] However, Tolbert was also accused of using nepotism and corruption to retain power which fueled opposition to the government. Tolbert's administration also introduced unpopular agricultural reforms which were opposed by many sections of Liberian society and led to riots in 1979.[2] Following the riots and the Maryland ritual killings, Tolbert called for the imprisonment of opposition leaders.[citation needed]


Doe (center) holding a walkie-talkie, alongside the other conspirators during the 1980 coup.

In the early hours of April 12, 1980, 17 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and soldiers of the AFL led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe launched a violent coup d'état. All of the conspirators were indigenous Liberians, while Tolbert belonged to Americo-Liberians. The group entered the Executive Mansion (presidential palace) and killed Tolbert, whose body was dumped into a mass grave together with 27 other victims of the coup. It is reported that Harrison Pennoh was the person that killed Tolbert. Accounts have differed on where Tolbert was killed. In his book, Mask of Anarchy, Steven Ellis claimed the President was found sleeping in his office,[3] where Doe's men shot him, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's biography, This Child Will Be Great says Tolbert was seized and killed in his bed.[4] Between April 21 to April 28, a crowd of angry Liberians gathered to shout insults and throw rocks at Tolbert's corpse after he was buried in a mass grave.[5]


The coup brought an end to over a century of Americo-Liberian political dominance and after assuming power, Doe became the first native Liberian president to govern the country.[citation needed]

Members of Tolbert's family were killed or detained following the coup. One of his sons, A. Benedict Tolbert tried to take refuge in the French Embassy but was arrested by members of Doe's security force who violated diplomatic immunity, and reportedly he was thrown out of a military aircraft while being transported to a prison in Lofa County.[6] Tolbert's widow Victoria was briefly placed under house arrest before leaving the country and subsequently lived in exile in the United States until her death in 1997.[7]

By the end of April 1980, most of the cabinet members of the Tolbert administration had been put on trial in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death. Thirteen of them were publicly executed by firing squad on April 22 at a beach near the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. The executed were:[8][9][10][11]

The executions were described by journalist Larry C. Price as a "nightmarish scenario" in which the executed men were "murdered in front of screaming crowds of jubilant indigenous Liberian citizens." Cecil Dennis was the last man to be shot and was reported to have defiantly stared his killers down while uttering a prayer before his execution.[12]

Only four members of the Tolbert administration survived the coup and its aftermath; among them was the Minister of Finance and future President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,[13] the Vice President Bennie Dee Warner[14] and agricultural minister Florence Chenoweth.[15] Chenoweth was able to escape to neighboring Sierra Leone before making her way to the United States while Warner was out of the country at the time of the coup. Warner unsuccessfully tried setting up a government in exile before Doe offered him clemency and permission to return to Liberia in 1984.[16] Sirleaf was initially detained but subsequently offered a position in Doe's government which she initially accepted, but later fled the country for the US after she publicly criticized Doe's policies. Both Sirleaf and Chenoweth later returned to Liberian politics after Doe's death.

Following the coup, Doe assumed the rank of general and established the People's Redemption Council (PRC), composed of himself and 14 other low-ranking officers, to rule the country. The PRC was dissolved after the 1985 general election, in which Doe was elected president; he was sworn in on 6 February 1986. Although Doe presented himself as a liberator and someone who would bring relief and more democracy to the country, his administration became accused of authoritarianism and of violently discriminating against other tribes. Doe continued to rule the country until he was murdered on 9 September 1990 by the INPFC, led by Prince Johnson, during the First Liberian Civil War.[citation needed]

Allegation of foreign involvement[edit]

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 CIA had provided a map of the Executive Mansion, enabling the rebels to break into it; that it was a white American CIA agent, and not Harrison Pennoh, who shot and killed Tolbert; and that the Americans "were responsible for Liberia's nightmare". He also claimed he was not involved in the execution of Tolbert-era officials, despite his prominent position in Doe's regime.[17] However, the next day, before the same TRC, another former minister of Samuel Doe, Boima Fahnbulleh, testified that "the Americans did not support the coup led by Mr. Doe", and that they had no knowledge of either Doe or his plans prior to the coup.[18]


  1. ^ Wegmann, Andrew N (May 5, 2010). "Christian Community and the Development of an Americo-Liberian Identity, 1824–1878". Louisiana State University. Archived from the original on June 30, 2010.[page needed]
  2. ^ Dennis, Peter (May 2006). "A Brief History of Liberia" (PDF). The International Center for Transitional Justice. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 12, 2007. Retrieved October 19, 2020.
  3. ^ Ellis, Stephen (2001) [1999]. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of African Civil War. London, UK: Hurst & Company. p. 53. ISBN 1-85065-417-4.
  4. ^ Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (April 7, 2009). This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President. Harper. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-06-135347-5.
  5. ^ "LIBERIA: After the Takeover, Revenge". TIME Magazine. April 28, 1980. Archived from the original on September 28, 2008.
  6. ^ "1980: The Genesis of Bloodshed in Liberia". National Chronicle, March 23, 2005: 1/6.
  7. ^ "Victoria Tolbert Dies in U.S" [sic]. The Inquirer, November 10, 1997: 1/6.
  8. ^ Dash, Leon (April 23, 1980). "Liberian Soldiers Taunt, Shoot 13 Former Leaders". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ "Liberia's Dark History – The Coup of 1980"[Usurped!], TLC Africa.com.
  10. ^ Global News Monitor for April 15–30, 2005 – Liberia, Prevent Genocide International.
  11. ^ Source: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child will be Great. Memoirs of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President Archived March 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, p. 102. Cited in Liberia: Past and Present of Africa's Oldest Republic.
  12. ^ "Cabinet ministers lined up for execution after a coup d'état in Liberia, 1980". Rare Historical Photos. March 11, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2020.
  13. ^ Johnson Sirleaf, E: This Child Will Be Great, p. 103. HarperCollins, 2009.
  14. ^ "Tolbert's Aide in U.S." (PDF). The New York Times. April 13, 1980. Retrieved October 21, 2011.
  15. ^ "Florence Chenoweth: Champion of Food Security". University of Wisconsin. Retrieved May 30, 2020.
  16. ^ "Clemency for Warner". Sunday Express 1984-07-29: 8.
  17. ^ The News (a Liberian newspaper), August 6, 2008 (retrieved 6–8 Aug.) CIA Agents Executed 1980 Coup Archived October 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ The News, August 7, 2008 (retr. 7–8 Aug.) Harry Greaves, Tom Kamara, Others Linked Archived October 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine