Liberia - The Promised Land
February 1997 - 42 min
INTERIOR - Car Int
- ex Liberian President's
Tolbert: This tape is called Ancestral Call.
There we go, Greenwood 29 miles.
Look at that sunset.
1879, my great grandfather Daniel Frank Tolbert, who was 29 years old at the time, along with his father who was William Richard Tolbert. They had heard about the American colonisation society which had started this homeland for blacks in Africa called Liberia. And they actually formed a corporation called The Liberian Exodus Association, right in Charleston. They said that over 5,000 blacks from this area gathered, read the Liberian Declaration of Independence, sang the national anthem of Liberia, and that's how strong the whole spirit was of going back to Africa at that time.
Since America invented Liberia it's been a land they've not been able to forget. The little West African country was given, by the US, to newly freed American slaves - but few want to live there today.
Helicopter Gun Fires
In giving Liberia to their newly freed and unwanted slaves the US ignored the local indigenous people They'd been in Liberia for centuries. American Liberians are the hated colonisers. In many ways Liberia is the only American colony.
ex Liberian Embassy
- Interview William Davis
Davis: All of the new ambassadors from Africa, who used to come to Washington for their first assignment, it was here they used to come because they did not know the protocol, nor the social habits, so here they used to come to talk to the Liberian Ambassador to learn what it was like.
So this was a proud symbol of Liberia and of the new emerging Africa in this capital. Today now it is the home of the derelicts, of the homeless people. Here where they are sleeping, you see their bed, they have broken the blocks to get inside. So this is what is left, this is a reflection of the mentality of the people who made the destruction in Liberia. They reach it all the way to America to destroy this wonderful symbol.
Interview Richard Tolbert (in front of photos) - nephew of William Richard Tolbert (ex Liberian pres.)
Tolbert: This is a photo of my grandfather William Richard Tolbert. He was actually born in South Carolina in 1869, and he emigrated to Liberia in 1878 with his father and my grandmother, and this is my father aged about 5 or 6. I think this picture must have been taken around 1913 or 1914 because this is the late President Tolbert as a baby, sitting on his mother's lap, and he was born in 1913, my father was born in 1910. And what the family history has, the oral family history that we know of, was that first of all he bought his own way to Liberia on this ship which in fact was purchased by a group of African Americans, or Black Americans. They formed a company called the Liberian Exodus Company in South Carolina, and several thousand of them actually raised 5 and 10 dollar contributions to form this company. And they purchased a vessel called The Azure , and this was going to be the vessel that would be taking them back to Liberia in groups, and he was on the first group of 230 immigrants that went back to Liberia.
Interview: William Davis
Davis: There were forces behind the reason why they would leave America. Firstly the growing number of free black men was seen as a threat by the slave holders in the south, they thought that with this number growing it would give an incentive to the slaves to begin to revolt or to rebel. And there were several attempts, one of the most famous is the Nat Turner rebellion, so this would be very much on the mind of the slave holders, and of course we must not forget Haiti as another example. Now in the north at the same time America was beginning to industrialize, and during this period parallely the immigration from Europe began to pick up, so in the north the growing number of free black would be in competition with the coming immigration from Europe, so therefore the white establishment in the north also wanted these people to leave. And then there was an ideological reason why they wanted them to leave, and the best spokesman for this ideological reason was Thomas Jefferson who, to paraphrase him, said that even though he did not believe in slavery, and it was not morally right for some people to be held as slaves while others as masters, but he saw no possibility, in his time or in the future, where the two races could live in harmony and in equality in America, so it was better to remove them, the Africans that is, to take them back to the home of their ancestors. So Liberia is certainly an American invention.
The settlers brought their experience and their conception of civilization to the shores of Africa, so certainly there was going to be a clash of cultures. Some of the settlers began to write back home to their friends giving their experience and their observations, and briefly let me read a letter, part of a letter: "Our passage was longer than we expected," he means traveling from America to what would become Liberia, "though very safe. And I am very well pleased. My reason why is I can use my own privileges in every respect. There are a few white people out here, though they are very polite. I meet them sometimes in the streets and they step one side of the pavements and touch their hats."
These houses are a reflection of how they remember what the houses of their masters look like before they came to Liberia. And these houses belong to successful farmers because the people who would go up the St. Paul river to the different settlements, such as Clay Ashland or New Georgia or Bensonville where the Tolberts come from, they were building this kind of house mainly from corrugated zinc and high pillars from memory from where they have come.
Interview William Davis & archive
Davis: Tubman was in power for approximately 27 years, from 1944 to 1971, his death. Tubman was an American favourite because when Tubman came to power he was determined to stay in power, and to do this he discovered that he had to do what the Americans wanted. So American businesses were coming in, American money was coming in, and later on Liberia under Tubman would become of strategic interest for American interest in all of West Africa. Now Tolbert was just the reverse. He began to loosen up quickly the control that Tubman had imposed upon Liberia, and for that he had to pay with his life.
Reporter: What happened to the people on the picture?
Tolbert: Well, obviously the President was assassinated in the coup d'etat. Michael Steven died in a rather mysterious plane crash in 1975. And my own father was executed in 1980 some 10 days after the coup.
Richard Tolbert on Execution
Tolbert: I was in hiding and I watched it on television as he was executed on April 22nd 1980. I had no doubt in my mind that 1980 was, not only for us but for the whole country, sort of a beginning of an end.
... Tolbert regime. T.V coming to you Tuesday April 22, 1980. Master Sergeant Doe is seen accompanied by young army officers walking along the ocean arriving, going rather, back to the execution ground. We have the speaker of the people's redemption counsel, Nicholas Polet Junior, who is also at the execution grounds and he has these few remarks to make.
It is my pleasure gentlemen, that these people we get rid of them because they have kept our country down for so long time, and we feel that if we keep these people alive it would be a threat to the nation and we want to wipe out corruption and so we are not going to forgive them and so we have to execute them and I am happy that the execution is going on now.
Officers, they call them the firing squad, they are now seen about to take up their positions shortly before the commands, orders are given for the execution of the formal officials of the Tolbert government. There you see them again they are C Cecil Dennis, E Franklin Neal, Frank Immanuel Tolbert, James Steed Phillips, E Reginald Townsend, Joseph Jeff Chesson , Richie A Henries, James A A Pierre and Frank Stewart.
They command ... April 22 1980.
Nathan is the son of a Liberian witch doctor. He's escaped from Liberia to the distant streets of New York.
Nathan: My grandfather used to be a warrior. Up to this time my grandmother is a contradictor, people go there to her if they have a problem. And sometimes, up to this time, the President of Liberia used to pay her you know because she used to work for the late President, Tolman, they call him President Tolman.
Reporter: What did she do for President Tolman?
Nathan: It's like protecting the President, you know. She'd tell the President whoever against the President, you know, who'd want to overthrow the President.
Reporter: Your grandmother?
Nathan: Yeah. What's going to happen.
Reporter: Told that to President Tolman?
Nathan: Yeah. So my grandmother worked for President Tolman. And he worked for Tolbert.
Reporter: Doing what?
Nathan: The same thing. Before Tolbert died. Before Tolbert died he told Tolbert before he died
Nathan: He told Tolbert that he was going to die in the year that he died. He told Tolbert that the coup that coming was not going to miss him. And no matter where he go, they still going to get him.
Reporter: He told them that?
Reporter: What did he say?
Nathan: He didn't have a choice. He told my grandmother what he can do to survive. So my grandmother told him to leave the country and go somewhere in Europe, but he didn't go until he died.
Interview: Richard Tolbert
Tolbert: My father in the last months of his life said to me frankly that his brother would get all of us killed. I personally had no question that the President could have been assassinated at any minute, and I believe strongly that my uncle also knew that, and we discussed this in family and I think he fully expected this could happen to him, he was prepared for that. What I don't think any of us were prepared for was that the whole social order of the country as it were would be overturned, and I think that was the great surprise.
Nathan: Each time they didn't want a new President, Liberian people never called any election, they never had no election. When they do it's just called a coup. Maybe you'd be sleeping in your house at 1 or 2 o'clock everybody, you know, surrounding your building. Sometimes they actually kill you, you know, automatically. That's how they overthrow Presidents mostly, in most of the African countries. It's very hard, they don't call an election. Because if there is an election you can select who you want to be your President, but their government policy does not do an election, they just take military action. Like for example one of the ministers might plan a coup, and pay a few people, pay the security of the President, and say listen this is what I've got for you, I want to take care of the President. This money. 2 o'clock. You know and sometimes everything is done.
James Keough Bishop
Ex - U.S
Bishop: You couldn't have 5% of the population of Liberia hold the other 95% of the population in political servitude indefinitely. Things were bound to change and Tolbert recognized this. He was making an effort to bring the indigenous people into the political life of the country, to a lesser extent than into the economic life, but he was doing it in a very measured fashion and even at that slow rate encountering a great deal of opposition from large conservatives within the American or Liberian community who felt that any opening to the indigenous population was a hole in the dike in terms of their privileged position.
Reporter: So it explains a coup d'etat?
Bishop: Yeah, and as far as Doe represented the non-commissioned officers within the military they were living in filth and misery, alongside Americans or Liberians who were living a very privileged existence, and it's not at all surprising that they decided to take their future into their own hands and to seize by force some of what they felt belonged to them.
Ex-Ambassador (Doe Archive)
Walker: They stopped the military music on the radio and announced that Sergeant Samuel Canyon Doe was the new President of Liberia. So we reported this. And about 10 o'clock there was another break in the music and the announcer said that Sergeant Doe wanted to see the Russian ambassador and the American ambassador. We were face to face and Doe began talking. He was terribly agitated, terribly excited, and the thrust of what he was saying was that he wanted assistance from the United states, and I told him that I would be glad to relay his request to my government but that he should be aware that the U.S government does not like to help heads of state or governments that mistreat their people. I understand people are being killed, I told him that. And I felt that would have to stop before the United States government would be interested in anything, but that I would certainly relay the request. The conversation lasted not too long but this was the gist of it. Now before I had left the embassy I had told Washington on the open telephone line that Doe had called for me to come and I asked if they had any message for me to give them. Well you have to realise that although this was about 10 o'clock in the morning in Liberia on Saturday, it was about 6 or 5 o'clock in the morning, or maybe 4 here in Washington. And the fellow to whom I was speaking, an old friend, scouted round for a bit, and came back and said Julius I am sorry there is no one here to give you guidance at this point, you're going to have to wing it. That's exactly what he said and I said alright I'll wing it. And that actually set the policy for our early contacts with Sergeant Doe.
Soldier on tank
As Nigerian peace keepers struggle today with the legacy of one of the most brutal dictatorships, it's US policy during that period which many blame for the mass psychosis which seems to have infected the Liberian nation. President Doe's terrible reign was supported by the US. And it was President Doe who came to institutionalize human sacrifice and cannibalism. Hidden not far beneath the surface Doe's nightmare still lives on in Liberia.
Cannibal: If anybody is your enemy you can eat him. Because if I know somebody wants to kill me then if I get you I will eat you ... raw
Boy with human meat
Boy: We'll eat it. We'll eat it. We'll eat it. I Lt. Col. Tampra I'm going to eat it, this Lt. Generals heart - he's a rebel.
(Doe & Reagen archive)
Davis: Bill Casey, the very well known C.I.A director for the Reagan years, became obsessed to overthrow Qadhafi, and so after the coup they were quickly begin to cultivate Doe and develop Doe. So that Doe would grant them what Tolbert denied them, which was the right to use Liberia in the worldwide strategy, a network to overthrow Qadhafi.
Walker: There was deliberation, and a great deal of deliberation, about what should be done about supporting Doe. The consensus finally was that maybe we can influence this fellow. Maybe we can work with him, and lord only knows what we may get after him. It's a case of the devil you know is usually not as bad as the one you don't know.
Davis: Well, it would appear that when Doe visited the United States after he made the coup that he got certain assurances that no matter what as long as he made it possible to serve America's interests he would be secured
Walker: We were able in the first months to have a good bit of influence by giving him assistance. I think the influence began to drop off. Doe's attitude began to change. One of the first things he said to me in that first conversation was that he did not intend to stay in power a long time; that he intended to turn the government over to civilian rule. And I reminded him of this several times when we spoke, but he went farther and farther away from it, just as when he came into the job he was a very thin, wiry individual and the longer he was there the larger and the sleeker and the bigger he became. He changed, mentally and physically.
Davis: As Doe became more and more paranoid about being overthrown, or people making plots against him, and he withdrew more and more to his tribe, the more he adopted cruelty as an official process or method to keep the people in line. But then this only led to the multiplication of people's determination because the excesses of the cruelty of Doe and his soldiers just galvanised the hatred of the Geo and Amarno people against the Kraan people which Doe came from. So in this kind of environment even if anybody had come with a flag and said follow me I will help to smash your enemy they would have followed him, and just at this time Charles Taylor arrives.
Nathan: Yeah I was one of the fighters. At that time I was in a rebel group fighting against the President.
Reporter: Fighting against the President?
Nathan: Yeah, fighting against the government. President Samuel Doe. My father came from the government tribe, and my mother came from the rebel tribes. And what happened is my other brothers fighting for the government tribes and my other brothers are fighting for the rebel tribes. It's very difficult you know, no matter what you do you got to lose somebody, because you might kill your own brother, you don't know.
Reporter: And you've fought for both?
Nathan: Fighting for both of them.
Whoever I kill, I kill Liberian. And I know it's not worth it, but if I have to kill somebody to survive I will.
In 1989 I joined a rebel troop because there was nowhere for me to go. There was no food. There was nothing. And now since the Garda they say that you've got to join. Sometimes if you don't join they kill you. That's how I take the arms. And the leader of the rebel troops, Charles Taylor, he goes around and picks up some kids, tells them that he's bringing U.S dollars in the country and everybody's going to get paid and everybody's going to get a position when he takes over. I liked him from the beginning when he came into the country.
As the brutality spiraled out of control the rise of Charles Taylor had come to seem inevitable. Doe's madness had reached the point where even the US government was no longer prepared to help their old ally.
Davis: The Americans had contacted Taylor and had pled with Taylor to hold off invading the city, because there would be too much destruction, and they in turn would make it possible for Doe to leave. Apparently they could not persuade Doe.
Ex US military attach
Marley: I think there was an expectation, certainly by April 1990, that the Doe government was probably going to fall, they were going to lose the war. And I think there was also an expectation that Charles Taylor's regime, whatever it was going to look like, would probably not be worse than the Doe government.
Davis: By this time Taylor had decided to send one of his trusted commanders, who came from the tribe that Doe had persecuted, with a large number of troops to control the entrance from the dock. So it was this commander called Prince Johnson. By this time, according to some source, he broke away from Taylor and he was influenced to do this by a foreign power. They supplied him uniforms, they supplied him guns for his men, everything. And now how he manages to cross from the island to the mainland of Monrovia when Doe had the two bridges covered by his machine guns is still a question to us.
Nathan and video
Nathan: Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson parted. I was still with Prince Johnson. Prince Johnson and his troops. Prince Johnson was not having a lot of men. He was not even having weapons. Charles Taylor was the one who was having all these weapons. Johnson was using rifles. A rifle. You know because he did not have enough machine guns. Johnson was having all the guns. I guess the U.S gave Johnson the weapons
Marley: Prince Johnson was a fascinating individual. It became readily apparent when you met him that the man was somewhat unstable. He was all-powerful within the small part of territory that he controlled. He literally exercised the power of life and death over various people, and he killed a lot of people in cold blood, but he also would fund the orphanages and got a school re-established in his territory, not exactly the role model that you would want for those kids, but for a short period of time he and his group were the only ones that had something like that underway.
Nathan and video
Nathan: Field Marshal Prince Johnson is now going to the military barracks to meet with Doe, for peace, to stop the war like he said he was going to do. Okay now going into Doe's and shaking hands with Doe's military people. It is like a setup. It is like a setup. He's trying to tell that he doesn't want no more war, that he only wants to make peace with Doe, so that he and Doe will fight against Taylor.
Doe's setup archive
Unknown Speaker: Everybody is happy. The location is open. You are welcome at the Geo headquarters. In our hands you are secure. Feel free. Speak free, as your own home.
Prince Johnson: Mr. President. Members of the defence staff. Military advisers. Members of the freedom fighters. I am very happy to be here in this office. To meet the President of Liberia so that we can together talk.
Nathan and video
Nathan: That's a big setup. Now the President of Liberia, President Doe, agreed to the peace making. To my belief there was going to be no peace.
Prince Johnson It is not too late to make peace. One thing I want to tell you I want to be sincere. I put my signature on the paper, to you. If anything happens to you I am responsible. We will be responsible so do not be afraid.
Nathan: Johnson always tells me that guys who kill go.
Prince Johnson: If anything happens to you we will be responsible so don't be afraid.
Nathan: Then Johnson tried to get Doe out of the barracks to go to the free port so that Doe would be captured.
/Doe's capture - cars drive
Marley: On Sunday morning we heard, those of us at the embassy compound, what sounded like a Presidential convoy, it was the sirens and all that were associated only with the movement of the President. I can remember commenting with whoever I was with, that that sounds like a Presidential convoy but that doesn't make sense, where would Doe be going. Because by that point in time his faction, The Armed Forces of Liberia and President Doe, controlled only a few square blocks of Monrovia.
Nathan: I was there when they captured Doe. They arrested him.
Reporter: Well what did he say then?
Nathan: He was saying, you know, I thought we came for peace, you know, we need peace. And he said to Jomi? you know, one of the head men for Prince Johnson, Jomi? You remember when I took you from jail. He was saying some sorry things, you know, so that they can let him go, but at that time it was too late. All his men were disarmed, and Prince Johnson's men were in control.
Doe was finished and it wasn't long before Prince Johnson would kill him. He died in the same way he himself had caused many others to die. At this point in a famous and controversial conversation Prince Johnson called the US embassy on his radio.
Prince Johnson: Tango tango sunshine calling, emergency, over. Tango this is sunshine, if you are listening to me this is an emergency, over.
Nathan: He took a phone and called the American Ambassador and said "Congo, no I think that was a past war thing."
Prince Johnson on radio
Prince Johnson: Tango tango, come in. I want to speak to Mr. Porter or the U.S ambassador. Over.
Nathan: I heard him say that mission was accomplished, and that's how I feel suspicious about what's going on.
Marley: At the embassy we received a radio call over the embassy radio frequency from someone saying he was Prince Johnson, saying that he had captured President Doe. I was present when the person that responded, we had no way of knowing if this were in fact true or not, one whether it was Johnson or two that they had captured Doe, but the response back was that if in fact they had President Doe we expected that Johnson and his faction would treat him in accordance with the law of land warfare, The Geneva Convention, as a prisoner of war and would protect him and give him the rights that are supposed to be accorded to a prisoner of war. Subsequently we found out, of course, that that did not happen.
Doe pleads with Johnson
Prince Johnson: We are men. I don't care what you do. I will kill you.
Doe: Two men fight and one wins. Please loosen my hands so we can talk.
Prince Johnson: No, so you can disappear.
Doe: I can't disappear, you have tied my feet
Reporter: You heard Johnson say we have Doe. Did you start an operation in order to secure the release of Doe?
Reporter: There was no discussion about it? There was no discussion about you people in the embassy okay we have to at least save our former ally?
Reporter: From a humanitarian point of view did it cross your mind for a moment to jump in your car and drive to Johnson's headquarters and see how Doe was doing?
Marley: At that time we weren't even sure where Johnson's headquarters were.
Reporter: You had a radio, you could have asked him where?
Marley: Right. But no it didn't. There was a quick discussion. The decision was to get the word passed as quickly as possible to Washington that Johnson was claiming he had Doe, but not to hop in a car and go looking for him
Reporter: So you sent message to Washington?
Reporter: And what did Washington say?
Marley: I don't recall because by the time any response would have come back from Washington, remembering this is a Sunday, by the time a response came back from Washington Doe was already dead.
Nathan: Well, first of all, Doe had a special belt that he wore sometimes for protection and stuff like that, you know, and everybody thought that Doe couldn't get shot, couldn't die. Most people have that kind of belief. It's like in Africa the tradition is like whenever you are strong or you have powers, there's always somebody who is more strong than you. So let's say that you might have a little bit of protection, but if somebody has more powerful protection than you do. See that's why it's mostly the powers. It's about the power in Liberia, mostly war which is true. I've seen people doing a lot of crazy stuff. That's why the President of Liberia was slaughtered, cut his ears, cut his penis up, because people believed that he couldn't die. That's why they did that killing. Right. That's why they did that killing. They thought that he was going to disappear among the crew. They thought that he was going to disappear.
Reporter: Who said that?
Nathan: Prince Johnson. He thought that Doe was going to disappear, because ...
Reporter: After he captured him?
Nathan: Yes, after he captured him. So they made sure his ears were cut off and his penis was cut. Right, that's why they did that killing.
Nathan On Street
Nathan: I live uptown in Harlem. Here, to live in America, you've got to learn the street way, you know, you got to learn the street, the way they talk on the street, Yo what's up, you know. Yo what's up, what's goin' on. You know you've got to learn that way. But the only way, you don't let them know that you're a stranger, you've got to always make them know that you've been here for a long time.