Liberia: South Beach Still Haunted by Execution of 13 Former Officials of Tolbert Government
Monrovia – Lorpu Flomo was only 17-years-old when she witnessed the execution of the 13 former officials of slain President William R. Tolbert’s government on the beach behind the Barclay Training Center, (BTC) by rebels acting on the orders of coup leader Samuel Doe.
Haunting, Horrifying Memory
Exactly 41 years later, Lorpu, standing at the site of the killings, says the incident is still haunting. “It seems like it was only yesterday. April 12, 1980, the day of the military coup when Tolbert was slain and April 22nd, the day thirteen members of his government were executed.”
The coup d’état ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule, which had lasted since independence in 1847. Doe, a 28-year-old army sergeant led a coup that overthrew the elected government of Tolbert and plunged the country into more than two decades of chaos and conflict.
Ten days later Cecil Dennis, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and 12 other government officials were taken to a beach, a block south of the Barclay army barracks west of the Executive Mansion and murdered in front of screaming crowds of jubilant indigenous Liberians. It was a nightmarish scenario.
Also executed that day were: Dr. Cyril A. Bright, Joseph J. F. Chesson, Sr, Richard A. Henries, Sr., Charles D. B. King, D. Franklin Neal, Sr., P. Clarence Parker, III, James T. Phillips, Jr., James A. A. Pierre, John W. F. Sherman, Frank J. Stewart, Sr., Frank E. Tolbert, Sr and E. Reginald Townsend.
Tolbert was killed on the day of the coup. His top security officers Captain Gabriel Moore, General Charles E. Railey, Jr. and Lieutenant “Railroad” Vesseley along with a few others who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were also killed. Commander Spurgeon Capehart, General Emmett Walter Cooper, Commander Varney E. Dempster, H. Carey Thomas and A. Benedict Tolbert were also killed in the aftermath.
Until its independence, Liberia was a colony settled by a private organization based in America, called the American Colonization Society. The A.C.S. was a group composed of evangelicals and abolitionists, who felt that, because of racism, newly freed African Americans would have greater freedom in Africa. Though the settlers were fiercely opposed to enslavement, they did not extend equality to the Indigenous Liberians they found here. In the lead up to the 1980 coup Indigenous Liberians had limited rights to vote or hold property and they felt locked out of the leadership of the country. Anti-Americo-Liberia sentiment was brewing.
April 1980: Beginning of Liberia’s Troubles
Many political observers say, the coup of 1980 marked the beginning Liberia’s worst years. Since then, there have been regular insurgencies and riots and a civil war. Doe was eventually tortured and killed in front of a camera by Prince Johnson who was supporting the coup launched by Charles Taylor. Eventually Taylor was elected and then a second civil war started to dispose of him.
For Lorpu, the memories of April 22nd are hard to forget: “On that day, we heard that they had arrested the big government people in President Tolbert’s government, and they were carrying them on the beach behind the barracks to kill them. So, we all started running to see. When we got there, I saw 13 men only wearing boxer shorts and they had finished tying them to the light poles. Before shooting them, they gave them soft drinks before, some of them drank the soft drinks but President Tolbert’s brother Frank Tolbert refused to drink his.”
Lorpu recalls Frank Tolbert saying: “I don’t blame you all. I blame Willie (William Tolbert), because he took you from the mats and put you on mattresses. But your children, the native people children will revenge for us.’”
“I was standing right there when they opened fire on them,” she says. “The ones who did not die at first, they shot them again. I was crying because it was my first time, since I was born to see them killing people like that,” Lorpu said.
Tolbert’s Words Come Full Circle
Looking back, Lorpu says Frank Tolbert’s words came full circle. “It was the indigenous people’s children who took arms to fight for Charles Taylor ten years later, during the 1990, bloody civil war and not the Congo people’s children,” she said using a term used for Liberian of non-Indigenous descent. So, what Frank Tolbert said, came to pass in 1990 war. Was it only the indigenous people’s children who took arms to fight for Charles Taylor? Did you see any Congo person child taking arms to fight? So, yes Frank Tolbert words came to pass,” she said.
Like Frank Tolbert, Cecil Dennis also reportedly faced his executors bravely, staring at his killers while awaiting his fate. When he said a prayer, before being shot, a soldier loudly shouted, “You lie! You don’t know God!”. After the order to fire was given, a drunken executioner may have winged him, but the other bullets missed altogether, splashing into the Atlantic Ocean behind him. Dennis was the only person still alive after the first barrage of gunfire. Two more rebels finally approached and sprayed him with an Uzi and pistol at point-blank range, hitting him in the face, body and head, until he was dead. Each man was later hit with 50 or 60 extra bullets by the drunken soldiers, eyewitnesses recalled.
“The soldiers naked women who could be their mothers and was spraying them with water from the fire Brigade Truck, saying they were bathing them. I say, swear and curse too much on this country; because of the wickedness our people did and because of their sins, that is why we are suffering today.”– Madam Lorpu Flomo, eyewitness to the execution of 13 members of late President William R. Tolbert government officials on April 22nd, 1980.
Lorpu also recalls seeing rebels strip Mrs. Victoria Tolbert, wife of President Tolbert, naked alongn with Neh Glapor Tetee, the female Justice of Peace. The rebels disgraced them publicly in the BTC military barracks. “The soldiers naked women who could be their mothers and was spraying them with water from the fire Brigade Truck, saying they were bathing them. I say swear is too much on this country because of the wickedness our people did and because of their sins, that is why we are suffering today,” she said.
Today, the killing field where the thirteen men were executive has become a regular football turf for youngsters, many who were not even born when the former officials were executed. Residents in the area have turned portions of the field into a garbage bin, marred with pollution and filth.
After all these years, Lorpu laments, “it hurts to see the youth playing football to the same place where the men were murdered instead of a memorial being built to remind people of what happened there.”
Ousmane F. Bah, was born 1987, seven years after the coup. He now coaches Unitrans, FC Community League, one of several teams using the now infamous beach, dubbed Redemption Road these days.
Growing up, Bah heard the stories of the execution.
Many of those he now coach and plays with were either too little or not yet born at the time of the coup.
Thanks to YouTube, Bah and his generation now watch clips of the coup and the execution.
Execution ‘Not the Right Way’
Says Bah: “I watched the clip of the shooting of the government officials and it was very sad. Looking at the judgement, it was not the right way to go about seeking justice. If you say someone is corrupt, take them to court and have evidence to prove it. If they are guilty, seize their properties for government use. You can’t kill someone for corruption when corruption was never eliminated. Those officials they killed were very educated and we could have impacted knowledge into that generation.”
As to why they practice on the beach where such horrors took place many years ago, Bah says they do not have any other space to practice.
“If we had the financial strength, to rent a space, we would not be practicing here, but because we do not have anywhere else to practice, this is why we are using this place to practice.”
On the other side of the beach, is a huge pile of garbage, where the PHP community use as a dump site.
Jarffah Amadou, 22, is the captain of the team, he was not yet born when the incident took place but says he learned of it during an argument.
“I think President Doe was trying to prove a point of stopping corruption, so he killed the ex-officials to serve as a lesson to others. He was sending a message, says Ahmadou.
As for practicing on the spot, he says, it is in the past.
“Even though we feel sad about the incident, but it happened many years ago so it makes no difference if we practice here or not.”
For Families, Lingering Memories
Forty-one years later, the families of those killed in a bloody coup continue to keep their memories alive.
Mr. Richard Tolbert, son of Frank Tolbert was among those executed says the families are obligated to gather together annually to perform their sacred duty of commemorating this tragic and historic date.
“We can never forget to show our respect and love to Dr. Tolbert on this fatal day – a fatal day not only for him and the Tolbert Family but we believe also a fatal day for the family of the Nation of Liberia and Africa. Here was a man who paid the supreme price for a nation and people he loved so dearly.”
Tolbert says it is also important to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives. “We can never forget to also pay our respects to those dozens of gallant and loyal men and women who died with him on the bloody night of April 12 in the Presidential Palace. In addition to men like Colonel Charles Railey, Commander of the Executive Mansion Guard, Lieutenant David Vesellee one of President Tolbert’s personal bodyguards who died at his post at the President’s bedroom door, Major Gabriel Moore and many of his colleagues of the Presidential Special Security Service, President Tolbert’s own 8-year-old son Momoh who was caught in the cross-fire running to his father, and many dozens of others who are ignominiously buried here along with the president in this mass grave.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focused on events between 1979 and 2003 and the national and external actors that helped to shape those events, concluded: “Our Country’s troubled and dichotomous history inevitably culminated into nationwide protest, chaos and mass violence in the late 1970’s, a violent coup, military dictatorship and brutal repression in the 1980’s, state breakdown, widespread deadly conflict and warlord politics in the 1990’s, and a resurgence of violent conflict and scandalous corruption in the beginning of the 21st Century.”
Forty-one years after the events of April 1980, it appears that many of those lingering problems remain unsolved, regrettably, to Liberia’s own detriment.