Liberia Reflections: How Doe Became a Dictator
When Master Sergeant Samuel Doe burst onto the political scene in 1980, he put an end to the standoff between President William R Tolbert and the young progressives who were seeking an end to the century-old political oligarchy.
Samuel K Doe was a shy soldier, from the bottom of the army. He did not know much about politics and could hardly read his speeches. He brought into his first cabinet the progressists and put them in charge of key ministerial positions. But the honeymoon did not last. Very soon all of them were shown the door, one after the other. From flirting with “African Revolution” as per Libya Gaddafi or Ethiopia Mengistu, The whole nation turned out to congratulate and embrace the “first son of the soil to ascend to the presidency.
But soon, Doe became the defender of capitalism against socialism although he had no idea what either concept stood for. He eliminated all dissent around him, killing all his companions using fake coup attempts as an excuse. In 1985, after the failed Quiwonkpa invasion, he proceeded to purge the army, turning it into a tribal militia for his sole protection. Surrounded by his tribal army, he became arrogant. He felt untouchable because he had created and lodged an entire battalion in the Executive Mansion. When he drained the economy, the US sent a technical team to help clean the national finances, but he kicked them out. He was feeling invincible. The US suddenly discovered that it had created a bloodthirsty monster. He had a jet with his name on it. But how did it happen? How did the Redemption turned into a bloody and corrupt dictatorship?
One man had come to Liberia, as a diplomat and soon became a close adviser and political mentor to Samuel Doe. His name was William Swing, an ambassador. The Cold War was in high gear and Liberia had an important strategic value to the US as entry point into Africa. Notwithstanding his openings towards the Eastern bloc, President Tolbert never posed any threat to US interests in Liberia. However, Doe’s trip to Ethiopia to see Mengistu and his scheduled visit to Libya’s Qaddafi were threatening the old “traditional” relationship. William Swing became the brain behind the throne.
Doe just had to ask. New housing, special training and hardware for the military, a visit to the White House just in his second year to meet Ronald Reagan. Between 1980 and 1985, Liberia received more aid from the US than in its previous 130 years. More than US$500 million were pumped into the military. The Master Sergeant who had told his ministers during his third cabinet meeting that he knew nothing about politics had turned into a master politician. He decided to forego his military fatigues for fine expensive European suits.
The rapprochement with the US was welcomed by members the political class as well as the general public. Liberians wanted a revolution but not exactly a Qaddafi or Mengistu style revolution.
Liberia was a cheap political outpost. Doe could do whatever he wanted and the World looked the other way. He could kill, steals elections and do whatever, as long as he was towing the line.
How did that happen? How did the shy and humble national redeemer morphed into a corrupt, tribalistic dictator? Simple: he had stopped speaking to the Liberian people. He had an audience of one: a man called William Swing who represented the most powerful nation in the world. The ambassador came with a mission: to keep Liberia in the orbit of the West. Africa was dominated by military dictators and autocratic civilians, all with loyalty to one camp or the other. Nobody cared about democracy, human rights or political fairness. Elections were won at 99.9 percent, if held at all.
Doe soon found himself at the head of what he considered an unbeatable force totally dedicated to his protection. He killed his companions one after the other. Jailed people at will, fabricated stories so he could execute opponents, muzzled the press, subjected religious and traditional institutions. He even managed to get the US government to arrest Charles Taylor on charges of corruption. When the new constitution put the minimum age of the presidency at 35, Doe simply and publicly changed his birthdate to be eligible. Sensing that the chairman of the Constitution Commission Dr. Amos Sawyer would run for President, he “banned” him as they did then in Apartheid South Africa: you are free but not allowed to speak to more than 5 persons, even in your own house, cannot travel out and under curfew. When results of the 1985 started to go against him, Doe brought in his own ballot counters to tally the votes. He won by less than 2 percent.
In the spirit of Cold War clientelism, US Secretary of State Schultz said it was acceptable by African standards. With that, Doe had the legitimacy he craved. He could set the whole of Nimba on fire and nobody budged. Doe became totally subservient to the US. He defied Qaddafi to a fistfight during a OAU Summit when the Libyan dictator called him a “western puppet. “ By 1989, CiC Doe had become a pompous tribalistic and corrupt leader. But with the Cold War ending, US interests in Liberia dwindled and Doe was slowly let go.
Dictatorships and autocracies on the continent are enabled by various local forces but the international factor is never to be underestimated. By the time the war broke out on December 24, 1989, Doe was all alone, surrounded by a coterie of sycophantic advisors. He had chased all his enemies out of the country and they united to come back.
The war was popular… until it reached Monrovia. The metamorphosis of Doe was not accidental. It could happen again. Liberia’s weak social and political institutions, mass poverty and culture of corruption makes it a fertile ground for a speedy return of dictatorship. Many of the internal actors who accompanied Doe on his dictatorial journey are still alive and some even around President Weah, so are some of the progressists who fought both Tolbert and Doe and stood against Taylor.