April 12 – National Redemption Day in Liberia

Posted on April 12, 2016

This anniversary is not really about redemption (a sort of clearing of a debt). Instead, it is an opportunity for Liberians to mourn people killed in a coup d'état.

Liberia is unique among African nations, because it began with a well-intentioned move to allow freed – formerly enslaved – and freeborn people of African descent to go to Africa (most for the first time) and set up a nation based in form on the United States.

There were definitely some problems with this idea. For one thing, these people coming to Africa, from America, were surely displacing people who were living in the area of the planned new nation. You just know that that had to lead to some problems...

And, oh, yeah, it really did. Apparently, for more than a century, the “Americo-Liberians” – the people who were descended from the people who came from America – dominated the powerful positions in the government and economy, and they marginalized, stereotyped, and discriminated against native African peoples.

One of the largest and most important Americo-Liberian families was the Tolberts. A man named William R. Tolbert, Jr., was elected to the House of Representatives and later became Vice President under William Tubman.

Now these terms – House of Representatives, President, Vice President – sound very familiar, but the Liberian government did not operate exactly like the U.S. government. There was only one political party, the True Whigs, and rather than having a separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, the executive branch was way more powerful. In other words, the president ruled much more absolutely than does the U.S. president. And they tended to hold onto that power for life – President Tubman ruled for 27 years. He wasn't replaced by a free election, but rather because he died!

But William R. Tolbert, Jr., started to make some changes when he was president. First, he was one of the few presidents who spoke an indigenous language, in this case Kpelle. Second, he worked for and managed to pass a constitutional amendment that barred a president for serving more than eight years in office. Third, he helped create a program designed to bring more indigenous people into the government.

Of course, many of the conservative elements in the nation hated the changes Tolbert was making. They accused him of “letting the peasants into the kitchen,” and they made moves multiple times to get rid of the amendment limiting presidential terms. Tolbert said in answer to the complaints: “I will serve my country as long as I have life. I do not have to be President to do so.”

Still, many indigenous people thought that the positive changes were happening too slowly. They were too angry after the decades of being second class citizens. And on this date in 1980 a small group of soldiers stormed the executive mansion, killed President Tolbert, 26 other government officials, and later publicly executed 13 cabinet members. All of these soldiers were indigenous people, and their leader, Samuel Kanyon Doe, became the new president. He declared that his new government would be a great thing for the people – he even called his military regime the People's Redemption Council.

I bet you already guessed the sad truth – Doe's rule was corrupt, violent, and full of injustice. Since Doe died, there have been two civil wars. Since 2005, the nation has been struggling to recover from all the instability, all the violence, all the death and destruction.

Like I said, rather than celebrating Doe's “restoration,” many Liberians view April 12 as a time to mourn all the people who died in Doe's coup.

That was a whole lot of sad. Now enjoy some of the beauty of Liberia:

Also on this date:

– aka Cosmonaut Day

National Library Week in the U.S. (2016 theme is “Libraries Transform”)

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