Cracks in the facade

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In William V.S. Tubman's time, people around the world called Liberia "Little America."

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 A pair of children fetch water from a well on a church compound in Monrovia. There has been no electricity or running water in Monrovia since the civil war began in 1990.  Jonathan Ernst/File
Jonathan Ernst/File
A pair of children fetch water from a well on a church compound in Monrovia. There has been no electricity or running water in Monrovia since the civil war began in 1990.

There were American brand names on the grocers' shelves. The Liberians spoke English, carried U.S. dollars in their wallets and saluted a flag that looks for all the world like Old Glory.

Beginning in 1944, the U.S. military used the country as a shipping point and operated a powerful Omega marine navigation transmitter there.

The Peace Corps, at one time, had more workers in Liberia than in any other country in the world, and the Voice of America spoke to Africa via an antenna in Liberia.

But in the 1970s the close ties loosened. World economies stagnated, and the Cold War entered a deep freeze.

After the worldwide rubber market stalled, the Firestone plantation, the greatest American connection of all, was unable to push the Liberian economy as it had.

Liberia was left to fend more for itself.

In April 1978, seven years after Tubman's death, President Carter provided a ray of hope when he became the first American leader to make an official visit to Monrovia. He stopped in the Liberian capital on his way home from a tour of sub-Saharan Africa, and he was greeted by tens of thousands of Liberians crowding the motorcade route from the airport to downtown.

Rosaline Tubman, Shad and Wokie's young daughter, presented Carter with flowers as he deplaned.

"By your vision and love," President Tolbert told the visiting Georgian, "peoples and nations can once more rejoice that the United States still cares, that its actions resound of lasting verities."

More than 130 years after Liberia's founding, an American president had made his way to "Little America" to utterly wild admiration. And all he did was stop by for five hours.

"Where did they all come from?" Carter asked, referring to the crowds he had seen. "It was an overwhelming experience, and I could tell ... in the friendship on their faces that they, like the people of the United States, recognize the historic warmth that has existed between our countries ... and the prospect of an even deeper and brighter friendship in the months and years ahead," Carter said as he proposed a toast.

The next year, [as]60 Minutes[xs] newsman Morley Safer went to Liberia. In his story, titled "Native Sons," Safer talked about nepotism and polygamy, oppression and the True Whig Party that had held the presidency for a century-and-a-half.

At the time, Shad Tubman was a senator and maintained a high place in Liberian politics. Around the world, he kept up the Tubman connection in countries that loved and respected his father's work.

And, as he had during his father's time in office, Shad continued to be a measured voice of opposition in the senate. He pushed for presidential term limits and for more tribal Liberians at high levels of government, which didn't always endear him to his Americo-Liberian colleagues.

Shad remembers Safer asking him on camera: "Your father was president of Liberia for 27 years. Your father-in-law is president of Liberia. We understand your brother-in-law, the president's son A.B., wants to be president. We also understand that the president plans to run again to become president. Now, the question I want to ask you is, do you plan to run against them for president, and, if you do, doesn't it bring about a conflict in the family?"

"My answer to him was very simple," Shad says.

"As you have said quite correctly, my father was president for 27 years. During that time he tried to unify the country," he told him.

"I don't know whether or not the president is going to run again for the presidency. I do not know if A.B. wishes to be president. But if he wishes to be president, I will find it very difficult to support him because the next president should come from the interior of the country."

Safer "shrugged off" the answer, Tubman says, and the interview ended soon after that.

Like Safer, many people thought Shad must have aspirations for the Executive Mansion. At one point, he had even found it necessary to call a press conference to try to explain, once and for all, that a Tubman had held the presidency long enough and that it was time for an indigenous Liberian to do so.

By the late 1970s, time was running out for the old guard, and patience was wearing thin. The Americo-Liberians made up only 5 percent of the population; the other 95 percent were members of 18 tribal ethnic groups, speaking 30 dialects ¡ Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Vai, Bella and then some.

Early in his administration, President Tubman worked to bring together the tribes and coastal-dwelling American slave descendants. But later in his presidency and into the Tolbert years Liberia began to spend more time on international issues, such as African unity, and less on internal matters such as unification, which was thought to have been solved for the most part. It was not.

In the late '70s, President Tolbert ended price supports on rice in an effort to to break Liberia's dependence on imports and get more farmers involved in growing rice for profit.

Many poorer Liberians saw the price increases as a scam by Tolbert, who was himself a rice farmer. They also saw the money the government was spending on expensive projects, such as playing host to the 1979 Organization of African Unity summit in Monrovia, and felt they were being abused.

Rice riots erupted in the capital city in April 1979. In a panic, Tolbert called in troops, and 74 protesters lost their lives. Political forces and the public began to turn against Tolbert and the Americo-Liberians, who had held power continuously since the country's founding. All those years of stability and lack of strife had made Liberia the envy of its African brethren, for whom civil strife had become commonplace.

Now it was Liberia's turn.

A dynasty crumbles

On April 12, 1980, Shad Tubman was in New York City. Tired from travels that had carried him to a government conference in Norway and then on to America, he had just gone to bed in his hotel when the phone rang. A friend was calling to tell him that there had been a coup in Liberia.

In the middle of the night, a handful of soldiers dressed in the garish costumes of tribal warriors stormed the living quarters on the eighth floor of the executive mansion and shot President Tolbert to death. He was wearing the white leisure suit he had famously worn for his inauguration in 1971.

The curious who sneaked into the hospital morgue the next day saw the suit no longer white, but pink with blood. And they saw a gaping hole in his temple. Master Sgt. Samuel Kenyon Doe, the illiterate coup leader, was installed as president.

Wokie Tubman and her mother had spent the day before redecorating the home the Tolberts had hoped to move to after the president retired from office. But now Wokie was cut off from Victoria Tolbert, who was arrested in her nightgown and forced to spend the next few weeks in a jail cell that was little more than a hole in the ground. Nor could Wokie reach her husband.

"My immediate concern at the time was the safety of the family," Shad remembers. But he was unable to get any information about them, whether they were even alive.

"There was no idea what was happening ... absolutely no idea," he says.

The next day, Shad called the Liberian mission at the United Nations, where his cousin Winston was the ambassador.

An unfamiliar voice answered.

A group of about 10 Liberian dissidents had taken over Winston Tubman's office in the name of the revolution, and they were eating pizza on his desk. One of them had held up a pair of alligator shoes for a reporter and decried the ambassador's rich-man shoes when his poor countrymen had no shoes at all.

Their picture was on the front page of [as]The New York Times[xs] the next day, fists raised in celebration.

Shad identified himself to the young man who answered and asked to speak with Winston, who he later learned had stayed away that morning.

"Ahhhhhhh, you see we got the presidency now! You hear Doe is president. He's a Krahn man. I'm Krahn. We're Krahn!" the young man shouted into the phone in tribal pride.

Calm and quiet in the face of the destruction of his country and his family, Shad said, "Oh, I thought we were all Liberians. I didn't realize..."

"I didn't really mean that," the revolutionary said meekly.

Shad was adrift, cut off from any information about his family. After a few days, believing that the situation had stabilized enough for him to go back, Shad made plans to return. He dressed for the journey and was about to leave for the airport when the phone rang again.

Blood on the beach

Ten days after President Tolbert was killed in the coup, there was a great celebration in Monrovia. There was dancing in the streets. There was a crowd cheering and singing on the beach. Thousands gathered together and really let loose.

It was the greatest celebration some of them had ever seen ¡ and they describe it the way sports fans talk about the time their team won the championship.

At the center of the commotion, tied to nine poles planted in the beach, were the slumping bodies of 13 government ministers who had been tried that morning on charges of treason, corruption and human rights violations. They had no defense counsel and no advance knowledge of the charges.

Lashed to the poles with a single green rope, the men were killed in two shifts. Some fainted before the ultimate moment, and some of the first shots missed their marks altogether. They were killed by a rag-tag firing squad of soldiers, who went on emptying their rifles into some of the corpses long after the old men were dead.

And then the party raged on. Eventually, Shad was able to get one of the coup leaders, Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, on the phone and had a few "choice words" for him and two or three others who were involved.

"I told them that this was barbaric. I canceled my trip for another month," he says.

It's not as though he really even had a country to return to.

"To have people lined up on the beach and shot? That's just not something that Liberians do. When I heard about the shootings, I felt sorry for Liberia. So sorry for Liberia. So sorry for the country," he says, his voice thinning as his words trail off.

Long after the coup, a friend would ask Shad where he was during this time.

"When I told him, he couldn't believe it. He said when they were in prison (during the coup) they heard I was in Liberia and I was telling these people whom to imprison," Shad says.

"I said, 'That's nonsense.'"

For some, that might not have been hard to believe. He had always been vocal and unabashed in his support for representation for tribal Liberians. His words were so strong that one time his father-in-law pulled him aside and said, "Shad, if I did not know how you had criticized your father, I would take this in another way."

"The fact that I was outspoken led many people in the government to believe that I was a member of these people's opposition, when nothing could be further from the truth," Shad says.

But now, up was down and in was out and day was night and truth was lies and people would believe what they wanted.

"On that particular ground, my conscience is completely clear," Shad says. "I did worry after, not about what the public thought, but what my wife would think."

Shad allowed another month for tempers to cool, but it was another month without his family.


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