November 12, 1985 : The military Coup that failed and the day God saved my life

By Kabs Kanu

In the early morning of Tuesday November 12 1985 , we were on a week-long fast and having a prayer retreat at the BWI Picnic Grounds in Kakata, when we saw an old man passing with his radio glued to his ears. . The national anthem of Liberia would be played and then somebody would speak and the radio would be playing martial music.

Because of the chaotic state of Liberia, with a disputed election just held with Gen. Samuel Doe declared winner , though veteran politician Jackson Doe had actually won it, we knew that something had happened . Why was the national anthem being played repeatedly ? The old man passed us but after a while he came back and we asked him what was going on, and solemnly and sarcastically he replied : “Why , you people do not know ? You’re here praying in this bush and do not know what has happened in the country today ? Quiwonkpa just invaded Liberia .He has overthrown the government and Doe is in hiding “. Wow, so there had been a coup and President Samuel Doe had been overthrown ?



We scrambled for our bibles and belongings and headed back to town, whereupon we met the whole town upside down with jubilation. Hundreds of people were on the streets dancing, some with bodies painted like warriors and waving palm fronds. We got home and turned on our TV and the whole of Monrovia was in joyful ecstasy , with thousands of people out in the street dancing and celebrating what everybody thought was the overthrow of C-I–C Dr. Samuel Doe at last. Former Army Chief Brig. Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, one of Doe’s pards with whom he had staged the bloody April 12, 1980 coup that overthrew the government of President William Tolbert, who was assassinated, but had been fired by Doe two years previously, and fled into exile, had returned to exact vengeance and redeem the Liberian people from Doe’s human rights abuses and dictatorial rule.

As we would learn later, Quiwonkpa had invaded Liberia from Sierra Leone with Liberian army deserters and rebels as well as Sierra Leonean police officers ( ISUs ) provided by President Joseph Momoh. They had seized the radio station and the military barracks ( BTC ) and Quiwonkpa was announcing at regular intervals that his patriotic forces had invaded Liberia and taken over and that Doe was in hiding but there was no escape for him. He was a friendly and patriotic military officer who was a favourite of the masses. Therefore, thousands poured into the streets to welcome his coup and celebrate the downfall of the hated Doe.

As we watched with breathcatching anxiety on TV, we saw ministers and government officials who had been arrested being brought to the ELBC radio and TV station naked.  Some, like the Justice Minister, J. Jenkins Scott, had been badly beaten . Quiwonkpa himself appeared at the radio station walking around , holding a walkie-talkie and saying that he had no grudge for Doe but had been forced by the dictator’s abuse of power to overthrow him. Quiwonkpa said Doe will be put on trial. He said he will formally address the nation later in the evening.

Liberians had reconciled  themselves to the reality that President Samuel Doe had been overthrown by the lovable Gen. Quiwonkpa, who was the good guy and the people’s conscience in Doe’s military junta before both men fell out in 1984 and Doe demoted Quiwonkpa  from Army Commanding General ( Force Commander ) to Secretary General of the military government,  the People’s Redemption Council ( PRC ) , which Quiwonkpa turned down, forcing Doe to fire him.  Home cocktail parties were being planned. The celebrations had already kicked off in living rooms, porches and backyards.  Another day of redemption had been wrought in Liberia.

But the coup and jubilation lasted only for about 8 hours. Shortly after 2 pm, things went terribly wrong. Col. Moses Wright, one of Doe’s trusted military officers came on the air and shocked everybody by announcing that the coup had failed and Doe was back in power. People were still on the streets dancing, oblivious of the new development .Only we at home watching on TV  knew that the coup had been reversed. Doe himself even came briefly on the air to announce that it was not true that he was in hiding and that he was  still President and Commander-In-Chief of the army.


Doe’s soldiers from Camp Schefflein , who had with the help of Israeli military instructors , reversed the coup , went out into the street . When the jubilant crowds  saw the soldiers in their army trucks , they thought it was the soldiers who had redeemed them that day, not knowing these were soldiers loyal to Gen. Doe. They were stunned when the soldiers opened fire on them. Then started the running battle between the soldiers and the crowds that led to many deaths.  Things had changed dramatically and the soldiers were going around arresting  and in some cases putting to death the coup leaders , soldiers and members of the public who had been earlier seen on TV  rejoicing.  Quiwonkpa fled into hiding . He was caught two days later and publicly executed near his hiding place  and dismembered and his mangled body displayed  at the Executive Mansion. In a macabre show of revenge, he  was castrated and his private part  hung and displayed on the bonnet of a military jeep that was driven around the city by jubilant pro-Doe soldiers. It was alleged that Quiwonkpa’s body was eaten by soldiers  and some members of the public who thought that because he was considered a very powerful man, his powers will be transferred to them. Somebody came to Kakata sucking on his hacked off thumb.

The failed coup led to monumental reprisals attacks on anti-Doe people and members of the Gio and Mano tribes in Monrovia, other cities and especially in Nimba County where  thousands of them were allegedly slaughtered by Doe’s soldiers fueling the resentment and tribal anger that led to the Liberian civil war  four years later.

As I look back on another  very traumatic and dangerous day in Liberia, I thank God for saving my life and the lives of   my family. On the day of the failed coup, I had to violate the curfew that President Doe had declared with orders for his soldiers to shoot any violator as his troops searched for the coup-makers. Not knowing how long the chaos would last , and because we were fasting and had not done any serious food shopping, I had gone out that evening to buy some foodstuffs from market women living around the KRTTI campus where I taught and lived in the teachers’ quarters. I thought since it was a campus in the upcountry, enforcement of the curfew would not have been rigid.

My luck ran out . A military truck with some heavily-armed soldiers came rumbling round the bend and they asked me why I was out and if I did not know a curfew was in force. I said I knew but was just coming to buy some foodstuffs from market women living around the campus. Because of my Sierra Leonean British accent and the fact that Sierra Leonean mercenary police were involved in the attack on the country earlier in the day, the soldiers accused me of being a one of them .  Nothing I said convinced them. I showed them my identity cards but they described them as fake. They started asking me lots of questions which if they were not satisfactory would have led to me being shot. But God was on my side. I continued pleading that I was a Liberian. They rejected my claims until one soldier, tired of the whole back-and -forth, decided to cut matters short . He said : “OK, en you say you Liberian mehn  and you live here ? Then, do one thing. If you do, you will convince us, If not, we will take you down. Sing the Liberian national anthem. If you are really a Liberian, you will know how to sing it . ”

My heart leaped for joy at last. I thought I was a goner. I thought my charmed life had come to an end at last. But the  Liberian national anthem I could sing because after teaching in the country for 10 years then, I had learned it listening to students singing it during our regular Friday assembly programs at Monrovia Central High and during events here at KRTTI. I cleared my throat and sang the Liberian national anthem so euphoniously that the soldiers were impressed and were convinced that even if I was not a Liberian as I had claimed, one thing was certain : I  lived in the country and was not one of the invading mercenaries that overthrew the government briefly earlier in the day. They warned me sternly to respect curfews in future because other soldiers would have just shot me down . They offered to take me back to my quarters . When my fellow teachers saw the army truck entering the campus, many ran for their lives. It turned “It was just Leeroy being given a ride back”  Probably bothered my their conscience for what they had put me through,  the thoughtful soldiers  shared  their food supplies in their truck with me . They had been looting whole day, since the coup was announced. One of the soldiers said he will be returning to school soon, and who knew ? As a teacher, I might help him to get a place in school. With that, they drove away, leaving me thanking God for my life. Thousands of people were not luck as I was . Their encounters with the vengeful soldiers that day ended in their deaths.



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