Samuel Doe

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Samuel K. Doe
Samuel K. Doe.jpg
21st President of Liberia
In office
12 April 1980 – 9 September 1990
Vice President Harry F. Moniba
Preceded by William R. Tolbert, Jr.
Succeeded by Amos Sawyer
Personal details
Born (1951-05-06)May 6, 1951
Tuzon, Liberia
Died September 9, 1990(1990-09-09) (aged 39)
Monrovia, Liberia
Political party National Democratic
Religion Baptist

Samuel Kanyon Doe (May 6, 1951 – September 9, 1990) was a Liberian politician who served as the leader of Liberia from 1980 to 1990. Then Master sergeant Doe served as chairman of the People's Redemption Council and de facto head of state after staging a violent coup d'etat in 1980; he killed President William R. Tolbert, Jr., and executed many of his True Whig Party supporters.

Doe disbanded the constitution and headed the country's military junta for the next five years. In 1985 he ordered an election and officially became the 21st President of Liberia. The election was marked by controversy as there was evidence of election fraud. Doe enjoyed decisive support from the United States; it was a strategic alliance due to his anti-Soviet stance taken during the years of the Cold War prior to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Doe, a member of the Krahn tribe from inland Liberia, was the first indigenous head of state in Liberian history. His people are a largely rural minority ethnic group and indigenous, like 95% of Liberians. Historically indigenous Liberians had been marginalized in the colonial-style society developed by the group known as the Americo-Liberians, made up of immigrants and their descendants. They were descended from the free-born and formerly enslaved blacks, primarily from the United States, who founded Liberia in 1847 after it had been started as a colony in the late 1820s.

Doe opened Liberian ports to Canadian, Chinese and European ships. This brought in considerable foreign investment from foreign shipping firms and earned Liberia a reputation as a tax haven.

Doe attempted to legitimize his regime with passage of a new constitution in 1984 and elections in 1985. However, opposition to his rule increased, especially after the 1985 elections, which were declared to be fraudulent by most foreign observers. For political reasons, the US continued to support him.

In the late 1980s, as the US government adopted more fiscal austerity and the threat of Communism declined with the waning of the Cold War, the U.S. became disenchanted with the entrenched corruption of Doe's government. It began cutting off critical foreign aid to Doe. This, combined with the popular anger generated by Doe's favoritism toward his native Krahn tribe, placed him in a very precarious position.

A civil war began in December 1989, when rebels entered Liberia through Ivory Coast with the intent of capturing Doe. He was captured and overthrown on 9 September 1990. He was tortured during interrogation and executed.

Early life

On May 6, 1951 Doe was born in Tuzon, a small inland village in Grand Gedeh County His family belonged to the Krahn people, a minority indigenous group important in this area.[1] At the age of sixteen, Doe finished elementary school and enrolled at a Baptist junior high school in Zwedru.

Two years later, he enlisted in the Armed Forces of Liberia, hoping thereby to obtain a scholarship to a high school in Kakata, but instead he was assigned to military duties. Over the next ten years, he was assigned to a range of duty stations, including education at a military school and commanding an assortment of garrisons and prisons in Monrovia. He finally completed high school by correspondence. Doe was promoted to the grade of Master sergeant on 11 October 1979 and made an administrator for the Third Battalion in Monrovia, which position he occupied for eleven months.[2]

1980 coup, new government

Commanding a group of Krahn soldiers, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe led a military coup on 12 April 1980 by attacking the Liberian Executive Mansion and killing President William R. Tolbert, Jr. His forces killed another 26 of Tolbert's supporters in the fighting. Thirteen members of the Cabinet were publicly executed ten days later. Other public demonstrations were made to show his power and humiliate Tolbert's people before killing them. Shortly after the coup, government ministers were walked publicly around Monrovia in the nude and then summarily executed by a firing squad on the beach.[3] Hundreds of government workers fled the country, while others were imprisoned.

After the coup, Doe assumed the rank of general and established a People's Redemption Council (PRC), composed of himself and 14 other low-ranking officers, to rule the country. The early days of the regime were marked by mass executions of members of Tolbert's deposed government. Doe ordered the release of about 50 leaders of the opposition Progressive People's Party, who had been jailed by Tolbert during the rice riots of the previous month.

Shortly after that, Doe ordered the arrest of 91 officials of the Tolbert regime. Within days, 11 former members of Tolbert's cabinet, including his brother Frank, were brought to trial to answer charges of "high treason, rampant corruption and gross violation of human rights."[4] Doe suspended the Constitution, allowing these trials to be conducted by a Commission appointed by the state's new military leadership, with defendants being refused both legal representation and trial by jury, virtually ensuring their conviction.

Doe abruptly ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination. Some hailed the coup as the first time since Liberia's establishment as a country that it was governed by people of native African descent instead of by the Americo-Liberian elite. Other persons without Americo-Liberian heritage had held the Vice Presidency (Henry Too Wesley), as well as Ministerial and Legislative positions in years prior. Many people welcomed Doe's takeover as a shift favoring the majority of the population that had largely been excluded from participation in government since the establishment of the country.

However, the new government, led by the leaders of the coup d'état and calling itself the People's Redemption Council (PRC), lacked experience and was ill prepared to rule. Doe became head of state and suspended the constitution, but promised a return to civilian rule by 1985.

File:Samuel K. Doe During the 1980 Coup.png
Doe (Center) holding a walkie-talkie, alongside the other conspirators after the 1980 Coup

Theories on the genesis of the coup

In August 2008, before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Monrovia, Doe's former justice minister, Councillor Chea Cheapoo — who contested the 2011 Liberia Presidential elections — alleged the American CIA had provided the map of the Executive Mansion, enabling the rebels to break into it; that it was a white American CIA agent who shot and killed Tolbert; and that the Americans "were responsible for Liberia’s nightmare".[5] However, the next day, before the same TRC, another former Minister of Samuel Doe, Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh, testified that "the Americans did not support the coup led by Mr. Doe".[6]

Some facts of the 1980 coup are still clouded by reports of an "Unknown Soldier".[citation needed] It is reported that an "unknown soldier" was one of the "white" mercenaries who would have staged the 1980 military takeover of the century-old one-party state. According to the autobiography of Tolbert's wife Victoria, the First Lady witnessed a masked man with a "white" hand stabbing her late husband.[7]


During his rule, Doe portrayed himself as an enlightened leader whose actions were intended to bring "relief to many". He styled himself "Dr. Doe" starting in 1982, after making a state visit to Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea and being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Seoul.[2] After seven years of calling himself a doctor, Doe announced in 1989 that he had completed a bachelor's degree from the University of Liberia.[8]

Relations with the United States

File:Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger - Samuel K. Doe.jpg
Doe with then Secretary of Defense of the United States Caspar W. Weinberger outside the Pentagon in 1982

During his first years in office, Doe openly supported U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Africa during the 1980s, severing diplomatic relations between Liberia and the Soviet Union.

The United States valued Liberia as an important ally during the Cold War, as it helped to contain the spread of Soviet influence in Africa.[citation needed] As part of the expanding relationship, Doe agreed to a modification of the mutual defense pact granting staging rights on 24-hour notice at Liberia's sea and airports for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Forces, which were established to respond swiftly to security threats around the world.

New constitution and 1985 elections

A draft constitution providing for a multi-party republic was issued in 1983 and approved by referendum in 1984. On July 26, 1984, Doe was elected President of the Interim National Assembly.[9] He had a new constitution approved by referendum in 1984 and went on to stage a presidential election on October 15, 1985. According to official figures, Doe won 51% of the vote—just enough to avoid a runoff.[10] The NDPL won 21 of the 26 Senate seats and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. However, most of the elected opposition candidates refused to take their seats.

The election was heavily rigged; Doe had the ballots taken to a secret location and 50 of his own handpicked staff counted them. Foreign observers declared the elections fraudulent and suggested that runner-up Jackson Doe of the Liberian Action Party had actually won.[11] Also, prior to the election he had more than 50 of his political opponents murdered. It is also alleged that he changed his official birth date from 1951 to 1950 in order to meet the new constitution's requirement that the president be at least 35 years old. Doe was formally sworn in on January 6, 1986.

Increased repression

Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, who had been a leader of the 1980 coup along with Doe, attempted to seize power on November 12, 1985; the attempt failed after fighting in Monrovia in which Quiwonkpa was killed. Doe's corrupt and repressive government became even more repressive after the attempted coup, shutting down newspapers and banning political activity. The government's mistreatment of certain ethnic groups, particularly the Gio (or Dan) and the Mano in the north (Quiwonkpa was an ethnic Gio), resulted in divisions and violence among indigenous populations who until then had coexisted relatively peacefully.


Charles Taylor, a former ally of Doe's, crossed into Liberia from Ivory Coast on December 24, 1989, to wage a guerrilla war against Doe. Taylor had broken out of a jail in the United States, where he was awaiting extradition to Liberia on charges of embezzlement. The conflict quickly flared into full-fledged civil war. By mid-1990, most of Liberia was controlled by rebel factions.

Doe was captured in Monrovia on September 9, 1990 by Prince Y. Johnson, leader of INPFL, a breakaway faction of Charles Taylor's NPFL. Doe had been visiting ECOMOG peacekeeping headquarters in Monrovia when Johnson arrived with his forces and seized Doe after a bloody gun battle. Doe was taken to Johnson's military base and tortured before being killed and exposed naked in the streets of Monrovia. To prove that he was not protected by black magic,[12] his ears were cut off, then some of his fingers and toes; his body was later exhumed and reburied. The spectacle of his torture was videotaped and seen on news reports around the world. The video shows Johnson sipping a Budweiser as Doe's ear is cut off.[13][14][15]

Personal life

Doe was a Baptist. At one time, he was a member of the First Baptist Church in the town of Zwedru in Grand Gedeh County. He changed his church membership to the Providence Baptist Church of Monrovia on December 1, 1985.[16]


  1. "Hail to the Chief: Happy Birthday!" Express Special 1982-05-06: 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Happy Birthday!! Dr. Doe is 34 TODAY" Sunday Express, 1984-05-06: 1/6-7.
  3. White, Robin (April 26, 2012). "My Verbal Sparring with Charles Taylor". BBC News. Retrieved 26 April 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "LIBERIA: After the Takeover, Revenge". TIME Magazine. 1980-04-18.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. The News (a Liberian newspaper), August 6, 2008 (retrieved 6–8 Aug.) CIA Agents Executed 1980 Coup
  6. The News, August 7, 2008 (retr. 7–8 Aug.) Harry Greaves, Tom Kamara, Others Linked
  7. Victoria Tolbert, Lifted Up Macalester Park Publishing Company |(retrieved 2010-10-12)
  8. "Congrats Mr. President!" Monrovia Tribune, 1989-05: 1/12.
  9. Europa World Year Book 1985
  10. Moran, Mary H. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy. 1st paperback ed. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, 120.
  11. Gifford, Paul. Christianity and Politics in Doe's Liberia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 22.
  12. Vick, Karl. "Liberian Strife Is Traced To Turbulent Past: Some Blame Turmoil On Its American Roots", Washington Post, Foreign Service, August 10, 2003.
  13. "Meeting the hard man of Liberia," BBC
  14. Akam, Simon (September 28, 2011). "The Comeback". New Republic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Ellis, Stephen (2007) [1999]. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of African Civil War. London, UK: Hurst & Company. pp. 1–16. ISBN 1850654174.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Doe Joins Providence Baptist Church Here". SunTimes, 1985-12-02: 1/7.
Political offices
Preceded by
William R. Tolbert, Jr.
Head of People's Redemption Council
President of Liberia

Succeeded by
Amos Sawyer
Preceded by
President of the Interim National Assembly of Liberia
Succeeded by