MONROVIA, Montserrado – On April 12, 1980, just two days before the anniversary of the 1979 rice riots that shook the core of the Tolbert administration, President William R. Tolbert Jr. became the first sitting Chairman of the Organization of African Unity to be deposed by a coup d’etat since Kwame Nkrumah. Ten days later, 13 prominent officials of the ruling True Whig Party were tied to poles and executed on Barclay Beach in central Monrovia.
Although this spelled the end of the political party that dominated Liberian politics for a century, it presaged greater violence that would erupt nearly a decade later. Following a rainy Liberian night, the relatives of these prominent executed officials, such as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs gathered to remember the tumultuous occasion exactly thirty-five years later.
A Remembrance and Thanksgiving Program kicked off at Palm Grove Cemetery on Center Street in central Monrovia at the site of a mass grave, beside an open sewer, of individuals killed during the coup. Rev. William R. Tolbert III, bearing a striking resemblance to his father, launched the event with a passionate opening statement. Expressing dissatisfaction with the efforts to reconcile Liberia after roughly a quarter century of conflict, Tolbert said that those gathered “march for accountability and transparency.”
In what may have been a nod to persistent rumors that the CIA played a role in the coup, Tolbert called for the government of Liberia to investigate who killed his father. He also posed the same query in regard to his brother, A.B. Tolbert, who had sheltered in the French Embassy for two months before he was forcibly removed and later died in mysterious circumstances.
A planned march from the cemetery to a church on Broad Street was canceled, leading to a long procession of SUVs heading up Center street, with a string of petty traders gawking in its wake.
While much attention is focused on disputes such as that between those who live in Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties, the April 22 Memorial Group reminds us that the historic Liberian elite also has its unreconciled grievances. While many of these families have returned to some degree of prominence under the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was one of Tolbert’s few cabinet members to survive the coup, they shoulder quite a burden in knowing that the failure of their forefathers to more equitably share the spoils of power, despite major strides under Tolbert, played a role in leading to Liberia’s vicious civil wars.