Samuel Kanyon Doe (1951-1990) was the head of state of Liberia from 1980 to 1990. His seizure of power ended 110 years of rule by the True Whig Party and changed Liberian politics and society in fundamental ways.
Samuel Kanyon Doe was born on May 6, 1951, in Turzon, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. He belonged to the Krahn tribe, which is one of the 16 major tribal groups in Liberia. He attended primary school in Turzon and was later a student at the R. B. Richardson Baptist Junior High School in Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh County. He dropped out of high school in 1967 for "economic reasons."
Doe joined the Liberian Armed Forces two years after leaving school. He had his initial military training at the John H. Tubman Military Camp in Todee, Montserrado County, and at Camp Schiefflen in the same county. In 1970 he was assigned to the Third Battalion of the Liberian Armed Forces at Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. Doe continued his high school education at Barracks Union School and at Marcus Garvey Memorial High School. He also studied at the Radio and Communications School of the Ministry of Defense, and in 1971 was awarded its advanced diploma with honors.
Doe moved swiftly through the ranks of the military. He was appointed acting first-sergeant in command of 150 men in 1973 and two years later was promoted to corporal and shortly after to first-sergeant. While in the Liberian National Guard he gained a reputation as an agile combat fighter and an able sharpshooter. As a result, he was selected in 1979 for training by the United States Special Forces in Monrovia. On the successful completion of this training he was appointed adjutant in charge of administration in the Third Battalion at Barclay Training Center. Later in 1979 he was promoted to the rank of master sergeant.
During this period Doe was primarily concerned about his professional career in the military and was uninterested in politics. He also dismissed suggestions that his career in the armed forces would be hindered by the fact that the highest positions traditionally went to Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who founded the republic in 1847.
The True Whig Party had been in power since 1870, and for most of this period Liberian society was dominated by Americo-Liberians who had a privileged political, economic, and social status. Like his predecessor President Tubman (1943-1971), President Tolbert, who took office in 1971, tried to bridge the gap between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous tribal peoples who constitute the majority of the population. He stressed the importance of efficiency and initiated programs to help the poor. But the Tolbert regime was also notorious for corruption and nepotism, which led to frustration and anger within the country.
By 1979 two opposition parties had formed: the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), both of which had left-wing orientations. In 1979 the PAL organized a large demonstration against the government's decision to increase the price of rice by 50 percent. The demonstration led to widespread riots, and several PAL leaders were arrested. In an effort to diffuse the growing tension in the country, the government permitted the PAL to register as an official opposition party under the name of the Progressive People's Party (PPP) in January, 1980. However, when the PPP issued a call for a general strike two months later it was banned and its leaders were arrested.
Doe as Head of State
Early in the morning of April 12, 1980, a small group of soldiers from the First Brigade of the National Guard, led by Doe, staged a coup d'état. They stormed the executive mansion and killed President Tolbert. The coup gained immediate popular acceptance, and Doe adopted the revolutionary slogan: "In the Cause of the People, the struggle continues." A People's Redemption Council (PRC) consisting of 17 enlisted men headed by Doe was established. A cabinet of 19 members was also set up, which was made up of soldiers and civilians who were mostly from the PPP and MOJA, although there were a few from the True Whig Party as well. Shortly after the coup, the PRC imposed a price freeze on all commodities including imported foods, doubled the salaries of civil servants and military personnel, and ordered the public execution on a beach in Monrovia of 13 prominent officials of the Tolbert regime.
The early years of the Doe regime seemed promising. In 1981 he became Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces with the rank of general. The following year he received an honorary Ph.D. from the National University of Seoul. Doe promised the people that he would return Liberia to civilian rule and initiated reforms along those lines. A constitution drawn up by a constitutional commission was endorsed by the Liberian people in a referendum held in 1984. It provided for the dissolution of the PRC and the creation of an interim national assembly. In 1984 Doe declared his candidacy for the presidency and founded the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). He was reelected October 15, 1985, over his chief opponent Jackson F. Doe (no relation) of the Liberian Action Party.
A Troubled Regime
However, the election was surrounded by much controversy as opponents claimed it was fraudulent. Many political leaders had been imprisoned under the infamous Decree 88A which made it a crime to criticize the head of state or his government. The Special Elections Commission (SECOM) was used to frustrate the registration of political parties. For example, some parties were unable to meet the high financial requirements for registration. This political unrest culminated in a failed coup attempt in November of 1985.
Aside from political turmoil, Doe also faced severe economic challenges. Liberia experienced a sharp decline in foreign investment and an unprecedented unemployment rate of over fifty percent. Doe tried to boost the economy by introducing a seven-cornered dollar coin as the first official Liberian currency; however, this worsened the economy. By the end of the 1980's Liberia had a foreign debt of over two billion U.S. dollars and was near bankruptcy.
Doe's rule, which began in 1980 only lasted a decade. On December 24, 1989, a group of armed insurgents crossed the Ivory Coast border and threatened to take over the capital of Liberia, Monrovia. The rebels called themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and were led by Charles McArthur Taylor, a former government employee. Doe tried to contain the threat with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), but instead found himself amidst ethnic warfare which killed tens of thousands of Liberians and caused over 700,000 more to flee the country.
In July of 1990, a third rebel faction emerged. This was the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) led by Prince Yormie Johnson. On September 9, 1990, Johnson captured Doe and tortured and killed him. The end of the Doe regime only continued the ethnic warfare in Liberia.
Further Reading on Samuel Kanyon Doe
There is no scholarly biography of Doe. A collection of his speeches, The New Liberian Society (1982), has been published. Pranay B. Gupte, "The Sergeant Ruling Liberia," in New York Times (April 24, 1980), provides a good general background. Doe is listed in The International Year Book and Statesmen's Who's Who, 1984. For more information, please see Jeffrey Bartholet and Jane Whitmore, "The Last Days of a Bloody Regime," Newsweek (June 11, 1990): 33-34; Stephen Ellis, "Liberia 1989-1994: A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence," African Affairs 94 (1995): 165-197; Larry James, "A Seven-Cornered Solution?" Africa Report 31 (November-December 1986): 31-33; Reed Kramer, "Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End," Africa News Service (1995); Tunji Lardner, Jr., "An African Tragedy," African Affairs 94 (1995): 165-197; Marguerite Michaels, and J.F.O. McAllister, "To the Last Man" Time (August 20, 1990): 51-52; Bruce W. Nelan, "The Would-Be President," Time (June 18, 1990): 55.