The Promise of April 12: A Preface to Liberia’s Complicated Biography

April 12, 1980 is often described as the beginning of Liberia’s end. I think of it as the preface to Liberia’s long, complicated biography, the beginning of our awakening. It was a day when our pomp and circumstance left a deafening echo; when we were all exposed, laid bear by the realization that being the first African republic meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.

It was a day when the bubbles in our carefully watched ground-pea soup spilled over; when the chunky pieces of that brew refused to blend in. It was when we imploded and exploded at the same time.

It was a day of ‘enough is enough.’ We all have one of those days, when we decide to throw caution to the wind, when we decide to step out on faith, even if the consequences might be dire.

April 12 held such promise for Liberia. It was a day when marginalized Liberians finally realized that the system could work for them, that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time.’ It was a day when we all realized that oppression is man-made, and that another Liberia is possible.

Unlike most people, I don’t think the 28-year-old revolutionary zeal of Samuel Kanyon Doe was misplaced or misguided by ‘invisible [CIA] hands,’ necessarily. Doe was probably very committed to change, to dismantling a system that was rotten to the core.

One day, his story will be written, and we will discover that the young man who boldly entered the Executive Mansion in 1980 was very different from the head of state who sat half-naked on a concrete floor in 1990, begging for forgiveness while his executioners emasculated and tortured him. On April 12, he was a hero to many.

I was born on April 12 in a time of relative peace two years after the 1980 coup, so I’ve had 30 long years to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle, to question why some of us mourned while others celebrated. My relationship with April 12 has always been ‘complicated.’ Today it is a day of meditation and contemplation.

Those born in April are known for their bravery, fierceness and commitment to equity and fair play. They often pay a price for that courage with social isolation. People born in April say the things that everyone else is afraid to, and do the things that people dare not.

We naively believe that the underdog can and should prevail. That’s how I view Doe’s actions on April 12, as the underdog attempting to rage against a machine that he probably wasn’t completely prepared to change.

Whenever I think about what April 12 signifies for me on a micro level and Liberia on a macro level, I can’t help wondering what could have been. I wonder what the young master sergeant was really thinking when he entered the Executive Mansion. I wonder what would have happened if power had not gotten to his head, what would have happed if his own paranoia had not gotten the best of him. I often wonder why and where it all went wrong, when the dream of April 12 slowly spiraled into a nightmare.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that ‘power concedes nothing without a struggle.’ Let’s remember that the struggles defined by April 12 have not disappeared, nor have they been resolved. Indeed, the stakes are higher now than they ever have been for Liberia.

They lie in Liberia’s contemporary struggles to protect the rights of gays and lesbians because a nation that can accept all of its citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, is a nation willing to embrace true transformation. They rest in the struggles to marry the ‘traditional’ with the ‘modern,’ validating Sande principles while upholding the rights of women and girls.

They lie in the struggles to not replace the 19th century Indigenous vs. Settler divide with the 21st century Homeland vs. Diaspora/Returnee divide. Because we all know that those of us who have returned from abroad are not making any real sacrifices–financial or otherwise.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.
The truth of the matter is Liberians who remained in the country during the war sacrificed their livelihoods, and often their lives, to keep things afloat when we had the luxury of escaping for safety.

They rest in the struggles for equitable land re-distribution, learning from the failed mistakes of Zimbabwe, where land was owned by less than 10 percent of the population.

They lie in the struggles to attract foreign direct investment while protecting rural dwellers from environmental degradation, economic exploitation and land grabbing.

They rest in the struggles to clean Monrovia and other urban centers while respecting the dignity of the displaced.

They lie in the struggle to ensure that all Liberians are paid a living wage, regardless of their positions in any hierarchy–from our drivers, cleaning staff, and security guards to our young parking attendants.

They rest in the struggles to promote reconciliation while ensuring that justice prevails, because no matter how much we’d like to sweep the TRC recommendations under the table for political and ideological reasons, we must deal with the past head-on.

For starters, it is unacceptable that Volumes 4&5 of the TRC report–testimonies in which Liberians for the first time had an opportunity to speak their truths, to purge themselves of the specter of what they did or suffered during the war–have yet to be published. A nation that is able to move beyond its past without sentimentality, anger, or vengeance, is a nation that is forward-looking.

Let’s memorialize April 12 as a day of remembrance and April as a month of meditation, so that we don’t forget what could happen when the vast majority of Liberians feel that they are second-class citizens, or no citizens at all. Let’s make the promise of April 12 a promise of 2012 and beyond.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at robtel@newnarratives.org