Samuel Doe

Samuel Kanyon Doe (May 6, 1951[2] – September 9, 1990) was a Liberian politician who served as the Liberian leader from 1980 to 1990, first as a military leader and later as a civilian.[2] While a master sergeant in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Doe staged a violent coup d'etat in April 1980 that left him de facto head of state.[2] During the coup, then president William Tolbert, and much of the True Whig Party leadership were executed.[2] Doe then established the People's Redemption Council, assuming the rank of general.[2]

Samuel Doe
Dictator Samuel Doe.png
Doe serving as the twenty-first president of the Republic of Liberia
Chairman of the People's Redemption Council
In office
12 April 1980 – 6 January 1986
Preceded byWilliam Tolbert as President
Succeeded byHimself as President
21st President of Liberia
In office
6 January 1986 – 9 September 1990
Vice PresidentHarry Moniba
Preceded byHimself as Chairman of People's Redemption Council
Succeeded byAmos Sawyer (interim)
Personal details
Born(1951-05-06)May 6, 1951
Tuzon, Liberia
DiedSeptember 9, 1990(1990-09-09) (aged 39)
Monrovia, Liberia
Cause of deathMurder by Torture
Resting placeBody lost or destroyed
Political partyNational Democratic
Nancy Bohn Doe
m. 1969)
Alma materSeoul National University
Liberian National University
OccupationPolitician, Dictator
Military service
Allegiance Liberia
Branch/serviceArmed Forces of Liberia
Years of service1969-1985
RankMayor Sergeant
Battles/warsFirst Liberian Civil War

Doe suspended the constitution and headed the country's military junta for the next five years.[2] 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.[2] Doe had 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 the changes in 1989 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The first native head of state in the country's history, Doe was a member of the Krahn ethnic group, a largely rural people. Before the 1980 coup, natives had often held a marginal role in society, which was dominated by the descendants of the Americo-Liberian Pioneers; composed primarily of free-born American blacks and freed slaves, the Pioneers were the immigrants who had established Liberia in the 1820s and led the country beginning with independence in 1847.

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 and began cutting off critical foreign aid. This, combined with the popular anger generated by Doe's favoritism toward Krahns, placed him in a very precarious position.

A civil war began in December 1989, when rebels entered Liberia through Ivory Coast, capturing and overthrowing Doe on 9 September 1990. He was tortured during interrogation and murdered by his conqueror, Prince Johnson, and one time ally of Charles Taylor, in an internationally televised display.

Early lifeEdit

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.[3] 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.[4]

1980 coup, new governmentEdit

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.[5] 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."[6] 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.

Theories on the genesis of the coupEdit

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 a 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".[7] 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".[8]

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 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.[9]


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.[4] 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.[10]

Relations with the United StatesEdit

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 electionsEdit

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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 repressionEdit

General 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 also announced in a radio and television broadcast that anyone found on the streets after a 6 p.m. curfew would be considered a rebel and executed immediately.[14][15]

Doe's corrupt and totalitarian 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, 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 Taylor's NPFL. General Quinoo, the head of ECOMOG, had invited Doe to the ECOMOG headquarters for a meeting and assured him of his safety from the rebels. On the morning of September 9, 1990, Doe arrived at a precarious time during an ongoing change in guard duty from the well-armed and better equipped Nigerian team of peacekeepers to the weaker Gambian contingent. The Nigerian team had just withdrawn from the scene when Doe's convoy of lightly armed personnel arrived, none of whom were anticipating any trouble. Doe was escorted to General Quinoo's office where he was formally welcomed, while most of his team of aides and guards waited outside. Johnson's rebels surprised everyone by suddenly arriving on the scene uninvited and heavily armed, overwhelming and disarming the entirety of Doe's team while encountering no resistance. They then started shooting Doe's team individually and later in groups. Upon hearing the gunshots from outside, Doe expressed concern to Quinoo, who assured him that all was fine. Quinoo later excused himself to check on what was happening outside and was followed by his aide, Captain Coker of the Gambian contingent. Both men took cover upon assessing the situation. Johnson's men moved indoors, finished off Doe's remaining team, shot him in the leg, and took him captive. When the dust settled, over 80 of Doe's men lay dead. Coker characterized the incident not as a fight, but a brutal massacre. Remarkably, none of the ECOMOG personnel were shot in the carnage.[citation needed]

Doe was taken to Johnson's military base. To prove that he was not protected by black magic,[16] Johnson ordered that his ears be cut off in Johnson's presence,[17] and he chewed one of them, then some of Doe's fingers and toes were also cut off. After 12 hours of torture at Johnson’s hands,[18] Doe was finally murdered; his corpse was exhibited naked in the streets of Monrovia where they spilled dirty water on his head.[19] Doe's body was later exhumed and reburied. The spectacle of his torture was video-taped[20] and seen on news reports around the world. The video shows Johnson sipping a beer as Doe's ear is cut off.[21][22][23][24]

Personal lifeEdit

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.[25]


  1. ^ Dunn, Elwood D.; Beyan, Amos J.; Burrowes, Carl Patrick (2000-12-20). Historical Dictionary of Liberia. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9781461659310.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Samuel K. Doe | president of Liberia". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  3. ^ "Hail to the Chief: Happy Birthday!" Express Special 1982-05-06: 1.
  4. ^ a b "Happy Birthday!! Dr. Doe is 34 TODAY" Sunday Express, 1984-05-06: 1/6-7.
  5. ^ White, Robin (April 26, 2012). "My Verbal Sparring with Charles Taylor". BBC News. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  6. ^ "LIBERIA: After the Takeover, Revenge". TIME Magazine. 1980-04-18.
  7. ^ The News (a Liberian newspaper), August 6, 2008 (retrieved 6–8 Aug.) CIA Agents Executed 1980 Coup Archived 2008-10-10 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ The News, August 7, 2008 (retr. 7–8 Aug.) Harry Greaves, Tom Kamara, Others Linked Archived 2008-10-10 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Victoria Tolbert, Lifted Up Macalester Park Publishing Company |(retrieved 2010-10-12)
  10. ^ "Congrats Mr. President!" Monrovia Tribune, 1989-05: 1/12.
  11. ^ Europa World Year Book 1985
  12. ^ Moran, Mary H. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy. 1st paperback ed. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, 120.
  13. ^ Gifford, Paul. Christianity and Politics in Doe's Liberia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 22.
  15. ^ Liberian Troops Kill Leader of Attempted Coup
  16. ^ Vick, Karl. "Liberian Strife Is Traced To Turbulent Past: Some Blame Turmoil On Its American Roots", Washington Post, Foreign Service, August 10, 2003.
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Meeting the hard man of Liberia," BBC
  22. ^ Akam, Simon (September 28, 2011). "The Comeback". New Republic.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Exhibition of Samuel Doe’s Body During the Civil War in Liberia
  25. ^ "Doe Joins Providence Baptist Church Here". SunTimes, 1985-12-02: 1/7.
Political offices
Preceded by
William Tolbert
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