A Liberian army soldier stands ready to execute a former cabinet minister following the 1980 coup. The minister in the photo: Cecil Dennis.

A Liberian army soldier stands ready to execute a former cabinet minister following the 1980 coup. The minister in the photo: Cecil Dennis.


On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe led a military coup, killing President William R. Tolbert, Jr., in the Executive Mansion. Twenty-six of Tolbert’s supporters were also killed in the fighting. 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.

The military coup is still surrounded by mystery. Apparently, the preparations for it went unnoticed, which is astonishing, given the fact that there was considerable political tension and also in light of the well-staffed U.S. Embassy in Monrovia (over 500 people). The events had taken them all by surprise. Samuel Doe was not a publicly known figure in Liberia before April 12, 1980. That soon changed after that date.

The military take-over was a bloody one, labeled ‘a revolution’ by the 18 enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia who toppled the Government of William R. Tolbert. The 66-year old president was savagely murdered by private soldier Harrison Pennoh, who later proved mentally unstable. Before the end of the month the entire Cabinet had been put on trial and sentenced to death – with no right to be defended by a lawyer and no right to appeal to the verdict.

A Liberian execution squad fires a volley of shots, killing cabinet ministers of Liberia.

A Liberian execution squad fires a volley of shots, killing cabinet ministers of Liberia.

Ten days later after the coup Cecil Dennis (Minister of Foreign Affairs, the person to the right on the first photo) and twelve other government officials were taken to a beach, a block south of the Barclay army barracks west of the Executive Mansion, and murdered in front of screaming crowds of jubilant indigenous Liberian citizens. It was a nightmarish scenario.

Cecil Dennis faced death very bravely, staring at his killers while awaiting his fate. When he mouthed a prayer before being shot, a soldier loudly shouted, “You lie! You don’t know God!”. After the order to fire was given, a drunken executioner may have winged him but the other bullets missed altogether, splashing into the Atlantic Ocean behind him. He was the only person still alive after the first barrage of gunfire. Two more soldiers finally approached and sprayed Cecil with a Uzi and pistol at point-blank range, hitting him in the face, body and head, until he was dead. Each man was later hit with 50 or 60 extra bullets by the drunken soldiers.

A crowd gathers to view the bodies of 13 former cabinet members.

A crowd gathers to view the bodies of 13 former cabinet members.

Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe is shown shortly after he took control of the Liberian government in 1980.

Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe is shown shortly after he took control of the Liberian government in 1980.

This coup d’état marked the end of the Americo-Liberian rule, which had lasted since independence. Liberia was a colony started by a private organization based in America, called the American Colonization Society. The A.C.S. was a group composed of evangelicals and abolitionists, who felt that, due to racism against freed slaves, newly freed slaves would have greater freedom in Africa. So they established this colony, independently of the U.S. government. In other words, white Americans were afraid of the rising number of freed slaves and considered it to be best to send them to Africa. The British had started doing the same in Sierra Leone, right next door. The freed slaves and their descendent became known as Americo-Liberians.

The Americo-Liberians of course knew little about the African culture their ancestors had before becoming enslaved. They had European-American educations and knowledge. So they ran the colony as some kind of little America in Africa. Which ironically included enslaving the indigenous people and suppressing them. Liberia was even kicked out of the League of Nations because of slavery.

There were regular insurgencies and riots occurring. When Doe took over and killed Tolbert and his supporters this marked the end of the Americo-Liberian rule. Doe was eventually tortured and killed in front of a camera when Prince Johnson and Charles Taylor launched a military campaign against him. Eventually Charles Taylor was elected and then a second civil war started to dispose of him.

Interesting fact:

  • A decade later, Doe was captured in Monrovia by faction leader Prince Y. Johnson. Doe was taken to Johnson’s military base and tortured before being killed and exposed naked in the streets of Monrovia. His ears were cut off, then some of his fingers and toes; the next day the rest of his body was cut up, cooked and eaten. The spectacle of his torture was videotaped and seen on news reports around the world.

(Photo credit: Larry C. Price).