The Shadow of the Sun
He was the president of Liberia for twenty-eight years, and belonged to what is today a rare category of political boss who rules his country like a squire his manor: they know everyone, decide everything. (Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a contemporary of Tubman's and the dictator of the Dominican Republic for thirty years, exercised power in a similar fashion. During his rule, the church organized mass baptisms of Dominican children, with Trujillo standing as godfather. With time, he became the godfather of all his subordinates. The CIA could find no volunteers to organize a coup against the dictator: no one wanted to raise a hand against his own godfather.)
Tubman received around sixty people daily. He made appointments to all official positions in the country himself, decided who should receive a concession, which missionaries were to be allowed in. He sent his own people everywhere, and his private police reported to him everything that was happening in this village, or in that one. Not much happened. The country was a small, forgotten African backwater; on Monrovia's sandy Streets, in the shade of old tumble-down houses, fat women vendors dozed behind their stalls, and dogs sick with malaria roved. Now and then, a group passed before the gates to the government palace carrying a large banner reading 'A gigantic manifestation of gratitude for the progress that has taken place in the country thanks to the Incomparable Administration of the President of Liberia—Dr. WVS Tubman.' Musical ensembles from the countryside also stopped at these gates, praising in song the greatness of the president:
Tubman is the father of us all,The guards, hidden from the sun in their sentry booths, applauded the enthusiastic singers.
the father of the whole nation.
He builds us roads,
Tubman gives us food to eat,
gives us food to eat,
What elicited the greatest respect, however, was the fact that the president was protected by benevolent spirits, which endowed him with extraordinary powers. If someone wanted to hand him a poisoned drink, the glass containing the liquid would shatter: in midair. The bullet of an assassin could not strike him—it would melt before it reached its target. The president had herbs that allowed him to win every election. And a lens through which he could see everything that was happening, anywhere—there was no sense in opposition or conspiracy, since it would always be found out.
Tubman died in 1971. He was replaced by his friend, vice president William Tolbert. Whereas Tubman was amused by power, Tolbert was fascinated by money. He was a walking embodiment of corruption. He dealt in everything—gold, cars, passports. The entire elite, those descendants of black American slaves, followed his example. People who begged in the street for bread or water were shot on Tolbert's orders. His police killed hundreds.
In the predawn hours of April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers forced their way into the president's villa and hacked Tolbert to pieces in his bed. They disemboweled him and threw his internal organs out into the courtyard for dogs and vultures to devour. There were seventeen soldiers. Their leader was a twenty-eight-year-old sergeant, Samuel Doe. He was barely literate, from the small tribe of Krahn, which lived deep in the jungle. People just like him, driven from their villages by poverty, had been flowing into Monrovia for years, in search of work and money. In the course of thirty years, between 1956 and 1986, the population of Liberia's capital increased tenfold, from 42,000 to 425,000—and this in a city without industry or a system of public transportation, in which few houses had electricity, and fewer still running water.
The trek from the jungle to Monrovia requires many days of difficult marching across roadless tropical expanses. Only young, strong people can manage it. And it is they who arrived in the city. But nothing awaited them here: neither jobs, nor a roof over their heads. From the very first day, they became bayaye—that army of the young unemployed squatting idly on all the larger streets and squares of African cities. The existence of this multitude is one of the causes of turmoil on the continent: it is from their ranks that local chieftains, for a pittance, often with only the promise of food, recruit the armies they will use in their struggles for power, organizing coups, fomenting civil wars.
Doe, like Amin in Uganda, was one such bayaye. And like Amin, he won the lottery: he got into the army. One would have thought that he had thereby attained the peak of his career. As it turned out, however, he had greater ambitions.
Doe's coup was not simply the exchange of a corrupt political boss/bureaucrat for a semi-illiterate in uniform. It was simultaneously a bloody, cruel, and caricature-like revolt of the downtrodden, half-enslaved masses from the African jungle against their hated rulers—the descendants of slaves from American plantations. In a sense, it was a revolution within the slave world: current slaves rose up against former ones, who had imposed their rule upon them. The entire episode seemed to bear out a most pessimistic and tragic thesis: that in a certain sense, if only the mental or cultural one, there is no way out of slavery; if there is, it is extremely difficult and takes a very long time.