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The Doe Regime: 1980-1989

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The Doe Presidency began with great hope and support from most Liberians for its unseating of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy, despite its origins in a military coup. However, the government quickly turned into an oppressive military regime that destroyed the fragile economy.[1] Doe also created and exploited divisions that sowed the seeds for the later conflicts and the numerous ethnicity-based militias. He explicitly favored his own Krahn tribe from Grand Gedeh County, as well as the Mandingo, who are seen by many Liberians as foreigners despite their long residence in Liberia. He resisted almost all other ethnic groups, but particularly the Gio and Mano from Nimba County, eventually leading to violent clashes between the military and ethnic groups in this region.

The historic failure of governance continued under Doe. In 1985 the country held the first national elections open to candidates from all ethnic groups and formally ended the one-party state. However, Doe is widely believed to have rigged the election and stolen the presidency from a native of Nimba, Jackson F. Doe.[2] The United States, for its part, endorsed the result giving Samuel Doe some kind of legitimacy and signaling to opposing parties that Doe could no longer be removed through peaceful means. The U.S. also propped up the failing economy by delivering the largest per capita amount of development and military aid in Sub-Saharan Africa.[3]

Toward the end of his reign, an isolated Doe had surrounded himself with fellow Krahn (as well as American and Israeli military advisors).  An increasing number of Americo-Liberians were asked to run the country’s economy, fueling resentment by many Liberians outside Monrovia. When armed rebellion broke out in 1989, led by Charles Taylor, Doe responded with brutal repression against civilians in the Gio and Mano tribes. On September 9, 1990, rebel leader Prince Johnson and his men tortured and killed President Doe and videotaped the entire event.[4] However, Doe’s end was only the beginning of the first phase of the Civil War.[5]

[1] Sawyer, Amos (1992). The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge. San Francisco: ICS, p. 296.

[2] Ellis, 2007, pp. 55-60.

[3] Ellis, 2007, p. 63.

[4] Ellis, 2007, pp. 9-11.

[5] The Liberian Civil War is frequently described as two separate wars. Here, we use the terms “wars” and “war” alternatively.