Observer @ 40: Liberia in the Drumbeat to War

Mamos Media

Narratives of Daily Observer Reporter John F. Lloyd

The 40th anniversary of the Liberian Observer Corporation (LOC) has come with a glaring signal of pride bringing along inspiring reflections of the past. In this celebration, we are taken back to memory lane, as we gaze upon the challenging moments which has defined the legacy of this historic Liberian news outlet.

I was among those who ventured at the frontlines of news reporting within the early years of the Daily Observer, Liberia’s first independent daily. The unwavering commitment of the Observer to the principles of fair reporting often landed us in the crosshairs of a ruling dictatorship in a pre-war era of instability and political tension.

I stood at the center stage of one of these defining moments in the spring of 1987, as the nation was still reeling from the wreckage of the November 12, 1985 aborted coup d’etat led by the late Brig. General Thomas Quiwonkpa, and his “Patriotic Forces.” Quiwonkpa, an estranged ally of the then President Samuel Doe was a former Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and Senior Member of the erstwhile Peoples Redemption Council (PRC).

As tension remained high in Monrovia, and even more heightened in Quiwonkpa’s ethnic abode of Nimba County, I represented the Daily Observer at a major press conference called by President Doe. The event was organized ostensibly as a propaganda conduit to send out a message of national reconciliation and healing in a bid to calm growing tension.

The event was attended by all at the helm of government including members of the cabinet, leaders of the national legislature, and justices of the Supreme Court, along with representatives of all major news outlets. I was part of a high-level delegation from the Daily Observer which included the late legendary News Editor T. Max Teah, and the prolific Observer Photo Editor, Sando Moore. Among our colleagues from other major media houses were J.N. Elliot of the New Liberian, Pete Kahler of LINA, Isaac D.E. Bantu of BBC, Tommy Raines, and Aaron Kollie, of LBS. Others included C. William Allen, and Sam Van Kesselly of Footprints Today, Jay Nagbe Sloh of The Mirror, among others.

Following introductory remarks by Information Minister Emmanuel Z. Bowier, President Doe took to the lectern and read a finely written statement calling for national reconciliation and healing. It came at the heels a bloody season of vengeful retribution, not limited to the coup plotters but even to those remotely connected to them by ethnic lineage. Nimba County was consequently a hotbed of intense surveillance and military presence.

I had just returned to Monrovia, from a weeklong assignment at LAMCO (Liberian American Swedish Mining Company) concession area in Yekepa, Nimba County. While in Yekepa, I received directives from Monrovia to begin investigation of reports of military suppression and harassment of citizens in the county. Through a series of interviews with private citizens in the area, I was able to ascertain that outside LAMCO, Nimbaians lived in a virtual police state where men were barred from gathering in groups under a daily curfew. By all indications, the basic freedoms of expression, and association were absent. At every interval, tension was in the air as citizens of the county remained on edge. Indeed, this was the beginning of the drumbeat to war which would come two years later.

In his remarks, President Doe claimed to extend an olive branch to his detractors in a call for national unity and reconciliation. His remarks were greeted by a warm applause from his officials, after which Presidential Press Secretary Patrick Kugmeh gave the signal for questions from the media.

Among a sea of veteran reporters seeking to land a question, I was granted the first opportunity by the President who insisted, “let the little man speak.” As the youngest member of the Liberian press corps, my presence at most media events was usually conspicuous. Adhering to strategic guidance, I often managed to transform what many perceived to be a challenge into a rather glaring advantage. It was during this exchange which was broadcast on live radio and television that I briefed the president of the existing issues in Nimba. I challenged him to explain the irony of his lofty proclamation of reconciliation in the midst of ongoing retaliatory suppression in eastern Liberia.

Unprepared to address the issue, the president denied knowledge of the crisis and deferred the matter to the Minister of Defense, Gen. Gray D. Allison who summoned me to his office immediately after the event. It was evident that my exchange with the President posed an apparent embarrassment to the government and those within the security circle. A week later, while covering a diplomatic reception hosted by the U.S. Embassy at the Ducor Palace Hotel, I was confronted by an official from the Executive Mansion who warned me be to “be careful” as he revealed to me that my name had been placed on the government’s notorious security blacklist. 

These moments reveal the unwavering commitment of the Daily Observer – surviving constant arrests, harassment, vandalism, and arson in a determined bid to enlighten the public as events unfolded in the most transformative years of modern Liberian history. The ugly scourge of war could have been averted if the existing leadership had taken heed to the warning signs offered through our investigative reporting.  History books will justly record the consequential effects of the Observer headlines in this era, as it shaped the future of a nation standing at the precipice.

At this historic juncture, the Daily Observer editorial team was led by the Veteran Editor-In-Chief Stanton Peabody; Deputy Editor-in-Chief Dr. K. Moses Nagbe; News Editor T. Max Teah, Senior Editors Melvin Mlanju Reeves, S. Varney Passawee, and Photo Editor Sando Moore. They led a talented team of journalists including Court Reporter Abdullah Dukuly, Maureen Sieh, Joe Mulbah, Phillip N. Wesseh, John F. Lloyd, James Seitua, Gabriel I.H. Williams, Sports Reporter Klon Hinneh, photojournalist Gregory Stemn, among others. Shaped by a culture of professionalism undergirded by an abiding commitment to the principles of journalism, the Liberian Observer Corporation has stood shoulders above its peers in the Liberian “fourth estate.” We owe this great endeavor of accomplishment to the innovation of LOC’S  founder and publisher Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, one of Africa’s finest, who along with his wife, Mae Gene Best, brought the wealth of his training from the Ivy League of America to a struggling nation at a consequential moment. In this enterprise, many including myself, were afforded the opportunity to be nurtured by great icons like the famous Stanton Peabody in the company of a pioneering figure like the legendary Albert Porte.

Source Daily Observer.

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