The Beach and the Pole – The Execution of C. Cecil Dennis, Jr.
by John Weghorst
There is quite a bit of false information out on web sites, other blogs and discussion boards regarding the coup and the executions. Over the years, these inaccuracies have bothered me to the point of writing my own article or essay about the events of April, 1980 in Liberia. The information below is true and pieced together from trustworthy sources and interviews. My sources are firm, taken from former ministers and other eyewitness testimony which includes newspaper interviews, firsthand accounts of journalists and diplomats and also from depositions taken from witnesses at a few Truth and Reconciliation Council hearings.
I am not from Liberia, but I have always been fascinated with the country and hope to visit someday soon.
Thank you for reading.
God bless Liberia.
The Executions of April 22, 1980 in Monrovia, Liberia
Who is Charles Cecil Dennis, Jr.?
Born 1931, Montserrado County, Liberia
Died April 22, 1980, Barclay Beach, Monrovia, Liberia
Mr. Charles “Cecil” Dennis was a well known and well respected Liberian political figure who was American educated and who served as Secretary of State/Minister of Foreign Affairs under President William Tolbert from 1973 until the coup d’état by Samuel Doe on April 12, 1980. Along with other members of Tolbert’s Cabinet, he was promptly put on trial and executed later by firing squad ten days after the coup. He was preceded as Foreign Minister by Rocheforte Lafayette Weeks and eventually replaced by Gabriel Bacchus Matthews.
How Did This Happen? What Were The Chain of Events?
In 1980, Samuel Doe was in charge of a beachfront security patrol near the Executive Mansion. Doe and his army friends grew up in meager conditions, mostly living in huts, with nothing much to eat and attending school when they could. In the army, life was not much better, just more wooden shacks with corrugated zinc rooftops. There was no electricity, no plumbing and no running water.
One day, after having a few beers, Doe and his soldiers playfully talked about overthrowing the government. It started out as a joke, but they eventually decided that it would be quite easy. Despite what people say about conspiracies, the idea and cause of the coup was just that spontaneous and simple. That is why it shocked so many people, including the American government. Nobody even knew who Doe was in Liberia. He was not well known at all.
After the coup and contrary to popular belief, Cecil Dennis never attempted to take refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. Dennis had just arrived back in Liberia a few days before from an overseas trip. He, along with his brother and their families, were hiding at a friend’s house trying to decide what to do. Dennis later made a few phone calls to various embassies including the U.S. asking about the situation but later decided to turn himself in to Doe’s People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Later that afternoon, Max Dennis, a cousin drove him to the Barclay Training Center army barracks as instructed by the radio broadcasts. Although Dennis was received in orderly fashion, once there, he was arrested and locked up to await charges of corruption and a slew of other crimes placed on him by the newly formed military junta. U.S. officials stated that a few of the other “wanted” Liberian officials like Justice Minister, Joseph Chesson, did contact them asking about the situation, but none requested help or asylum. This would turn out to be an enormous mistake. As far as the U.S. was concerned, this coup was coincidental in that it was an election year. In addition, Jimmy Carter and his administration were planning the rescue attempt for the American hostages in Iran, which failed on April 25, 1980, three days after the executions. The Americans were not going to intervene here in Liberia, at least not on a military level. The Americans did plead for leniency and due process, something which Doe ignored.
It is said that A.B. Tolbert, who was William Tolbert’s son, was allowed refuge at the French Embassy, but Doe’s men ignored diplomatic immunity and demanded his transfer to PRC headquarters. Tourists, foreign visitors and other citizens all suffered too, as soldiers all around Liberia raped, robbed and pillaged for several days following the coup. This was class AND ethnic warfare at its finest, but there was also a bit of drunkenness and chaos thrown in for good measure. After over 130 years, this was simply a case of the “haves versus the have nots”. People with no economic background stealing from others is basically all it was and this coup would be the beginning of the end for Liberia. She would not recover for nearly 30 years.
Burleigh Holder, Minister of Defense, who survived the ordeal described their treatment just after the coup while in custody and awaiting trial or execution:
“Within a few days of my imprisonment, sixteen of us, prisoners, were called out to dig holes in the grounds of the prison. I was told to dig a hole ten by ten feet…we were handed a shovel each… rifles began firing all around me so close to my body that sand was thrown up onto [me]…By this time a crowd of at least four to five thousand people had gathered in the open field
around, all derisively gazing at the spectacle…I was ordered to strip buck naked while digging…a soldier advanced to the partial dugout and emptied a potty of human feces into it, and he ordered me to eat it…Each mouthful was mixed with sand, and I was forced to swallow it.”
While detained and crowded together in their cells, the doomed ministers and officials seemed resigned to their fate. They had been mistreated and starved for ten days. In the few videos that exist during their confinement, they all look like soulless and ghostly images, forever regretting why they did not attempt to make a run for it. Worse than that, they had no news of what was happening to their families, their wives and their children. One could only ask God to die in this type of situation, this type of Hell on Earth. Recent Truth and Reconciliation Hearings have produced a witness from the prison who had run errands for the men, such as picking up money for bribes for guards for better food and treatment, to delivering and retrieving notes to and from their families. This witness claims that one “note” from Frank Tolbert was so long as to take up an entire roll of toilet paper. The witness had to flush it down the toilet though, due to fear of being caught by another guard who may have seen the exchange.
Frank Senkpenni (Sembeni? I have seen it spelled both ways), was an army colonel and the judge who presided over the kangaroo court trials. He is seen in the famous video telling the defendants to “keep it short” with their answers. Most defendants tried to briefly discuss their contributions to the Liberian people, as a clerk typed away on a typewriter taking their testimony and minutes. The court also asked each man how many houses, lots and businesses they owned. Again, the “haves versus the have nots” in full effect, the indigenous Liberians versus the Americo-Liberian. It was pure class struggle at its finest.
There is a strange photo showing Frank Tolbert, older brother of William Tolbert, laughing and enjoying a Fanta soda pop with soldiers either before or after the courtroom proceedings. Frank must have been liked for his personality. Who knows what was going on there, but he would be dead within days.
Ten days later after the coup, and following a puppet show trial headed by a military panel of the PRC, Cecil Dennis 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 and the video is on youtube if you dare to watch it.
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, his 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 an Uzi and pistol at point blank range, hitting him in the face, body and head, until he was deceased. Each man was later hit with 50 or 60 extra bullets by the drunken soldiers.
Oddly enough, after the execution, Doe called for Cecil Dennis to be brought to the Executive Mansion because Doe had questions about certain foreign affairs. Cecil Dennis was already dead. Executed. In the days prior, Doe was shown the execution list but never fully read the list of those to be executed. Either Doe was only semi-literate or obviously did not bother to read everything put in front of him. The court recommended death for only three men: Chief Justice, James A.A. Pierre; Speaker of the House, Richard Henries; and Frank Tolbert, President of the rubber stamp Liberian Senate. However, there was space on the page showing the remaining men below as getting prison terms or other sentences. Regardless of whether he read the list or not, Doe may have simply said to kill them all to avoid them starting a counter-coup. It could also have been a misunderstanding, especially since not enough poles were installed on the beach to begin with and more poles had to be brought in later, further delaying the executions that day. This makes the entire story even that more bizarre. Thus, that is west Africa for you…and as always, simply bizarre.
Four men had to wait on the bus, while the first nine were being shot. P. Clarence Parker Jr., one of the four prisoners on the bus, smiled and waved weakly to a reporter who had interviewed him in February. Parker had been one of the harshest critics of the corruption that riddled the Tolbert government, but he had also been treasurer of the ruling True Whig Party and a millionaire paint manufacturer.
Parker, with the three others, walked quickly to a pole, faced the firing squad and smiled slightly before a single shot cut him down. As the cheering civilians surged forward, the spectator soldiers sprayed all 13 bodies with automatic rifle fire, replacing their ammunition clips as they emptied one after another.
A few of the other men executed that day included former Justice Minister Joseph Chesson; former True Whig Party Chairman E. Reginald Townsend; former Chief Justice James A. A. Pierre and former Budget Director Frank J. Stewart. All died very stoically and seemed resigned to their fate. There were several elderly men being killed that day, and one of them was Frank Tolbert. Frank was President William Tolbert’s older brother. Mr. Tolbert was the smallest in stature and as his shaky legs gave out, he slouched as the shots rang out and killed him. While still tied to the pole, his small frame was nearly sitting on the ground as he lay dying with drool running out of his mouth. A foreign journalist stated that Richard Henries and Frank Tolbert had already died of a heart attack or had both passed out somehow before being shot.
The deaths of these men came following a coup that ended a belated effort to reform an archaic system of government that had for too long held on to century-old concepts that only the propertied should rule and have access to power. That system was swept away as Liberia was thrust violently into 20th century Africa. Attempts at reform came too late and at an extremely high price.
Quite possibly the real reason all of the officials were killed was because Samuel Doe and the PRC decided that with their powerful friends, connections and resources, these men could easily stage a foreign backed counter-coup. They may have been right.
The lack of sympathy shown by the Liberian people during the executions helped fuel the brutality of the coming Civil War. Charles Taylor’s NPFL was supported by the likes of Sirleaf, Liberians in exile and people with a grudge against Doe and his cronies. In 1989, the executions were by no means forgotten. The Civil War and the tribal grudges punished the Liberian people, and not by coincidence. Karma was at work again in Liberia. Karma is very patient.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was Minister of Finance, states that she believes her survival after the coup was only because her mother gave Doe and his men a drink of water one day, either when they were kids or as soldiers. This is what Doe told her after the coup. Knowing her own mother, she feels that this was probably true. They asked for water, and her mother, an Americo-Liberian woman in a big house, gave them some water. The guys were thirsty and she was a kind person. That is the only reason she survived, it was that simple. Other ministers survived for similarly simply reasons. One of Sirleaf’s relatives was locked up for months after coup, simply because he laughed at Chea Cheapo, when he lost his seat in Congress after only serving one term. The PRC and Doe made many life or death decisions on a personal level. That was that.
I have studied world politics for a long time, and this event is one of the most bizarre and surreal things that I have ever seen on video or even read about. It seems that the world has forgotten about it, or maybe they just know how politics and coups can be in west Africa. It is a real shame. If karma is a bitch, then it is hard to have sympathy for Samuel Doe and what eventually happened to him. It is very fitting that he and his cohorts all died extremely violent deaths, as they were mostly killed by others involved in this coup, and in very gruesome ways. In many ways, Doe’s government was more corrupt and evil than Tolbert’s ever was.
To honor him, a section of the Foreign Ministry Building is named after Cecil Dennis in Monrovia, Liberia. There are a few other places and things in Liberia named after these other men. Since these murders occurred over 32 years ago, there have been several ceremonies in Liberia and in the USA honoring Dennis and the other members of Tolbert’s cabinet who were murdered that day. It is a very sad story and I feel very badly for the families and for the innocent people of Liberia. Their country has suffered so much since this happened and it really NEVER should have happened. Doe ignored pleas from America and other Western countries asking to spare the lives of these men.
Wikipedia – C. Cecil Dennis bio
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper
The Liberian Civil War by Mark Huband
Youtube video of the execution
Liberian Soldiers Taunt, Shoot 13 Former Leaders
Gerald R. Ford Memorial Library
The Advocates for Human Rights – Human Rights Abuses During the Rice Riots and Doe Era
The Victoria Advocate. April 30, 1980. “US Asylum Wasn’t Sought By Liberians”.