Once touted as Africa's oldest democratic republic, Liberia has shifted into a troubled phase of its current "revolution". Civilian officials are divided between those favoring a quick return to elections and those cynically serving the untutored interests of the young soldiers who seized power two weeks ago.
The suspension of the continent's oldest constitution and the formal imposition of martial law point to a dramatic change in course from that originally set by a cadre of civillians that were trying to direct the new government.
Working through civillian Justice Minister Chea Cheapoo, the 17 military men who overthrew the discredited True Whig Party government of William R. Tolbert appear to be consolidating their grip on power.
The mounting signs of a new authoritarian rule were seen in measures taken yesterday, including the suspension of habeas corpus, the announcement that 126 ex-officials are still to be tried despite the execution of 13 persons on Tuesday, and the inclusion of some 20 foreign managers of state-run corporations in the military tribunal proceedings.
These measures represent a major setback for the political liberalization that has been under way not only in Liberia but in several other west African countries in recent years.
Liberia's now-deposed oligarchy, under strong U.S. pressure, recently had made some halting steps toward democratizing its political structure, but the hesitancy of the changes brought increasing demands for greater reform. Hard-line conservative Liberians tried to slow, and then reverse, the process. Then came the coup.
Since April 12, at least six of the 11 civilians included in the military government's 16-member Cabinet have tried to assert control over the ruling People's Redemption Council and brake its desire to exact bloody retribution from Liberia's former ruling minority of Americo-Liberians -- descendants of the freed American slaves who founded the country 133 years ago.
But the execution Tuesday of 13 top members of that class was interpreted here as a major defeat for the civilian's efforts.
Before the executions, one of the Cabinet ministers maintained that the soldiers on the council "are willing to hear us and we are trying to influence them more and more." He added that it was "because they have so little education that we are able to influence them at all."
If higher-ranking officers had conducted the coup rather than the two privates, eight corporals and seven sergeants who did, he speculated, "people who are majors and generals would not have listened to us."
Yet there are now strong indications that the Redemption Council, chaired by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, 28, is beginning to concentrate more and more power in itself. This comes despite Doe's public promise that he eventually will turn power back to the civilians when the situation has returned to "normal."
When he announced the suspension of the constitution, Justice Minister Cheapoo also announced that the Redemption Council would be Liberia's executive and legislative body.
Simultaneously with Cheapoo's announcement, the Council promoted its own members from noncommissioned status to ranks ranging from lieutenant to general. Former Sergeant Thomas "Strongman' Quiwonka, one of the council's most flamboyant members, has been made commanding general of the 5,000 troop Army.
"We can only hope that society will return to normal and return to civilian rule," said University of Liberia Dean Amos Sawyer. Given the decades of suppression of the country's majority 1.6 million African population by the Americo-Liberians, Sawyer said, "the degree of upheaval now should not really surprise anyone."
From 1877 until Sgt. Doe's coup, the True Whig Party ran Liberia virtually unchallenged for the benefit of the land-owning Americo-Liberians and the few indigenous Liberians they absorbed into the class.
The settlers borrowed a lot from pre-Cival War America. The name True Whig taken from the precursor of today's U.S. Republican Party. In 1980, many of their attitudes remained rooted in the 19th century. Public dissent was considered treason and the law stipulated that only property owners could vote, effectively disenfranchising the majority indigenous population.
Under Tolbert's belated reform measures, the now suspended Senate and House were considering legislation to remove the property requirement a week before the coup. The House had voted to be rescind the law but the Senate balked.
Speaker of the House Richard Henries had announced that the House would reconsider "its vote on April 15 and probably drop the matter," said Sawyer, who is a professor of political science. Henries was one of those executed on Tuesday.
Justice Minister Cheapoo's Draconian martial law announcements, coming on top of the brutal spectacle of mass executions, have soured the U.S. diplomats' attitude toward the new regime and made them nervous about where it is heading.
Civilian members of the government, almost all of whom received university educations in the United States, have assured American diplomats that they want to continue close ties, but the diplomats are increasingly skeptical about the degree of control these civilians have over the new military leaders.
These same diplomats were optimistically telling reporters last week that the civilian Cabinet ministers were exercising a large degree of influence with the new government.
Gabriel Baccus Matthews, Liberia's foreign minister, said he hopes Liberian-American relations will improve once the U.S. government understands the underlying causes of "Liberia's revolution."
"Given time," said Matthews, who graduated from City University of New York, "they will reconsider the full range of conditions that have existed in this country."
America's value system, Matthews continued, "is influenced by conditions that exist in America that power never becomes absolute." These American institutions, Matthews added, were not transferred to Liberia despite use of the U.S. model.
Matthews said he hoped the executions would not continue. "I have a conception of the value of human life that was not in accord with the proceeding" on Tuesday, he added.
"All of what Matthews says is true," said an American diplomat today, "but I don't like the looks of where this government is heading. It's getting awfully shaky here!"
A relatively poor country, Liberia saw just 4 percent of the population amass most of the wealth. The extended Tolbert family controlled politics and ran commercial monopolies while the average monthly income was $70.
The settlers often bristled at the term Americo-Liberian, arguing that there were "only Liberians." But an outside observer could easily discern between the people of the two groups, even those of nearly equal financial status, by the callousness with which one would treat the other or the tension in what would otherwise be a casual conversation.
Last year there were riots in Monrovia which would have benefited the already wealthy Tolbert. "This society did not heed the warning," said Sawyer. "There were promises of reform, reconciliation and rehabilitation, none of which were kept," he said.
"As Doe has said," Sawyer continued, "There was a rain storm several weeks before the coup and his family could not find a dry place to sleep in the house." Doe, his wife and two children still sleep and eat in that same leaky house on the compound of the Army's Barclay Training Center amid the slums of Monrovia's west side.
Doe, however, now travels around Monrovia with bodyguards and siren-blaring motorcycle outriders in the late Tolbert's customized Mercedes limousine. His wife, Nancy, 26, rode around Monrovia this afternoon with police and Army escort in a chauffeur-driven, powder-blue Lincoln Continental with white top.
A Lebanese merchant, who flew into Monrovia from neighboring Ivory Coast to check on his holdings here, took a cynical view of the populist rhetoric that followed the coup. He bragged that he had lived through similar coups in west Africa and each time he had stayed in business by bribing the new leadership. He did not expect Liberia's new leaders to be any different.
"We do have with us some of the indiscipline and reaction of the new order," said the American-educated economist Togba-Nah Tipoteh, the new civilian minister of planning and economic affairs. Tipoteh said he believed "the revolution" would eventually have a positive impact on Liberian society.
He added that two junior ministers in the public works agency already had been "relieved" from their posts because of possible conflict of interest and he pointed out that 75 percent of the hundreds of persons arrested since the coup were in the process of being released.
Asked where Sgt. Doe had gotten at least $17,000 in cash that he has distributed on the street and at public gatherings, paralleling an old practice of Liberian presidents, Tipoteh said the money had come from "floating funds" that had been found in the executive mansion. "That situation will be minimized," he added.
Tipoteh did not mince words, however, on Liberia's poor economic state, dispelling many rejoicing Liberians' euphoric belief that their economic status would be changed overnight by the coup.
Only $5 million in cash was on hand in the national treasury the day of the coup, Tiopteh said in a speech. "The Tolbert government had overspent $25 million with the National Bank of Liberia," he said, and this country's foreign debt amounts to $700 million. Liberia's annual budget is about $200 million.
"We must try hard not to expect too much too soon," Tipoteh continued. "Our country was in too bad a condition." Liberia will continue to use the American dollar as its currency, Tipoteh added, and welcome American and other foreign investors.