Sawyer, Amos 1945–
Amos Sawyer 1945–
President of interim government of Liberia
Amos Sawyer has been trying to run the tiny African nation of Liberia in the midst of a bloody civil war. Sawyer heads a provisional administration that is attempting to restore peace in Liberia in the wake of a military coup and widespread violence along factional and tribal lines. He faces a daunting job, since much of the country outside of the capital city is controlled by Charles Taylor, the leader of the main rebel group. Sawyer is no stranger to politics, but his hold on Liberia is fragile at best. As Mark Huband put it in Africa Report, “Sawyer has stepped into a military minefield.”
A country smaller than the state of Virginia, Liberia lies on the west coast of Africa. Its nearest neighbors are Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Cote D’Ivoire. The region formally became an independent republic in 1847, but for more than two decades before that it had been a major settlement for freed slaves returning to Africa from the United States. This America-to-Africa migration of blacks began in the 1820s during the administration of U.S. president James Monroe. Around 1824 the African settlement was named Liberia, for the Latin liber, meaning “free,” and its capital city was called Monrovia, after President Monroe.
The Americo-Liberians, as they are known, have always been a minority in the country, but for many years they asserted a political dominance over the indigenous tribes. English is the official language of the nation, and two-thirds of the population are Christian. Especially in the early- to mid-twentieth century, the United States bolstered Liberia’s economy by importing Liberian timber, iron ore, rubber, coffee, and cacao. During the Second World War, American interests in Liberian rubber and iron ore led to aid in the construction of roads, an international airport, and a deep water harbor at Monrovia.
During the postwar period—when Sawyer was growing up in Liberia—the country was run by William V. S. Tubman, an advocate of the unification of Liberia’s people, as well as increased diplomatic activity and an open door trade policy for the country. Sawyer obtained his compulsory education throughout the 1950s, and by 1970, he had earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Liberia. In 1971 Tubman died and was succeeded by William Tolbert. Like Tubman, Tolbert was a member of the True Whig Party, the
Born June 15, 1945, in Liberia. Education: University of Liberia, B.A., 1966, M.A., 1970; Northwestern University, Ph.D. in political science, 1973.
University of Liberia, Monrovia, began as staff member, 1968, became professor of political science in the 1970s, and dean of College of Social Sciences and Humanities in the early 1980s; ran for mayor of Monrovia in 1979 (election was cancelled by William Tolbert, then ruler of Liberia); appointed by Samuel K. Doe to head Liberia’s National Constitution Drafting Commission, 1981; completed constitution, 1983; head of Liberian People’s Party, c. 1983-85; party was outlawed in 1985; self-exiled in the United States as a result of political oppression, 1986 to mid-1990; New York University, visiting professor, 1989; founder and executive director of Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL).
Returned to Liberia, mid-1990; named president of interim government, National Unity of Liberia, beginning October, 1990. Installed in office at a conference sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a sixteen-nation group attempting to keep peace in Liberia.
Addresses: c/o Liberian Embassy, 5303 Colorado N.W., Washington, DC 20011.
Americo-Liberians’ principal party. Unrest began to ferment under the Tolbert regime, and one of the most outspoken citizens was Amos Sawyer. By that time Sawyer was a popular professor at the University of Liberia, one who suggested to his students that the country needed a new constitution and a new method of electing presidents and other parliamentary officials. Sawyer himself ran for mayor of Monrovia in 1979 on an independent ticket. He and his platform of reform proved so popular that Tolbert canceled the election.
Tolbert was overthrown in a 1980 coupled by Samuel K. Doe. Doe’s ascent to power was all the more remarkable because he was a member of the Krahn, a rural Liberian tribe. Nevertheless, many Liberians welcomed Doe as a liberator from the repressive Americo-Liberian stranglehold on the government. At first Doe promised reforms.
Indeed, Sawyer was named chairman of a National Constitution Drafting Commission and charged with the task of rewriting Liberia’s constitution.
Unfortunately, Doe soon began to resort to the same tactics that had characterized Tolbert’s regime. According to Denis Johnson in Esquire, Doe “ruled in a way generally agreed to have been both stupid and cruel.” Those who dared to speak against the arrogant and corrupt leader were arrested. At least one coup attempt failed, and its instigator was hacked to pieces publicly.
Sawyer became one of the few brave public figures to criticize Doe. In the mid-1980s he founded the Liberian People’s Party, a group calling for honest elections and fiscal responsibility among Liberia’s leadership. Sawyer commanded power and respect in Monrovia, especially among the young students at the university there, and Doe moved swiftly to quash opposition from his former colleague. In 1984 Sawyer was arrested. When the move sparked serious student unrest at the University of Liberia, the professor was released, but he was kept under virtual house arrest for two years. Finally, in desperation, he left his native country in 1986.
Sawyer moved to the United States. There, with other dissidents, he formed an activist group, the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL). The ACDL began an effective lobby among American politicians, alerting them to human rights violations and fiscal irresponsibility in Liberia. In a 1989 interview for Africa Report, Sawyer called Doe’s administration “a gangster regime, a plundering regime,” adding: “It is not, in spite of Doe’s own rhetoric, a pro-capitalist or a pro-free enterprise regime. It plunders both the labor unions and the companies. We do not have a constitutional civilian government. We have a continuation of military rule, with some modifications here and there.”
Even as he and his colleagues lobbied in Washington, Sawyer realized that only Liberians could solve their country’s problems. He did alert the United States to the misuse of American funds in Liberia, however, and he helped to lessen and eventually halt American economic aid to Liberia. “We want to be able to provide information about Liberia, the other side of the story, to keep Mr. Doe and his regime perceived in the perspective that they should be perceived,” Sawyer told Africa Report. “We’d like to strengthen the commitment to the democratic process.”
In the fall of 1989, shortly after the publication of Sawyer’s Africa Report interview, a little-known rebel named Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front, invaded Liberia from the north with a small band of troops. At first Taylor was aided by more troops under the direction of Prince Yormie Johnson, but the two leaders soon quarreled and broke their armies into factions. Nevertheless, both rebel bands continued to advance on Monrovia, slaughtering government troops and any civilians perceived as Doe sympathizers. By June both Taylor and Johnson’s troops had reached the capital, isolating president Doe in his mansion and severing the electrical and water systems serving the city.
The revolution, split as it was along factional lines, caused massive disruptions in Liberia. Food shortages were widespread. Civilian members of the Krahn tribe were singled out for slaughter because Doe was a Krahn. Most of the diplomats left the country, and Liberian refugees poured into neighboring African nations, seeking help among related tribes. Johnson reported: “Anybody who didn’t speak the right dialect, anybody who looked too prosperous or well fed was shot, beheaded, or set on fire with fuel oil. Some of them were drowned in the Mano River. Refugees arrived in Sierra Leone telling of checkpoints fenced around with posts and the posts topped with severed heads.”
Inevitably, Doe became a victim of the civil war. He died of wounds inflicted by Johnson’s followers during a torturous interrogation. By that time, the sixteen-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had sent a contingent of troops and supplies to Monrovia, with orders to restore peace. Slowly the ECOWAS-sponsored troops began to regain control of parts of Monrovia.
The New York Times estimated that more than a million Liberians—half the population—were uprooted by the war, and some 20,000 people were killed. A truce was enacted in November of 1990, and some of the rebel leaders met with ECOWAS representatives to try to form a government. The result of that meeting was the installation of Amos Sawyer as provisional head of a new Liberian administration.
Ironically, Sawyer began his tenure as head of Liberia outside the country. It was several months before he could even move into Monrovia safely. His hold on the reins of government was kept steady only by the continued support of ECOWAS. This is because a major portion of the country lay in the hands of Taylor’s forces, and Taylor refused to recognize Sawyer’s administration. Taylor’s continued resistance caused concern among all of Liberia’s neighbors, because the fighting sometimes crossed borders and coincided with an immense refugee problem. For this reason, ECOWAS continued its strong support of Sawyer. Sawyer himself told Africa Report: “The Liberian problem is no longer a Liberian problem. It’s a regional problem, and the countries of the region are dealing with it as they would deal with their national problems.”
In Africa Report, Huband held out little hope for Sawyer and his associates. Taylor’s rebels, Huband wrote, “instigated a rule of terror and policy of genocide in their territory which has split the country for the foreseeable future.” The reporter added: “Equally reflective of this political crisis is the failure of the interim government of Dr. Amos Sawyer to bring the country out of its quagmire. It is as much through his own political ineptitude as through the determination of his opponents not to give in that Sawyer has failed to establish credibility.… The arrival of the interim government was ill-timed and the government itself ill-conceived.” Huband further noted that the Sawyer administration’s “failure to alter the political landscape has made them unpopular with civilians, who had high expectations, and is fast resulting in their eclipse as a political force.” But on June 30, 1991, National Patriotic Front leader Taylor and interim president Sawyer finally reached an agreement to, as Sawyer put it in the New York Times, “work for peace” in Liberia.
American involvement in this small nation’s tragedy is virtually nonexistent, despite the long history of cooperation between the two countries. As Johnson wrote: “Liberians don’t know that most Americans couldn’t guess on which of the seven continents they actually reside, that images of their war have rarely been shown on U.S. television, that their troubles have scarcely been mentioned on U.S. radio. They can’t understand why the Americans won’t send in troops, or … offer to host peace talks. They don’t understand that among Americans they have no constituency, that even among black congressmen they have few advocates. They don’t know why the Americans are making them wait.”
One Liberian—Amos Sawyer—is neither surprised by the American apathy or particularly concerned about it. “Nowhere in this scheme [of] things [do] the Liberian people fit in,” Sawyer told Africa Report. “Well, that’s the hard reality. Liberians have always had this bias in favor of the United States, and sometimes expected much more of the United States than perhaps they should. Liberians should realize that they’re on their own, and I think that’s a good thing. Nobody else is going to solve our problems for us.”
Africa South of the Sahara, 1991, Europa, 1990.
Africa Report, July-August, 1989; November-December, 1990; January-February, 1991; March-April, 1991; July-August, 1991.
Esquire, December 1990.
New York Times, November 29, 1990; February 15, 1991; July 1, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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