The Torture of Samuel Doe

Photo by Patrick Robert

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Even by the standards of time and other atrocities committed during the Liberian Civil War, it was a gruesome incident. One of many US supported tyrants in Africa, Samuel Doe, ruled Liberia from 1980 to 1990. Finally his regime was toppled by Charles Taylor (who proved to be worse than Doe). During the war, a rebel leader Prince Yormie Johnson split from Taylor’s NPFL and formed the INPFL; then he and his forces captured Doe in September 9, 1990. 

To prove that Doe was not protected by black magic, Johnson ordered that the deposed president’s ears be cut off. Then some of Doe’s fingers and toes were also cut off. After 12 hours of torture at Johnson’s hands,Doe was finally murdered; his corpse had its head shaved and was exhibited naked with cigarette burns on it in the streets of Monrovia where they spilled dirty water on his head. 

The gruesome incident was recorded by the INPFL on video tape. Journalists Stephen Smith of Liberation, Mark Huband and Patrick Robert of French photoagency Sygma (who took the above image of Liberian soldiers posing with the body of Doe) — who were present at the INPFL camp — were given the videotape. It was seen on news reports around the world and was a best selling film in West Africa. Now even two decades later, it is still doing the rounds in the markets of Monrovia; Johnson sipping a Budweiser and being fanned by an assistant as Doe’s ear is cut off became almost an image transplanted from a Shakespearean play or from mediaeval times. (Johnson who remains a prominent politician in Liberia later denied killing Doe, saying that he committed suicide in captivity by banging his head against the wall).

While a master sergeant in the army, Doe had staged a violent coup d’état and staged a televised execution of the previous president and the ruling party. It was karmic that he in his turn became the first world leader to be tortured on camera before being executed and his body desecrated. It should have brought the nation full circle, but it did not. More violence under Taylor would kill more Liberians. It was a sad decline for Africa’s first republic.

See a short clip from the video here and Getty archives have still shots courtesy of Robert.

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