General Quiwonkpa and Marconi: A Connection of Deathly Proportions

By Moco McCaulay

Sometime around 2:00 pm on November 12, 1985, as Liberians were glued to their radios sets, the solemn droning of the country’s national anthem blared over the airwaves, a precursor to yet another announcement regarding the turbulent events unfolding on that day.

But this time around, to their utter astonishment, it was the President’s voice that crackled through their radio sets. President Samuel Doe announced that the putsch against his government had been squelched and that the military had retaken the main public radio station and was now in hot pursuit of those responsible for the attempt to topple his government.

During the wee hours of that day, Liberians had been jostled from their slumber by the spluttering sound of gunfire. And when they frantically turned on their radio sets to find out what was going on, they were greeted with the somber blaring of the country’s national anthem, followed by the voice of a man who introduced himself as General Thomas Quiwonkpa, the erstwhile Commanding General of the Armed Forces of Liberia.

General Quiwonkpa announced that he and his band of insurgents had overthrown the government of President Doe who was now in hiding.

But, he assured his listeners that President Doe had no means of escape and would soon be captured.  

Soon after that, General Quiwonkpa’s forces rounded up key government ministers, parading them on public TV for the nation to see. And, even though President Doe still hadn’t been captured, after seeing his ministers on TV, some stripped butt naked or down to their underpants, the civilian population cast aside whatever trepidation they may have harbored about the coup, pouring out into the streets in abandoned jubilation at the news of the downfall of President Doe, who many believed had rigged the elections only a month ago.

So, when President Doe’s voice filled the airwaves a few hours later announcing that the putsch had failed and that he was still in charge, it sent shock waves throughout the country, especially among General Quiwonkpa’s sympathizers. 

Before this attempt by General Quiwonkpa to overthrow President Doe, the two men had been close associates. Quiwonkpa, along with the then Master Sergeant Doe, were both key members of the group of soldiers who staged a bloody coup on April 12, 1980, toppling the government of President William Tolbert.

President Tolbert was brutally murdered, and 13 of his key ministers were publicly executed 10 days later after a show trial. Doe assumed the position of Head of State and Quiwonkpa, the Commanding General of the Army. But only a few years later, their relationship fizzled and Quiwonkpa fled the country in 1983, and settle down with his family in Maryland, USA.

At the time of the coup on November 12, 1985, Marconi was just a little over a year old. Her mother, Martha, had worked a longtime for my family and also helped to raise me. But on that day of General Quiwonkpa’s failed coup, despite her innocence, fate would bind Marconi’s life in a deathly knot to the brewing tsunami of death that was looming over the country.

Marconi and her family lived in the suburban district of Paynesville, not too far from the country’s main public radio station where General Quiwonkpa was last seen before President Doe announced that his troops had recaptured it. 

And several hours after President Doe announced that the military was in hot pursuit of the coup plotters, as Liberians shielded themselves in their homes waiting on the outcome, Marconi’s father, a low ranking army officer, along with several other soldiers, appeared on TV displaying the corpse of a man regally dressed in army camouflage fatigues.

The soldiers announced that they had captured and killed General Quiwonkpa. And as the news camera panned over General Quiwonkpa’s corpse for a close up, Liberians sat before their TV sets dumbfounded by the quick turnaround of events on that fateful day.

Only a few hours before, the debonair General had assured them that he was in charge of the country, but now he lay dead, reportedly after his hideout was revealed and he was overpowered and shot by the group of soldiers who now stood triumphantly over his body.

Marconi’s father was interviewed on TV that day, as he proudly explained his role in the capture and killing of General Quiwonkpa. He and the other soldiers were rewarded handsomely by President Doe for their valor.

But General Quiwonpka’s tribesmen would suffer widespread victimization, inflaming ethnic hatred and engorging the already putrefying wound that sliced deep into the sinews of the nation’s cohesiveness. The wound would worsen and become full of pus, and then burst over, excreting a bile of violence over the Liberian nation.

And on July 2, 1990, when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was dominated by General Quiwonpka’s tribesmen overran Paynesville in a surprise attack, Marconi and her family were caught up in the fighting. With nowhere to go, Marconi and her family joined the motley mass of people who were streaming into the NPFL-controlled areas for safety.

As they were walking, Marconi, who was now barely 6 years old, told me that some of the rebels recognized her father.

“As they were dragging my father away, my mother screamed: ‘That man is my husband!’ And then she started pleading profusely for them to spare his life. But they also pulled her out of the queue, along with my baby sister who was tied to her back in her lappa,” Marconi remembered.

In a bloodthirsty frenzy, not unlike hungry piranhas circling their prey for the attack, Marconi said her parents were encircled, as the rebels clamored to exact brutal retribution for the death of General Quiwonkpa.

And just before they were hacked to death, the last words Marconi said she heard from her mother was:

Run Marconi run!

“I immediately ran into the streaming queue of people with some of the rebels in pursuit. But a lady I didn’t know pulled me to her side and told me to stay calm. And when the rebels came searching for me, no one pointed me out and that’s how I was able to survive,” Marconi said, as the events of that day flooded her memory.

“They killed them Moco, they killed them-ooohh!!!” Marconi wailed.

As tears filled her eyes and flowed freely down her cheeks, she sobbed quietly and her body began to convulse uncontrollably. I held her close to try to comfort her, but she shaking so hard, the vibrations of her long-held sorrows stirred my heart in an uncommon way.

After some time, when Marconi calmed down, I wondered to myself:

How many Marconis were there in my war-scarred nation of Liberia?

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