Voice of the Revolution Special Issue September 1979 : Gabriel Bacchus Matthews Interviewed
SPECIAL EDITION September 1979 APRIL 14 A YAH!
“It is madness to suppose that the capitalists will submit voluntarily and that they will calmly surrender their…profits, their privileges of exploitation. All ruling classes have fought obstinately to the end for their privileges… All shed rivers of blood. They trampled upon corpses, they committed murder, arson, and state treason; they precipitated civil war for the purpose of defending their privileges and power.
The imperialist capitalist class will defend its ‘holy of holies’—its profits and privileges of exploitation—tooth and nail. It will defend them with cold-blooded viciousness….. It will move heaven and hell against the workers… It will get its officers to commit massacres… To save itself, it will invoke the assistance of the foreign enemy… It will sooner than later turn the country into a smoking heap of ruins than voluntarily relinquish its power.”
–ROSA LUXEMBORG, 1918
THE SUGGESTION TO DEMONSTRATE AGAINST THE PROPOSED INCREASE IN THE PRICE OF RICE CAME FROM ——-OFFICERS AND MEMBERS OF PAL…WHY DID YOU OFFICERS ENDORSE IT?
Our organization is democratic. Furthermore, we are always ready to provide our people the leadership necessary for whatever phase of the struggle for which they become ready. We have always told our people that power concedes nothing without a demand; that freedom is not free; that progress comes through struggle; that men who will not fight for what they want are men who have agreed to take what they get. Of course, a Liberian organization that is not ready to fight for rice is certainly not ready to fight for anything else.
DID YOU BELIEVE THE PRESIDENT WOULD HAVE PREFERRED TO HOLD THE PRICE OF RICE AT $22.00 RATHER THAN TO HAVE YOU PARADING THROUGH THE STREET?
Recently, we issued a notice to demonstrate only as an exercise in organized pressure. What are the interests of the ruling class in this country and of President
Tolbert’s political interest in particular? We felt that the advantages to him in his avoiding a mass demonstration by holding steady the price of rice were by far more important than the advantages from a price increase.
We know that the Tolberts have been the largest rice growers and the largest rice importers, and that they stood to benefit substantially from a price increase. Yet, we felt the President would realize the importance of even losing money in the short run so as to preserve an atmosphere for making more money in the long run. Every businessman knows that even the suspicion of instability is bad for business.
WHY DID YOU ALL CARRY OUT A DEMONSTRATION AGAINST THE DECISION OF THE GOVERNMENT?
To suggest that we demonstrated is to assume the existence of a fact which has yet to be proven.
Let us review the developments up to the time the government resorted to armed aggression against unarmed citizens.
After President received from us notice of an intent to stage a peaceful demonstration on April 14, we were invited to the Mansion for a discussion. We made ourselves available, and on March 28, 1979, he told us that he would make a decision on the rice issue by the end of the first week in April; that is, by April 7.
On April 2, when our Chairman met with him to discuss a different matter, the President said that, as he had sent some members of the Rice Committee on a mission to America, this would occasion a delay in the announcement of the decision. He further indicated that there would certainly be public notice about the matter before April 14. He concluded by telling the Chairman privately, that the price of rice was actually going to be increased, though he said he did not know at the time how much that increase would turn out to be. He said he had been holding down the price for a long time, but it was no longer possible to do so.
The President was reminded of PAL’s position: we viewed an increase in the price of rice as a threat to the survival of poor people, and we would not take it.
We just made up our minds that, in the face of an increase we would get on the streets with or without a permit. Yet, we continued to seek a solution to the rice issue with the hope of avoiding a confrontation with the government. As you may have learned, we came up with the idea of offering the government $19,500, based on the figures on local rice production, to assist the local rice farmer provided there would be no price increase.
President Tolbert reflected arrogance of power and rejected the offer outright with the contention that it was not consistent with government’s solution to national problems. But what did he think his entire Rally Time program is all about? Ours was, most likely, the only public offer the man had ever refused.
After the refusal of our offer, we simply braced ourselves to hear the President’s pronouncement at least by the time the radio station closed on Friday night, April 13.
Senator Tubman came on the air that evening to issue kind advice against our going on the streets. Our minds ran back to the January 1977 issue of the THE REVOLUTION which carried an interview PAL leaders held in New York with the Senator. The issue of the high cost of food in Liberia was raised, and he responded saying:
“I am a political scientist, not an economist. But, I do know that when rice is selling for $24 a bag and a man makes $35 a month, he can’t make it. That much I know. Yes, that much I know, and there is no question about it. And something had to be done about that.”
Yes, something had to be done, and we were tired waiting on our legislators to do it!
The President remained silent on April 13. But, we anticipated this possibility. Thirty minutes after ELBC went off the air, Oscar Quiah, our Secretary-General, returned to our headquarters. There he met Mr. Albert Porte who had earlier held a discussion with the President during which Mr. Porte volunteered his services to help call off the demonstration. Our Secretary-General informed him of the leadership’s position that there would be no demonstration.
In his pamphlet, The Day Monrovia Stood Still, Mr. Porte correctly quotes Quiah as follows:
“We have no access to television, radio or the newspapers, and it is late now to get word out to halt the demonstration. We are having an Executive Meeting tonight and are asking one assurance of the government; and that is, that government keeps the security forces in the background. The demonstration is at 3 o’clock. We will all meet at the headquarters and will take over from there and diffuse the matter and call the demonstration off.”
Mr. Porte conveyed to the President the information he received. Their exchange was as follows, according to The Day Monrovia Stood Still:
“‘Mr. President, I have matters under control. PAL authorities are asking for one assurance from the government: that the government keeps the security in the background and they would call the demonstration off. I suggest a compromise.”
“ ‘Government cannot compromise!’ the President retorted, with stubborn determination in his tone.
“‘No, compromise to save a crisis!’ I exclaimed. Life is a series of compromises. Compromise with honor; yes, Mr. President. Compromise at this critical point without a ‘loss of face’, yes, Mr. President. O! I beg you, Mr. President.’
“I held the President’s hand a long time, pleading with him. I begged him to send the word down the line for extreme restraint and caution.
“I hoped against hope that he would have called an orderly and sent the word down, but to my utter astonishment and dire disappointment, he made no such move. I was stunned at such ‘superman’ callous stubbornness and what I considered callous indifference to considered reasoning, but was helpless to do anything about it.”
Importantly, Chairman Matthews sent the President a letter early during the morning of April 14 confirming that our members were only lawfully assembling, and that they would not get on the streets without a permit as we understood the law requires. He suggested, however, that the practical thing for Dr. Tolbert to do was to grant the permit and provide a band and police protection for the parade.
Look, politics is the art of the possible; only the possible. There are no miracles. Now, given Dr. Tolbert’s long years of political experience, one cannot help but believe he would bring to his decision-making process, a well-defined framework of analysis. He ought to know that, in politics, things do not appear in either black or white. It is usually the gray in between; sometimes a very dull shade of gray. Politics is the arena in which a man succeeds only by being willing to give a little to save a lot.
We wrote the President that Saturday morning because we did not want him to misinterpret the intentions of our assembly that day. We tried to deal with him using extreme caution because we had never seen him under real pressure.
Dr. Tolbert could have won himself the day by simply issuing permit while claiming to believe in democracy. He could have in fact asked us to please go out on the streets and thereby prove for all the world to see, that at least freedom of expression exists in Liberia; that change is being brought about from within the True Whig Party and an opposition party is, therefore, unnecessary, and that the Tolbert Administration has restored manhood to the Liberian people. Had he reduced the permit to an act of greatness on his part, any march by us would have reduced us to nothing more than fools.
You can therefore understand our surprise when the Tolbert regime chose to brutally and unlawfully interfere with our right of assembly which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
A horde of unruly policemen came into our yard that morning, and these trespassers asked those who had a right to be there to just get out. But what law were we violating? Those of us in our headquarters were asked to vacate the premises. But why? We know the law, we are aware of our rights, so we refused to leave. In fact, PAL leaders had cautioned everyone to stay on the private property and away from the streets so that the government would not pretend we were demonstrating without a permit. We went so far as to block the exit from the yard so as to keep our people in.
One police official picked up a stone and threw it at the crowd. That was the first act of violence.
The fire brigade, which is never on time for a fire, was punctually available and began spraying the people with water.
The police resorted to teargas. They were so undisciplined and outrageous that Bishop Browne, who tried to intervene so as to bring the crisis to an end, gave up and left. The police began a fight but, one on one, many of them were beaten up and thrown into the Sohni Drainage. They increased the use of teargas in the yard and extended its use to our headquarters, and then they started shooting!
The police, under orders from the President and the ruling class whose interests he represents, carried out an operation which incited the crowd and inflamed, with gunpowder, the passion of the people. Our people were driven from the yard into the streets, and they went out with anger in their hearts and fire in their eyes. President Tolbert had started a riot. And that which he was afraid of had come upon him already.
Yes, the crowd surged on. There was no turning back. Unarmed men and women, old and young, stood up and fought policemen who were shooting high-powered automatic weapons. Many died, but the others remained wielded together by a common experience.
On that blessed day, the people stood up and rid themselves of fear. Nothing can stop them now. Victory is certain. Liberia will never be the same kind of country again.
YOUR DEMONSTRATION WAS SCHEDULED FOR 3 O’CLOCK. WHY WERE YOU ALL OUT VERY EARLY THAT SATURDAY MORNING?
We had learned Friday afternoon that the Tolbert Cabinet had just concluded a meeting during which it was decided that the police and the army would blockade the entrances to places such as West Point and New Kru Town, and they would occupy the yard of our headquarters, the designated starting point for the demonstration.
We passed that information on to our members. As such, when the police reached our yard that Saturday morning, we were already occupying it. When they reached West Point, for example, those who wanted to leave were already out.
SINCE YOU ALL HAD NOT STARTED DEMONSTRATING AND WERE NOT ON THE STREETS WHEN THE POLICE OPENED FIRE, WHY WERE THEY SHOOTING?
You would have to ask the police and President Tolbert.
We do know that when the police arrived the morning of April 14, they began inquiring discreetly whether Matthews was in the Organization’s headquarters. After they increased the use of teargas and started shooting, they watched everyone who came out of the house. Maybe they did not see who they were looking for, they rushed in. But, Gabriel Baccus Matthews wasn’t there!
The President had said no one should come out for any demonstration, and warnings equivalent to a declaration of war had been issued. We told the people to come out, and they did, thereby making the President like a man whom no one wanted to obey much more follow. We are of the opinion that the police came out as judge, jurors and executioners of those who, in government’s view, had challenged authority.
The police did not come to stop a demonstration; they came to stop a political party. They came to abort a baby. There are still individuals in Liberia who believe they can stop an idea by stopping a man.
WHERE DID THE LOOTING START?
The looting began at our headquarters.
When the police entered our office, they began a wave of destruction, perhaps in anger for not finding our Chairman there. They broke doors, walls, chairs, desks, etc. They also looted the personal effects of our Chairman who resides there. They took away everything they could, from radio to teaspoon. In other words, the April 14 looting was initiated by the forces of law and order.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CHARGE OF TREASON THAT WAS BROUGHT AGAINST THE LEADERS?
We believe President Tolbert added 2 plus 2 and ended up with 5 ½. After more than a hundred persons had been killed and foreign troops had been invited, the government apparently believed it had to imagine an offense serious enough to explain its overreaction. But, the very fact that the Tolbert Administration is still around, despite the fact that its officials went into hiding, is proof that nobody wanted to overthrow it.
We are getting accustomed to being accused, and the accusations arise not from our doing anything wrong, but simply because we are opponents of the True Whig Party and we stand in the way of exploitation of our people.
In February 1978, we learned that we were promoting nationwide labor unrest to destabilize the country and overthrow the government. In December 1978, President Tolbert and some officials of government invited us to the Mansion and showed us an anonymous letter sent to the Chief of Staff of the Army encouraging him to overthrow the government. They tried to convince us that we were the ones who wrote it. We expressed our amusement over their effort and noted our regrets that they had nothing more important to do.
In April 1979, after we requested a permit to demonstrate, it was said that our Chairman committed some kind of offense seven years ago, and the government was now ready to try him. Also in April, our leaders were charged for treason; that they “conspired, connived, contrived, and combined to overthrow the Government of the Republic of Liberia.”
Our concern is not how to overthrow the government, but how to save it from overthrowing itself.
THE GOVERNMENT OF HAD SAID THAT PAL FED ITS MEMBERS WITH DOPE THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT OF APRIL 13. IS THAT TRUE?
About a week before the release of our leaders from prison, our Chairman and Secretary-General held a meeting in Bentol with President Tolbert. In regards to this drug issue, they posed a simple query to the President. If his claims were true, they asked, why did he not have the so-called drug users arrested that night? Why did he show indifference to the enforcement of the drug laws of the country? Interestingly, he did not reply.
If most people would just add a little thinking to what some officials say, then most of what is heard around here would be analyzed out of existence.
On APRIL 14, YOU PAL PEOPLE DEMONSTRATED A GOOD DEAL OF SKILL: BLOCKING THE STREETS AND IMMOBILIZING THE POLICE AFTER THE SHOOTING STARTED; USING KEROSENE AND POTATO GREENS TO NEUTRALIZE THE TEARGAS; THEN EVADING ARREST AND MAKING THE GOVERNMENT LOOK FOOLISH FOR A GOOD PERIOD OF TIME. HOW DID YOU DO IT?
We do try to be resourceful. 1979 is not 1955, and PAL is not the Independent True Whig Party. We have organization and discipline and, today, the strategy is different. We do our best to be prepared for practically anything that can develop. We work hard. Here, the risks are high, and we must be prepared to minimize them.
OUR CHAIRMAN IS SAID TO HAVE WRITTEN A LETTER OF “REPENTANCE” ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND HIS CO-DEFENDANTS WHILE HE WAS IN PRISON. DID HE AND, IF SO, WHY?
Chairman Matthews has indicated the following:
“On Saturday, April 21, I sent a message to Honorable Joseph J.F. Chesson informing him of my desire to surrender to government and of my interest in his effecting arrangements for me to do so. Following a discussion he held with the President, he and I went to the Mansion and were taken into the office of the Deputy Minister of State for National Security Affairs. There we met Honorable Oliver Bright, the then Minister of Justice.
“After an hour of waiting to be taken into the office of the President, the telephone rang and Minister Bright held a brief conversation with someone on the other end of the line. He turned to us and said, “They are ready.” As we proceeded, he said, smilingly, “Baccus, when you go in there, talk good to the President,” with special emphasis on the word “good.”
“They” who were “ready”, perhaps to hear me talk “good”, included the Vice President, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Information, etc. A lady came in with a steno pad to take notes.
“The President looked at me for a good while and slowly said, Mr. Matthews, you are a very lucky man. You are lucky to still be alive. You ought to say your prayers every day. You should get on your knees every day and thank God that you are still alive.” Dr. Tolbert knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Chesson spoke and recounted my request for his help. Dr. Tolbert followed by trying to provide his version of the April 14 crisis, sprinkled with questions directed to me. We disagreed sharply, then he became angry, and Chesson signaled me against arguing. I most certainly wasn’t talking “good.”
“You cannot imagine the mess into which you have plunged this country,” the President shouted. “Stand up!” he yelled. I stood up. He then calmed down and said, “Alright, you can take your chances in court.” “Chances?” I asked, and he replied, “Of course, chances, what else did you think?”
“Chesson said, “Well, Mr. President, I am putting Baccus’ life in your hands.” The President shrugged his shoulders, and I actually heard him say, “I cannot guarantee anything if the man will not cooperate.” “But he is already cooperating,” Chesson said. Tolbert seemed unimpressed.
“The President turned to Wilfred Clarke, Deputy Minister for National Security, and said, “Treat him according to the law.” Very good choice of words, but I began to realize that should not take chances with Dr. Tolbert. As such I assured him that I would “cooperate”. That seemed to have made the man even angrier, because he stood from his seat and shouted, “You better damn well cooperate, if you know what I know.”
“Minister Clarke was told to take us into custody. As we walked towards the car to leave the Mansion area, Clarke said to me, “Baccus, had you been at your headquarters that morning, we wouldn’t have any problems on our hands right now.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I wondered whether the fact that I was alive made me a liability.
“I was taken to the office of the National Security Agency where I held a meeting with the senior officials who informed me that I would have no problem with them. Yet, they noted that I am an intelligent man who should be practical. In a gentlemanly tone, I was asked to please “cooperate.”
“Tuesday morning, April 24, one of my guards came to me and said, Director Nelson says if you are ready to write the letter, you should let him know so he can send you pen and paper.” I said I was not ready, though I remembered I had told the President that I would “cooperate.”
“I spent the day making a realistic assessment of circumstances. I reflected on the possible reasons why the other comrades were being questioned and sent to Central Prison while I was the only one being kept in isolation at NSA. I did not rule out a freak “accident” or an “attempted escape”; I never have reasons to trust anybody. I knew that the President wanted something to help free himself and thereby be in a position to free us since, for many reasons, it was in his interest to do so. I knew how he would attempt to use what I would write. Yet, I realized correctly, though perhaps conveniently, that it would not be as damaging to our people as their losing a leader at this particular stage of our struggle.
“I decided to write a “higher heights kind of letter and “talk good.” I decided it would be couched in a manner as would minimize the President’s embarrassment and save his face while yet being vague enough to preserve our legal interests. Politically, it had to say a lot, but legally, nothing.
“Wednesday morning, April 25, I wrote the letter and Director Nelson rushed to the Mansion with it. In a few hours I received a response. The two letters became part of government’s “official” report dated April 26. Anyone who really knows how to read should have been able to deduce from Dr. Tolbert’s letter that the case was over.”
IT IS BEING RUMORED THAT SENIOR PAL LEADERS WILL BE OFFERED JOBS BY THE PRESIDENT. HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND TO THIS?
Some senior PAL leaders, such as Samuel P. Jackson and D. Karn Carlor, were working for the government before April 14. The Government of Liberia does not belong to Dr. Tolbert; neither does it belong to the True Whig Party. However, no senior official of PAL will accept significant public responsibility under any administration that is not prepared to effect drastic social change. Is Dr. Tolbert ready to make the revolution? Is he?
We are committed to working for freedom, justice, and social equality in Liberia. To perpetuate the status quo? No!
ACCORDING TO THE “SUNDAY EXPRESS,” LIBERIANS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE PURCHASING WEAPONS THERE TO BEGIN A WAR OF NATIONAL LIBERATION HERE. DO YOU THINK THIS IS TRUE?
We know nothing about that. We don’t think anyone who knows anything would want to purchase weapons in the United States, especially since it would be difficult to get them out. Why the United States? American-made M-16 semi-automatic rifles are available across the border in Mexico. LARs are all over Europe. The Russian-made Kalashnikov could be obtained free, even through African sources, by people who may desperately need them. It may be quite possible for anyone who really needs weapons to obtain them here in Liberia.
If Liberians in America are thinking about purchasing arms, it could only mean that they no longer believe that peaceful change is possible in our country. As for us, we are still experimenting with our idea of a political party.
TOM GORGLA SAID IN LONDON DURING A BBC INTERVIEW THAT HE FLED THE COUNTRY BECAUSE HE LEARNED THERE WOULD BE PHYSICAL VIOLENCE AGAINST THOSE WHO WERE RELEASED BY WAY OF THE GENERAL AMNESTY. HAVE THERE BEEN ANY THREATS AGAINST YOU?
As an organization, we do believe in flight and, if things really got tough in this country, nobody, absolutely nobody, will be permitted to leave this place. We intend to make sure about that.
Gorgla was not engaged in progressive work here. That may have contributed to his insecurity. His perceptions of things were, and had to be, different.
As for threats and violence, we have had only one case thus far. One Jasper Allison, an Immigration Officer, ran after Harrison Dahn, a PAL leader, while shooting a pistol. According to the report we received, Allison said, in the presence of a witness, that he will kill the leaders of PAL and those of the Student Union of the University of Liberia. Mr. Allison is noted to have said that the Commissioner of Immigration, a son in-law of the President, had given him three pistols with which to carry out his plans.
We understand that Commissioner King has admitted giving the pistols to Allison. However, it has been said that they were given to him for delivery to Immigration Authorities at the Liberia-Guinea border. Interesting!
Allison was arrested by the police but, surprisingly, he was turned over to the Bureau of Immigration for investigation. We had the impression that criminal cases belong to the police.
We wrote the Minister of Justice and the President and registered the fact that we would be watching, with much interest, government’s handling of the case. We have now learned that the Bureau of Immigration has quietly released the man.
Maybe this case is an indication that things are going to get worse around here before they get better. We are not going to worry about that; we are just going to prepare for it. If we believe some people are getting ready for us, then we have no choice but to very simply get ready for them. It is not an issue for debate. We have learned a great deal from April 14.
IT SAID THAT PAL BROUGHT IN RICE FOR SALE TO THE PUBLIC AT $9.50 A BAG. WHAT IS THE STORY?
If we admit it, or if our people in America issue a confirmation, we could be prosecuted for importing rice without a permit. Our position is that we heard what some people heard: that a quantity of rice consigned to us by PAL members in America was seized by the government.
The Progressive Alliance of Liberia expresses its deepest sympathy to the many persons who lost children, husbands, wives, relatives and friends during the April 14 crisis. We will continue the struggle for which they lost their lives. ***** The wounded and the orphaned have our regrets and the assurance of our continued cooperation and assistance. **** Our SPECIAL THANKS go to the wives, relatives and friends who ran up and down in the rain, carrying food etc., and sustaining the morale of our leaders during the crisis… the doctors and nurses who labored hard and long. Mr. Albert Porte for his honesty and assistance …NEW AFRICAN, NEW YORK TIMES, and Anne Bolsover of BBC for reliability of reporting …. Lawyers in Ghana for their interest … the Liberian Community in the United States for its vigilance and fighting spirit … the many progressive organizations throughout the world that sent statements of solidarity through our New York branch …Church leaders, particularly Rev. E. Toimu Reeves, Bishop George Browne, Mother Dukuly, the prayer bands, other groups and individuals for their honesty, assistance, and prayers … the All People’s Freedom Alliance, the students from the University of Liberia, and all those who stood tall and firm with us on April 14 … the Liberian people who decided, this time, to analyze government’s propaganda. Don’t let it be your last time, you hear! IN THE CAUSE OF THE PEOPLE, THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES!
Culled PAL Publication: Voice of the Revolution Special Issue September 1979 (From the UPP Archives)
Main Photo: Gabriel Baccus Matthews