William R. Tolbert Jr.

William R. Tolbert Jr.
20th President of Liberia
In office
23 July 1971  12 April 1980
Vice President vacant (1971-1972)
James Edward Greene (1972-1977)
Bennie Dee Warner (1977-1980)
Preceded by William Tubman
Succeeded by Samuel Doe
23rd Vice President of Liberia
In office
1 January 1952  23 July 1971
President William Tubman
Preceded by Clarence Simpson
Succeeded by James Edward Greene
Personal details
Born (1913-05-13)May 13, 1913
Bensonville, Liberia
Died April 12, 1980(1980-04-12) (aged 66)
Monrovia, Liberia
Political party True Whig
Spouse(s) Victoria A. David
Children 8
Religion Baptist

William Richard Tolbert Jr. (May 13, 1913 – April 12, 1980) was the 20th President of Liberia from 1971 until 1980, when he was killed in a coup d'état led by Samuel Doe.

Trained as a civil servant, he entered the country's House of Representatives in 1943 for the True Whig Party, then the only established party in the country. He was elected Vice president to William Tubman in 1952 and served in that position until he became President following Tubman's death in 1971.


Tolbert was born in Bensonville, Liberia. An Americo-Liberian, he was the grandson of a former American slave from South Carolina who emigrated to Liberia in the Liberian exodus of 1878.[1] The Tolbert clan was one of the largest Americo-Liberian families in Liberia.[2]

He attended Bensonville Elementary School, Crummell Hall Episcopalian High School, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Liberia in 1934.[3] He married Victoria A. Hoff, with whom he had eight children.

Tolbert was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1943, and served until being elected vice president. A Baptist minister, in 1965 he became the first African to serve as president of the Baptist World Alliance,[4][5] and was also a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.[6] He became Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Liberia.[7]

Presidency (1971–80)

Following Tubman's death in 1971, Tolbert succeeded him as president. To the outside world, this peaceful transition seemed to signal political stability in Liberia, remarkable in an Africa where political turmoil was the norm. However, Liberia was effectively a one-party state where civil liberties were limited and the judiciary and the legislative branches were subservient to the executive branch (compared to Separation of powers between branches of the United States government).[8]

Attitude towards opposition and indigenous ethnic groups

Upon becoming president, Tolbert initiated some liberal reforms. Though reelected in 1975, his government was criticized sharply for failing to address the deep economic disparities between different sectors of the population, notably the Americo-Liberians, who had dominated the country since independence, and the various indigenous ethnic groups that constituted the majority of the population.

Because Tolbert was a member of one of the most influential and affluent Americo-Liberian families, everything from cabinet appointments to economic policy was tainted with allegations of nepotism. Thanks to his father who spoke Kpelle, [9] Tolbert was the second Liberian president after President Benson to speak an indigenous language, and he promoted a program to bring more indigenous persons into the government.

This initiative caused a good deal of chagrin among Americo-Liberians who accused Tolbert of "letting the peasants into the kitchen." Indeed, it lacked support within Tolbert's own administration. While the indigenous majority felt the change was occurring too slowly, many Americo-Liberians felt it was too rapid.

Despite following Tubman's 27-year presidency, Tolbert refused to follow his predecessor's hold on office until death. He successfully worked for a constitutional amendment to bar the president from serving more than eight years in office, and in 1976 he vowed fierce opposition to members of the Legislature who sought to repeal the amendment and again permit what Tolbert called an "evil tradition".[10] Three years later, when True Whig partisans petitioned him to seek the amendment's repeal, he replied that their statement would only encourage him in his previous position: "I will serve my country as long as I have life. I do not have to [be?] President to do so."[11]

Foreign policy

Abandoning Tubman's strong pro-West foreign policy, Tolbert adopted one which focused on promoting Liberia's political independence. To this end, he established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Cuba, and several other Eastern Bloc countries, thus adopting a more nonaligned posture.

Tolbert severed Liberia's ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and spoke in favor of recognising national rights of the Palestinian people. However, Tolbert supported the United States on the Vietnam War, as had his predecessor, William Tubman. Tolbert was chairman of the Organisation of African Unity from July 1979 until he was killed in April 1980.


Tolbert during U.S. President Jimmy Carter's visit to Monrovia in April 1978.

Throughout the seventies, the world price of rubber was depressed, putting pressure on the Liberian economy. Tolbert brought a new approach to the Liberian government's relations with foreign companies. Companies such as Firestone, which had operated for years without being audited by the government, were audited, and forced to pay millions of dollars in back taxes. Old concession agreements were renegotiated, and new concession agreements were negotiated with an emphasis on accountability of the private sector to the Liberian government.

In May 1975, Liberia became a signatory to the treaty that established the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in order to create a common market in West Africa and promote regional economic integration and stability in 15 West African countries, with the intention that it would mirror the success of the European Common Market (now the EU).

By the late 1970s, Tolbert became increasingly open to overtures of economic assistance from Libya and Cuba. The Libyans were on the verge of starting work on a low-cost housing project in Monrovia when the project was halted by the 1980 coup d'état.

Return of a two-party system

Liberia had been a one-party state since 1877. However, in 1978, the country returned to a two-party system when the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, headed by Gabriel Baccus Matthews, became recognized as a legitimate opposition party.[12]

Rice Riots

In early April 1979, Tolbert's minister of agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to continue farming instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations. Political opponents criticized the proposal as self-serving, pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.

The Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase. On April 14 about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion. The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 "back street boys" causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction. Widespread looting ensued with damage to private property estimated at over $40 million.[13]

Tolbert's credibility was severely damaged by the Rice Riots.[14]

Coup d'état

In March 1980 Tolbert ordered the banning of the PAL, and had Gabriel Bacchus Matthews and the rest of the organization's leadership arrested on charges of treason.[8]

In the early hours of April 12, 1980, 17 non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe launched a violent coup d'état; all of them were "indigenous" Liberians. The group entered the Presidential palace and killed Tolbert, whose body was dumped into a mass grave together with 27 other victims of the coup. A crowd of angry Liberians gathered to shout insults and throw rocks at the bodies.[15] Tolbert's body was later moved to a spot in Monrovia's Palm Grove Cemetery, not far from the bodies of those killed in the Rice Riots.[16]

By the end of the month, most of the cabinet members of the Tolbert administration had been put on trial in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death. Many of them were publicly executed on April 22 at a beach near the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. Only four Tolbert cabinet heads survived the coup and its aftermath; among them was the Minister of Finance, future president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.[17]

Theories on Tolbert’s death

Undisputedly, Tolbert was dead by the end of April 12, 1980, the day of the coup d’état.[18] There are competing stories as to the time and manner of his death. It has been reported that he was killed and "disemboweled in his bed while he slept", by Samuel Doe.

Steven Ellis, in his book Mask of Anarchy, says the President was found sleeping in his office, where the soldiers killed him, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's biography, This Child Will Be Great, says Tolbert was seized and killed in his bed.[19]


Some of Tolbert's children live in New York, North Carolina and Maryland. His brother Stephen A. Tolbert served as his finance minister in the government until his death on April 29, 1975, in a plane crash.[20] One of his sons, A. Benedict Tolbert, was killed in the aftermath of the coup: he had taken refuge in the French Embassy but was arrested by members of Doe's security force who violated diplomatic immunity, and reportedly he was thrown out of a military aircraft while being transported to a prison in Lofa County.[21]

Two of his daughters are no longer alive. Victoria Tolbert Yancy died in 1971, and Evelyn Tolbert Richardson (the wife of a government aviator) died in Westchester County, New York, United States, in 1993.[22] His widow Victoria Tolbert died in Minnesota on November 8, 1997; she had moved to the United States after being released from house arrest in the aftermath of the coup.[23]

See also


  1. Tolbert, Richard. Liberia: William R. Tolbert – 'In the Pantheon of Great African Leaders'. AllAfrica.com 2009-05-28. Accessed 2012-06-23.
  2. "President William R. Tolbert Jr. (1971–1980) The preacher-President". Liberia Past and Present. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
  3. Kevin Shillington (2005). Encyclopedia of African History. CRC Press. p. 824. ISBN 978-1-57958-245-6.
  4. "President William R. Tolbert Jr.", Daily Observer (Liberia), 16 September, 2005
  5. MSN Encarta, "Tolbert, William Richard Jr."
  6. Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. International Website
  7. The Tragic History of Freemasonry in Liberia, Chris Hodapp, Freemasonry for Dummies Blog
  8. 1 2 Africa South of the Sahara 2003, Volume 32. Europa Publications Limited. 2003. p. 564. ISBN 978-1-85743-131-5.
  9. Tolbert, Richard (May 26, 2009). "Liberia: William R. Tolbert - 'In The Pantheon Of Great African Leaders'". AllAfrica.Com. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  10. "Pres. Tolbert Says 'No' To Evil Tradition: Vows to Veto Any Amendment To Keep Him In Office". [Monrovia] Sunday Express 1976-03-21: 1/2.
  11. "Tolbert Rejects Another Term". [Monrovia] Sunday Express 1979-02-11: 1/4.
  12. Flomo, J. Patrick. "Liberia: Two–Party Electoral System Is the Best Option". Retrieved 2010-01-29.
  13. "The Rice Riots". Retrieved 2010-01-29.
  14. Peter Dennis (May 2006). "A Brief History of Liberia" (PDF). The International Center for Transitional Justice. Retrieved July 2007. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  15. "LIBERIA: After the Takeover, Revenge". TIME Magazine. 1980-04-18. Archived from the original on September 28, 2008.
  16. Hanicles, Oswald. "Liberians Remember Their Dead", Daily Observer 1981-03-12: 1/10.
  17. Johnson Sirleaf, E: This Child Will Be Great, p. 103. HarperCollins, 2009.
  18. (Dutch) Encarta – Encyclopedie 2001.
  19. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2009-04-07). This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President. Harper. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-06-135347-5.
  20. "Stephen A. Tolbert". Facts on File World News Digest. May 24, 1975. pp. Miscellaneous, Obituaries, p. 368 F3.
  21. "1980: The Genesis of Bloodshed in Liberia". National Chronicle 2005-03-23: 1/6.
  22. "Pres. Tolbert's daughter dies". Monrovia Daily News 1993-06-15: 1.
  23. "Victoria Tolbert Dies in U.S" [sic]. The Inquirer 1997-11-10: 1/6.

Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Clarence Simpson
Vice President of Liberia
Succeeded by
James Edward Greene
Preceded by
William Tubman
President of Liberia
Succeeded by
Samuel Doe
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