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William Richard Tolbert, Jr.

William R. Tolbert, Jr. (left) and United States President Richard Nixon in 1973

In office
July 23, 1971 – April 12, 1980
Vice President James Edward Greene (1972-1977)
Bennie Dee Warner (1977–1980)
Preceded by William V.S. Tubman
Succeeded by Samuel Doe

Born May 13, 1913(1913-05-13)
Bensonville, Liberia
Died April 12, 1980 (aged 66)
Monrovia, Liberia
Political party True Whig
Religion Baptist

William Richard Tolbert, Jr. (May 13, 1913– April 12, 1980) was president of Liberia from 1971 to 1980.

Trained as a civil servant, he entered the country's House of Representatives in 1955 for the True Whig Party, then the only legal party in the country. He was elected Vice president to William Tubman in 1951 and served in that position until Tubman's death in 1971.



Tolbert was born in Bensonville, Liberia.[1][2] An Americo-Liberian, he was the grandson of a freed American slave from Charleston, South Carolina who emigrated to Liberia in 1879.[3][2] The Tolbert clan was one of the largest Americo-Liberian families in Liberia.[4]

He attended Bensonville Elementary School, Crummell Hall Episcopalian High School, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Liberia in 1934.[5] He married Victoria A. David.

A Baptist minister, in 1965 he became the first African to serve as president of the Baptist World Alliance.[6][2]

Tolbert was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.[7]

Presidency (1971-1980)

Following Tubman's death in 1971, his long-serving vice president, William R. Tolbert, Jr., assumed the presidency.


Attitude towards opposition and indigenous ethnic groups

Upon becoming president, Tolbert initiated some liberal reforms and allowed the creation of an opposition party, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, the first opposition in 125 years of Liberia's independence. 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 the most influential and affluent Americo-Liberian families, everything from cabinet appointments to economic policy was tainted with allegations of nepotism. However, Tolbert was also the second president to speak an indigenous language (after President Benson (1856-64)), and he promoted a program to bring more indigenous persons into the government. Unfortunately, this initiative lacked support within Tolbert's own administration, and while the indigenous majority felt the change was occurring too slowly, many Americo-Liberians felt it was too rapid.

Tolbert also created harsh laws to deal with opposition to his regime, prompting complaints from the United States about violations of human rights.

Tolbert and U.S. President Jimmy Carter (in car, left) in Monrovia

Tensions came to a head in April 1979, when a proposal to raise the government-subsidized price of rice met with violent opposition. The government claimed that the price increase was meant to promote more local farming, slow the rate of urban migration, and reduce dependence on imported rice. However, opposition leaders pointed out that the Tolbert family controlled the rice monopoly in Liberia and therefore stood to profit from the proposed price increase. Hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of the capital, Monrovia, demonstrating against the sharp rise in the price of rice, demonstrations which rapidly turned violent. Tolbert ordered his troops to fire on the demonstrators, and some seventy people were killed. The riots resulted in many deaths and enormous infrastructural damage to the capital city of Monrovia. Tolbert's credibility was severely damaged.[8] Despite efforts to restore order, rioting ensued throughout Liberia, and attempts to quash the opposition by arresting its leaders failed.

Foreign policy

Promoting Liberia's political independence, Tolbert 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 and breaking away from the Cold War agenda followed by President Tubman. He severed Liberia's ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and spoke out for recognition for national rights of the Palestinian people. But Tolbert supported the United States on the Vietnam War, as did his predecessor, William Tubman. Tolbert was chairman of the Organisation of African Unity from July 1979 until he was killed in April 1980.


Tolbert brought a new approach to Liberian Government's relations with foreign companies. Companies like Firestone, which had operated for years without being audited by the Government, were audited, and forced to pay millions of dollars in back taxes to the Liberian Government. 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 which 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). Tolbert attempted to improve the economic and political climate by introducing many new changes. But the damage of the past seemed irreparable. The majority of the population was poor and lacked basic amenities such as access to safe water and electricity.

Economy, foreign relations and internal tensions come together

Throughout the seventies, the world price of rubber was depressed, putting pressure on the Liberian economy. By 1980, Tolbert became increasingly open to overtures from Libya and Cuba. The Libyans were on the verge of starting work on a low-cost housing project in Monrovia when Samuel Doe, a master sergeant in the Liberian army, carried out a coup.

Coup d'état

On April 12, 1980, Tolbert was overthrown by military mutineers in a coup d'état and was executed. Before the end of the month Tolbert's entire Cabinet had been put on trial in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death—with no right to be defended by a lawyer and no right to appeal to the verdict. In a horrific scene they were all but one publicly executed on a beach near Monrovia. The only cabinet member who escaped being shot was the only minister of tribal origin, president to-be Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf who was raised in an Americo-Liberian family that was part of the Tolbert clan.

Theories on Tolbert’s death

Undisputedly, President Tolbert was dead at the end of April 12, 1980, the day of the coup d’état.[9] Stories say Tolbert was killed and ‘disemboweled in his bed while he slept, by Samuel Doe’.

On August 5, 2008, before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Monrovia, former Justice Minister in the PRC government of Samuel Doe, Cllr. Chea Cheapoo alleged it was ‘not Samuel Doe, but a white, American CIA agent who shot and killed President Tolbert’.[10] On August 6, 2008 before the same TRC, a former Foreign Minister of the mentioned PRC regime, Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh testified ‘the Americans did not support the coup led by Mr. Doe’[11], thereby apparently contradicting Cheapoo the day before.

Private life

Some of Tolbert's children live in New York 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.[12]

See also


  1. ^ "President William R. Tolbert, Jr.", Daily Observer (Liberia), 16 September, 2005
  2. ^ a b c MSN Encarta, "Tolbert, William Richard, Jr."
  3. ^,_Jr.html "President William R. Tolbert, Jr.", Daily Observer (Liberia), 16 September, 2005]
  4. ^ "President William R. Tolbert, Jr.", Daily Observer (Liberia), 16 September, 2005
  5. ^ Kevin Shillington, Encyclopedia of African History
  6. ^ "President William R. Tolbert, Jr.", Daily Observer (Liberia), 16 September, 2005
  7. ^ Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. International Website
  8. ^ Peter Dennis (May 2006). A Brief History of Liberia. The International Center for Transitional Justice. Retrieved July 2007.  
  9. ^ (Dutch) Encarta - Encyclopedie 2001
  10. ^ The News (a Liberian Newspaper), Aug 6 2008 (retrieved 6-8 Aug.) CIA Agents Executed 1980 Coup
  11. ^ The News, Aug 7 2008 (retr. 7-8 Aug.) Harry Greaves, Tom Kamara, Others Linked
  12. ^ "Stephen A. Tolbert". Facts on File World News Digest: pp. Miscellaneous, Obituaries, p. 368 F3. May 24, 1975.  

Further reading

External links

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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