The moral to this true story is simple. Please vote and speak out about your beliefs; they are precious rights.
Kpeedee Woiwar was a student in my calculus class in Liberia in 1980. I started there four months after a military coup had overthrown the unrepresentative and repressive government of the descendants of freed American slaves which had ruled over the majority of the native born population. Kpeedee and most of the students at Cuttington University were excited about the prospect of a new start with the new government. I recall him stopping me on campus to debate about whether capitalism or socialism would be better for African countries.
The military government outlawed all elections, even student council elections. In 1982, Kpeedee was appointed student council president. He and the six student council presidents of the vocational schools and the University of Liberia wrote an open letter to the head of government. They requested that students be given the right to vote in student council elections, and they published this letter in the country’s only newspaper. In addition to this plea for the vote, the letter included one accurate sentence critical of the government. The seven students were arrested by the military, charged with treason, convicted and sentenced to death — for one letter.
The day before the students were to be executed, the Head of State pardoned them in a carefully worded radio address. In that address, he said he would never pardon anyone again, a promise he kept. When Kpeedee came back on campus, students and faculty all realized that he had been tortured for the month he had been held. He was a broken man. He became an informant for the government. Freedom of speech died that day at that college — no student ever spoke openly again about politics or any controversial topic.
I left the following year, but in that time I could see the accumulating deterioration of the political and economic situation. The horrible Liberian civil war broke out in 1989. After the civil war the first election, which was far from free and fair, confirmed the brutal warlord Charles Taylor as president. His campaign included testimonies from people saying, “He murdered my father; I will vote for him.” The not-so-subtle threat was that if Taylor didn’t win, he would start the fighting again. Charles Taylor has now been convicted for crimes against humanity, and Liberia has a freely elected president. But the way back has been difficult and still has a long way to go.
The rights of voting and freedom of speech are the bedrock of liberty and democracy. Make sure you use them to preserve them.