The Liberian dollar, until then officially treated as par to the American dollar, quickly sank to half the U.S. value.
A few years later, Doe and his vice president enrolled, to great fanfare, in a post-graduate political science course at the Ibrahim Babangida Institute of the University of Liberia. At the conclusion of the course, the head of the institute announced soberly that the semi-literate president had been the best student and the vice president the second-best.
From that point on, newscasters on the government broadcast stations routinely referred to Doe as "His Excellency, President Doctor Samuel Kanyon Doe."
But the comic-opera trappings masked a ruthless administration. Doe, who came to power in a coup, marked the very beginning of his regime with a bloodthirsty display: He invited the public to a beach in Monrovia to witness the executions of 13 senior officials of the ousted government of William R. Tolbert Jr., who was killed during his overthrow. The victims, condemned after casual show trials, included six Cabinet ministers, the chief justice, the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Bloodshed was always common among the higher echelons of the Doe government. Often it was colored by a Liberian penchant for ritual killings, in which human beings take the place of the cows, chickens and goats routinely sacrificed to ancestors and spirits in neighboring West African countries. Reports of bodies found at roadsides, stripped of various organs and drained of blood, were standard fare in Liberia's lurid press, and the perpetrators were often identified as members of the political elite.
Short of murder, Doe used a large arsenal of intimidating measures to keep political opponents and critical journalists at bay. In 1984, he unleashed his army on the campus of the University of Liberia, where students were protesting campus conditions and political repression. The wave of looting, flogging and rape that followed left the campus community stunned for years.
The editor of the opposition Daily Observer, Kenneth Y. Best, was jailed four times; the day after his latest release in 1986, the paper's offices were torched. Best rebuilt and resumed publishing, but the offices were burned again last March 17 by four men in military uniforms, according to a night watchman.
Two other newspapers, Footprints Today and the Sun Times, were banned, and last year Doe shut down the Roman Catholic Church's radio station, the only source of nongovernment broadcast reports reaching the countryside. The newspapers and radio station were allowed to reopen earlier this year, when Doe was desperate for good publicity on human-rights issues.
Strong political opponents were also jailed. They included Gabriel Kpolleh, head of the Liberian Unification Party, also recently released after two years in prison, and Sawyer, who had been chairman of the National Constitutional Drafting Commission and head of the banned Liberia Peoples Party.
By all accounts, prison conditions for the detainees were brutal. Most were incarcerated at the infamous Belle Yalla prison, located in a remote part of the country.
"This is a place that in the 20th Century should not exist in the world," said Rufus Darpoh, a Sun Times editor jailed there for six months under conditions of hard labor.
Doe's 1980 coup was not universally deplored when it ousted Tolbert, who did not have the popular support that had helped keep his predecessor, William V. S. Tubman, in power for 27 years. Tubman and Tolbert were both descendants of the American ex-slaves, a class known popularly in Liberia as "Congos," who had ruled the country since they arrived on its shores in a "back-to-Africa" movement in 1847.
By 1980, the successive Congo regimes had enriched a corrupt and feckless Liberian elite while the rest of the country suffered.
By contrast, Doe, who kept his existing rank of master sergeant at first but later promoted himself to general, was the first descendant of native Africans to run Africa's oldest independent state.
In 1985, Doe made a show of keeping his promise to return Liberia to civilian rule by legalizing political parties. But he chose to run for president himself. Two weeks after the vote, the government announced that Doe had won the presidency with 50.9% of the votes cast. An attempt by a coalition of opposition parties to challenge the results as transparently rigged was undermined when the U.S. State Department, in a report to Congress, accepted the outcome and even praised Doe for resisting the typical dictator's impulse to claim a majority of more than 90%.
By last year, the government was almost entirely out of business, unable to enforce even the few regulations or laws it tried to promulgate.
"The atmosphere here is like a gold-rush town," said one international banker in Monrovia, remarking on the flood of business charlatans infesting the streets and the inability of the government to police any activity.