Dr. Justin Obi's Hanging - Part II
The murders in November of 1969 of the American-born Bishop, Rev. Dillard Brown, and his district secretary, a Syrian, infuriated the Liberian people. Riots erupted in the streets. Angry citizens voiced their frustration over the humiliation brought on the nation by a Nigerian professor.
Dr. Justin Obi, a chemistry teacher formerly employed by the Episcopal Church, drove to the Chase Manhattan Plaza in Monrovia and gunned down Rev. Brown and his associate, injuring two others in the attack.
In the 1960s, Dr. Obi taught at a college operated by the Episcopal Church but was terminated at some point during his tenure. He left the country and resided in the United States for an undetermined period until he reentered the country to take revenge on the Bishop.
He and the Bishop were engaged in a "woman palaver"
President Tubman, who was in office then, ordered his arrest. A country whose citizens held Westerns in high regard felt the killing of the foreigners tarnished their reputation. Market women banished Nigerian vendors from their marketplaces and refused to purchase their wares.
At Obi's trial in March of 1970, he attempted to use insanity as his defense, but the jury rejected his plea and found him guilty on all charges. The professor sat in prison for over a year with no pending warrant. President Tubman had allegedly declined to pass the sentence because of a scandalous rumor. The talk on the streets revealed Dr. Obi's motivation: he and the Bishop were engaged in a "woman palaver" over a British woman who also worked for the Episcopalian denomination.
When Tubman died in July 1971, President Tolbert wasted no time announcing Dr. Obi's sentence. The hanging would be the first in over twenty-five years. He rejected appeals for Obi's pardon from the Nigerian ambassador in Liberia and prominent members of the international community. The death penalty laid the foundation for Tolbert's ambitious plan to change the nation.
Tolbert's sentencing weighed heavy on Daddy, and when the execution date drew near, his usual upbeat demeanor turned depressive. He shared the Gospel with Dr. Obi and other inmates every time he visited. They grew close, and due to their extended Bible study and prayer sessions, Dr. Obi made a profession of faith.
I recall the day when Daddy left the house to attend the hanging. Women and children were not allowed to enter the premises, at least, that was our understanding. But on Sunday, when "The Liberia Star" newspaper came out, we got a front-row impression of the guillotined affair.
Daddy called us into the dining room and spread the paper on the table. A dime-sized image of the professor with a noose around his neck and a white fitted sheet over his head appeared in the picture's backdrop. In the foreground, a crowd of dark-skinned individuals faced the gallows, filling the entire front page. Smack in the middle of the masses was the round-shaped impression of a White balding head, which shone brighter than the rest on the black and white print.
Daddy touched the spot on the page with his shortened forefinger where his head appeared. The finger on his right hand with the tip cut off from being smashed in a screen door when he was a child.
A wet spot appeared on the newsprint, but when I looked up, there were no visible tears. What showed on Daddy's face was confidence. If I could have only read his mind.
Later that day, while playing in the sand, our yard man, John, told us his theory of why President Tolbert had hastily signed the death penalty.
“They all inside,”
“Who inside what?” Bertie asked.
“The government people. They use juju for power and protection. President Tolbert’s men wanted to use Obi’s body parts for ‘country medicine’ to keep the evil spirits away from the Honorable—the President himself.
“Dat what de say now.”
I wonder what had gone through Daddy’s mind back then. If he believed the rumors, he certainly did not let on. His friend, once a convicted murderer, now a brother in Christ, killed for the devil’s medicine?
No one could verify the gossip, but then again, Dr. Obi's body was never released to relatives for a proper burial, so I presume only those now dead and gone know the real truth.
Until President Tolbert’s demise in 1980, death by hanging became standard practice for convicted murderers in Liberia. Ritualistic killings also increased.
That’s why we were always on the lookout for heartmen.
~ a draft excerpt from my WIP memoir