Born in the town of Zurlay in 1955, Quiwonkpa was the son of subsistence farmers. At the age of sixteen, he joined the AFL. After finishing high school in 1978 through a programme at the Barclay Training Center, he received an assignment to the AFL's records department. He came to prominence on 12 April 1980 when he assisted Samuel Doe in a military coup that overthrew the Americo-Liberian government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. About a month later, the revolutionaries arrested AFL commander-in-chief Edwin Lloyd and other military leaders on charges of planning a countercoup. By mid-May, Quiwonkpa was proclaimed a major general and made the new AFL commander, although two months later he was using the title of brigadier general. Before long, he fell out with Doe; in 1983, Quiwonkpa was demoted and subsequently charged with an attempt to overthrow the Doe administration, forcing him to flee the country.
On 12 November 1985, one month after elections were held, Quiwonkpa, supported by about two dozen heavily armed men, covertly entered Liberia through Sierra Leone, and launched a coup against Doe. Bad timing, Quiwonkpa's unorthodox methods and lack of support from the United States resulted in a disastrous failure. Quiwonkpa was captured, killed (November 15) and mutilated by Krahn soldiers loyal to Doe. His killers then dismembered his body and reportedly ate parts of it. His body was publicly exhibited on the grounds of the Executive Mansion in Monrovia soon after his death.
Joe Wylie, later Deputy Minister of Defense in the NTGL, was among the group who launched the coup.
In a campaign of retribution against the coup plotters and their supporters, Doe's government launched a bloody purge against the Gio and Mano ethnic groups in Quiwonkpa's Nimba County, raising alarm about a possible genocide. Doe's slaughter of an estimated 3,000 people provoked ethnic rivalries that later fuelled the First Liberian Civil War.
- "General Quiwonkpa: A Profile". The Redeemer 1980-05-16: 7-8.
- "'We're Soldiers, Not Politicians', Says Gen. Quiwonkpa". The Redeemer 1980-07-25: 1.
- Ellis, Stephen (2002). The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Roots of an African Civil War. C. Hurst & Co. p. 146. ISBN 1-85065-417-4.
- Dickovick, J. Tyler (2008). The World Today Series: Africa 2012. Lanham, Maryland: Stryker-Post Publications. ISBN 978-1-61048-881-5.
- "How Quiwonkpa Was Killed". Daily Star 1985-11-18: 5.
- Adebajo, Adekeye (2002). Building Peace in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau. Lynne Rienner Publishers. ISBN 1-58826-077-1. p. 46