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Chaos and brutality in Liberian politics

28 April 2017 at 20:40 | 4065 views

Opinion

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, USA.

The use of ethnicity in elections is not strange in Liberia’s political history. For instance, Liberia’s former president, William V.S. Tubman (photo) and his successor, William Tolbert, Jr., utilized tribal trappings to their respective personal and political advantages.

In the coming November 2017 presidential election in Liberia, ethnicity, tribal politics and native identity are advantageous, and therefore some candidates are using them to win the election.

To understand the above dynamics, it is imperative to first discuss the historical and political background of Liberia.

Background

Liberia was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a philanthropic organization established in 1817 in the United States to send Black ex-slaves back to Africa. ACS transported former slaves to Liberia from 1822 to the 1840s. It also shipped recaptured African slaves to Liberia in the early 1800s.

Though their settlement helped to stop slave trade in Liberia and assisted in the amelioration of tribal disputes, it created social cleavages and a hierarchy consisting of three levels: at the top were the self named Americo-Liberians, the American Black ex-slaves, followed by the Congos, the recaptured slaves. The natives whom they met on the land were at the bottom. This social stratification in many respects continues in the country.

In Liberia the American settlers were divided into two groups along color lines. The light-skinned settlers, the mulattoes, were children of the slave masters. In America, they included the house slaves. They took control of the administration of the Liberian colony and later the new nation, thanks to the ACS.

The dark-skinned settlers, who worked as plantation field slaves in the US, engaged in commerce and shipping in Liberia. They were initially excluded from the leadership of the new nation. Less than 10% of the Americo-Liberian settlers were literate, according to Tom Shicks’ emigration studies. Majority of that percentage constituted the mulattoes. The balance percentage were uneducated.

On the other hand, the Congos were pure Africans, non-English speaking people from the Niger-Congo delta, which included Nigeria, Niger, Benin and Congo. They were re-captured from slave ships traveling to the West Indies. The ACS put them under the tutelage or guardianship of the Americo-Liberians. The Society saw it fit to group all its subjects into a single unit. The ACS also felt that the Americo-Liberian settlers, as first arrivals, would help the Congos adjust to their new environment.

However, the Americo-Liberians suppressed the Congos, making them servants. This treatment forced the Congos to move upriver and build communities some of which were known as Congo settlements. The Congos engaged in sugar cane, cassava, firewood and other small scale agricultural efforts. In later years, the two groups have come together and now are generally called the Congo people. Sometimes they are also called Americo-Liberians as a dominant group.

Two factors that led to the unity were the occurrence of inter-marriages between the two groups and the declining number of the Americo-Liberians. In 1847, they declared Liberia an independent nation.

In the 1860s another group of emigrants, called the Careysburg group, came to Liberia with the help of Pastor Says, a Methodist minister. He made possible the emigration of several Black ex-slaves and Blacks from the West Indies to Liberia. They settled in Careysburg, which was established by the pastor as an experiment of rural living for the settlers.

Careysburg was named after Rev. Lotts Carey, an early settler who had died accidentally in a gun explosion while preparing to battle the natives. Careysburg is important in our discussion because many of the Liberian leaders came from this area; and it was a stronghold of Congoism. The settlement was negotiated with a Kpelle chief. Many residents now and before also speak Kpelle.

Another key settlement was Clay-Ashland, which was settled by 1855 by immigrants from Kentucky. It was named in honor of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and his town Ashland, Kentucky. Like Careyburg, Clay-Ashland is important because in 1869 it became the birthplace of the True Whig Party, which was an opposition party to the Republican Party. The settlement produced William David Coleman, who arrived in Liberia from Kentucky in 1855 and latter became president of the country.

Additional emigrations to Liberia followed, including the arrival of more people from the West Indies, especially Barbados and people from other African countries. The new settlers came to Liberia willingly and most were not ex-slaves. They included the Kings, the Sawyers, the Coles, the Jacobs and the Brights from Nigeria by way of Sierra Leone. The Wilsons (i.e. Dash Wilson) and others later who changed their names to Tubman, came from Togo. The Barclays from Barbados; they came with the latter settlers in 1865. Many of the Barbados immigrants and their descendants engaged in journalism and started local dailies, such as the Crozerville Observer by pamphleteer Albert Porte. Another journalist was John Russwurm, founding editor of the Liberian Herald, published by Charles Force. From journalism, many settlers went into politics.

Like journalism, many settlers became pastors and later politicians. The political party, the Masonic Craft and the church became the institutions perpetuating the Americo-Liberians’ rule, as discussed in “Minority Rule in Liberia: The Dynamics of Institutions”, an academic paper. Most Liberian presidents have been members of the craft. Meanwhile, the pulpits served as society watchdogs, guarding against ills of the community but believing in minority rule and control.

Further, specifically the immigrants from other African countries were recruited. Having limited educated people and upon acquiring territories in the hinterland, the Liberian government was unable to run the country and therefore needed more skilled manpower to help in the public administration of the country. The government appointed Edward Blyden to assist in bringing qualified people to Liberia.

The new comers, including other new arrivals, joined the Congos and were treated better and given opportunities over the natives. By the turn of the 19th century, the total population of all the settlers was estimated at 10,000-12,000, consisting of about and controlled by 25 ruling families. The native population was about 100,000-200,000.

The Barclays, the Kings, the Coopers and the Tolberts were among the ruling families in Montserrado County while the Cheesemans, the Howards from Grand Bassa County, the Grisbys, the Greens, the Witherspoons from Sinoe County, the Simpsons from Grand Cape Mount and the Tubmans and later the Gibsons and Andersons dominated Maryland County. In order to retain their class political status and to stay in power, they positioned their children in the government.

Back to the early settlers. The Americo-Liberian elite saw an opportunity in their new environment to become masters. They considered the natives, who had welcomed them to the country, inferior and mistreated and oppressed them. A US document discusses this further.

While the ruling elite lived and prospered, achieving respect they could never obtain in America, they failed to include native Liberians into their power base. In fact, they took their land, taxed them, enslaved them and controlled their trade.

Moreover, the settlers banned interior native Liberians from traveling to other parts of the country. This restriction was called the 40-mile ratio boundary law, enacted after Liberia’s independence.

The settler elite needed labor to assist in domestic functions. The government therefore instituted the ward system through which native children were put in the homes of Congo families. The children worked basically as domestic servants. Most were given the family names of the settlers and became part of the family. This system somewhat resembled the indenture servant practice, which occurred in other countries.

While many wards benefited from this system, it was grossly abused. “Many natives of the ward system grew up behaving like the Congos or more than the Congos”, as stated in ‘Brief Early History of Liberia’, an unpublished document. Behavior of the ward was similar to that of the “Uncle Toms” in America …. Blacks who act like Whites, behave like Whites, and would do anything for their White masters.

The settlers denied the natives citizenship of the new independent nation. Faced with domestic economic conditions and with international pressures against exclusion, by 1912, the government under Arthur Barclay extended citizenship to the entire native majority. To gain citizenship, natives had to forgo their right to be ruled by their authorities. The rule by tribal kings in the rural areas was replaced by rule by paramount chiefs and by superintendents appointed by the president.

Natives also gave up the right to public land in their locations, as the state became owner or custodian of land. But in the urban areas, i.e. Monrovia, where the settlers resided, land was privately owned by the Americo-Liberians.

The settlers’ practice to forcibly take tribal land had principally resulted in continued tribal wars, resistance, and conflicts with the settlers since 1822. Individual tribal group like the Gola, the Gbandi, the Vai, the Lorma, the Kpelle, the Kru, the Bassa, the Deys and the Grebo, fought them fiercely. Many times the US Navy gunboats defended and militarily supported the settlers. (Davis, Ronald: 1975; Kappel, Robert: 1980; Akpan, Monday: 1986; Abasiattai, Monday: 1987, 1988)

The granting of citizenship to the natives did not come with the right to vote. The advocacy for voting rights for the native majority was of concern to the settler minority. The elite feared that granting such a right would give power to the majority. Yekutiel Gershoni also noted this factor thus: “The Americo-Liberians’ fear that with the active participation of Africans, who represented a majority in the country, in the political and social life of the Republic, the Americo-Liberians might be overrun by the Africans”.

But under President William Tubman the native majority gained voting rights in 1946. As Gershoni again observed, the president stopped “the 40-mile boundary law that restricted natives from coming to the cities inhabited largely by the settlers”. Tubman’s action encouraged rural-urban migration, village people migrating to the cities. This increased fear among the elite. More country people were now coming to live next door or among the ruling class.

The president, however, calmed the fear of the settler elites by strengthening the True Whig Party, the pillar of the Americo-Liberian political dynasty, by continually making Liberia a one-party state and by perpetuating the settlers in power. Tubman ruled Liberia for 27 unbroken years. The True Whig Party rule ended in 1980.

In short, the above indicates the class division, the social stratification and the political domination within the country. The below discusses some of the methods Tubman employed for him and the settlers to maintain power. These methods included the tribalization of politics and the utilization of settler ethnicity.

Tubman’s strategies and ethnic politics

Tubman’s control of Liberia and the use of tribalism and Congoism were skillfully implemented. Studies show that past Liberian politicians utilized tribalism and ethnicity to their advantage.

Tubman as a boy wanted to become a minister of the Lord. His parents came to Liberia in 1844 as freed slaves from Georgia. His father Alexander Tubman was a Methodist pastor and the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives.

At first the son Tubman started as a poor man’s lawyer; he became a senator at the age of 28. Because of his young age, the elite in Monrovia tried to stop him from taking his seat as a senator from his home county, Maryland. But the people of Maryland demanded his sitting in parliament or else the county would send no other senator. “No Tubman, no senator”, they cried.

As a lawyer, he served as a legal adviser to President Charles B. Dunbar and especially to Vice President Allen Yancey in an international case or investigation involving forced labor and slavery of native Liberians in Fernando Po. Moreover, as a rising star, he married Antoinette Louise Padmore, daughter of a first cousin of sitting President Edward Barclay. The president was close to the daughter and sponsored her education in Europe. By marrying her, Tubman became Barclay’s in-law and got closer to the president. Barclay appointed Tubman as an associate justice.

Barclay’s term to the presidency was about to be over and the established politicians in Montserrado County, the seat of the ruling autocracy or elite, were hoping that Barclay would select one of them as his successor. But to their surprise, the president picked Tubman, an outsider from Maryland County. “The Rock Town Boys”, a Montserrado County elite group, disfavored the selection.

Tubman became Barclay’s successor in 1944. To stop opposition from the Rock Town Boys, he dropped Vice President Clarence Simpson of Cape Mount County in the following election and chose Representative Benjamin Freeman from Careysburg, Montserrado County as his new VP. He also offered some members key positions in the government. But unfortunately, Freeman died on the eve of inauguration day.

Tubman then selected junior House Representative William Tolbert, Jr., son of Rev. William Tolbert, Sr. from Bensonville, near Careysburg, Montserrado County. The father, a settler from the US, was chairman of the True Whip Party and a member of the house of representatives. He was powerful in the county and influential in the religious community. Tubman thus had the Rock Town Boys and other members of the elite in his pocket.

1951 elections

In the 1951 election, Tubman faced Didwho Welleh Twe, a native Liberian of the Kru tribe. Twe was a former representative in the Liberian Legislature. Twe had a distinguished mark on his forehead, culturally identifying him as a Kru. The tribe is one of the strongest and popular ethnic groups in Liberia. Moreover, besides being a skillful politician, Twe was a wealthy man with a large farm still called Twe farm in the Dullai area in Monrovia.

As a former commissioner in the Liberian interior, Twe was also well known and respected among the natives. His political party, the United People Party, which later became the Reformation Party, had members of native and Congo backgrounds. This composition gave the party a broad based appeal.

Mr. Patterson, Twe’s son in-law and secretary, in a 1973 interview, read to me Twe’s nomination acceptance address and a speech delivered during an Independence Day celebration in which the candidate talked about the settler-native divide and the need to give a native similar constitutional rights to seek the nation’s highest office. He predicted a democratic change coming to Liberia from the East. Also in the acceptance address under the theme, “Nothing is Permanent”, Twe said that empires in the world had come and gone and as the night changes to day so will Liberia change. Twe then called to Tubman saying, “If you know what I know and see what I see, you will not hesitate to grant me the presidency."

Tubman did not take the convention address kindly and responded negatively, stating:

"Mr. Twe and his adherents complain that for hundred and four years of the independence of this country, no aborigine had had the honor of being president. (Who) does he call aborigine, he and his dangling group of a fifth of the Kru tribe? I protest! I contest his misconceived notion. HRN Johnson, Daniel Edward Howard, Charles Burgess King, Edwin Barclay and William S. Tubman are all aborigines and indigenous people of this country, for we were born, bred and reared here."

As Siahyonkron Nyanseor commented on the reaction, Twe was not the one who made the distinction. It was the settlers who historically viewed one group of Liberians as Americo-Liberians and another as native or tribal Africans.

Tubman knew that Twe would easily win the election because of Twe’s native background. Twe was the first native to seek the Liberian presidency. To overcome this challenge, Tubman branded Twe a tribalist, a divisive figure, an inherent traitor, and a sophisticated bigot. Tubman went further…… he declared that Twe was from the Settra Kru, a low section of the Kru tribe. Tubman maintained that Twe was not a real Kru and did not have support of the majority of Kru people.

Certainly the Settra Kru or sometimes called Nana Kru are in Sinoe County and are considered among some Krus as less important with less educated people. Tubman began influencing well known Kru people from established Kru sections, including Grandcess, Sasstown, and Sanguine. They are the sea coast Krus with many educated people, most of whom were desirous of government jobs. The government then and now was the main employer in Liberia.

Tubman was successful in the above strategy as many educated Krus began denouncing Twe. They felt that Twe, as a lesser Kru, did not deserve to be president. Apparently, they believed that the quest for such position should have come from one of them. They also may have feared that a Twe administration would give power and influence to a low section of the tribe and could affect them.

The late Dominique Nimley, a Kru from Grandcess, indicated in an interview in 1997 that many educated Krus did not support Twe but supported Tubman because of Twe’s low ethnic background.

However, Twe was well educated. He graduated from Rhode Island University in the United States and had a Master’s degree. He also studied agriculture at Harvard University and Columbia University. Twe was a member of the American Political Science Society and was sponsored by US Congressional Representative William Grout, Senator John Morgan of Vermont and Alabama respectively and by the American great writer, Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain. Many Liberians in the US supported his candidacy. For example, Thorgue Sie, a well educated Grandcess Kru living in America returned home to work in the Twe campaign.

Tubman and his operatives frustrated the opposition party. They denied it registration with the election commission by instructing then the election commissioner, Hon. James Cooper, the owner of Cooper Farm, and a former presidential aspirant, to leave town and close his office. Consequently, the party was unable to register on time. A slogan, which was popular all over the country, was - “You Too Late You Lost Your Chance”, meaning the party was late to register. The government employed a somewhat death squad called “You too late”, which harassed and caused the disappearing and deaths of some supporters of the opposition party.

Because Twe, a native Liberian, utilized his constitutional right to seek the presidency, Tubman called him a tribalist and other names. The opposition appealed the denial to the Supreme Court but lost. All the justices were Americo-Liberians. Government forces arrested and jailed party members who attempted to publicly demonstrate. Twe’s life was threatened; he fled into exile in Sierra Leone. The party died! Tubman went on to win the election unopposed.

Tubman placated some opposition members. He instituted an organization called PRO (Public Relation Officers), which served as information operatives, reporting and spying on people, doing CIA work on citizens. The PR Officers were paid by Liberian taxed dollars. This brought fear among the Liberian people.

Tubman implemented needed reforms such as the women suffrage, enabling women to vote, and the establishment of the national unification policy, bringing the natives and the Congos together. He constructed a ‘Native Mansion’ in Monrovia for the temporary staying of visiting chiefs from the interior.

One chief praised Tubman, calling him a very good president, who brought country and civilized people together. “We the tribal men can now mix up with civilized people freely and nobody is looking down on us. We can eat at the same table, shake hands and dance with the civilized men and women”. The chief ended by calling on Tubman “to be president until you die”.

Here the chief made a distinction of two groups of Liberians, but Tubman did not call him a tribalist, because he was praising Tubman and wanting Tubman to stay in power until judgment day. The statement was in Tubman’s interest, so the chief was showing good citizenship.

The reforms and subsequent praises however caused resentment among the ruling Americo-Liberian elite. They saw the move as Tubman turning power over to the natives. But at the same time, it created a positive sense of new tribalism as many educated natives returned to their tribal identities to what some observers called “the re-tribalization of natives”. Some educated natives replaced their Western suits with native gowns or country clothing; some changed their surnames regaining their traditional names such as Fahnbulleh.

Further, educated natives became superintendents of newly created counties; city based native elite employed in the government began visiting their villages to identify with their kinsmen and to speak their tribal languages. Previously, most educated natives avoided speaking publicly their respective tribal languages. They discouraged and did not teach their children to speak their mother tongue”. As Gus Liebenow noted, some natives engaged in autocratic embrace, behaving or acting Congo in order to be accepted by the Congos.

Again the Congo elite found this new ethnicity unwelcoming, seeing it as a threat to their power. They complained to the president and suggested for him to go slow with the changes. Despite the complaints and suggestion, Tubman continued with the reforms as they increased his popularity in the country. He wore a country gown at tribal functions, and particularly in his home county Maryland, people called him a Grebo native man. Tubman, a native man, and no one complained or accused him of tribalism.

The ruling elite did not complain of his tribalism because they knew he was not a native man. But when a real native expressed, showed and demonstrated pride of his ethnicity, then the Congo Liberians complained. Certainly to be Congo or to act Congo was alright. Congoism, Americo-Liberianism, entailing the monopolization of power, the selection of Congo over native and the marginalization of natives and their culture was considered a true Liberian way.

1955 election

The election of 1955 can be called in Liberia the election of the century. It was a race between the teacher and the student or the father versus the son. Former president Edward Barclay challenged President Tubman. Why did Barclay, who was comfortably retired, come out to challenge his in-law and protégé? The narrative below answers the question.

Having resisted petitions to challenge Tubman and having patiently tried and unable to change Tubman’s mind regarding the reforms, Barclay finally agreed to enter the race against Tubman. He did so mainly because Tubman freed from prison members of the “Bamboo Society”, a group from the Vai tribe accused of an assassination attempt on President Barclay. Barclay jailed them and refused to pardon them before leaving office.

Barclay believed that Tubman’s action to free his enemies was a personal attack, an affront, and that Tubman’s reforms were intentionally geared to publicly disgrace him. He informed the Liberian people of his regrets to have supported a man whom he did not know very well and to have selected him as his successor to the presidency.

Nevertheless Tubman had the upper hand. As a sitting president, he had all the power of the office at his disposal. Secondly, he mastered all the “tricks “ and strategies Barclay had taught him, some of which he (Tubman) had used on Twe through Barclay’s advice.

However, Barclay was also popular and many of the Congos in the party and many of the natives in Twe’s defunct party supported him. Further, many of the natives in the rural areas, where Barclay had visited during his presidency, supported him. They included Grandcess and Barclayville, a capital named after him while in office. Some people insinuated that Barclay was from Barclayville and that he was Kru. Really, he was born in Brewerville in Montserrado County. His paternal grandparents came from Barbados, West Indies.

To get more native votes, Barclay chose Nettie-Sie Brownell as his running mate. Brownell was Grebo and from Maryland County. He was the father of the just deceased Mary Brownell. He was nationally popular, especially in the Southeast of Liberia.

The Krus in Claratown and in other places in Monrovia marched with placards in support of the former president. “Barclay is a man”, they shouted as they marched. Teacher Jugbeh, a former representative in the Liberian congress and a leader in the Twe party, was an organizer of the demonstration. My mother, a market woman residing in Claratown, marched in that demonstration. She was not political and maybe she and others were told to march.

Apparently, the Krus had forgotten that it was the Barclay administration which used heavy force against the Kru resistance in the 1930s and caused the deaths of many Krus, including Warrior King, Senyon Juah Nimley.

On the other hand, some of the Vai, particularly families of the freed prisoners, did not support Barclay for the reason that if elected, he would retaliate against them. Barclay was nominated and became the standard bearer of the Independent True Whip Party, a break away group of the ruling True Whip Party.

The election was held in May, 1955. Tubman defeated Barclay by a landslide and thoroughly. According to results, Tubman won 99.5% of the votes, Barclay 5% and William Bright of the Independent Presidential Party received 0% or 16 votes.

To punish members of the opposition and to stop further political challenges, Tubman is said to have used “a play from the playbook” of Barclay. Accordingly, within two months after the election, a marked man named Paul Dunbar was arrested for an alleged assassination attempt on the president at the Centennial Pavilion, where Tubman was attending a function. Dunbar confessed and named the plotters. Barclay’s party was implicated. The government security arrested and jailed some leading members of the party. Jailed members included Thomas Nimene Botoe, Kru governor in Monrovia, Gbafleh Davies, party organizer, S. Raymond Horace, legal adviser of the party, and Nettie-Sie Brownell, former Attorney General and vice presidential candidate to Barclay.

Samuel David Coleman, a key member of the opposition, escaped arrest as the government security approached him at his Coleman Hill residence. He was a son of former president William David Coleman, who resigned the presidency in part due to disagreement with the government’s native policy.

The government army chased and killed Samuel Coleman and his son on his farm in Bomi County. The son, John Coleman, had just returned from studies in the US before meeting his death. The government publicly displayed the bodies in Monrovia to warn future opposition politicians. Barclay, however, was not arrested nor harmed. His party died just as Twe’s. Barclay died within months of that year.

It should be noted that Samuel Coleman’s father, President William Coleman, was accused of the massacre of over 10 chiefs of Gola, Vai, Mandingo and Kpelle tribes who, by government invitation, had come to Monrovia to attend a tribal peace conference. The invitees were gunned down by the government troops. Perhaps the authorities feared that tribal unity would have threatened the power of the settler ruling class.

Coleman, a president who had advocated for better relations with the interior people, was embarrassed by the massacre and therefore resigned. While his enemies in the government welcomed the resignation, it created a succession problem because the Secretary of State was made president instead of the vice president or the Speaker of the house.

That massacre occurred in the late 1800s, by 1895. In the early 1900s, another atrocity happened. As documented by Anthony Morgan, Jr., in 1930, the government killed native chiefs for testifying to an international investigation. “……. Another orgy of revenge was carried out on those chiefs who had testified before the commission. Towns and villages were razed and more chiefs executed, imprisoned, fined, flogged and humiliated in front of their people.”

The investigation concerned Fernando Po, an island in Equatorial Guinea. Liberian natives from the Southeast were forcibly recruited to work there as laborers. President King and his Vice President Yancey allegedly received a commission per recruited worker. Many natives died on the job. Their insurance benefits were not paid to their families but reportedly shared by the president and his VP. The investigation, conducted by a League of Nations team found the King and Yancey government guilty. Hence, they were forced to resign.

Also, in addition to the above atrocity, the government in retaliation expelled Didhwo Twe from his congressional representative position for criticizing the government and for informing the world regarding the incident. This was prior to Twe’s candidacy.

Barclay, secretary of state under King, became president after the resignation and, as stated earlier, was succeeded by Tubman. Tubman stopped further opposition to his (Tubman) rule and to that of the Congo establishment.

In 1968, Tubman imprisoned Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh, a Vai, who was Liberian Ambassador to Kenya and jailed James Gbyeyea, Robert Kennedy and Gabriel Fangarlow, superintendents of Bong County, Loffa County and Nimba County respectively for an alleged attempt to overthrow the Americo-Liberian government. The accused were all natives. Tubman kept them in jail until his demise.

It should be stated also that in the second term of the King administration, in 1924, Henry Too Wesley became King’s vice president. Wesley was Grebo from Maryland County and his position was the highest ever for a native under settler rule. He was succeeded by Yancey also from Maryland County.

. William Tolbert’s presidency

Tubman’s successor, President William Tolbert, a fellow Americo-Liberian, utilized tribalism when he spoke Kpelle, a native language, in his first inaugural address. By speaking Kpelle, Tolbert was considered a Kpelle man, a native man. He received praises for his speech in the native tongue. No one complained and no one accused him of tribalism.

Like Tubman, he knew that in order to become popular among the native people, he must identify with them. He joined the Poro Society, a native secret society. He brought more educated natives into the government. The Americo-Liberian elite accused him of “letting the peasants into the kitchen”.

But at the same time, some of his policies were geared to keep the Americo-Liberians/Congos in power. He brought some meaningful reforms, including making Liberia to develop relations with Eastern European nations and to take progressive action in accordance with African unity and solidarity.

Tolbert was between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, a domestic progressive group, demanded more reforms; and on the other, the old guard, Americo-Liberian political elite, urged him to stop. Meanwhile, he faced international pressure; he had broken diplomatic ties with Israel and was not having better relations with Liberia’s traditional friend, the US.

Sadly, he was faced with the prevalent wind of change while trying to hold the reins of power. Against the interests and advice of the elite, Tolbert allowed the registration of the opposition party, Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), whose political leader was Gabriel Baccus Mathews, a former Tolbert diplomat turned radical and revolutionary.

However, Tolbert’s domestic policy promoted nepotism and cronyism in line with Americo-Liberianism. His brother, Steve Tolbert, Minister of Finance, forcibly bought out some major companies and controlled the economy. The president’s son, AB Tolbert, a senator, was positioned to become president one day. The president’s daughter married Shad Tubman, President Tubman’s son, who was also a senator and a possible successor. The marriage may have been arranged for continuation of power among the two families.

Samuel Doe presidency

As known, the 1980 coup brought an end to the rule and domination of the Americo-Liberians. The coup members were all natives. Although the Americo-Liberians were no longer in power, they controlled the structural economy, because they owned major properties in the country. The coup leader, Samuel Doe, a Krahn, became the new head of state.

The People’s Redemption Council (PRC), the governing entity set up by the junta, included civilian Liberians of various tribal groups and Congos. However, the Doe government was criticized for its inclusion of members of Doe’s ethnic group. Doe was accused of tribalism. Yet a critical examination of the composition of his cabinet compared to that of Tolbert and Tubman factually shows the Doe cabinet makeup was more inclusive than those of his predecessors’ administrations.

For instance, the 1964/65 cabinet of Tubman had two natives, Augustus F. Caine, a Vai, as secretary of education or instruction and K. Johnson, a Grebo, as secretary of the interior. Doe’s cabinet ministers or officials included Liberians of Congo ancestry. The number of Krahn people in ministerial and other positions in the Doe administration was very small, a fraction of all officials in key positions.

TheDoe government was credited for accomplishing and bringing more infrastructural development compared to other administrations in the history of Liberia. The administration built government ministries enabling the government to save money from paying building rents to private landlords, most of who were of the former ruling class. Additionally, according to a UNICEF report, during the Doe government, Liberia’s literacy rate quadrupled in ten years more than the rates of both Tubman and Tolbert administrations combined.

But his administration was corrupt just as Tubman’s and Tolbert’s. Also, the Doe government was accused of human rights violations, including freedom of speech.

Not all Congo people suppressed natives. Many helped Liberians of indigenous background. Regardless, most of the Congos felt and currently some feel superior over native people and believe that Congo people should rule Liberia.

Indeed, the Congo operatives did everything possible to bring down the Doe government. Anti-Doe sentiment fueled by tribalism and Americo-Liberianism resulted in the Liberian civil war, which ended the Doe administration. Doe died in 1990 in the civil war. He was the first native Liberian president, and so far, the only elected president of full native background.

2017 Election

In the coming November 2017 presidential election, there have been exchanges of words between the Vice President Joseph Boakai’s camp and the Liberty Party’s Counselor Charles Brumskine campaign, accusing each other regarding President Ellen Sirleaf’s alleged support of the Liberty Party and regarding statement of tribalism. The VP is of the Kissi tribe and the counselor is a Congo.

VP Boakai, the standard bearer of the ruling Unity Party, said in an interview with FrontPage Africa that the president does not support his presidential candidacy. The vice president stated that he is not the one saying it, but people are voicing that the president is supporting the Liberty Party, whose standard bearer is counselor Brumskine.

Brumskine, in a reply, rubbished the assertion, saying that the VP is not only wrong, but is being divisive, by calling one candidate a Congo and the other a native.
Certainly Brumskine has publicly stated that he is a Bassa and now is the time for a Bassa to become president. Bassa is one of the Liberian tribes. Counselor Brumskine is from Bassa County, one of the 15 counties in Liberia. Many of his party officials are said to be Bassa.

But the Boakai camp has been broadcasting that the VP is a true son of the soil, a native Liberian. They have been preaching this message repeatedly in the media. Apparently, the Boakai people believe that tribal sentiment would benefit the vice president. They could be right.

Majority of the voting population in Liberia are natives, or the natives are in the majority. In an unscientific opinion poll, majority of those polled said that they would not vote for the ruling Unity Party for a third term. But when asked, who would they vote for if the election were held today? Many said Joseph Boakai. When asked why they said because he is a native son, an indigene, a son of the soil.

Should a person be elected president because of his/her tribal or ethnic background? Many Liberians think so. Senator Prince Johnson has indicated that a country person, a native, should become president. Senator Moral’s recent support for Vice President Boakai attests to the role of ethnicity in the election. The senator said:
"There (are) two groups of people in this country, one with the pioneers’ heritage and the other with ancestor’s heritage. For twelve years, we have had one group ruling this country. I think we need to have another group ruling this country if you want to bring equity to the democratic process."

Emmanuel Saingbe, a Liberian in the US, indicated that Congo people have been ruling Liberia for over 130 years and have nothing to show for it. "It is time for native Liberians to start closing the gap by electing Boakai," he said.

Ambassador Boakai has been vice president for over 11 years. The ruling Unity Party, of which he is the number two person, is viewed to be ineffective, has done little or has failed in improving conditions for the Liberian people, according to opinions of Liberians. In a poll recently conducted by a radio station, majority of the callers gave the administration a very low grade. They voiced that they would not vote the party back into power. Yet because of the tribal background of the vice president, some Liberians say that the party should continue to lead.

Negative tribalism, i.e. the view that a person should become leader merely because of his/her tribal background, is unhealthy and it can cause corruption and undevelopment. It makes a leader to take advantage of the people whom he/she leads. The leader may be unproductive, but would continue to be elected because of his ethnic background. Negative tribalism or ethnicity believes that people should be favored because of their tribal or ethnic background. It is divisive; it does not promote diversity and national unity. It believes that one group is better than the other.

However, Americo-Liberian ethnocentrism is as bad as native tribalism. Moreover, Americo-Liberians or Congos appear to have a stronger negative-ethnic practice or feeling than native Liberians. Americo-Liberians generally feel that native people should remain subject to them, that Liberia should be ruled by them, that the presidency is their entitlement, a birthright passed to them by their forebears. The attitude to have it all, land, property, good things and power without consideration of the masses, has helped create social cleavages and unrest. This feeling or thought is historical, examples of which this paper has discussed.

The settlers, the Americo-Liberians, though they had experienced the worst human treatment (in America as slaves) and were uneducated, felt superior over the natives in Liberia. They separated themselves from the majority and excluded them from the new independent nation, even though the land they declared independent, rightfully belonged to the natives.

What all this means

Tribalism and Congoism will unfortunately impact this election. Some tribal Liberians and Congos will use their respective backgrounds in this election. So far, the VP Boakai, Counselor Brumskine camps and Senator Prince Johnson are exploiting tribalism in the election.

For Boakai, “there seems to be a consensus across the landscape about him being representative of the indigenous leader the country has been yeaning for many years”, said Stephen Johnson. Josephus Gray pointed out in an article that considering the poor performance of the Unity Party, it would take magic to win the election. “There is no Unity Party phenomenon around, the party will need magic to maintain its reign”, he directly stated.

Some observers see the magic by the Boakai camp separating him from the Sirleaf failed Unity government and arguing that Boakai, in his capacity as vice president, does what the president tells him to do. He has no power. The VP made this point in his recent interview with the BBC.

Here the vice president is taking credits for the limited successes of the administration but distancing himself from its many failures. Projecting the VP as an honest and incorruptible man, who rose from poverty to respectable statesmanship is one strategy to turn on the magic wand.

The main strategy, however, appears to be promoting Vice President Boakai as a native son, a son of the soil. This strategy is geared specifically to influence the native masses; most are unable to analyze and to put Boakai and the administration as one entity. Promoting the vice president’s native background to some educated Liberians, mostly of tribal background, is secondary. This approach seems to be working as shown.

Brumskine has criticized that yes, the vice president may have been poor in the past, the VP is a very rich man with an annual office budget over two million dollars, including a personal salary. Also a radio caller recently complained that the vice president with all the wealth, the money, has done little for the poor, his own people. The caller, a neighbor of the VP, further pointed out that Vice President Boakai is the only one in the community with electricity, yet sends out spies at night to find out if the poor neighbors are stealing current from the VP. The vice president nevertheless has been praised for honesty and for calmness in dealing with issues.

The vice president is not the only indigenous candidate in the election. There are other candidates who are natives. For instance, Prof. Togba Nah Tipoteh, Senator Prince Johnson and Senator George Weah are native sons.

Tipoteh is Kru and has been in Liberia since the civil war. He has been in the struggle for justice for the poor. He has many followers, particularly in the Grand Kru County or in the Southeast.

Senator Prince Johnson is Gio. He is senator from Nimba County, one of the vote-rich counties in Liberia. He has stated repeatedly that a native should be elected president this year. Nimba is his stronghold. He took third place in the 2011 presidential election. He won the county twice as a senator in the past two senatorial elections. He is the political leader of the Movement for Democratic Reconstruction (MDR).

Weah is Kru and Bassa and has a strong Nimba and Grand Gedeh connection, a connection which only could be good nationally for national reconciliation, specifically uniting the Nimbanians and the Grand Gedeins to end the long tribal conflict. Personally however, with that background and connection, Weah could play the tribal and the regional card and together with his stronghold in Montserrado County, to get votes and could easily win the election. It appears that the Weah camp is not playing that card right now, but is focusing on the party’s grassroots base and on Weah’s national concern, care and inspirational appeal.

Recently, presidential candidate Alexander Cummings, dressed in a colorful native gown, rode in a hammock carried by natives on their shoulders. To him and his campaign, the exercise was to show appreciation of tribal culture and tradition. What they failed to know was that such demonstration represents slavery, colonialism and human degradation. In colonial days and in the ugly past of Liberia, native people were forced to hammock the settler elite and other government officials visiting the interior. Natives served as human transportation in part due to the lack of vehicles or animal transport. Sometimes officials urinated while in the hammock.

Cummings, a Congo, was trying to be native by utilizing what he thought was a tribal thing to win votes. He should have known better. Even if he was asked to be carried, he should have, as an educated modern man and a candidate preaching change, avoided any implication of colonial elitism and human humiliation. After all, he is an able bodied man who could have walked with the people. His camp is informing voters that he is Grebo, and sometimes he is projected as a Krahn.

Another candidate is the All Liberian Party’s Benoni Urey, who is on record for saying that the next Liberian president should come from within the Masonic Craft. In a speech to members of the Craft on 6/29/15, Urey said; “Brethren, I want to let you know that the new Liberia that we all are striving to build for our people must be led by one of our kind”. Such statement is Americo-Liberianism.

Historically, the Liberian Freemasons had been the society advancing the Americo-Liberian behavior of political control and the domination of the True Whip Party over the Liberian people. In the past, it served as the meeting ground where the ruling class assembled to discuss and decide secretly important national matters. It ran the affairs of the country behind closed doors. It promoted corruption and impunity.

To say that a president should come from a particular association or club is to also say that the president should come from a certain tribe or group. In order words, candidate Urey’s statement is not different from Prince Johnson’s call for a tribal man to be president.

But at least Urey is not saying that he is a native man or a tribal man, and he is not grabbing tribal symbols in order to become president. Regarding his Masonic Craft statement, some of his supporters are pointing out that candidate George Weah is also a member of the craft.

It has been reported recently that there is a discussion between Urey’s and Prince Johnson’s camps for possible coalition of their parties for the election. Urey needs Johnson’s Nimba votes and Johnson, contradicting his previous stance, needs Urey’s money. Urey is considered in Liberia the richest man in the country.

Although Johnson says that he wants to head the proposed coalition because he has the number and the experience, principally he wants to be the standard bearer because he is a native, and on the other hand, Urey’s desire for number one would be based largely on his ethnic background as expressed in his speech to the Masonic Craft.

Playing political tribalism could brand a candidate as a tribalist, as happened to Twe and could alienate and stop voters from other tribes and voters of Congo background to his/her camp. Also, biased media could exploit this behavior and make it a target in election reporting.

I agree with Jones Nhinson Williams, a prolific Liberian writer, in his assertion that tribalism is dangerous for national unity and development. But I disagree with him for seeing tribalism as the only evil and for failing to note the impacts of Americo-Liberianism or Congoism. The latter behavior has in essence given rise to tribalism.
Regrettably, many Liberians point to native people as the only cause of tribalism and for the national divide and forget to also look at the other side. Kola Yumo, another Liberian, commented on the situation. “As soon as someone shouts ‘tribalism’, their eyes turn to the natives, as if the Congos are not tribalistic”.

While Williams mentioned VP Boakai as a qualified candidate for the presidency, the writer seems to suggest that candidates of settler background are best suited to become president in election 2017.

Like in the US, White racism and the marginalization of African Americans gave birth to “Black Power” and to the pronouncement of “I am Black, I am proud” in the 60s.

I am not calling for native power; rather, I am saying that the behavior of the settlers and their descendants started the division. For example, why did the ex-slaves, upon settlement in Liberia, named themselves Americo-Liberians, and not just Liberians? They did so obviously to divide and separate themselves from the natives.

Congos and their native bagboys speak against tribalism or tribal politics, but if it is convenient for them, they would use it to achieve the desired goal. They frown on public discussions of the Congo-Country divide, they speak of the need for unity, that all Liberians are one, that there is no Congo and Country and that Liberians should talk only about the present and not about the past, but deep down in their hearts, they want to, or think they should be, number one; they should rule Liberia. They continue to exhibit past behaviors. In other words, the descendants of the settlers uphold the philosophy of their forebears.

My Story

Let me tell you a true story.

I have a boyhood friend; in Liberia, we attended the same elementary school and did things together as if we were blood brothers. We left separately for the US as teenagers, lived together many times. As adults, our friendship grew stronger. We finished school and married with our respective families. God has blessed us.
We openly talk Liberian politics and discuss the social conditions in Liberia. He is an Americo-Liberian or Congo by birth and I am Kru. We see no major differences between us. Liberia is our country, and we are all Liberians.

In America, he bought a new house and had returned from a trip abroad, so three years ago, he invited me to visit him and his family and to see the house. One evening while we sat in the living room watching a show, he said:
“Nyanfore, I want to become president of Liberia”. I paid no attention and focused on watching the show.
“Nyanfore”, he said louder touching my shoulder and wanting my attention.
“I want to run for the presidency of Liberia 2017”, he continued. He had gotten my attention now.
“O ya, are you kidding”? I asked.
“I am not kidding, I am serious” he replied. I know that he is an American citizen, therefore I asked again.
“So how about your American citizenship, and how about the 10 years residency clause required for presidential candidacy? You have been away from Liberia for over 15 years”. I pointed out and added,
“You know you can not be an American citizen and want to become president of Liberia; and the 10 years clause will affect you”.
That is not a problem; I will fix it. He replied, and said,
“That country is for us the Americo-Liberians”. We should be president; we should rule that country”.
I was quiet; I was shocked, stunned. I could not believe what I was hearing.
“The country people, or the native people, shouldn’t run that country”, he continued. “Doe got lucky, we overlooked him, but it would not happen anymore”, he said. Then he turned to me.
“Nyanfore, you are a smart guy, you went to some of the best schools in this country; I can appoint you minister if I win. Are you with me? He asked.
“Hmmm!”, I said, frowning. I could not say anything further. I could not argue with him nor discuss the subject further. He was serious. I knew; he never talked like that before. He was voicing his true feeling.

What I heard ran a chill in my spine. I later went to sleep in the room, which his wife had nicely prepared for me. I just could not sleep, thinking about what he said.
I departed for Washington, DC, my home town. On my trip home, I thought about what he said. Here was a friend who was like a brother. We saw each other as one, despite our different ethnic backgrounds. Now he felt that in the country where we were born he has more privilege and opportunity than me. He felt that he can become president and I will be his minister. To him, the country is for him and his likes. The land is their birthright. Because he is a Congo, he should be president.

The thought of the incident stayed on my mind until I arrived home after about a six-hour trip. My friend’s quest for the presidency was not based on his education, experience, honesty, integrity, demonstrated concern and love for the country and people. Rather, his was purely based on the fact that he is a Congo. His quest was also a gross disregard for the Liberian constitution, which forbids dual citizenship and a foreigner from participating in Liberian elections.

Later, my friend left for Liberia to run his campaign. I am disappointed, not merely for his view, but his audacity to disrespect the constitution.

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