So We Weren’t That Stupid After All
By Tarty Teh
I think that one doesn’t have to be a tribal person to welcome a fresh start at examining the history of Liberia. If nothing else, there is a good chance -- and a chance worth pursuing -- that, thanks to the TRC’s findings, tribal people were not as stupid as the Americo-Liberian settlers have portrayed them in the current official history of Liberia. I don’t think that making the overwhelming majority of Liberians happy with any correction -- even retrospectively -- is a pointless goal.
I was particularly struck -- as the TRC has determined -- by the deductive reasoning of a Vai chief who, when told to sell his tribal land (for the kind of ridiculous assortment of trinkets that included a half dozen “looking glass”), proposed that rather than buying the land the American Colonization Society (ACS), which acted as the agent for the settlers, should instead have the settlers live under his rule and use as much land as they needed.
With that kind of sound reasoning the ACS had no alternative but to put a gun to the head of the man they called King George. Of course they took the land and wrote two reports: one to their sponsors in the U.S. telling almost the whole truth about how they had duped the natives, and one for our history books which portrayed the natives as lacking any appreciation for the value of their lands -- a function of stupidity.
The American Colonization Society was a philanthropic organization. The ACS’s beneficiaries, the Americo-Liberian settlers, too were almost equally and charitably bent. They established a slave dealership in Liberia from which they sold tribal Liberians abroad but close enough to the African continent to evade the League of Nations’ anti-slavery radar. So their human goods went to Fernando Po, an island that is now part of independent Equatorial Guinea. But the League of Nations found out soon enough, and Liberia was found guilty of selling its own citizens into slavery. Not surprisingly, President Charles King and his vice president Allen Yancy were the brains behind the slave trade.
So, even after Liberia became a nation, the brag of supremacy by the settler class never diminished in the face of what should have been the urgent task at hand, building a modern nation out of its diverse elements. Far from it, the settlers, for whom their own claim of superiority over the tribes was by then a settled issue, soon embarked on convincing the American government and people about the worthlessness of the tribes as equals in any regard.
By the 1960s the main audience for the Americo-Liberians’ tribe-bashing in the U.S. was the American blacks in Congress who later coalesced into the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). They were the one-stop lobbying point by the Americo-Liberians who wanted to sell their limited agenda to the otherwise sympathetic American lawmakers. To that point black U.S. Congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey summarized the evolving American attitude toward Liberia after the 1980 overthrow of the settlers as follows: “One of the biggest mistakes America made in Liberia was not to have taken out Samuel Doe.” And that was after Doe was elected from a field of a half dozen candidates that vied the presidency.
The presidential election that Samuel Doe won in 1985 was a first on two fronts: first African-Liberian to be elected president, and the first election to involve both Americo-Liberian and African-Liberian candidates. But if you ask an Americo-Liberian you are more likely to be told that “Doe stole the election.” They hold this true as surely as they believe that no one besides the Americos can rule Liberia.
There were two Does. Of course the settlers were not happy with the Doe who won in 1985; they wanted their own Doe -- Jackson F., a tamed Doe by virtue of graduating from the True Whig Party political academy. That, of course, had not prevented him from being passed over -- twice -- for the vice presidency under single-party President William Tolbert. First it seemed semi-automatic that True Whig Partisan Jackson F. Doe would follow Tolbert as vice president, especially since he was already the highest ranking partisan after Tolbert. Instead, the usual happened: One Americo-Liberian succeeded another.
By then Jackson F. Doe had gotten the message -- the True Whig Party was not ready to launch a tribal person as vice president, let alone president of Liberia. Then came the 1980 coup, and suddenly there were two Does: The Jackson F. who had migrated to the Liberian Action Party when the True Whig Party went under, and the Samuel K. who had staged the coup that had the TWP on its heels.
But the Americo-Liberians' reckoning, Samuel Doe still was wild; they had not found a saddle for him. But since they were not sure how to deal with this other tribal Doe, it was safer to return to the way things had been for 133 years. That’s how they drafted a man named Charles McArthur Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, to lead the war for the return of the settlers as the ruling class.
And as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf put it in her Independence Day speech in 2009, “I came to overthrow a dictator.” But that wasn’t what she told the TRC when she appeared before the panel in a secret session. She said that her $10,000 check to Charles Taylor during the war was for -- well -- charity. The money didn’t go to an NGO; but to a person who had already started killing and from whom women and children were running. A slice of Liberian history, less facts and more lies.
Anyway, while the settlers basked in their own glory throughout the history of Liberia, one important task was left undone -- Liberia never took the necessary steps toward forming a cohesive nation. Instead three percent of the population continued to try to marginalize the 97% who were natives. The dividend for that attitude was guaranteed backwardness for the whole nation which victimized both the tribes and the self-described Americo-Liberian lords of the land.
Now we have a context in which to gauge Liberia’s backwardness. The African nations that became independent after Liberia had passed the century mark have now developed their political, social, and economic institutions to a point that comparing them with Liberia is almost as pointless as comparing day and night. And this is not to say that many of the newly independent African nations did not take the needless detour through coups and countercoups before settling on the path to true democracy. But they only took a quarter of the time Liberia has spent so far in inertia. <>
Copyright © Tarty Teh 2009
August 10, 2009, Monrovia, Liberia