By: Theodore T. Hodge
President William V. S. Tubman died in 1971. He was Liberia’s longest-serving president. During his 27-year rule, Liberia was stable. He ran a tight ship… Some say he was successful because he was a tyrant who ruled with an iron fist. Others say he was simply a benevolent, personable character who knew his people (the Liberian people) and ruled them with according understanding. Perhaps it was a combination of those factors (dictatorship and benevolence) coupled with other tangible and intangible factors that made his tenure a success.
His successor, William Richard Tolbert, opened up Pandora’s Box and Liberia has not been the same since. While his predecessor favored and championed the one-party rule, Tolbert took the gamble to open up Liberia to the multi-party system. Simply put, it backfired and led to his early demise.
The beginning of the end came for Tolbert when faced with political opposition (which he had allowed), he tried to stifle free speech and movement. A popular demonstration was called by the opposition over the high price of rice; it led to an uprising. Tolbert panicked and tried to halt the event. It was too late. Things turned ugly and the police and citizens confronted each other in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Mysteriously, the army did not responded handily or aggressively enough in support of the government; it seemingly favored the masses.
Tolbert, realizing that he was up against a more formidable force than he had anticipated, appealed to his Guinean counterpart, President Sekou Toure, who responded by sending Guinean army troops to help put down the ensuing unrest. In Tolbert’s zeal to forcefully quell the uprisings, and to stifle free speech and other civil liberties, he committed the biggest blunder of his political life. The masses never forgave him; they never trusted him again. And in the upper chambers, his elite colleagues and comrades questioned his leadership style.
One year later, after taking bold steps to trample dissent again by the opposition, the army moved against him. Tolbert went down in history with many a checkered legacy; he is perhaps mainly remembered as the president who failed to calm the masses he had uncharacteristically awakened… the man who opened Pandora’s Box and suffered the deadly consequences.
The man who led the military coup also became a victim after failing to realize that once the genie was let out the bottle, it could not be re-encaged. Samuel K. Doe enjoyed popular support on the backs of the masses who had become enraged over Tolbert’s attempts to marginalize them. But when he tried to use similar tactics by issuing one military decree after another, he also suffered a similar fate.
Then came Charles Taylor. About him there is not much to be said except that he was such a total disaster. He set out to be an absolute dictator, and acted as such until he ended up behind prison bars, where he belongs. He has descended to such low depths unprecedented among modern presidents. Perhaps it is unfair to use the honorific title “president” to describe him. He was never a president in the truest sense of the word; he was a hoodlum, a ragamuffin.
There is a character who played a role in each of the administrations enumerated above. Her name is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It must be admitted that she did not play a major role in the Tubman administration, but was a witness; she came of age during the Tubman years. When she was only a young girl, her father became a member of the House of Representatives and was on the verge of becoming the Speaker of the House when, according to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “a sad and sudden turn of events knocked our family off the ladder of success…” Her father had suffered a stroke. However, the family had become settled within the periphery of elite Liberian society. She and her sister went to an elite school, the College of West Africa, CWA. They had friends in high places.
Later on, speaking of the Tubman style of leadership, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote: “But in reality, the Unification Policy was largely symbolic; the ideal of equality it represented lacked both substance and girth. Although tribal people from the country’s interior gained representation in the legislature, they remained underrepresented; power and privilege continued to be monopolized by the settler groups.”
She wrote further of Tubman: “Tubman also forcefully oppressed political opposition, punishing those who rose against him or his ruling True Whig Party with harshness.” She goes even further, writing: “President Tubman had presided over our country for over twenty-seven years of patronage and oppression, of Old World charm and ironfisted control. He was a president deeply loved by the people, but in truth, he was all pageantry and pomp.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became a major player in the Tolbert administration, becoming the first female Minister of Finance of the Republic of Liberia. She was a member of a commission appointed to look into the rice riots of 1979, mentioned above… In retrospection, she writes: “That June, our commission delivered its report. It was a tough and critical one that called for amnesty for the demonstration leaders and investigation of the police director and the ministers of justice, defense, agriculture, and finance. We called on the president to create a code of conduct for all public officials that would begin to tackle the corruption and conflicts of interest so rife throughout government. Quite pointedly, the commission called on President Tolbert very specifically to examine the social impact of the very high visibility of so many of his relatives in monopolistic ventures.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has written a scintillating book that gives an eye-opening account of the history of past administrations. In the foregoing, she has made some fundamental observations about her predecessors, but nothing sums up her brilliant story-telling than the next account. In November of 1980, shortly after President Tolbert was overthrown by the military, she was a guest speaker at the famous Booker Washington Institute (BWI) to mark a graduation ceremony. She writes: “I stood before the audience and criticized what I saw happening, which was essentially a re-creation of the same old story, only this time with new characters in the starring roles. I told the story of the rat trap in the house, in which a farmer sets a trap for a rat that has been stealing his rice. But the rat is too smart to be trapped; instead one day the farmer’s wife steps into the trap and injures her foot. Gangrene sets in, and the farmer has to kill his chicken to make soup to try to save her. She dies nonetheless, and the farmer has to kill his cow for the feast for her funeral. I told the story as a metaphor for the coup: in trying to kill the rat the coup leaders might also end up killing other things far more precious to the country and vital to the country’s survival.”
Is it not a puzzling matter now that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, sitting at the helm of leadership, seems to be just a new driver in an old cab? Has she stopped to re-examine her assessment of her predecessors, which she has already done so profoundly and eloquently? Has she looked in the mirror to see if perhaps now she has become like Tubman (“all pomp and pageantry and no substance”)? Has she not become like Tolbert who stuffed official openings with close relatives (nepotism)? Has she not become like Doe who over-extended himself in creating a new system only to replicate the old system?
Now, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has issued an Executive Order threatening the people with mass arrests. She claims to be doing so for the protection of the citizenry, but nobody believes her. She is operating under the guise of protecting the masses against the deadly threats of Ebola… but nobody believes her; everybody believes she has an ulterior motive… it is an open secret. The nation waits nervously for a potential clash of force between the masses and the armed forces of Liberia, which is inevitable. Does Ellen not remind herself of President Tolbert? Does she not remember what her commission’s recommendations were to the late president? Does she not remember that the trap is not for the rat alone?
I hope the president will have the wisdom to curb her draconian measures she is threatening to take in the name of public safety and peace. She might have inadvertently set the trap. But who will the trap catch? That is left to be seen. When that next chapter is written, I can guarantee only one thing: Its author will not be Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Author: Theodore T. Hodge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org