Kenneth Y. Best: Albert Porte, A Life Time Trying to Save Liberia
By the time William V.S. Tubman became president of Liberia, the country had already abandoned any semblance of democracy and the people had lost the right to elect their leaders. This privilege was left to a party caucus, made of the President, the Speaker and a handful of people in the True Whig Party and government hierarchy. The system had been introduced by President King in 1925. Once the Caucus decided who would run for President and Vice-President, Liberians were left with no other choice. However, those who instituted this system considered it a democracy. So, how could people be living under a democratic system and at the same time not having any rights? Or, as the rebel before rebels put it, “Things cannot at the same be and not be.” (Page 179). Liberia was living a contradiction and Mr. Porte assigned himself the role of seeing through those historical inequities.
This is one of many political existentialist questions that Mr. Albert Porte, the subject of a massively researched book by Kenneth Y. Best tried to find a solution to, throughout his life of advocacy, questioning and rebelling against the established order.
In November 1967, Mr. Porte wrote a pamphlet titled “Thinking About Unthinkable Things In a Democracy,” wondering how Liberia, with its constitution, its adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, could be a nation where “anyone could do any wrong, and once he had the President and his office behind him, he could go free and no one, not even the Chief Justice could do anything about it. That was very dangerous for any country,” (Page 184). Indeed lawlessness at the highest level of governance was dangerous and Liberia were to find it later, in a devastating way.
Kenneth Y. Best book, Albert Porte, A Life Time Trying to Save Liberia, published in 2010 in Monrovia, put under the microscope the political contradictions that somehow led to the social explosion at the turn of the 20th century and that tore apart the republic.
Mr. Albert Porte became a legend, while still walking the streets of Monrovia, with his document folder, where somewhere he kept a toothbrush because he never knew, if at the end of the day, he might be detained and thrown in a jail cell. He lived very simply and as we learn, with an income of not more than US140 until Head of State Samuel K. Doe appointed him as Advisor and he started making $600 a month.
There are many myths about the man. Stories of his life in the streets, his constant confrontation with the powers of the day and his obsession with the laws of Liberia were of legendary sort. He foresaw the doom that Liberia was heading into, he saw that the nation was on a collision course with disaster and therefore, he spent a lifetime trying to make it change path. His was not a violent protest. He never threw a stone. He did not however keep quiet. He looked, listened and watched closely whatever was going on around him. He went to the law books, from the Constitution to every treaty Liberia had signed over the years, constantly stopping to ask: “If the law says this, why are we doing that?” For example, he was the only government worker who complained publicly about paying the “party tax,” the one-month salary that every government employee had to put in the coffers of the True Wig Party.
He wrote pamphlets that he sold in the streets, in offices and wherever he could find people. The story goes that many government officials who did not want to be known to read his writings, would send an office staff to buy a copy and put it in a brown envelop that they discretely put in their bags for home reading. President Tubman described him as “a poor man who was nothing more than a troublemaker” and referred to his writing as “reckless and irresponsible pamphlets.” (Page 166). Even the way he peddled his pamphlets was another way for Mr. Porte to “educate Liberians and save Liberia.” Once, a police officer tried to stop him from selling his papers at a certain place. Rather than walk away or confront the policeman, Mr. Porte took him into a discussion about the laws and how there was nothing anywhere in the books that forbade him to sell where he was. He won the argument and was left alone.
The title of the book is an indication of the type of fight Mr. Porte dedicated his life to: he was trying to save Liberia’s political system from self-destruction. Tried as he might have, he opened some eyes but the political leaders seem not to have taken him seriously, mostly considering him as a social oddity. He had all the right connections in a very close tightly-knit community. He could have become “rich and powerful” but rather, he dedicated his life to looking under the stones. He did so mainly and firstly through his Crozerville Observer, a pamphlet/newspaper that he and a few people put out to address national issues and constantly stayed as a thorn in the flesh of the “most powerful.”
The book can be read at many levels. The writer uses a multi-layered narrative that allows the reader to see society and people from various angles, giving us an all-encompassing perspective. The journalistic style of writing combined with a lay-back story-telling approach gives the narrator the liberty to move from one perspective to another, making easy transition that oral tradition provides story tellers. Thus, we see events not only from the perspective of Mr. Albert Porte, but we also live them through the narrator who at times becomes part of the story. For example, the narrator is the first person in Liberia to receive a letter of resignation sent by Dr. Togbah Nah Tipoteh when he decided to leave the military government and into exile. The narrator was not only an “official journalist” at some point but also ran a newspaper that ran into trouble with the military regime of Samuel K. Doe. This intimate forays of the narrator adds to the richness of the story, giving the reader a plot much thicker than the sole perspective or life story Albert Porte, notwithstanding how loaded that may be, because the narrator was also a first row witness of the turmoil Liberia traversed in the past fifty years.
This writing technique also brings in the history of Liberia as lived by the larger society. The great events that shaped 20th century Liberia, from the political to the economic and to the religious aspects are all told in detail. However these transformational events may seem to be remote from the story of Mr. Albert Porte, there is always in the end a connecting line: either Mr. Porte had foreseen the catastrophic consequences of the Fernando Po “slave trade” or had somehow predicted an explosion such as the Rice Riots. The reader witnesses Liberia’s transition from the early 20th century, the birth and strengthening of autocracy under Tubman, the slow and hesitant attempts to reforms under Tolbert, the self-destructive military rule under Samuel K. Doe.
Finally, the narrator, as witness to the life of Mr. Albert Porte and the people who influenced the politics of Liberia in his time, presents every important character from a family and educational background. The reader has the rare insight into the personality of every politician of 20th century Liberia and even earlier. A great part of the book is dedicated to such personal description of people who would come to play a major role in the contemporary history of the country.
The stories and biographies of actors of the Liberian politics gave an indication on how it would have been difficult to affect meaningful political changes in the nation, through “politics as usual.” The people who ran the economy, the politics and religious institutions all seemed to live in one big fishbowl. In this context, political decisions were made as in-family. That Mr. Porte was able to break away from such exclusivity is a credit to his sense of independence that allowed him to see and foresee things that his contemporaries were oblivious to.
The more than 500-page chronicle is a page turner, filled with details and analysis of every aspect of the governance of Liberia through more than a century. There is no better way to close this brief review than quote a fe3w instances where Mr. Porte was right on the money and had he been listened to, he would have save Liberia some disastrous moments.
In a letter that Mr. Porte sent to President Samuel K. Doe, we see how this humble but indomitable spirit always tried to save Liberia:
“Unless you do not care and continue to follow the stubbornness, greed and indifference of the late Tolbert, you need to seriously contemplate on the consequences of your actions. It is my patriotic duty to warn you that this attitude could plunge us into unpredictable low depths… […] It will give me no satisfaction to tell you later, if I happen to be around, ‘I told you so.”’ (page 456)
In April 1978, a year before the Rice Riots, Mr. Porte wrote: “Our present plight of democratic decline in this country and our fall into the arms of dictatorship has not been reached by one sudden downward leap, nor can it be attributed to any one individual or regime. We have all contributed to the imperceptibly erosive decline of normal democratic procedure here. And it does not remedy the situation to stand idle by blaming one another while the democratic ship of state catches fire.” (page 290).
Under the Tolbert Administration, Mr. Porte wrote an incendiary pamphlet titled “Liberianization or Gobbling Business” where he objected the to the President appointing his brother as Minister of Finance and pointed out that since Mr. Steve Tolbert, the President’s brother was a successful businessman, he should remain in that sector because his “appointment would result in conflict of interest.” (Page 236).
So is told the contemporary history of Liberia, through the eyes of a forefather of Liberia’s constitutional democracy and written by one of Liberia’s greatest journalists, his nephew. Yes, this book is a must read and has a place in every library in every school and for all those who want to understand Liberia, how it was created and how it turned out the way it is today. Published in 2010, by the Observer Publishing Company, Monrovia, Kenneth Y. Best book is thick volume of 501 Pages long.
Editor’s note: his piece by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé [decease, is called from the Liberian Journal]
Main Photo: The Venerable Albert Porte, Teacher, Activist and Political Journalist