By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
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 the 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.
During the November 2017 presidential election, there [were] 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 the 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 was not the one saying it, but people are voicing that the president was supporting the Liberty Party, whose standard-bearer was 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 a leader merely because of his/her tribal background, is unhealthy and it can cause corruption and underdevelopment. It makes a leader 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 newly independent nation, even though the land they declared independent, rightfully belonged to the natives.
Main Photo: William Tubman, Place de l’Eventail