Rethinking The State In Liberia



By Alaric Tokpa

Introduction                                                                 PART I

In the popular search for appropriate state model, the beginning of the 21st century is an era of unrest and political uncertainty in Africa. At the same time, “history weighs heavily on the global periphery, producing conditions in many countries that are inhospitable to both democracy and social justice”.[i] Evidently then, the complication of the period presents a challenge to social science scholarship, as hardly can any African country in this age predict with absolute certainty the future direction of its political transition. But through critical reflection on the past and careful review of present situation, it is possible for serious thinkers in the social sciences to construct a reasonable trajectory about the thrust of current dynamics and the future possibilities of a particular country. In the said regard, the intractable crisis of governance and power relations in post-war Liberia has recently increased the need to further investigate, understand and rethink the character of the Liberian state.

From its very beginning more than a century and half ago until recent times, competition aimed at assuming authority over control of government, the central agency in the state, has continued to generate intense conflict in Liberia. The disharmony usually generated by this power rivalry has occasionally resulted in the violent overthrow of governments. But despite the history of violent interventions in Liberian politics, the plasticity of recycled politicians and political parasites, who continue to command overwhelming presence within the Liberian political class and thus, the flexibility with which such players have continued to opportunistically comply with the corrupting influences of any government in power without concern for system improvement leaves much to be desired in the quest for political change. Hence, from one administration to the other, the promise and possibility of the particular government form that would satisfy the expectation of improvement in the management of political and economic affairs in Liberia have remained elusive. Therefore, in addition to efforts made to describe the defects and shortcomings of successive governments, the examination of the character of the state promises to supply an improved understanding of the main reasons behind the imbalances in power relations and the crisis of governance in Liberia.

The need for rethinking the state in post-war Liberia becomes particularly urgent because all previous Liberian governments, and the present post-war Sirleaf government (because they all bear striking similarities) display uncritical attachment to the authoritarian state model [ii] which has proven unworkable. Evidently, the settler state and the military bureaucratic state that replaced it in the late twentieth century essentially served the exclusive interest of the privileged political elite. The transitional administrations (1990-1997; 2003-2005) of the war years and the immediate post-war government that were expected to construct new beginnings in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium came to be defined by lack of appropriate standards, failure to establish new policy and institutional frameworks, unimaginable corruption and the concentration of wealth and power at the center of government. Moreover, the majority of the political elite who have recently attained national leadership through condemnation of the past and the attainment of success in electoral politics have hardly paid attention to the construction of substantively alternative forms of politics and policy goals within the state. They are not inclined toward departing from the authoritarian model. Hence, the pursuit of continuous attempts at rethinking the state in Liberia is a significant engagement.

Moreover, the popular resistance that called into question the legitimacy of West African governments in the beginning decades of the 21st century (i.e. Guinea, Ivory Coast) and the autodynamism and resilience of the mass protest movement that degraded and resulted to the overthrow of once entrenched North African leaders (i.e. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya), and eroded the power base of once “unshakable” leaders such as Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso at once intensifies the significance of rethinking processes of power assumption and transition, government duration and performance quality, the place of mass attitude toward undemocratic political structures, the orientation of the African military in the continual adjustment of power relations and hence, the viability of the traditional 20th century state model in Africa.

Through close examination of the historical character of the Liberian state, it is possible to rethink the state in Liberia and advance some useful suggestions for a better and relevant organization of state. Thus, the discussion on rethinking the state in Liberia attempts to answer three basic and interrelated questions. First, in the process of its evolution, what has been the nature, character, or mission of the Liberian state? Second, what historical circumstances accounted for the failure and disintegration of the Liberian state? And third, in view of the fragility [iii] of the post war state, what alternative, practicable state model would be required in order to avert the devastating consequences of state crisis that have negatively impacted politics and society in Liberia?


Origins and Historical Development of the State in Liberia

The appreciation of the origins of any state is relevant to the proper examination of its characteristics and nature of development or backwardness. In the case of West African countries, the colonial experience is relevant. In essence, “the colonial political system was based on an authoritarian state and its associated institutions and undemocratic processes…Disappointingly, the vagaries of colonialism remain an albatross around the neck of independent African states.”[iv] Just as Amos Sawyer observes, The direct involvement of former colonial powers in African governance has been integral to the configuration of governance institutions in ways constitutive of scales of governance rather than of distinct patterns of interaction characteristic of so-called state-to-state relationship…In the case of Liberia, the history of its involvement with the United States has bred among Liberians an unhealthy psychology of dependence…[v]

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Dr. Amos Sawyer, Former Interim President /www.newdawnliberia

This uncritical path has partly accounted for the recurrent crisis of the state in Liberia. As will be shown below, the state in Liberia is nothing more than a rudimentary and laughable caricature of certain liberal democratic state principles of the United States. In its origin and growth, colonial and later state authorities in Liberia (lacking in originality) adopted replicas of American state symbols and structures which, even today, convey the impression that Liberia is an extension of the United States in Africa. Moreover, the uncritical transfer of assumptions from the American political system that followed have continued to define notions of state attributes in Liberia, regardless of the vast differences in context, historical experiences and location in the global arrangement of the world economy.

Already, it has been documented by various scholars that elaborate and rudimentary state structures existed throughout the African continent in pre-colonial times. [vi] While the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism shattered and distorted some, others remained resilient and have survived even up to present. Although most authority structures were undeveloped as compared to the complexity of state features normally exhibited in the contemporary sense, there were patterns of political administration and control that exemplified the essence of the modern state. For example, there were legislative, executive and judicial structures that thrived on sound participatory and democratic principles. A careful reconstruction of the history of earlier state forms in Liberia would reveal similar prototypes in operation.

In the year 1822, the American Colonization Society (ACS) established a colony in Liberia with the backing of the United States Government. The ACS was the main agency through which the repatriation of manumitted Africans and their descendants (victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade) was implemented. Having succeeded to secure a new homeland for the settlers, successive agents of the ACS structured institutions of governance without regard to the presence or interest of indigenous Africans, who had earlier inhabited the land area that is now Liberia. As the ACS withdrew from Liberia, it transferred political authority to the settlers who proceeded to construct a settler state to the exclusion of the indigenous majority. The later penetration of foreign capital, agricultural plantations and extractive industries energized the emergence of a neo-colonial, authoritarian state formation.

Hence, initially established as a public force for the protection and promotion of the interest of the settler colony, the incipient Liberian colonial state was led by white agents of the ACS, who administered the colonial enclaves from 1822 to 1839. In 1839, the Commonwealth of Liberia was established and administration was transferred to prominent citizens of the settler community. The latter provided leadership of the Commonwealth up to 1847, when the independence of the Liberian state was proclaimed. The establishment of an independent state implied superimposition of principles and practices of the modern state form on the indigenous African authority structures that had existed in pre-colonial Liberia. With this development, the settler state embarked upon a systematic process of domination, acculturation, co-optation, and socialization that eventually led to the establishment and entrenchment of settler hegemony.

However, despite the political subordination and economic marginalization of indigenous Africans in Liberia, the settlers set into motion deliberate policy and efforts to recruit collaborators from among indigenous people, who would enhance the capacity of the settlers to rule while legitimizing the domination of the latter. In other words, the general politics of exclusion as practiced by the settlers was not insensitive to the strategic need to include indigenous collaborators, who became instrumental in the implementation of the settler agenda of assuring exclusive privilege to the minority elite through the monopolization of control over undemocratic state institutions. As has been observed above, the penetration of the economy by international finance capital and multinational corporations in the twentieth century modified the outlook of the state.

The settler state evolved into a neocolonial state, and the ruling elite started to rely more and more on the control of the state for the accumulation of wealth. But while the authoritarian state concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a minority ruling class, the mass majority of Liberians were at the same time economically marginalized and politically excluded. As political partners of international business, the ruling elite essentially tended to rely on state power as their means for the economic exploitation of Liberia. In the circumstances, the repressive policies, which the authoritarian state was required to exercise, induced mass discontent and popular struggles for democratic participation. The 1970s witnessed the era of mass organization that questioned the basis of the legitimacy of the undemocratic settler state. But despite the threat to settler rule, mass agitation was not a sufficient condition for the overthrow of the settler state. Meanwhile, the settler state lacked the moral authority and political will to proscribe the operations of the mass opposition.

The military intervention that ruptured the stalemate was unexpected. Once civilian agitation succeeded to de-popularize the repressive state, the military intervened on April 12, 1980 and established a dictatorship, taking advantage of the fragility and vulnerability of the settler state. But contrary to popular expectation, the military entrenched the authoritarian state structures, deepened the crisis of the state and eventually delegitimized dictatorial, army rule. Owing to the failure of the military to disengage from politics and democratize Liberia, a new wave of opposition was set into motion against the military government. Youth and students (university, secondary, junior high and elementary), organized and led by the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU) played a crucial role in undermining the right of the military administration to retain government authority. Added to the supportive activities of other Liberians at home and abroad, the military government was depopularized.

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Rebel Leader and Former President of Liberia who was sponsored by Ellen Sirleaf  /www.bbc

By the end of the 1980s, the intensity of repression practiced by the military government had invited civil war which led to the overthrow of the dictatorship and the collapse of the state in 1990. The war raged until 1996, when a ceasefire and commitment to democratic election was achieved. In July 1997, election was held with the aim of erecting a liberal democratic state and ensuring political stability. Charles Taylor, the head of the largest warring faction in Liberia, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was declared winner of the said election. But the excesses of the Taylor government were later confronted with the outbreak of another war in 1999, which led to repeated disintegration of the state in 2003. After a period of stubborn refusal to negotiate peace, a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in Accra, Ghana in August 2003. In the formula for power distribution and the procedure for the reconstitution of government that was agreed, electoral politics as mechanism for leadership transfer dominated as the strategy for peace-building. [vii]

In 2005, general and presidential elections brought to power Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party who, in theory, was elected on liberal democratic principles but who, in practice, thrived on authoritarian standards. To all intents and purposes, officials and functionaries of the Unity Party led government in post-war Liberia (at least by the middle of 2011) had demonstrated lack of technical competence or the intellectual ability required to elaborate an ideology of democratic transformation and display the political will necessary to provide the state a new beginning. It is such glaring shortcomings that continue to provide the rationale for rethinking the Liberian state.

In general then, it is possible to contend that the evolution of the state in Liberia has been conditioned by the imposition of ethnic proclivities on the very origin of the body politic, the limited development of local productive forces, the comparatively low level of domestic capital formation, the heavy reliance on the state for survival, and the preoccupation of government officials with the accumulation of wealth, the global constrain on commodity relations, the timidity and conservatism of opportunistic politicians who feel obliged to comply with foreign agendas, and as a consequence of all this, the inability of politicians to rethink and fashion a new form and substance of radical, progressive politics.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that the state in Liberia shares characteristics with the authoritarian state formations of other African countries that were formerly colonized, is affected by the same discourses that drive advocacy for progressive change, and has seen the same forms of intervention (or even worse ones) against incorrigible authority structures in Africa. This makes it important to also explore the nature and implication of the form of colonialism that was planted in Liberia – an undertaken that might enhance the appreciation of the character of the authoritarian state that determines the nature of governance and politics in the country. But much more than historicize the origin and development of the nature of an ever deepening crisis of state in Liberia, the crux of the matter here is the need to pay attention to rethinking the authoritarian state through the examination of how the lack of correct ideological orientation, institutional capacity, policy direction, legal framework, social linkages (state-society relations) and political will has threatened to continuously undermine stability in the country.

Nature of Government, Regime and the State in Liberia

At its most basic level, politics is about the exercise of power and the distribution of resources in society. The state, an organized political construct that operates through a government, is the permanent entity within which this organization of power relations and resource distribution takes place. In general, government, the central agency through which the state executes its powers, determines the kind of public policies that are formulated, the administration of policy implementation, the regulation of the national economy, the conduct of foreign relations and the extent of public and social service delivery among the population of a country. Placed on a historical continuum, the display of similar forms and tendencies usually qualify different government administrations for classification into a typology of regime(s). Hence the appreciation of the nature (similarity and variation) of government and, by extension, regime forms are crucial for understanding the character of the state in history. For almost two centuries, government, regime and state in Liberia have remained invariably sectarian, elitist and authoritarian.

In principle, the state should function as an entity that relates to all sectors of a national population, mediate existing conflicts between unfriendly or hostile groups in society and seek to provide equal opportunity for all. Should the appearance of the state (as public force) take place in a society like Liberia where conflict and disagreement over government purpose for being comes to constitute the reality, the state should, of necessity, aim to become reconciliatory. But in Liberia, this is not the case. And that is the very problematic. Accordingly, it becomes a fatal mistake for the political class and citizens of Liberia to abandon the critical task of reconciling the antagonistic relations in post war Liberian society to the authoritarian state as presently constituted. Concerning the logic of discarding such an incurable state that has experienced recurrent collapse within two decades and that still has the potential of caving in under the pressure of discontent from non-state actors and unconventional destabilizing forces, further explanation is necessary.

In order to properly understand the nature of politics in Liberia then, any scholarly discussion of the state in mere abstract terms would remain inadequate. A more useful construction of the discussion on state and politics will have to proceed by acknowledging the fact that what is call the state is directed by individual human beings, who usually represent particular group interests in government and society. Such individuals usually appear at the center stage of constituting governments and assuming authority over the administration of the affairs of the state. Preoccupied with the politics of exclusion and continuity for self-aggrandizement (as the Liberian experience illustrates), each successive government with similar attributes (essentially as expression of regime continuity) has normally adopted the poorly constituted backward procedures and practices of previous governments and state institutions. Such uncritical attitude toward governance completely detracts from the requirements for the progressive growth and development of the state.

A well established and documented concern has to do with the autonomous [viii] position of the state relative to social classes in African societies. Once there come to exist conflicting classes and interests in society, the state will naturally emerge in order to mediate the differences or manage the disagreements between the opposing classes and groups. In theory, the state ought to hang above and remain autonomous of the conflicting classes in society, so that it can properly serve as agency of reconciliation. But in practice, the state is usually non-autonomous, since it represents certain class interests (usually the dominant ones) against those of others. For this very reason, the state can only be said to be relatively autonomous of social classes. That is why it has been difficult for the state to escape un-bruised whenever major political crisis take place in Liberia. Unless a new model of state that contains the seed of public satisfaction and social harmony is introduced, enduring political stability will remain an illusion.

In Liberia, the divided powers and shared functions of government are distributed between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government for the purpose of checks and balances. Ironically, as established in constitutional principle and through actual political practice, enormous power is allocated to and thus exercised by the executive branch of government, which subordinates and manipulates the legislative and judicial systems of the country. Since 1847 and throughout the history of public administration in Liberia, there has been no system of checks and balances, and the president has wielded extraordinary power in the management of the nation’s affairs. [ix]

So then, the attraction of executive privilege and prerogatives are the main reasons for the intensification of the competing demands for power and control in the authoritarian state. Therefore, an important requirement for improving the nature of the state in Liberia will have to consider constitutional review, with particular emphasis on the reduction in the range of presidential powers and prerogatives, as well as compelling adherence to high standards in the performance of legislative and judicial duties. At the level of legislative function, attention to the interest and concerns of citizens ends with the announcement of election results. Once elected, most legislators pursue personal agendas rather than the issues of the electorate and their political parties of origin. Just as in the executive bureaucracy, most senators and representatives in the legislature approach work as if they are conducting private business. Viewed in this way, accountability in public office has been on the decline and criminal activities have overcome much of government activity. Training in proper legislative functions and ethical standards remain critical to improving the quality of legislative service.

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Prof Alaric Topka

Another issue of importance is the logic of legislative representation which is based on geographic location and ethnic classification. Realistically, legislative representation exclusively based on ethnic consideration in Liberia today has become inadequate because it ignores the special concerns of major social economic categories such as the youth, women and workers. The situation must be corrected.Concerning the justice system, the judiciary in Liberia is weak and inefficient. Where justice is said to be on sale, display of emotions and technical legal procedures by practicing lawyers rather than evidence and merit-based arguments determine the outcome of most court cases. Combined with poor infrastructure, the lack of adequate training and constant media reports of a corrupt and brutal police system, the justice system stands in need of elaborate reform.

Successive governments in Liberia have related to constituent elements of the state as if those where private concerns. Rather than build interest in the improvement of the public bureaucracy, for example, every new government has shown more concerned with replacing government workers by their own choice of employees and loyalists.

In the overall organization of government and economy in Liberia, ownership of private property, the subordination and exploitation of labor, high illiteracy and unemployment rates, poor attention to social and public service delivery, disregard for human rights and lack of agenda for departure from the old, established order are the observed realities. Only a thorough process of rethinking the state and steadfastness of purpose in the process of implementing new forms of state orientation can save the contemporary Liberian state from decay and another collapse. Incidentally, just as the public wealth of the country, all leading state institutions and officials are concentrated in the center of Monrovia, a capital city that is nearly surrounded by ocean and river and that is not more than two miles in width or three miles in length. This makes state officials and agencies vulnerable to the attacks of destabilizing forces if and when they do rise. And that is why, historically, it becomes very easy and quick for state institutions to come under attack during political conflicts in Liberia.

Invariably thus, the state in Liberia displays glaring tendencies of authoritarianism that reflect the nature of the state in most other African countries. Interestingly, the colonial and psychological roots of authoritarianism in Liberia are less understood because they have not received adequate attention. Hence one would have thought that with the proper interest, attitude, knowledge, authority and appropriate political will, state functionaries can cultivate the ability to deconstruct, redesign and construct anew the character and behavior of the regime and state institutions. But as we shall see later, such expectation remains an illusion. This makes it imperative to rethink the state in Liberia. The following essay is drawn from Chapter 5 of Topka’s contribution to the book: Kieh and Agbese, Reconstructing the Authoritarian State in Africa (New York: Routledge, 2013)



i Richard Sandbrook, Marc Edelman, Patrick Heller and Judith Teichman, Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 35.

ii For full description and discussion of the characteristics of the authoritarian state in Africa, see Pita Ogaba Agbese and George Klay Kieh,Jr. (eds.), Reconstituting the State in Africa (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); John Mukum Mbaku and Julius Ihonvbere, Multiparty Democracy and Political Change: Constraints to Democratization in Africa (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, Publishing 1998); George Klay Kieh, Jr. and Ida Rousseau Mukenge (eds.), Zones of conflict in Africa: Theories and Cases (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2002); Amos Sawyer, The Emergence of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1992).

iii See Liberia: UN Envoy Warns of Underlying Fragility Despite Progress, UN News Center, March 19, 2009. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=30239&Cr=liberia&Cr.

Accessed June 10, 2012. In view of the war in neighboring Ivory Coast, the potential danger inherent in the future return of Liberian mercenaries from that war, the worsening economic conditions in Liberia, and the lack of program to address the high unemployment rate, both the state of security and the security of the state need close attention.

iv Kieh and Mukenge (eds.), Zones of conflict in Africa, op. cit, pp.24-25.

v Amos Sawyer, Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia (Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), p. 180.

vi See Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987).

vii For a fuller understanding of the peace making formula, power sharing arrangement and peacebuilding mechanisms that were agreed for post war Liberia, see the Comprehensive Peace Agreement Between the Government of Liberia and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and Political Parties, Accra, Ghana, 18 August 2003)

viii For a full discussion of concepts on the autonomy, non-autonomy and relative autonomy of the state in Africa, see Claude Ake, “The State in Contemporary Africa”, in Claude Ake (ed), A Political Economy of Nigeria (Lagos: Longman, 1985).

ix Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, Proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia: Power sharing for Peace and Progress (New Jersey: Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 2004), p. 1.


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