By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
The use of ethnicity in elections is not strange in Liberia’s political history. For instance, Liberia’s former president, William V.S. Tubman (photo) and his successor, William Tolbert, Jr., utilized tribal trappings to their respective personal and political advantages. During the November 2017 presidential election in Liberia, ethnicity, tribal politics and native identity were used, and therefore some candidates were using them to contest.
To understand the above dynamics, it is imperative to first discuss the historical and political background of Liberia.
Liberia was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS), a philanthropic organization established in 1817 in the United States to send Black ex-slaves back to Africa. ACS transported former slaves to Liberia from 1822 to the 1840s. It also shipped recaptured African slaves to Liberia in the early 1800s.
Though their settlement helped to stop slave trade in Liberia and assisted in the amelioration of tribal disputes, it created social cleavages and a hierarchy consisting of three levels: at the top were the self named Americo-Liberians, the American Black ex-slaves, followed by the Congos, the recaptured slaves. The natives whom they met on the land were at the bottom. This social stratification in many respects continues in the country. In Liberia the American settlers were divided into two groups along color lines. The light-skinned settlers, the mulattoes, were children of the slave masters. In America, they included the house slaves. They took control of the administration of the Liberian colony and later the new nation, thanks to the ACS.
The dark-skinned settlers, who worked as plantation field slaves in the US, engaged in commerce and shipping in Liberia. They were initially excluded from the leadership of the new nation. Less than 10% of the Americo-Liberian settlers were literate, according to Tom Shicks’ emigration studies. Majority of that percentage constituted the mulattoes. The balance percentage were uneducated. On the other hand, the Congos were pure Africans, non-English speaking people from the Niger-Congo delta, which included Nigeria, Niger, Benin and Congo. They were re-captured from slave ships traveling to the West Indies. The ACS put them under the tutelage or guardianship of the Americo-Liberians. The Society saw it fit to group all its subjects into a single unit. The ACS also felt that the Americo-Liberian settlers, as first arrivals, would help the Congos adjust to their new environment.
However, the Americo-Liberians suppressed the Congos, making them servants. This treatment forced the Congos to move upriver and build communities some of which were known as Congo settlements. The Congos engaged in sugar cane, cassava, firewood and other small scale agricultural efforts. In later years, the two groups have come together and now are generally called the Congo people. Sometimes they are also called Americo-Liberians as a dominant group. Two factors that led to the unity were the occurrence of inter-marriages between the two groups and the declining number of the Americo-Liberians. In 1847, they declared Liberia an independent nation. In the 1860s another group of emigrants, called the Careysburg group, came to Liberia with the help of Pastor Says, a Methodist minister. He made possible the emigration of several Black ex-slaves and Blacks from the West Indies to Liberia. They settled in Careysburg, which was established by the pastor as an experiment of rural living for the settlers.
Careysburg was named after Rev. Lotts Carey, an early settler who had died accidentally in a gun explosion while preparing to battle the natives. Careysburg is important in our discussion because many of the Liberian leaders came from this area; and it was a stronghold of Congoism. The settlement was negotiated with a Kpelle chief. Many residents now and before also speak Kpelle. Another key settlement was Clay-Ashland, which was settled by 1855 by immigrants from Kentucky. It was named in honor of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and his town Ashland, Kentucky. Like Careyburg, Clay-Ashland is important because in 1869 it became the birthplace of the True Whig Party, which was an opposition party to the Republican Party. The settlement produced William David Coleman, who arrived in Liberia from Kentucky in 1855 and latter became president of the country.
Additional emigrations to Liberia followed, including the arrival of more people from the West Indies, especially Barbados and people from other African countries. The new settlers came to Liberia willingly and most were not ex-slaves. They included the Kings, the Sawyers, the Coles, the Jacobs and the Brights from Nigeria by way of Sierra Leone. The Wilsons (i.e. Dash Wilson) and others later who changed their names to Tubman, came from Togo. The Barclays from Barbados; they came with the latter settlers in 1865. Many of the Barbados immigrants and their descendants engaged in journalism and started local dailies, such as the Crozerville Observer by pamphleteer Albert Porte. Another journalist was John Russwurm, founding editor of the Liberian Herald, published by Charles Force. From journalism, many settlers went into politics.
Like journalism, many settlers became pastors and later politicians. The political party, the Masonic Craft and the church became the institutions perpetuating the Americo-Liberians’ rule, as discussed in “Minority Rule in Liberia: The Dynamics of Institutions”, an academic paper. Most Liberian presidents have been members of the craft. Meanwhile, the pulpits served as society watchdogs, guarding against ills of the community but believing in minority rule and control.
Further, specifically, the immigrants from other African countries were recruited. Having limited educated people and upon acquiring territories in the hinterland, the Liberian government was unable to run the country and therefore needed more skilled manpower to help in the public administration of the country. The government-appointed Edward Blyden to assist in bringing qualified people to Liberia.
The newcomers, including other new arrivals, joined the Congos and were treated better and given opportunities over the natives. By the turn of the 19th century, the total population of all the settlers was estimated at 10,000-12,000, consisting of about and controlled by 25 ruling families. The native population was about 100,000-200,000. The Barclays, the Kings, the Coopers and the Tolberts were among the ruling families in Montserrado County while the Cheesemans, the Howards from Grand Bassa County, the Grisbys, the Greens, the Witherspoons from Sinoe County, the Simpsons from Grand Cape Mount and the Tubmans and later the Gibsons and Andersons dominated Maryland County. In order to retain their class political status and to stay in power, they positioned their children in the government. Back to the early settlers. The Americo-Liberian elite saw an opportunity in their new environment to become masters. They considered the natives, who had welcomed them to the country, inferior and mistreated and oppressed them. A US document discusses this further.
While the ruling elite lived and prospered, achieving the respect they could never obtain in America, they failed to include native Liberians into their power base. In fact, they took their land, taxed them, enslaved them and controlled their trade. Moreover, the settlers banned interior native Liberians from traveling to other parts of the country. This restriction was called the 40-mile ratio boundary law, enacted after Liberia’s independence. The settler elite needed labor to assist in domestic functions. The government, therefore, instituted the ward system through which native children were put in the homes of Congo families. The children worked basically as domestic servants. Most were given the family names of the settlers and became part of the family. This system somewhat resembled the indenture servant practice, which occurred in other countries.
While many wards benefited from this system, it was grossly abused. “Many natives of the ward system grew up behaving like the Congos or more than the Congos”, as stated in ‘Brief Early History of Liberia’, an unpublished document. The behavior of the ward was similar to that of the “Uncle Toms” in America …. Blacks who act like Whites, behave like Whites, and would do anything for their White masters.
The settlers denied the natives citizenship of the newly independent nation. Faced with domestic economic conditions and with international pressures against exclusion, by 1912, the government under Arthur Barclay extended citizenship to the entire native majority. To gain citizenship, natives had to forgo their right to be ruled by their authorities. The rule by tribal kings in the rural areas was replaced by rule by paramount chiefs and by superintendents appointed by the president. Natives also gave up the right to public land in their locations, as the state became owner or custodian of the land. But in the urban areas, i.e. Monrovia, where the settlers resided, the land was privately owned by the Americo-Liberians.
The settlers’ practice to forcibly take tribal land had principally resulted in continued tribal wars, resistance, and conflicts with the settlers since 1822. Individual tribal group like the Gola, the Gbandi, the Vai, the Lorma, the Kpelle, the Kru, the Bassa, the Deys and the Grebo, fought them fiercely. Many times the US Navy gunboats defended and militarily supported the settlers. (Davis, Ronald: 1975; Kappel, Robert: 1980; Akpan, Monday: 1986; Abasiattai, Monday: 1987, 1988)
The granting of citizenship to the natives did not come with the right to vote. The advocacy for voting rights for the native majority was of concern to the settler minority. The elite feared that granting such a right would give power to the majority. Yekutiel Gershoni also noted this factor thus: “The Americo-Liberians’ fear that with the active participation of Africans, who represented a majority in the country, in the political and social life of the Republic, the Americo-Liberians might be overrun by the Africans”.
But under President William Tubman the native majority gained voting rights in 1946. As Gershoni again observed, the president stopped “the 40-mile boundary law that restricted natives from coming to the cities inhabited largely by the settlers”. Tubman’s action encouraged rural-urban migration, village people migrating to the cities. This increased fear among the elite. More country people were now coming to live next door or among the ruling class.
The president, however, calmed the fear of the settler elites by strengthening the True Whig Party, the pillar of the Americo-Liberian political dynasty, by continually making Liberia a one-party state and by perpetuating the settlers in power. Tubman ruled Liberia for 27 unbroken years. The True Whig Party rule ended in 1980.
In short, the above indicates the class division, the social stratification and the political domination within the country. The below discusses some of the methods Tubman employed for him and the settlers to maintain power. These methods included the tribalization of politics and the utilization of settler ethnicity.
…to continue, PART II coming up….