By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
Tubman’s strategies and ethnic politics
Tubman’s control of Liberia and the use of tribalism and Congoism were skillfully implemented. Studies show that past Liberian politicians utilized tribalism and ethnicity to their advantage. Tubman as a boy wanted to become a minister of the Lord. His parents came to Liberia in 1844 as freed slaves from Georgia. His father Alexander Tubman was a Methodist pastor and the Speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives.
At first, the [son] Tubman started as a poor man’s lawyer; he became a senator at the age of 28. Because of his young age, the elite in Monrovia tried to stop him from taking his seat as a senator from his home county, Maryland. But the people of Maryland demanded his sitting in parliament or else the county would send no other senator. “No Tubman, no senator”, they cried.
As a lawyer, he served as a legal adviser to President Charles B. Dunbar and especially to Vice President Allen Yancey in an international case or investigation involving forced labor and slavery of native Liberians in Fernando Po. Moreover, as a rising star, he married Antoinette Louise Padmore, daughter of a first cousin of sitting President Edward Barclay. The president was close to the daughter and sponsored her education in Europe. By marrying her, Tubman became Barclay’s in-law and got closer to the president. Barclay appointed Tubman as an associate justice.
Barclay’s term to the presidency was about to be over and the established politicians in Montserrado County, the seat of the ruling autocracy or elite, were hoping that Barclay would select one of them as his successor. But to their surprise, the president picked Tubman, an outsider from Maryland County. “The Rock Town Boys”, a Montserrado County elite group, disfavored the selection.
Tubman became Barclay’s successor in 1944. To stop the opposition from the Rock Town Boys, he dropped Vice President Clarence Simpson of Cape Mount County in the following election and chose Representative Benjamin Freeman from Careysburg, Montserrado County as his new VP. He also offered some members key positions in the government. But unfortunately, Freeman died on the eve of inauguration day.
Tubman then selected junior House Representative William Tolbert, Jr., son of Rev. William Tolbert, Sr. from Bensonville, near Careysburg, Montserrado County. The father, a settler from the US, was chairman of the True Whip Party and a member of the house of representatives. He was powerful in the county and influential in the religious community. Tubman thus had the Rock Town Boys and other members of the elite in his pocket.
In the 1951 election, Tubman faced Didwho Welleh Twe, a native Liberian of the Kru tribe. Twe was a former representative in the Liberian Legislature. Twe had a distinguished mark on his forehead, culturally identifying him as a Kru. The tribe is one of the strongest and popular ethnic groups in Liberia. Moreover, besides being a skillful politician, Twe was a wealthy man with a large farm still called Twe farm in the Dullai area in Monrovia.
As a former commissioner in the Liberian interior, Twe was also well known and respected among the natives. His political party, the United People Party, which later became the Reformation Party, had members of native and Congo backgrounds. This composition gave the party a broad-based appeal.
Mr. Patterson, Twe’s son in-law and secretary, in a 1973 interview, read to me Twe’s nomination acceptance address and a speech delivered during an Independence Day celebration in which the candidate talked about the settler-native divide and the need to give a native similar constitutional right to seek the nation’s highest office. He predicted a democratic change coming to Liberia from the East. Also in the acceptance address under the theme, “Nothing is Permanent”, Twe said that empires in the world had come and gone and as the night changes to day so will Liberia change. Twe then called to Tubman saying, “If you know what I know and see what I see, you will not hesitate to grant me the presidency.”
Tubman did not take the convention address kindly and responded negatively, stating:
“Mr. Twe and his adherents complain that for hundred and four years of the independence of this country, no aborigine had had the honor of being president. (Who) does he call aborigine, he and his dangling group of a fifth of the Kru tribe? I protest! I contest his misconceived notion. HRN Johnson, Daniel Edward Howard, Charles Burgess King, Edwin Barclay and William S. Tubman are all aborigines and indigenous people of this country, for we were born, bred and reared here.”
As Siahyonkron Nyanseor commented on the reaction, Twe was not the one who made the distinction. It was the settlers who historically viewed one group of Liberians as Americo-Liberians and another as native or tribal Africans.
Tubman knew that Twe would easily win the election because of Twe’s native background. Twe was the first native to seek the Liberian presidency. To overcome this challenge, Tubman branded Twe a tribalist, a divisive figure, an inherent traitor, and a sophisticated bigot. Tubman went further…… he declared that Twe was from the Settra Kru, a low section of the Kru tribe. Tubman maintained that Twe was not a real Kru and did not have support of the majority of Kru people.
Certainly the Settra Kru or sometimes called Nana Kru are in Sinoe County and are considered among some Krus as less important with less educated people. Tubman began influencing well known Kru people from established Kru sections, including Grandcess, Sasstown, and Sanguine. They are the sea coast Krus with many educated people, most of whom were desirous of government jobs. The government then and now was the main employer in Liberia.
Tubman was successful in the above strategy as many educated Krus began denouncing Twe. They felt that Twe, as a lesser Kru, did not deserve to be president. Apparently, they believed that the quest for such position should have come from one of them. They also may have feared that a Twe administration would give power and influence to a low section of the tribe and could affect them.
The late Dominique Nimley, a Kru from Grandcess, indicated in an interview in 1997 that many educated Krus did not support Twe but supported Tubman because of Twe’s low ethnic background.
However, Twe was well educated. He graduated from Rhode Island University in the United States and had a Master’s degree. He also studied agriculture at Harvard University and Columbia University. Twe was a member of the American Political Science Society and was sponsored by US Congressional Representative William Grout, Senator John Morgan of Vermont and Alabama respectively and by the American great writer, Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain. Many Liberians in the US supported his candidacy. For example, Thorgue Sie, a well educated Grandcess Kru living in America returned home to work in the Twe campaign.
Tubman and his operatives frustrated the opposition party. They denied it registration with the election commission by instructing then the election commissioner, Hon. James Cooper, the owner of Cooper Farm, and a former presidential aspirant, to leave town and close his office. Consequently, the party was unable to register on time. A slogan, which was popular all over the country, was – “You Too Late You Lost Your Chance”, meaning the party was late to register. The government employed a somewhat death squad called “You too late”, which harassed and caused the disappearing and deaths of some supporters of the opposition party.
Because Twe, a native Liberian, utilized his constitutional right to seek the presidency, Tubman called him a tribalist and other names. The opposition appealed the denial to the Supreme Court but lost. All the justices were Americo-Liberians. Government forces arrested and jailed party members who attempted to publicly demonstrate. Twe’s life was threatened; he fled into exile in Sierra Leone. The party died! Tubman went on to win the election unopposed.
Tubman placated some opposition members. He instituted an organization called PRO (Public Relation Officers), which served as information operatives, reporting and spying on people, doing CIA work on citizens. The PR Officers were paid by Liberian taxed dollars. This brought fear among the Liberian people.
Tubman implemented needed reforms such as the women suffrage, enabling women to vote, and the establishment of the national unification policy, bringing the natives and the Congos together. He constructed a ‘Native Mansion’ in Monrovia for the temporary staying of visiting chiefs from the interior.
One chief praised Tubman, calling him a very good president, who brought the country and civilized people together. “We the tribal men can now mix up with civilized people freely and nobody is looking down on us. We can eat at the same table, shake hands and dance with the civilized men and women”. The chief ended by calling on Tubman “to be president until you die”.
Here the chief made a distinction of two groups of Liberians, but Tubman did not call him a tribalist, because he was praising Tubman and wanting Tubman to stay in power until judgment day. The statement was in Tubman’s interest, so the chief was showing good citizenship.
The reforms and subsequent praises, however, caused resentment among the ruling Americo-Liberian elite. They saw the move as Tubman turning power over to the natives. But at the same time, it created a positive sense of new tribalism as many educated natives returned to their tribal identities to what some observers called “the re-tribalization of natives”. Some educated natives replaced their Western suits with native gowns or country clothing; some changed their surnames regaining their traditional names such as Fahnbulleh.
Further, educated natives became superintendents of newly created counties; city-based native elite employed in the government began visiting their villages to identify with their kinsmen and to speak their tribal languages. Previously, most educated natives avoided speaking publicly their respective tribal languages. They discouraged and did not teach their children to speak their mother tongue”. As Gus Liebenow noted, some natives engaged in an autocratic embrace, behaving or acting Congo in order to be accepted by the Congos.
Again the Congo elite found this new ethnicity unwelcoming, seeing it as a threat to their power. They complained to the president and suggested for him to go slow with the changes. Despite the complaints and suggestion, Tubman continued with the reforms as they increased his popularity in the country. He wore a country gown at tribal functions, and particularly in his home county Maryland, people called him a Grebo native man. Tubman, a native man, and no one complained or accused him of tribalism.
The ruling elite did not complain of his tribalism because they knew he was not a native man. But when a real native expressed, showed and demonstrated pride of his ethnicity, then the Congo Liberians complained. Certainly to be Congo or to act Congo was alright. Congoism, Americo-Liberianism, entailing the monopolization of power, the selection of Congo over native and the marginalization of natives and their culture was considered a true Liberian way.
Main photo: William Tubman, amazon.com