Alfred P. B. Kiadii
Forty-one years ago, a revolutionary event happened which altered the trajectory and texture of Liberian history. April 14, 1979, was the first time the working people and ordinary masses of the people stampeded their way on the center stage of history to change the direction of the country.
Even after 41 years, despite political sclerosis in the fatherland, this day remains the summit of the Liberian people’s political rising. It marked the beginning of history from below. Here we see the same crude forms of accumulation of social surplus, funds that should rather rack up investment in social programs such as health, education, and the economy to move the needle on poverty and address the structural imbalances of the society, turned into a slush fund for the ruling elements drawn from tax dollars, ending in personal pockets.
A Slander of history
For remnants of the ruling oligarchy to whitewash history, they have gone on the offensive to blacken every memory of April 14, 1979. Many have resorted to a campaign of slander and calumny to make the oppressed feel guilty about their quest for social justice. The leading intellectual elements of the defunct oligarchy and other political dinosaurs, with a revolting sense of entitlement, are rewriting history in the most revisionist ways ever imagine. Platitudes such as it was April 14, 1979, which triggered Liberia’s slide into civil violence have been the recurring motif of their propaganda onslaught. Void of any appreciation of the social dynamics and the objective contradictions that fuelled the rice and rights uprising, these privileged elites have not recovered from losing the historical limelight, it is surreal that these reactionaries stamped guilty verdict on the progressive class and the masses of the people who took to the streets to free themselves from dehumanization and the yoke of oppression.
In their skewed analysis, while vindicating themselves of all charges, they blame the underdevelopment of Liberia on the shoulders of the progressive forces who themselves were victims of abuse and injustice and thought to struggle for a new nationalism, which put people above clique, the oppressed above the minority, in order to build a society which would reflect the character and diversity of the country.
For starters, revolution or violent social change happens when a particular mode of production comes in conflict with the development of the productive forces. It is this conflict that engenders social change. To put it bluntly, it is not the revolutionary who causes the revolution; conversely, it is the revolution that produces the revolutionary. Writing in the preface of his revolutionary tour de force ‘’the Black Jacobin’’ the most authoritative source of the Haitian Revolution, the Trinidad Marxist in CLR James emphasized the point when he outlined the pedigrees of Toussaint Louverture, the leading figure in the Haitian Revolution: ‘’Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint.’’
The role of the Individual in History
The attempt at blaming the progressive class for the failing of the moribund political establishment is not all that novel in historical distortion, but a dirty page out of revisionism which has become a common obsession. Like Thomas Carlyle, the revisionists premise their naïve assumption on the discredited hero theory of history. This formulation refuses to take into consideration the objective realities and overlooks the masses as an unenlightened mob that is controlled and stresses the subjective factors as the reason for historical occurrences, historica analysis that glosses over the objective factors.
While we recognize the individual as a historical agent, and it is the human agency that ignites social change. Landmark historical occurrences happen within a particular social milieu through a historical process. To understand what fuels people’s uprising, one must analyze the social conditions under which the change happens. To not understand this is not to have a full grasp of the historical realities. Subjective factors play a role in organizing change, but it is the objective realities that push people on the centerfold of history to fight for change. Suffice this to mean that even if the progressive class had not emerged on the scene of history, given that the society was at the tipping point of explosion — other social forces would have emerged. Nature, as in history, doesn’t tolerate a vacuum.
Analysis of William R. Tolbert so-called progressivism
After Tubman’s death, President W.R. Tolbert came to power. But by the time he ascended to the highest seat of power, the antagonistic contradictions had sharpened and amplified in Liberia, and the masses could not wait indefinitely. They demanded a fundamental transformation, but Tolbert was impotent — impeded by political sclerosis—blinded by personal ambition. Students at the University of Liberia and the then Cuttington University College were at the forefront of the revolutionary ferment that had gripped the country. They went forward and speedily organized their news organs and through prose went to war with the CENTURY OLD plus decades political establishment, writing extensively about the decayed Liberian state.
We note when William VS Tubman died, elements from the conservative wing of the True Whig Party didn’t want Tolbert to succeed him, although the latter was the next in succession. Initially, they opted for the servile Chief Justice James A. A. Pierre, who represented their interests. However, fearing internal wrangling could lead to fatal purges triggering a catastrophic blowback, they walked back the plan and then settled on William Tolbert. When Tolbert ascended to power, watching the mood in the country, he pivoted to the progressive forces, at the same time reassuring elements of the conservative wing that nothing would change. Tolbert bandied in progressive rhetoric and refused to accompany this rhetoric with decisive action.
Further, he pushed the masses forward with his speeches of hope and change but refused to go with them in history. His problem was that he overlooked the fact that the contradictions in the country were so irreconcilable that the interests of the conservative wing of his party and that of the broader population were not the same. The choice was to go with the progressive elements or outmaneuvered the conservative forces in his party, or stick with the former and drown in his call for social change. Tolbert stuck to the middle ground. By then, the genie was out of the bottle. Change, the masses of the people were pressing for a progressive future, and they never intended to retreat.
William R. Tolbert was by now a conflicted and contradictory figure. He behaved like a progressive in the Nonaligned Movement and pretended he wanted a root-and-branch transformation of the third world, but he was an ardent political figure who supported the CIA-backed UNITA against the MPLA in Angola. He ignored the 1969 Lusaka Manifesto of the OAU, which stated that before the apartheid regime reached out to other African countries in diplomatic collaboration, it must first seek dialogue with the elements of the ANC who were fighting against the minority rule in South Africa. He would go from not only violating that sacred manifesto that all independent African countries agreed to, but he also invited John Vorster, one of the most vulgar architects of apartheid on Liberian soil because Tolbert fancied himself winning the coveted Nobel Peace Prize if he were to start a phony dialogue between Vorster and the ANC outside of the official structure of the OAU. Like his protégé Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he was a slave to self-interest! Meanwhile, Ahmed Sekou Toure and others were taken aback by the dangerous game Pres. Tolbert was playing.
Equally important, it would be instructive to point out that the superstructural institutions that maintained and justified the hold of the true Whig party in power were in three forms: the masonic craft, elitist social formations, and close-knit family relations predicated upon membership by birth or marriage into the clique. Like every minority ruling clique, this was the way the True Whig Party governed the republic, monopolized privilege in the political, social and economic realms and promoted an artificial improvisation or the co-optation of certain sons and daughters of the tribal people to present the farce that their leadership encompasses the tribal majority. We note that such a move was not based on an honest effort at inclusion, but a charade to get legitimacy from the dominated masses. This narrow individualism and co-optation of tribal chiefs in the state bureaucracy created a short-lived legitimacy, but it was not enough to save the wretched regime from reckoning with the masses. The contradictions of the domination of the ruling clique to the exclusion and utter neglect of the whole nation sapped the creation of a nation. It is this antagonistic contradiction that led to April 14, 1979, which was, not by design, but as a matter of antagonistic historical contradiction.
“Great president” thesis:
Tolbert was never a great leader. Being on the left of Tubman doesn’t make him great or progressive. If Tubman was a rancid reactionary, anybody to his left was equally reactionary. Tolbert didn’t act when he needed to act. His so-called progressive rhetoric was not one thought about, but a product of historical opportunism, as the progressive forces had animated a radical consciousness in the country. It was against that background he doled out rhetoric he was never willing to match with actions, as the motto of his party stated—deeds, not words. For him, it was words, words, but no deeds. In his speeches, he pretended to show antipathy for the social dysfunction that had stunted the population, but he serially exploited native virgins to meet his baser occultist fantasies. What kind of progressive president who was hell-bent on transformation would dot his family members across key sectors of the government? Tolbert masked himself through rhetorical forces to appear progressive. But a deeper and critical look at the man, he was nothing but a political trickster who was playing at being a reformist leader. In short, there was a big gulf between his public rhetoric and his private conduct.
Return to normal day?
In the campaign of falsification, the remnants of the oligarchy peddle the myth about the glorious “normal days’’ and want a return to that past. They would purvey the lies that everything was working well in Liberia until the progressive class stopped the natural flow of the society. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is Liberia was never a paradise in which the ‘’nefarious forces’’ came and disrupted the great establishment. On a closer look, this vantage point is part of a treacherous scheme to score cheap political points. Going back to normal days means giving the pre-1980 ruling group state power because they are the only group who can fix the country.
Normal days, as we know it, were not normal. It was the period of the centralization, concentration, and monopolization of privilege and power in the hands of a discredited clique that was politically impotent that their only method of governance was to impose social control by using the coercive force of the state through the network of spies and cutthroats. This was the period when the vast majority of the people were mistreated, marginalized and objectified, while afflicted by the most despicable form of social diseases such as breath-taking inequality, economic exclusion, and maximum authoritarianism that reduced most of the people to a subhuman status. With these points, it is absolute poppycock for anyone to imagine a retreat to normal days. Normal days brought the people mystery, deprivation, and backwardness. It is the excesses of a normal day, the organization of the state in pursuit of the interests of the minority responsible for the daunting challenges of today.
In this epoch, Liberia, as we know it, is nothing short of appalling. The country is governed by the neo-Nero in George Weah, who epitomizes the rottenness, debauchery, and indiscipline of this rotten Liberian society. Notwithstanding, our quest for a better society cannot be the mere reinvention of the discredited past, complete with structural inequalities and brutal domination. If we must move Liberia forward to a glorious future, that past cannot be a blueprint because it kept us wallowing in the cesspool of underdevelopment and backwardness. Now is the time for radical imaginations. The future of plenty and abundance created through the usage of social surplus to benefit the whole people. That future can only come not by returning to proverbial Egypt. Neither can we accomplish it through the creation of a monstrous bureaucracy that stifles progressive imaginations, but a future where the people are conscious and enlightened and at the forefront of the historical march.
April 14, 1979, was not just about rice, although rice may have spurred the rising. It was about dignity, about decency, and about a new Liberian project which reflects the character of the country and brings all together under the national mosaic and to fight for a progressive future. The tribal majority, as an oppressed group, dreamed of a better Liberia and it was for the actualization of that dream they took to the streets. This longing for dignity and humaneness against the debasement, dehumanization, and national neglect was the basis for the action. That PAL and MOJA studied the contradictions in the country and created platforms to thrust the people into history are in tandem with all historical struggles in the Global South. It is a truism that throughout history, political movements rise to the occasion and absorb the rage of the people and organize them to fight for a better world. The likes of Mathew, Tipoteh, Fahnbulleh, Sawyer, Mayson, Karn Carlor and Oscar Quiah represented the blistering aspiration of the people.
During the reign of the true Whig party, what we had in Liberia was settler-colonialism. In contrast to the other guise of this coercive form of domination, ours was not based on Caucasians coming to the country to settle and serve as the ruling class and tied to international capital. It was freed slaves who themselves, with abject regularity, consumed the meal of marginalization and subjugation or their parents did, who came and reproduced the society in Liberia which they and their forefathers rejected. They came not hoping to build a society, but to burn society, atomize the people on tribal, sectarian, and ethnic lines. They were not interested in building a nation but reinventing the feudal society where the overlords govern over the serfs. Elements in their group such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, T. R. Bracewell, Edwin J. Barclay, and many others warned them, but they didn’t listen.
Since independence, the ruling elites in the republic boycotted the masses. Attempts at inclusion were perfunctory, and at worst minuscule, but came with a political tag. The assimilation of chiefs under Tubman’s unification charade was more about using the former as a brake on any uprising of the people, a desperate attempt at political legitimacy, and a decision to widen the revenue base of the country, while the people live in poverty, mystery, and inequality. Many events in the country signaled that reality. One very glaring one was how the illiterate masses, steeped in superstition, amassed to rally funds under the banner of the Citizens of Liberia in Defence of Albert Porte (COLIDAP). That was the closest the people came to April 14, 1979. It was the signal that old men and women who thought they would govern over the people without a fightback didn’t understand that they were on borrowed time. That it was just a matter of time that the people would have settled historical contradictions outside of the rigged system of the state.
The case between Albert Porte and Stephen Tolbert cancels out any claim that Tolbert was a progressive. The humiliation of Porte, his constant harassment, the butchering of every elementary legal principle to stamp on him with a guilty verdict showed that the ruling elements had reached the point of saturated degeneracy and political bankruptcy. They couldn’t have changed. For the people to rally behind Porte, who was a Congau man, and Porte also opposed elements of his tribal extraction, the story offers a key historical lesson. One, it was not about native and Congau—the struggle was about the ruling elements and the oppressed strata. It was a class struggle- nothing more, nothing less!
Here is a global context: The decades of the 60s and 70s saw the rising of the Third World. Colonialism everywhere was on the retreat. A new form of politics had emerged. The masses of the Third World had entered history and their advanced layers were preaching pan-Africanism, black radicalism, and socialism. The masses in the Global South were challenging imperialism and its local lackeys. In places such as Vietnam people formed a peasant army to fight imperialism on the battlefield, and they defeated it—French, British and American imperialism were all routed. In parts of Africa, everywhere, the masses of the Global South had awakened to a new consciousness where they were confronting discredited regimes. It was the 20th century, the century of anti-colonial struggle. The demands and happenings in Liberia were not in a vacuum.
The hope of a new future is even now more relevant than it was over 40 years ago. The masses of people are still rehearsing the demands. They yearn for a better society, a new socio-economic order which addresses structural inequalities and the vulnerabilities of the working people and oppressed. Truly, all about building a bold new society for a progressive order, bordering on national inclusion, and the redistribution of social surplus. Today, we must not retreat from those demands. We must take those demands and pin them on the door of the national discourse.
Main Photo: President Tolbert