An Anniversary Edition
By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II
The presidential election of 1951 in Liberia was one of the interesting events in the country’s electoral politics. I was five years old during the election. I write about what I witnessed and what I later learned and understood through research. The race was between sitting President William V.S. Tubman and his challenger Didwho Welleh Twe pictured below with Tubman on the left.
Tubman knew that Twe would easily win the election because of Twe’s native background. Twe was the first Liberian native to officially seek the Liberian presidency. Twe was the standard-bearer of a political party. The country was ruled and dominated by the self-named Americo-Liberians, descendants of Black ex-slaves from America in 1822. To overcome the challenge, Tubman branded Twe a tribalist, a divisive figure, an inherent traitor, and a sophisticated bigot. Tubman went further, informed that Twe was from Settra Kru, a section viewed to be low within the Kru tribe, Tubman maintained that Twe was not a real Kru and did not have the support of the majority Kru people.
Certainly, the Settra Kru or sometimes called Nana Kru is in Sinoe County and is considered among some Krus as less important and has less educated people. Tubman began influencing well-known Kru people from the established Kru sections, including Grandcess, Picnicess, Sasstown, and Sanguine. They are the sea- coast Krus with many educated people, most of whom were desirous of government jobs during that time. 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 may have felt that Twe as a “lesser Kru” did not deserve to be President. They believed that the quest for such a 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 1995 that many educated Krus did not support Twe but the majority of the people wanted Tubman.
Tubman’s strategy to divide the Kru majority against Twe failed. Tubman then decided to use the political machinery against Twe. The True Whig Party regime in July 1950 denied Twe’s party, the United People Party (UPP), from registering, stating that the new party did not have the required number of members to register. At first, Senator R.F.D. Witherspoon of Sinoe County challenged the probate of the party articles of incorporation and stopped it from becoming a legal organization. The government arrested Twe in August 1950 on a sedition charge after the rejection of his party registration in July that year.
However, the government released him in consideration of his request to travel to the US for prostate surgery. But upon his return after the operation, the government arrested him again stating that while in America he criticized the True Whig Party regime and disseminated propaganda information against the government. Yet, the UPP appeared not to be deterred.
The United People Party then joined the Reformation Party, an existing party whose membership included former members of the True Whig Party. Richard Holder, a former cabinet official of the Barclay administration, 1949 founded the Reformation Party and was positioned to head the party in the 1951 election. Though he criticized the Tubman regime, a few days before the party-planned convention, he met with Tubman and withdrew from the race. He may have sensed that he had inadequate support from the aborigine Liberians whom the party depended on for a victory. Twe had emerged as a suitable and better qualified to lead the party after his return from America. Twe had gained support from Diasporas Liberians and contacts in the US.
On April 10, 1951, the party held its convention and nominated Twe, from Montserrado County, as its standard-bearer and Tyson Wood, from Grand Bassa County, as the vice standard-bearer. The selection was strategic. Both counties were among the original three counties that founded the Republic. Also, the selection of Thorgues Sie, Sr. as national chairman of the party was a plus. He was a well-known son of Grandcess, which was part of Maryland County and it entailed the Southeast section of the country. Another factor that was in Twe’s favor was the passage of women’s suffrage. This proclamation granted voting rights to women in the 1951 election year, thanks to Tubman. Besides natives constituting the majority of the Liberian population, the adding of women to the electorates was important and significant. The election provided the Liberian native majority the constitutional right for the first time to vote for president of the nation. Twe was popular among the natives. He was liked in the Liberian hinterlands as a commissioner and had children from different tribes. So he had a good chance of becoming Liberian first president of tribal background in a fair and peaceful election. But neither the opposition party nor its candidates were put on the ballot. Only the True Whig Party and its candidates were to be voted for. The government alleged that Twe and his party failed to register more than 60 days before the election as a candidate.
When the Reformation Party complained, the government security operative called then “You Too Late”, began harassing and arresting leaders of the opposition. Actually, “You Too Late” was a song and propaganda of the True Whig Party saying that the opposition party was too late to officially register and therefore the party lost its chance to participate in the election. It sang like this. “You too late, you lost your chance”. It turned to a death squad, killing people. As kids, we were told to stay indoors at night. To frustrate and stop the opposition party from registering on time, the election commissioner in charge was said to have left town and could not be located. He returned after the close of the registration. On May 1, 1951, the election was held without the participation of the opposition. On May 10, 1951, True Whig Party partisans jubilantly paraded in the streets of Monrovia celebrating their electoral victory.
HISTORY OF THE TRUE WHIG PARTY
The True Whig Party came into existence in 1869 as an opposition to the Republican Party. The ruling party had controlled national politics and had ruled the country since 1847. It was the party of the light-skinned settlers, mostly the mulattoes, who were the children of slavemasters. They were the products of house slavery in America. Their ascendency to power was due to the American Colonization Society (ACS), which sponsored and brought the settlers to Liberia in 1822. ACS was established in the US in 1817 as a philanthropist organization to send Black ex-slaves to Africa. Many of the supporters of the society were rich slave masters who wanted their ex-slaves, particularly their slave children, to be taken good care of in Africa. Hence, the society put the light-skinned settlers in positions of authority in the administration of the colony leading to the independence of the country.
The dark-skinned settlers, on the other hand, were the field slaves in America. In Liberia, they engaged in commerce and shipping and left the running of the country to the light-skinned settlers. This condition continued until 1869. In that year, the dark-skinned settlers saw it necessary to participate in politics and founded the True Whig in Clay-Ashland, a settlement in Montserrado County established in 1855 and named after US Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and after his town Ashland. Clay was president of ACS.
In 1870, the party gained power in the election of Edward Roye as president of Liberia. Roye, a freed slave from the State of Ohio and a descendant of the Igbo Tribe of the land now Nigeria, became the first dark-skinned settler president of Liberia. Unfortunately, his presidency did not last long. He was forcefully removed from office the following year and jailed for alleged corruption. He died a mysterious death after. His Vice President, James Smith, a medical doctor, succeeded him in 1871, but he too left office within a year.
The Republican Party regained power in 1872 by returning former presidents Joseph Robert and James Payne to the presidency in 1872-1876 and 1876-1878 respectively. Robert was Liberian first president and Payne was the fourth. Both presidents were mulattoes. But in 1878, the True Whig Party bounced back and recaptured the presidency by electing Anthony Gardner. Thus from 1878, the True-Whig Party dominated the presidency up to the time of the 1951 election and beyond.
The Congos first arrived in Liberia in the mid-1820s. The majority, about 1400, entered the country in 1860. They were pure Africans, non-English speaking people from the Niger-Congo delta that now includes Nigeria, Niger, Benin, and Congo. They were slaves re-captured from slave ships traveling to the West Indies and were sent to Liberia under the sponsorship of the ACS, thanks to the US government. In the late 1820s, America helped implement a law forbidding the transportation of slaves on the Atlantic Ocean. Slave ships caught on the sea were taken to Liberia.
The ACS put the Congos under the tutelage of the American settlers and gave regular and additional ration to the guardians. The Society had thought it wise to put all its settlers together for efficiency. It may have viewed also that the Congos would benefit from the environmental experience of the American settlers. But the US ex-slaves mistreated the Congos and made them servants doing farming for the caretakers. Jehudi Ashmun, agent of ACS, expressed disappointment in the behavior of American settlers. Consequently, the Congos left and started their communities along the Montserrado River banks or suburban of the county. They also settled in the area now called Congo Town in upper Monrovia.
Although the Congos were Africans, because of their relationship and intermarriage with the Americo-Liberians, they felt superior to the Liberian natives and joined the top hierarchy of the social order of the country. The indigenous Liberians were at the bottom of this order. But by 1843, the Americo-Liberian population declined due largely to a high death rate while the Congo population remained at least stable. The population decreased by 60% from 4571 to 1819.
By the turn of the century, the Congo population had surpassed that of the Americo-Liberians. In later years, the settler population was generally referred to as the Congo people. Nevertheless, the Americo-Liberians controlled the economy and politics of the nation run by twenty-five families, including the Coopers, the Dennises, and the Tolberts.
Additional emigrations to Liberia followed, entailing 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 Barclays and the Grimes from Barbados, the Wilsons from Togo; the Kings, the Sawyers, the Coles, the Jacobs, and the Brights from Sierra Leone. Others who came from Togo changed their names to Tubman. The immigrants became Congos and received opportunities over the aborigine Liberians.
All settler groups became members of the True-Whig Party after 1880. To keep power, they utilized the established institutions, such as the Masonic Craft, the church, the schools, and the political party. For instance, the Grand Masonry, a secret cult, decided who to become president of the country. They used the pulpit and journalism as stepping stones to politics. They also placed their children into key government positions.
For example, Tubman’s father was a preacher and speaker of the House of Representatives. Tubman’s son, William Tubman (Shad Tubman), was a senator. Likewise, Tubman’s Vice President William Tolbert’s father was a pastor and the House speaker. The son was a Baptist minister and a member of the House before being VP. The vice president’s son A. B. Tolbert and brother Frank Tolbert were senators. Shad Tubman married the VP’s daughter. This too shows the interconnection of the ruling class. See Gus Liebenow’s Liberia: Evolution of Privilege for further reading on this subject.
While the True Whig Party instituted a dictatorial and repressive regime, some observers and previous opponents admired its courage and determination not to have given up after the embarrassing administrations of Edward Roye and John Smith. Moreover, besides former President Joseph Cheeseman, Liberian presidents up to Tubman had paid lip service to the Native-Congo divide. Tubman attempted to close the gap.
The year 1951 was tensed, and we the children did not understand what was happening. Sometimes, the churches were used as meeting places for Twe’s supporters. In the churches, the Kru people sang; “in the future when we take our rightful place, no one would defeat us but God”. It was a religious song in Kru but it was a battle cry of the opposition. I sang it as a child and I still remember it.
In the election year, the True Whig Party government saw the need to vigorously enforce the hut and the head tax laws on Twe’s supporters, the majority of them were hut dwellers. The hut tax was instituted in 1910 by the Arthur Barclay government. The regime was faced with a financial crisis. Each hut was demanded and required to pay $1.00. Particularly in the rural area, the hut tax law was vigorously enforced by the frontier force, the military arm of the settler government. When the government failed to pay the salary of its force, the military took its frustration on the natives by looting their belongings. The head tax, severely enforced during the Charles King administration of the 1920s, compelled the head of a hut household to pay tax to the government. Those who failed to pay were put imprison. But the tax came into existence in the 1870s in the government response to economic hardship. The regime imposed the collection on Kru migrant workers on the Kru Coast. The Kru protested the enforcement. In New Krutown in 1951 many heads of households were arrested. My uncle Pa Menti had to leave the house early morning to hind in the bush and returned home late at night to avoid imprisonment. I used to wonder why he was leaving so early. Of course, I knew later as an adult why.
Twe’s life was endangered. He flew into exile for the second time to Sierra Leone where many Kru and Bassa people had migrated. His first exile was in the early 1930s during the presidency of Edwin Barclay. In the 1951 election, the government supported the arrest of the opposition. The jailed members included Thorgues Sie, Nimene Botoe, Bo Nimley, Doe Bopleh, Robert Slewion Karpeh, and Teacher Jugbe. Thorgues Sie, a former student leader in the US, left his family in America to help run Twe’s candidacy. He was a high school classmate of Tubman in Maryland County. In the US, he was a leading member of the African Students Association of America and Canada with Kwame Nkrumah, also a member.
In their jail cell, members of the opposition asked among themselves why were they arrested and imprisoned. They asked in consideration of their rights as citizens to form a political party, canvass, vote, and complain against any unfair and unlawful election practices. The government in court charged them with sedition, alleging that the party wrote President Tubman, the UN, the US government, and other international bodies complaining about the election; and in so doing, the party invited foreign entities into the domestic affair of Liberia intending to destabilize the country and government.
Certainly, the party wrote the president and the entities named to inform them of the denial of the constitutional right and the violation of human rights in Liberia. The president was the father of the nation and was obligated to defend the constitution and protect the rights of all Liberians. Moreover, Liberia was a founding member of the UN, and America was considered the God Father of Liberia considering the historical ties between both countries.
The prisoners denied the charge, indicating that their effort was to complain and that they were not committing sedition or treason. However, the court found them guilty and sentenced them to multiple years. Although they appealed to the Supreme Court, the high court in 1954 affirmed the ruling. In the 60s, President Tubman released many of the prisoners, including Thorgues Sie.
In 1966, I met Sie in New Krutown where he was residing. He was old then. His health had declined after years of harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment from the Twe incident. He died after 1966. In the early 1960s, Tubman pardoned Twe, allowing him to return from exile. Twe died in Liberia in 1961. He was given a befitting burial as a people hero and a great statesman.
The 1951 election brought ethnic division among the Liberian people. The country was split into two; the Congos on the one hand, and the natives on the other. Within the two were splitter groups. Some Congos supported Twe with their membership in the Reformation Party. Likewise, some natives backed Tubman. But the division was deeper among the Kru. Those Kru who supported Tubman were viewed as regime collaborators and traitors to their tribe while those for Twe were considered real Kru by the Kru majority. But they, Twe Kru, were viewed as troublemakers by the government.
Most of Tubman’s Kru supporters were government employees or wanting government positions. They felt that supporting Twe would jeopardize their government employment and would make them anti-establishment in the eyes of the regime. Their feeling was justifiable: the True Whig Party government also viewed Twe’s Kru supporters as tribalists, hardheads, and un-Liberians and considered those for Tubman as true patriots. Consequently, some of Tubman’s Kru backers denounced their Kru ethnic identity and discouraged their children from being Kru.
Meanwhile, those Kru and other permanent natives who supported Twe were stigmatized and blacklisted from government work and opportunities even after the election. Some migrated to neighboring countries. “Young Kru men in the cities were stereotyped as “Babi”, describing them as stupid, troublemakers, and mere fighters, though Babi, among the Kru, means big brother. The Kru-government confrontation started years ago. The election just intensified it. But the division among the Kru continued until Tubman’s death.
TUBMAN AND TWE, THE MEN
Tubman came from Maryland County, which was called the State of Maryland in Africa. Maryland was founded as a legal entity by the Maryland State Colonization Society of the US, which sent and sponsored Black former slaves from America to Africa. Maryland became part of Liberia in 1857. It was the land of the Grebo tribe. It was one of the last counties that joined Liberia after the country became independent in 1847.
Tubman, born in 1895, entered the national government at a very young age. He was elected senator from his county at age 28. The national legislature refused his election because of his age, but the people of Maryland maintained their stance and demanded his sitting. His father, Alexander Tubman, and grandfather, William Tubman, came to Liberia in 1844 as former slaves from Georgia. In Liberia, Alexander became a Methodist minister and speaker of the House of Representatives as stated earlier. His son William was to follow the father’s footsteps as a pastor. Young Tubman was a semi-preacher; he read law and was known as a poor man lawyer. There is no record that Tubman graduated from college. In 1937 President Edwin Barclay appointed him a Supreme Court judge.
Dr. John Cummings, former chairman of the African Studies Department of Howard University, told me that Tubman’s grandfather was originally a Cummings who took the name Tubman, an ex-slave who died on the ship that brought the settlers to Liberia. The deceased was a former slave of a wealthy plantation owner whose widow promised to support the ex-slave in Africa. To benefit from the generosity of the slave master, Cummings, also a passenger on the ship changed his name to Tubman upon arriving in Liberia.
But there is no further documentation thus far supporting exactly the above assertion. It has been documented, however, that philanthropist Emily Tubman, the widow of Tubman’s slave master, sponsored the trip of her husband’s slaves and upon their arrival to Liberia they took Tubman’s name. A biography of President Tubman by Wikipedia discusses below Emily Tubman and gives some support to John Cummings’s expression.
Tubman sought the help of her friend and mentor, Henry Clay of Kentucky, president of the American Colonization Society. .. Clay assured her that sending her former slaves to Liberia would be a safe and suitable option. After arriving in Liberia, this group of freedmen took “Tubman” as their surname and settled together.
When Barclay’s presidential term was about to end, he selected Tubman as his successor. Barclay was from Montserrado County that dominated the Liberian presidency. Key Montserrado County politicians, who named themselves the “Rock Town Boys”, opposed the selection. They had hoped that Barclay, who was one of them, would have picked one of the boys and not a foreign individual. James F. Cooper was one of the Montserrado politicians who wanted to become president. He was a rich man in the county with a big farm called Cooper Farm in Monrovia. In the 1943 election, he opposed Tubman under the ticket of the Democratic Party. In that election, he received 3,107 votes and Tubman got 245,364 out of total votes cast of 248,471. Further, Barclay was faced with another issue. Other counties, particularly Grand Cape Mount County, have complained of being overlooked in the presidency and wanted consideration.
But Tubman was Barclay’s future in-law. Tubman, upon becoming president, married Barclay’s relative named Antoinette Louis Padmore in 1948. A compromise was reached in which Tubman would be president but must select a man from Grand Cape Mount County as a running-mate. Tubman thus selected Clarence Simpson, a notable son of Grand Cape Mount and secretary of state. In 1944, Tubman became president of Liberia.
In Tubman’s second term, he dropped Simpson and named Representative Ben Freeman as running-mate. The selection met the approval of the Rock Town Boys because Freeman was one of them. He came from Careyburg, a suburban and a key district of Montserrado County. The area, owned by the Kpelle Tribe, was established in 1856 as an experimental interior location by John Seys, a Methodist pastor who brought immigrants from the US and the Caribbean to Liberia in the 1850s. He acquired the land from a Kpelle chief and named it Careyburg after Rev. Lott Carey, an early settler. Many Liberian presidents came from Careyburg. But Freeman died on the eve of the inauguration of the administration. Tubman then picked William Tolbert, Jr., son of Pastor William Tolbert, Sr., as vice president. The son was a member of the House of Representatives as stated earlier. Also, as indicated, his father was the Speaker of the House and chairman of the True Whig Party. The Tolberts were also of Montserrado County. The selection solidified Tubman’s presidency among the Montserrado elites having them in his pocket. Moreover, Tubman became popular with the Liberian natives especially through the enactment of the unification policy, which allowed many native Liberians into the legislature and other major political positions. He was acclaimed nationally for this policy. Under it, he constructed a ‘Native Mansion’ in Monrovia for the temporary staying of 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”. The call came to pass.
But the chief’s admiration was a factor of co-optation, a goal of the ruling class for support of the natives. US Ambassador to Liberia, Edward Dudley, in a confidential report to Washington on the 1951 election observed this strategy.
“When aborigines become civilized through social contact and interaction with the civilized elements, their political concepts are conditioned by that group of which they become a part. Thus, such aborigines have become loyal True Whig Party partisans due to their dependency on the government as a source of employment”.
He reported that “previous election returns have shown evidence of corruption and unfairness”, that an unofficial vote count in the 1951 election gave Tubman 155,792 votes in an unopposed election. Interestingly, that number was far less than the 1943 election votes with challenger James Cooper. While it was said that Tubman received “between 75 and 80% of the potential voters” in the 1951 election, it was noted also that many ineligible people voted. This account could mean that in a free, fair, and transparent national election, Tubman would have lost.
The report additionally pointed out that since 1923, opposition to the True Whig Party had been carried out by men considered financially independent from the government. But their financial strength was out weighted by the financial power of the ruling party. The True Whig Party had made it mandatory for all government workers to monetarily contribute to the party whether or not they were partisans. Further, government funds were also used for campaign purposes. This put the opposition at the disadvantage.
Even though Twe was considered wealthy, he was the only one in his party who was able to finance the campaign. Nevertheless, what he had as a native was the number as previously discussed. Hence, Twe’s challenge to Tubman, though difficult, was considered an audacity, defiance, and an affront to the rule of the settlers. To them, that boldness must be dealt with drastically.
The US government and other international entities appeared not to have interfered in the election, despite the desire of the opposition to have the entities expressed concern of the violation of human and constitutional rights. The Tubman administration had a good and cordial relation with America. Tubman and US President Harry Truman knew each other when Tubman and American President Franklin Roosevelt met in Washington in 1944 before Tubman became president. Truman was vice president under Roosevelt then. He succeeded Roosevelt. It was indicated that foreigners in Liberia during the election preferred continuity for fear that a new government would change the status quo. This feeling may have been the result of the propaganda of the True Whig Party that the opposition was a communist operative and would bring communism to Liberia.
Didwho Welleh Twe
D. D. Twe, commonly called, was a national hero. He was viewed as the greatest of all the native or Kru political giants. Little is known of his parents except that he was born in Monrovia on April 14, 1879, and was named after his mother Welleh. As a young man, he assisted Plenyono Gbe Wollo, a Liberian from Grandcess and who was the first African to graduate from Harvard University. Twe was nationally and internationally known. At first, he worked as a district commissioner, traveling to the interiors of Liberia. He helped settle boundary disputes between Liberia and the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Guinea.
He became a representative for Montserrado County in the Liberian Legislature. “(He) had a distinguishing mark on his forehead, culturally identifying him as a Kru”. The Kru ethnic group is one of the African major and famous tribes historically. The Krus taught Europeans how to navigate the sea, according to D.L. Chandler of Black History Fact. They used the mark for identification, particularly during the slave trade. Accordingly, they rather kill themselves than become slaves. But they and other tribes have been accused of participating in this trade.
Because of Twe’s advocacy in the Fernando Po matter and his position against other injustices in Liberia, the True Party regime expelled him from the legislature in the early 1930s. He founded the United People Party that became the Reformation Party.
In a speech delivered on Liberian Independence Day celebration on July 26, 1944, he spoke about the settler-native divide. He talked of the need to open Liberian doors to foreign companies to help develop the country. Judging from historical reality, he believed that Liberia’s true democratic change and leadership will come from the East. Further, in his party presidential nomination accepted address, he talked on the subject, “Nothing is Permanent”. He said that empires in the world had come and gone and as the night changes to daylight so will Liberia change. Twe then called onto Tubman and said, “If you know what I know and see what I see, you will not hesitate to grant me the presidency”. That was bold! Many Liberians and others who read the Independence Day address viewed that Twe was ahead of his time and was a visionary.
Tubman did not take the convention oration kindly and responded negatively, stating:
“Mr. Twe and his adherent complain that for a 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”.
Twe was a skillful politician. He did not publically and prematurely expose himself without first having the basis. Before entering presidential politics, he was a wealthy man, owning many acres of land in the area called then and now, “the Twe Farm” in Duala, Monrovia. As a student in America, he was sponsored by US Congressional Representative William Grout of Vermont, Senator John Morgan of Alabama , and by American great writer, Samuel Clemens, whose pen name was “Mark Twain”.
Twe helped and interviewed Clemens regarding the writer’s book, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy”. An audio recording of the interview is in the Library of Congress in the US and is considered one of the contributions of an African to an American great writer and literature. The library or producer of the audio wrote: “[An] interview with D. Twe, a Liberian who was educated in the United States with assistance from Congressman William W. Grout of Vermont. Twe assisted Mark Twain with his book, King Leopold’s Soliloquy. The interviewers are unidentified; they discuss the Congo Free State, Twe’s memories of Mark Twain, and letters that Mark Twain wrote to Mr. Twe”.
Though Clemens died in 1910, the recording was made available in 1951, the year the election was held. “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” is a political satire, depicting the behaviors of European imperialist King Leopold in Congo. Clemens was against imperialism. He was critical of its existence not only in colonial Africa but also in other parts of the world. Further, Clemens supported civil rights in America. His opposition to imperialism and advocacy for the rights of Black Americans may have influenced and encouraged Twe’s fight against Americo-Liberianism/Congoism and the denial of native rights in Liberia. On the other hand, Twe could have influenced Clemens’ thinking and interest concerning Africa. Clemens was a leading American writer, particularly in the 1800s. He was one of the bests. His composition was inspiring but also humorous. Among his many novels were the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, which are among the classics in world literature.
Didwho Welleh Twe was 15 years old when he came to America in 1894. He attended St. Johnsbury Academy, a prep or private boarding school in Vermont, and graduated from Rhode Island University in the US. He also studied agriculture at Harvard and Columbia in America. He had a Master’s degree. Throughout his birth, he maintained his African identity; he carried his traditional African name despite his foreign education and exposure. He had many children. His junior was residing in New Krutown with a grandmother or aunt in the 50s. The son attended the Booker T. Washington Institute, BWI in Kakata, Margibe, Liberia.
Twe was without fault or contradiction. In a Matilda Newport Day celebration oration in 1926, he praised the settlers and the brevity of Newport. Matilda Newport, originally called Matilda Spencer, was a settler. She married Ralph Newport, an army general in Liberia. She was said in 1822 to have lighted a cannon by her pipe and caused the defeat of the natives in the Battle of Fort Hill between the settlers and the aborigines. Factually, however, there is no historical evidence supporting the heroism. Her action was considered a myth to belittle the natives and glorify the settlers. Perhaps Twe was unaware of the inaccuracy of Newport’s deed, but critics pointed out that even if the incident were true, he did not have to compliment on her heroism that was controversial and nationally divisive. Tubman was also blamed as the national leader to encourage the act commemorating an event of division. Matilda Newport Day was abolished in 1980. Twe later realized the error of his judgment in glorifying Matilda Newport. In that independent day oration, he painfully wrote and said:
“In 1926 I delivered the Newport Day address for that year right in this very hall, but on that day I went against my conviction. The task was therefore a very uncomfortable one to perform, for I have always felt that the continual celebration of the destruction of men of the Bassa Tribe by Matilda Newport is a short-sighted policy to sustain. It invites ill feelings from within and criticism from without. The outside world would feel, and rightly so, that is radically wrong in Liberia where one brother fires canon in celebrating the day he was successful to kill the brother”.
This open admission of error showed the true character of the man. While in exile, many of Twe’s supporters believed that he would return with submarines and gunboats to liberate the natives. That was wishful thinking. To most, he was a hero for his stance on the settler autocracy and injustice. Kru elders told his story to the young and children, including me, gathered at night for folk stories of old and of legends.
In the Independent Day oration also, Twe further expressed candidly government branding of him as a troublemaker for his advocacy; and the regime’s failure to listen to his advice. He stated for instance, of the characterization. “. …When I was District Commissioner on the Anglo-Liberian Border [,] instead of dancing to the popular music, I took a position and made a speech that was not acceptable to the powers that be. I was looked upon as a dangerous character and was therefore promptly expelled from the Legislature. I was not disappointed and kept malice against no one for the reprisal”.
To Twe, his stance on issues was not personal and neither political but was a matter of principle. He stated what Liberia needed, including education for the people and attention and focus on agriculture. He realized that no nation can prosperous if its citizens are largely uneducated and they cannot adequately feed themselves. Twe, as noted, was an agriculturalist and pointed out the importance of this sector.
Besides his advocacy and his strong cultural awareness, a uniqueness of him was his steadfastness. Since his removal from the legislature in the 1930s and despite his early friendship with President Tubman, Twe, a businessman, did not seek a government job and neither asked nor begged for one. This behavior marked his independence and extended his public respect and honor.
President Edwin Barclay nominated him for Secretary of the Interior, now Minister of Internal Affairs. As an advocate of native rights, one would have thought that Twe would have gladly accepted the position. But he did not. Twe may have considered the sad embarrassment and forced resignation of President William Coleman regarding native affairs years before. Coleman, who was vice president to President Joseph Cheeseman, succeeded the president upon Chesseman’s death in 1896. Coleman vowed to continue Chesseman’s good native policy. Coleman created enemies within the ruling elites with this policy. In a government-sponsored peace conference with 75 various native chiefs, the Liberian military massacred the chiefs in cold blood. This resulted in an international outcry. Coleman’s enemies, including Arthur Barclay and Charles King, seized the opportunity to demand his resignation. Coleman’s character was condemned. Although he left the True Whip Party and unsuccessfully ran as the standard-bearer of the People’s Party for the presidency in subsequent elections, he never recovered from the disgrace and embarrassment. He died later. Perhaps, Twe saw the nomination as a setup.
Coleman’s resignation created a succession crisis in Liberia. Coleman’s Vice President Jacob Ross died at the time of the resignation. Meanwhile, the Liberian Congress viewed Robert Marshall, the sitting Speaker of the House, as unqualified to succeed Coleman. This made Secretary of State Garretson Gibson become president. The situation also set precedence for the secretary of state, now foreign minister, to become president in subsequent administration, i.e. Secretary of State Edwin Barclay became president after Charles King.
Tubman and Twe were distinguished gentlemen. They were friends. Twe is said to have supported him in Tubman’s first term. Some observers credited Twe to have advised Tubman to implement the Unification Policy, a declaration also uniting the descendants of the Ex-slaves with the natives of the land. This policy became the milestone of the Tubman administration. Further, Tubman’s open-door policy brought in foreign companies to Liberia. Observers also think that the policy was Twe’s idea.
Both men married the same woman. Twe married Tubman’s first wife Arminta Dent. Some viewers observed that Tubman was jealous of Twe marrying his ex-wife and therefore had an animosity against Twe. Others thought differently, stating that the presidency provided Tubman with greater opportunity for female relationship and he was not bothered with a past marriage. Besides, he was a classic womanizer. “[He] had number of-children with other women during his marriages”, said Laurie Harris. Tubman married Martha A.R. Pratt of Maryland County after he ended his marriage to Arminta. Martha was with Tubman when he entered the Executive Mansion. Records indicate that the fight between the two friends was political, the direct result of Twe’s determined quest for the presidency.
During their days of friendship, both men related to each other well and respected one another. In an interview, it was revealed that Tubman purchased some shirts for Twe while the president was on a foreign trip. Twe had asked him to make the purchase and would pay him back. Tubman, upon return to Liberia, brought the shirts and gave them to Twe but as a gift. Though Twe appreciated the purchase, he insisted that he pay for them as a matter of principle. Tubman respectfully accepted Twe’s position.
INJUSTICE AND DENIAL OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
The 1951 election represented an event of injustice and denial of constitutional rights. The governing regime violated the rights of the opposition. Key members who backed Twe and stood up for their rights, principle, and pride suffered severely. As others have observed, the government harassed and hunted key members of the opposition in a Gestapo fashion by its security operatives, specifically Deputy Police Commissioner Tecumbla Thompson, a Kru. The victims were jailed, even though their party was denied participation in the election, and even though their leader was forced out of the country. Thompson and Cummings Seyon, another Kru, were said to have reported them to the government. Seyon was from Picnicess, and he became a representative in the House. The Supreme Court, composed of True Whig Party appointees, disbarred the defendants’ main lawyer and therefore denied the accused with proper legal representation.
Many of Twe’s key supporters suffered; some were killed and others died from frustration during their struggle for justice. Particularly, Twe was hunted furiously. His security guard, Juah Wesseh, moved him from one hiding place to another at night to keep him from arrest. Many times, he dressed him as a woman to disguise him, according to sources.
In a 1974 interview that I conducted, Twe’s daughter Tarloh Twe Patterson narrated one of her father’s sufferings, stating that on one occasion, the government soldiers were on their way to arrest him at his residence. There was no good place to hide him so the family dug a hole and buried him alive temporarily. Unfortunately, the sands fell in the little opening made for his breathing and the sands got in his eyes. He was in severe pain but yet he could not express the harm. The soldiers searched the house and left. Twe was unearthed after the soldiers departed. “His eyes were red and swollen. I felt sorry for him. Daddy suffered a lot”, Tarloh said. Tarloh married Mr. Patterson, who served as Twe’s secretary and kept most of Twe’s private papers.
Twe had complained of injustice in Liberia before he campaigned for the presidency. His stance on the Fernando Po issue is one. In an article in the journal of the American Political Science organization and other professional media, he told the world that Liberia was a US responsibility and America must do something to fight constitutional injustice in Liberia. In their quest for justice in Liberia, the opposition was left to fight on their own. Their complaint fell on deaf ears and the regime operated at will. The True Whig Party government saw the opposition’s fight as a sedition and treason giving reasons to harass and arrest. This condition continued in subsequent elections and advocacies before 1980.
The perpetuation of injustice in Liberia during this election was born out of the thinking by the settler group, the Americo-Liberians, and the Congos, that the native population had no right to the leadership of the country, that the right to rule Liberia was the birthright and entitlement of the settler minority. The foundation of this thought was the notion by the settlers, as former residents of America, that they were better than the African natives, that the natives were uncivilized, inferior, and should be ruled. However, this sense of superiority was faulty: with a slave background, the settlers were at the periphery of the American civilization and society. Tom Shick’s study of emigrants to Liberia from 1820 to 1843 shows about 70% of the American settlers was uneducated. With the Congo settlers, the combined illiteracy rate of the settler group would increase by over 90%. According to the 1962 census, the Americo-Liberians constituted “less than one percent of the total population”.
The settlers’ determination to rule and to stop any opposition blinded their eyes from safeguarding and enforcing constitutional and human rights. Indeed, the Liberian native majority was excluded in the declaration of independence of the country. The nation was created only for the settlers. Citizenship of the country was not extended to the natives until 1912. But the voting right was not granted to them either until 1946, certainly over 30 years from the time of gaining citizenship and 99 years from independence. The election of 1951 was a test of the constitutional right to freely canvass and vote for a candidate of choice. Regrettably, as indicated, that right was grossly violated.
Tubman easily won the election unopposed as stated. He became the longest-serving Liberian president. Liberia remained a one-party state until 1980. In 1971, he died in office from prostate cancer. His Vice President William Tolbert succeeded him. In April 1980, noncommissioned soldiers of native background overthrew the regime and ended the True-Whig Party rule. The soldiers killed Tolbert, his son, and 13 other officials of the government. The overthrow, which was considered a revolution, paved the way for multi-party democracy in Liberia. Moreover, the Liberian people honored Twe. His prediction came to pass after 29 years.
This article was originally published in some foreign media. The author is republishing the paper on Facebook with slight additional information. The reposting is in respect and honor of the 142 anniversary of the birth of Twe. Interestingly, as stated earlier, Twe was born on April 14, 1879, exactly 100 years before the April 14, 1979 rice riot that helped fuel the April 12, 1980 overthrow. The group that led the advocacy on April 14 took the name of Twe’s party as their party registered name, United People Party, UPP. History certainly can repeat itself or identify with the future.
Main Photo: Tubman africanorbit.com