Dr. Dunn /ROAPEInterviews 

Liberia’s Pan-Africanism: a reappraisal and interview with D. Elwood Dunn

Brooks Marmon introduces the work and life of D. Elwood Dunn. Dunn, a Liberian intellectual and former politician interviewed by Brooks, asserts Libera’s position in the pan-African, anti-colonial world in the 1970s. While Liberia was associated with moderate states in the 1960s, Dunn sees Liberia, under William R. Tolbert, as a progressive force helping to shape Africa’s post-colonial political trajectory.

By Brooks Marmon

A violent coup d’etat in April 1980 saw the implosion of 130 plus years of rule in Liberia by American-born black repatriates or their descendants.[1] President William R. Tolbert Jr. (1971-80), whose father was born in South Carolina, was the last of this unbroken line. The Chair of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was assassinated in the Executive Mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Ten days later, just down the beach, a firing squad executed 13 of his leading associates, prominent members of Tolbert’s True Whig Party regime, or cabinet officials.

D. Elwood Dunn, the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, was one of the senior figures from Tolbert’s administration who survived this deadly purge. A political scientist by training, he had spent the better part of the 1970s climbing Liberia’s bureaucratic governance ranks after obtaining his doctorate from American University. Following the loss of his ministerial position, Dunn briefly assumed a lectureship at the University of Liberia but found his situation in Liberia untenable.

He and his family relocated to the US, where Dunn became one of Liberia’s pre-eminent intellectuals, lecturing at Sewanee – The University of the South, for three decades. From that position, he became one of the leading forces promoting the scholarly study of Liberia.  He edited the Liberian Studies Journal for a decade. He co-authored The Historical Dictionary of Liberia, one of the most valuable reference texts on the country, and compiled an edited collection of state of the nation speeches by Liberian presidents from 1848 to 2010.

Dunn’s latest contribution comes in the form of a personal reflection of his service to Liberia, his memoir, A Liberian Life.  The book variously explores his childhood in Buchanan, a sleepy Liberian port town, his early intellectual exploits, government career, and academic exile in the United States.

Within this multi-pronged approach, a key theme that emerges is Dunn’s attempt to assert Liberia’s position in the pan-African, anti-colonial world. The country’s strong links to the United States have generally obscured this dimension of its history. While the Liberian capital, Monrovia, is eponymous with the coalition of more moderate states that opposed the more radical Casablanca Group, Dunn clearly sees Liberia, especially under Tolbert, as a progressive force instrumental in shaping Africa’s immediate post-colonial political trajectory.

Dunn was a teenager when Tolbert’s predecessor, William VS Tubman (1944-71), hosted Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure for the 1959 Sanniquellie Summit that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Organization of African Unity.[2]  Several years later, the initial efforts of Tubman’s Secretary of State, J. Rudolph Grimes, and Romeo Horton, a Liberian banker, culminated in the formation of the African Development Bank.

Throughout the early 1960s, Liberia hosted a procession of visiting anti-colonial leaders. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela recalled that Tubman provided him with US$5,000 for “weapons and training” for the armed wing of the African National Congress.[3] In A Liberian Life, Dunn notes that the pan-African environment at Cuttington University, the private Liberian institution where he pursued a bachelor’s in political science, “enthralled me…I was walking into a college environment consisting of students from a number of African countries and colonial territories agitating for independence.”

Though a White Redoubt persisted in southern Africa, Africa’s political decolonization was largely complete by 1971 when Tolbert, Tubman’s Vice-President since 1952 came to power.  However, the True Whig Party’s pan-African orientation remained pronounced. Less than a year after coming to power, Tolbert served as a pallbearer at Nkrumah’s funeral in Conakry. In 1973, he worked alongside Sierra Leonean President Siaka Stevens to establish the Mano River Union, successfully forming a subregional economic union in advance of the creation of the Economic Community of West African States.[4] A defense pact with Guinea was implemented and Tolbert’s eldest son married the goddaughter of the Ivorian President, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.  Under Tolbert, Liberia joined fellow African states and in a move that provoked American ire, broke ties with Israel. He also evinced strong support for self-determination for Western Sahara.

Continental recognition of Tolbert’s diplomacy came in 1979 when the Liberian leader became Chair of the Organization of African Unity. When Tolbert was executed, Dunn was in transit from Zimbabwe, where he had been part of the advance team preparing for Tolbert’s attendance at the nation’s forthcoming independence celebrations.


In this interview with ROAPE, Dunn further reflects on Liberia’s underacknowledged pan-African and international engagements and offers an assessment of Liberia’s position in Africa.

Brooks Marmon: Can you provide ROAPE readers with an overview of significant international and pan-African engagements that marked Tolbert’s political trajectory?

D. Elwood Dunn: When serving as Tubman’s vice president, Tolbert was engaged in a number of missions of a pan-African character. He was Liberia’s envoy in the quest for peace during the Biafra secession crisis in Nigeria. Additionally, he was Tubman’s envoy to President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in the quest for Afro-Arab solidarity in context of the Middle East conflict. Tolbert’s ties to his Ivorian counterpart, Senior Minister Auguste Denise, may very well have been a prelude to his controversial “dialogue” with Apartheid South Africa in 1975.[5]

Once in the presidency, Tolbert attempted to take Liberia’s continental engagements to the next level for reasons of both internal and external policy. Greater solidarity was pursued with more progressive African states in an attempt to further national unification and integration. Whereas progressive or frontline states leaders were reluctant during the Tubman administration to support Liberia’s membership on the Liberation Committee of the OAU, that membership was secured under Tolbert. What then followed was a fuller implementation of the pan-African project with a flourishing of African regionalism.

As historians more deeply engage with UN and OAU records, they will recover Liberia’s activist Africa project of the 1970s. Though not a decisive leader, it is my impression that Tolbert showed signs of progressive leadership in his Africa policy.

Brooks Marmon: In your view, how deserving is Tolbert of this legacy of a ‘mainstream’ progressive African leader?

D. Elwood Dunn: Tolbert is deserving of such a legacy because he strove to integrate Liberia into the African mainstream. Both as vice-president and then as president, he was exposed to and embraced Africa’s great pan-Africanists – Kwame Nkrumah, Gambel Abder Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, etc.

Tolbert was convinced that genuine African unity of thought and action, even an eventual political union of African states was the surest path to the continent’s sustainable development. As I have written elsewhere, where Tubman wished to heal the “wound of loneliness since [Liberia’s] 1847 independence” and stamp on the organization a conservative imprimatur “with some Casablanca [representing African radical nationalism] coloring,” Tolbert saw his task as one of deepening the dye of the Casablanca coloring, or more closely aligning Liberia with progressive African policy.[6]

Why do you think that Tolbert, leader of a country small in terms of both size and population, exhibited such extensive interest in continental affairs?

One must begin a response by pointing out that Tolbert’s predecessor, President Tubman demonstrated similar extensive interest in African affairs. Few appreciate the commanding role of Tubman in the forging of African solidarity in the midst of the Cold War.[7] The OAU that emerged in 1963 was heavily influenced by Liberia. Comparison of a Liberian draft charter proposal and the first charter of the OAU amply makes the case.[8]

For his part, Tolbert wanted to part with the narrative that Liberia was in Africa without being of Africa. He wanted to shed the image of Liberia as a “little America in Africa.” He wanted to Africanize Liberia both internally and externally. Though begun as a Black state in the 19th century to demonstrate that the Black race was capable of self-governing, internal and external factors undermined this ambition. Tolbert’s vision incorporated the restoration of this founding mission (“African regeneration”) and carrying forward the pan-African project.

One of your best-known books, Liberia and the United States During the Cold War, offers an unassuming, but searing indictment of the shortcoming of the United States’ Liberia policy. For readers who may be unfamiliar with it, how do you evaluate that relationship?

In the long history of relations between the two countries since American recognition in 1862, one a superpower and the other a small African country, there have been the usual ups and downs, each party attempting to pursue its values and interests. I remain appreciative of the asymmetrical relationship. In the 1970s Liberia was struggling with fundamental internal change. Liberia was also contending with the reality of being an understudied country with paradigms proffered largely by foreign academics.[9]


It does not seem to me that US policy was sympathetic to the change process. Rather, the policy seemed steeped in the old narrative of two uneven Liberias. Under the circumstances, American antagonism hastened the fall of the True Whig Party regime. The eventual post-coup policy of ambivalence toward the presidency of Samuel Doe, and the arms-length US stance during the civil war of 1989 – 2003, did not evince the vaunted “special relationship.”  Liberia is a small African state. Its future is an African future. Liberia’s ties with the external world need to be viewed in this light.

Tolbert had an uneasy relationship with his youthful leftist domestic opponents, such as the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the pan-African oriented Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA). As these groups garnered strength over the latter part of Tolbert’s rule, they faced state repression. Was this a line that Tolbert fully embraced or was he pressured to take a hardline by ‘old guard’ members of the True Whig Party?[10]

Tolbert’s approach to the social movements, MOJA and PAL, as with all progressive opponents was to engage in democratic dialogue. He opted for dialogue because he wanted to more fully democratize Liberia. Some of his senior political colleagues who saw things otherwise were the real purveyors of “state repression.” An indecisive political leader, Tolbert was not able effectively to communicate his change agenda to the “old guards” of the True Whig Party. A situation thus developed where the forces for change looked wearily upon the forces of the status quo. This domestic engagement did not proceed without subtle external interference. In the end, Tolbert became the cloth between the scissors.

One other member of Tolbert’s cabinet, his Finance Minister, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has written an autobiography.  Do you see any key differences between her take on this era and yours?

Former President Sirleaf’s take is already in the public domain. And mine is in my recently-released memoir. Mine is a much more nuanced view of Liberian history and the vision for change that Tolbert was attempting to implement.

I don’t see consistently two Liberias. My lived experience has not been two Liberias. I see complexities. I see a mosaic. I see communities of peoples on the soil that became Liberia striving to forge a modern nation-state. Conflict and cooperation were inevitable then and they are today as Liberia forges ahead. Two centuries of efforts have landed us where we currently are. We are not in a good place, but we have been in bad places in the past. We will overcome. Liberia will endure. An alternation of democratic forces will define its governance, not the dominant but fleeting “us” versus “them” narrative. This article was first published by ROAPE in November 2022


Brooks Marmon is a post-doctoral scholar at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University. Brooks wrote the introductory passage and conducted the interview. Follow Marmon on twitter @AfricaInDC.

Featured Photographs: D. Elwood Dunn and William R. Tolbert Jr. (from Dunn’s private collection of photographs from his time in government service).



[1] In the academic literature, this group has traditionally been referred to as ‘Americo-Liberian.’  Locally, they are more frequently dubbed ‘Congo.’ Robtel Pailey, in Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia (Cambridge University Press, 2021) calls the former term a “misnomer” and prefers “black settlers” (p.1). Dunn himself believes that “racial and ethnic slurs are being replaced with enlightenment as Liberia speaks truth and reconciles in the aftermath of a brutal civil war.”

[2] J. Gus Liebenow, “Which Road to Pan-African Unity? The Saniquellie Conference, 1959,” in Gwendolen M. Carter, ed., Politics in Africa: 7 Cases (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1966): 1-32.

[3] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995): 351.

[4] Peter Robson, “The Mano River Union,” Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1982): 613-628; Augustus F. Caine, “The Mano River Union: An Experiment in Economic Integration,” Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1988): 6-41. Tubman and Tolbert thus seem to have both been influential in shaping the sub-regional and functional approach to African unity that has assumed prominence on the continent.

[5] D. Elwood Dunn, “The 1975 Vorster Visit to Liberia: Implications for Free Africa’s Relations with Pretoria,” Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1982-83): 37-54.

[6] D. Elwood Dunn, Liberia and Independent Africa, 1940s to 2012: A Brief Political Profile (Cherry Hill: Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 2012): 15.

[7] On Tubman’s foreign policy see: D. Elwood Dunn, The Foreign Policy of Liberia During the Tubman Era, 1944-1971 (London: Hutchinson, 1979).

[8] See: D. Elwood Dunn, “Research Notes: Liberia and Founding the Organization of African Unity/Organizing African Unity,” Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. 45, Nos. 1&2, 143-237.

[9] Probably the most notorious of these is Robert W. Clower, et al. Growth without Development: An Economic Survey of Liberia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966).

[10] Liberia’s progressive movements of this era are understudied, but one key primary source text is: H. Boima Fahnbulled (ed.), Voice of Protest: Liberia on the Edge, 1974-1980 (Boca Raton: Universal Publishers, 2004).

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