Liberia's Bumpy Road to Democracy: Past and Present

By Theodore T. Hodge


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 20, 2004

For many generations since the founding of Liberia, Liberians were forcibly taught to not challenge authority. The prevailing culture seemed to sanction the theory of Divine Rule. The ruling class, specifically, high officials of government, were guaranteed to rule with impunity. In this bizarre and corrupt culture, Liberians came to accept their collective place of subjugation. Everyone seemed resigned to "hear no evil, speak no evil".

The late W.V.S. Tubman, a long-term patriarch of the ruling estate broke it down in the simplest of terms when he spoke during an interview and said: "The duty (responsibility) of the soldier is to obey, obey, obey". What he didn't explicitly say in that interview was that every Liberian citizen was expected to tote the same line: Obey and never question authority. The general public, rationalizing this perverse and unnatural ideology, came to accept and repeat the coined phrase "So say one, so say all".

Rational and progressive-minded people in a pluralistic and multi-cultural society will definitely question and challenge the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of such an elementary fallacy. So says one, so say all? To the credit of a few brave and gallant citizens scattered over the country, there was some resistance to such absurdity. But on the whole, this philosophy of the few over the many, and the strong over the weak became Liberia's unfortunate legacy.

But how did such a menacing ideology become embedded in the Liberian mentality? Was it just the perversity of fate, or the arrogance and wickedness of man toward man? The latter seems to be the case. A case study of the results of past elections since the founding of the republic gives us a retrospective view of how we got here.

In the first national referendum after Liberia attained statehood, J.J. Roberts became our first president by winning about 97% of the votes cast, according to C.H. Huberich in the book, "The Political and Legislative History of Liberia", (volume 2, 1947). But only 308 people voted out of an estimated national population of 300,000. That means only one tenth of one percent of the total population made that momentous decision. My dear readers, only one tenth of one percent! No wonder the road to democracy had a rocky start. We've been on a bumpy ride since!

There may have been a number of reasons why voter turnout was so poor to begin with. Given the level of infrastructural development, we cannot rule out the difficulties posed in logistical terms. But let students of history be reminded that "Franchise was limited to some Americo-Liberian males until 1947". (See Blaustein and Flanz, 1971, "Liberia").

The 1952 national election was the first time in Liberian history that universal suffrage was extended to the general populace. This means it took over a hundred years for indigenous Liberian citizens and women to earn the right to vote. Until then, only certain Americo-Liberian males enjoyed this privilege. And they called this democracy?

After J.J. Roberts got about 97% of the votes in the first election, every other president, including J.J. Roberts for another stint, got one hundred percent of the votes, except in two cases: Running for his third term in 1927, C.D.B. King only managed to get about 72.5% of the votes cast, with five percent of the population voting. Again in 1955, W.V.S. Tubman only managed to collect about 99.5% of the votes cast. I guess it would be fair to say he was having a bad year. But his next four terms (1959, 1963, 1967, and 1971) were clean sweeps; netting him 100% of the votes each time. His successor, William R. Tolbert followed the tradition of getting a clean sweep in 1975, after completing Tubman's un-expired term.

All through the rule of successive regimes from independence through the next one hundred thirty three years, Liberia's leadership could be characterized as iron-fisted. But amazingly, the Liberian people had been successfully brainwashed to accept their fate as subjects, not full citizens endowed with the right to question their rulers. Such complacency made Liberia a stable country; at least, that was the assumption.

William R. Tolbert was murdered in office, the first ever-Liberian president to suffer such a fate. The military, under Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe took over. After running the state into complete chaos, the general wisdom was that it could sink no further. Unto the stage stepped Charles Taylor (whose memory I hope will live in perpetual infamy); he managed to prove us wrong, he sunk the country to a new low – to the brink of utter destruction. Charles Taylor was not satisfied to steal from the state to enrich himself as many of his predecessors had done; he was interested in waging senseless wars against his perceived enemies. Under his regime the Liberian nation came close to being obliterated within the community of nations.

Now there is a new breed of Liberians. Gone are those Liberians who trembled at the sight of authority. Gone are those Liberians whose operative motto was "Leave the people thing alone", and gone are those Liberians who were only too eager to yell, "So say one, so say all". This new breed of Liberians is the complete opposite of the complacent bunch we were. This new breed seems determined to question authority to the fullest and even to make demands (something unheard of in Liberia before now).

However, what concerns and bothers me is the extent to which the citizens of the new Liberia are willing to flex their newly discovered political muscles. I guess there is a thin line between demanding political rights in a society and challenging authorities with the intent to destabilize and create chaos. Liberians, in exercising their newly found freedom must be mindful that there are those who would like to see the country descend into chaos so they can capitalize on the ensuing statelessness. Several examples come to mind:

Earlier this year, Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the NTGL visited the University of Liberia to speak to the students and address the overwhelming issues the institution was experiencing, mainly financial. Somehow, according to a news article, the Chairman responded to a request in a way the students did not deem appropriate. For that, the students went into a rage and attempted to physically accost the chairman; he was saved from the rowdy crowd by a swift intervention of UN Special Forces. Where else in the world does the sitting president of a nation get his butt kicked by university students during a discussion involving a university budget and faculty appointment? Only in Liberia, as Don King says.

It wasn't too long afterwards when the students of Monrovia decided to go on a rampage because their teachers had not been paid. They were demanding months and months in salary arrears. But as we understand it, many civil servants in the Liberian government had not been paid either. If the students were demonstrating for the teachers, who would demonstrate for the other unpaid employees? Were violent demonstrations the answer? These students even attacked other students who were not willing to go along with their plan to demonstrate. They seemed to be saying, "Welcome to the new Liberia."

We all know by now the kinds of abuse Chairman Gyude Bryant has taken for spending millions of dollars for purchasing jeeps for national assembly members and other government officials. Well, there are those who feel that instead of buying expensive cars for former warlords, the money would be better spent to buy buses for public transportation. This, as you may guess also called for a violent demonstration.

The point I'm trying to drive home here is that there has been a sudden metamorphosis of the Liberian culture. Gone are the days when the citizenry was required to be supinely complacent. Now are the days for agitation. Endless agitation. The point that bothers me is whether we've not gone from one extreme end of the continuum to another. Couldn't we have stopped somewhere along the middle to maintain some balance? Is this new mode of constant agitation fruitful? My guess is no.

If such rowdy and unruly behavior was solely carried out within the domain of youths, one could understand and empathize. Unfortunately it seems to permeate all levels of society, from top to bottom. What do you make of the foreign minister, Thomas Yaya Nimely, who boldly and publicly asked the chairman to resign his post? In addition to asking the chairman to resign, he challenged the authority of the chairman to make a Foreign Service appointment, in this case, an appointment to the embassy in Washington, DC. By insisting that it was his responsibility to fill the vacancy, a quagmire was created which undermined the credibility of the entire government. Nowhere else in the world is a cabinet officer allowed to treat the head of the government with such blatant insubordination? Again, according to Don King, only in Liberia.

Last month it was reported that the speaker of the national assembly called a meeting and directed that a coup be carried out to depose the chairman's government. According to sources reaching us, this man, George Dweh has publicly declared that he will never respect the chairman and that he does not consider him his superior in rank. What kind of message is such a sentiment to send to those outside of government? Has all hell broken loose where high government officials cannot even observe the most elementary rules of decorum? In my view, until this so-called speaker of the assembly is investigated and calm and confidence is restored within the ranks, this peace process will remain shaky. To ignore such boldness and scorn will be to the detriment of the nation and its people.

Taking the cue from such highly placed officials as the foreign minister and speaker, many other officials have claimed that they were chosen by others to serve and, therefore, owe no allegiance to the chairman. But if the chairman is recognized as the head of the interim government does it make sense to disrespect and disregard his authority? No.

Recently, I read a newspaper report where some citizens of Bong County were asking the chairman to withdraw the name of a candidate he had presented for confirmation to fill the position of superintendent of the county. They, (the concerned citizens), were in turn proposing a list of names from which they were demanding that the chairman picks his appointee.

Two days later, a similar request was made by another concerned group of citizens from Grand Bassa County. Again, they were demanding that the chairman choose from a short list they were presenting; they were also specifically demanding that the chairman disregard a candidate whose name he had so far proposed.

One wonders if such a trend is allowed to become the norm, how far can we get? Does the buck stop with the chairman? Does he not have a temporary mandate to run the affairs of the country? If so, wouldn't such blatant and open challenges make this an unmanageable affair? In other words, are we creating a culture of lawlessness?

So it seems we've gone full circle. We have gone from the era of aristocracy; rulership by the few, determined by bloodline to an era where everyone, but no one is in charge. In the old days, (and in the not-too-distant-past), the people knew their leaders, even if they weren't picked by them. Now, in this era where former warlords and their associates pretend to be leaders, the people are left with no recourse but to rebel against authority.

I predict that such rebellions will continue until we take the challenge to elect legitimate leaders in a process that will depict true democracy. Will that help the Liberian people to once again become the civilized and well-cultured people they naturally are? I have no doubt. At least, that's my bet.

Post Script:
As this article goes to press, I have just read a news report carried by The Analyst, a newspaper based in Monrovia, Liberia. According to the report under the heading, "Chaos Besets UL Again", teachers are boycotting classes against the new appointment of Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh to the presidency of the University of Liberia. Students are said to be split over the decision as well.

The point of contention seems to be that the appointment should have named one of four local applicants, instead of Dr. Conteh. I hope the people of Liberia are aware of the implications of such actions. Liberia is tenderly recovering from a critical moment. Actions such as these have a tendency to plunge us right into an atmosphere of lawlessness.