Liberia: Past and Present, Political and Legal Climate


A Presentation by Tiawan S. Gongloe at Teachers College
Columbia University, New York, NY on February 17, 2005



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 22, 2005

Mr. Arthur Levine, President, Diversity and Community, Members of the staff, students
Ladies and gentlemen

Permit me first to express warm gratitude to President Levine and his staff for being so kind in affording me an opportunity to say something about my country, Liberia- a little known but unique country located on the West Coast of Africa. In many parts of the Western world very little is known about Liberia. Often, when one says he is a Liberian, the question that follows is “you mean Nigeria?”. Some will even ask “you mean Siberia?”. And yet others will ask whether you are referring to Libya or Iberia. This is why, in my view, I consider our interest in this occasion to be mutual. While you are interested in obtaining some information about Liberia’s past and present, I am interested in providing some information about Liberia. It is always a pleasure for me to have a chance to tell the story of my country because it suffers from an amazing degree of obscurity, despite its unique historical status of being the first independent African republic, the oldest independent state in sub-Saharan Africa, the only country not colonized by the European colonizers, the second independent black state in the world, Haiti being first and perhaps, the only country, that has ever been colonized by a non-governmental organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS). It is against this background, that as a Liberian, I believe, we have a symbiotic relationship here. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I want to also thank my sister Maudline Swaray who told me about this program and constantly reminded me to keep this day opened.

You could not have chosen a more appropriate theme for your program at this time in the history of Liberia than you have done. As Liberia slowly emerges from a very devastating civil conflict and as the Liberians prepare for general and presidential elections, they and all who wish Liberia well are beginning to hope that the country has embarked to the road to freedom and lasting peace. However, given the history of the Liberian conflict, the current situation in Liberia and other competing demands in the global community for available resources, it is only proper to be cautiously optimistic. For instance, the hope of quick international intervention in the Liberian conflict, at its inception, was dashed by the first US led intervention in Iraq in 1990. Again hope for international intervention was dashed at the height of the Liberian conflict in 2003 by the second US led intervention of 2002. In addition, Natural disasters of great proportions take away sympathy from man made disasters such as the Liberian conflict. The theme of your program, Liberia: Past and Present, Political and Legal Climate, and your request that I speak on human rights and the legal climate of Liberia, provides for me a rare opportunity for reflection on the past and present- an exercise that may help us, not only to think of a way out of the conflict but also, to reflect on how to put Liberia on the path to lasting peace, reconstruction and development, as well as transform Liberia into a country where daily life of every individual will be truly reflective of the meaning of its name- Liberia, the land of liberty. For Liberia will not make progress until and unless, respect for human rights within the framework of the law is accorded the highest national consideration. If Liberia must develop a national identity, it must, therefore, be respect for human rights. Liberia has much to gain by becoming a human rights protector than by engaging in any other national initiative. Freedom for all without distinction must be the foundation for the reconstruction of the Liberian state. Others may prefer other foundations such as economic growth or technology, but for me, liberty is a better and stronger foundation.

In fact Liberia has no choice but to follow the path of promoting liberty for all. The love of liberty was the motivation of freed American slaves and free born black Americans to emigrate from America, a land of their birth were life for them was more certain to the West Coast of Africa- a place previously unknown to them. It is the love of liberty that kept these immigrants in Africa, in spite of the high rate of death among them due to mosquito born diseases. It is the love of liberty that attracted many peoples of African descent from the Carribean, and other parts of Africa, then under colonial rule to what is today known as Liberia. It is the love of liberty that caused the settlers to declare Liberia a sovereign republic in 1847, even when they had not developed the capacity to sustain such status. Yet it is the denial of liberty that weakened the Liberian state and eventually led to its collapse as a sovereign state.

Having dwelt so much on the importance of liberty to the Liberian state, I must quickly point out that liberty or respect for human rights were not, the over-riding motivations of those who made the emigration of freed slaves and free born African Americans possible. Many writers have done extensive work in this area of shared Liberian and American history. For example in his book the Emergency of Autocracy in Liberia: Tragedy and Challenge, Amos Sawyer, a Liberian political scientist, activist and politician, gave a detail account of how the idea of emigration evolved. While he notes that New England Calvinists doctrines had influenced blacks in New England to opt for emigration, “as early as the 1780s” and that Paul Cuffe, a New England free black businessman of black father and native American mother had embarked on a colonization scheme because he was “deeply concerned about the dignities confronting blacks, including wealthy blacks like himself”, he highlighted how the emigration project was, simply, a way to rid the United States of blacks. For example, Sawyer quotes Robert Finley, a Presbyterian clergyman and one of the initiators of the founders of the ACS as follows:

The state of free blacks has very much oppressed my mind. Their numbers increase greatly, and their wretchedness too as appears to me. Every thing connected with their condition, including their color, is against them; nor is there much prospect that their state can ever be ameliorated, while they shall continue among us…Our fathers brought them here, and we are bound, if possible, to repair the injuries inflicted by our fathers. Could they be sent back to Africa, a three-fold benefit would arise. We should be cleared of them; we should send to Africa a population partially civilized and Christianized for its benefits; our blacks themselves would be in a better situation.”

A clearer position was taken by Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House on this matter. In his book, Liberia, Portrait of a Failed State, John-Peter Pham quotes a statement made by Clay when he presided over the first meeting of the American Colonization society held on December 21, 1816 at the Davis Hotel in Washington, DC. Pham quotes Clay as asking the following rhetorical question: “Can there be a nobler cause than that which, while it proposes to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not a dangerous, portion, of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possibility of redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted portion of the globe?” Is this not contradiction? The obvious question is how can a useless, pernicious and dangerous people be a source of civilization and Christianization?

The meeting which Clay presided over was attended by American elites in government, business and religion, many of whom were slave-holders. For example, in addition to Speaker Henry Clay, there were also Associate Justice Bushrod Washington of the United States Supreme Court, William Crawford, US Secretary of Treasury, General Andrew Jackson, who later became president of the United States, John Randolph and Robert Goldsborough, US Senators from Virginia and Maryland respectively, industrialist Henry Rutgers, Reverend William Meade of the Episcopal Church, etc.Clearly, the emigration of blacks was, largely, intended to be a solution to an emerging domestic problem in the early 19th century in the United States, following the abolition of slavery. The emigration of blacks began following the approval of $100,000 by the United States Congress ostensibly “for the relief and resettlement of Africans rescued from the transatlantic slavers rather for emigration of blacks” (Pham, 2004).

The other major aspect of this problem solving-freedom seeking initiative was the resettlement of the emigrants. Having found it difficult to settle in the British Colony of Sierra Leone in 1821, the ACS resettled the emigrants south of Sierra Leone, along the Atlantic coast in what is today known as Liberia. The settlement in Liberia was based on negotiation with local native kings of the Dei, Vai, Bassa and Mandingo, who for many centuries were accustomed to doing business with European traders along the coast. The first settlement in Liberia was in 1821. The emigrants first settled on a little island on the Mesurado River, later named Providence Island, then occupied by John Mills, an English Mulatto businessman who later assisted, largely, perhaps as a translator and also interceded in the negotiation between the local kings and the ACS for a parcel of land on Cape Mesurado. The negotiation which started on December 15, 1821 with Dei and Bassa kings was quickly on concluded on Christmas eve, only after Lieutenant Robert Stockton, captain of the Alligator put a pistol to the head of one of the more difficult kings. In exchange for their parcel of land ceded to the ACS the kings received the following goods:

Six muskets, one barrel of gunpowder, six iron bars, ten iron pots, one box of nails, one box of beads, one box of pipes, two casks of tobacco, a dozen knives, forks, and spoons, sic pieces of blue taft, four hats, three coats, three pairs of shoes, twenty mirrors, three handkerchiefs, three pieces of calico, three canes, four umbrellas, one box of soap, one barrel of rum. (Pham, 2004)

While in the minds of the Agents of the ACS, the transaction was a sale of land, in the minds of the kings, they had given land to the agents to settle on in the same way they have done to many European businessmen for centuries along the coast. The concept of of individual ownership of land or divesting the community of their land through sale was foreign to these kings. This cultural misunderstanding was a source of problem between the local leaders and their guests for a long time. Another problem that undermined cordial relationship between the settlers and the kings was the attempt by the settlers to, forcibly extend political control over them. The ACS and the settlers did not give credence to the fact that, long before their arrival, these Africans had organized, albeit, largely along ethnic lines but powerful political authorities over their various constituencies. For example, prior to the Liberian colonization project, the Condo Confederation of the Vai, Gola, Gbandi, Dei, Loma, Kpelle had been organized under the Malinke and the last King of the confederation was King Sao Boso, named King Boatswain because he had worked for many years on an English vessel as a boatswain.

All through the 19th Century and a large part of the 20th century, agents of the ACS, the last of whom was Thomas Buchanan, cousin of James Buchanan, past president of the United States, the African American settlers and their descendents had difficult relationships with the locals and their descendants. The contributing factors were the forceful imposition of settler hegemony over the native kings or chiefs, attempts by Britain and France to extend their territory to cover large portions of Liberia, the influence of mischievous European businessmen on local leaders, the refusal of both agents of the ACS and the settlers to recognize and understand local traditions and finally, the exclusion of the local people in decisions affecting them.

Even where local people were recruited into the governing structure, it was based on the extend to which they were prepared to adapt the attitude of the settler elites towards their own people, in manners that were indistinguishable. The total effect of this situation on the nation was continuous abuse of human rights. In reaction to this state of affairs, a group of seventeen, enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia, all of them of native Liberian orgin staged a military coup in Liberia in 1980, after more than 133 years of Americo-Liberian rule. However, ironically, the military men who named their junta People’s Redemption Council (PRC), were themselves guilty of massive human rights abuse, not only against the members of the overthrown regime and their families but, also other natives; particularly, social and political activists and journalists.

In 1989, Charles Taylor, a settler descendant, but of the poorer stratum of that ethnic group and a former cabinet member of the military regime launched a civil in order to unseat the regime, under the banner of what he called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia(NPFL). This group that justified its existence on the violation of the rights of certain segments of the Liberian population was not only guilty of massive human rights violations, but was an effective killing machine. Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia became a killing field with competition between various warring factions for the lives of the Liberian people, in a search for political power as well as exclusive control and appropriation of the collective resources of Liberia. Efforts by the international community to end the cycle of human rights abuse through the peace initiatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ended with the election of Charles Taylor the man, who started the civil war.

Today, Taylor has been indicted and Liberia is host to the largest United Nations peacekeeping force anywhere on earth today. There has been considerable level of disarmament and demobilization of combatants, although there are constant reports of the presence of armed former combatants in the remote parts of the Liberia’s interior. The warring factions have been officially dissolved and preparations are being made for elections. And October 11, 2005, has been announced as Election Day by the National Election Commission.

It is important to note that while these are hopeful signs, if other key factors are ignored in the search for lasting peace in Liberia, the closeness of peace may, unfortunately be a mirage. Efforts must be made to address impunity for violations of human rights and economic crimes. The continuing abuse of human rights in Liberia, the most recent being the cruel and degrading treatment which some leaders of the Bassa ethnic group suffered at the hands of the Liberian National Transitional Government for standing up against the seizure of their ancestral land by the Liberia Agricultural Company (LAC), is strengthened by the fact that nothing has happened in the past to abusers of human rights. With a judiciary that is theoretically independent but that has historically been under the control of the executive, abuses by agents of the executive branch of government have gone without legal redress, although the legal system of Liberia is based on Anglo-American jurisprudence. Also theft and misuse of public funds by officials of government have become an acceptable behavior. This has been the case for a long time in Liberia. Information coming out of Liberia, points to the fact that the level of theft in government circle has surpassed those of previous governments. United Nations, local and international NGOS and the local press have all reported that the government is corrupt from the top to the bottom. These officials will continue as long as there is no credible threat that one day they would be brought to justice. The biggest man, the architect of this cruelty to the Liberian people is Charles Taylor. Until efforts are made to bring him to justice before the Special Court for Sierra Leone were he has been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, currents abusers of human rights and thieves in government will continue to act with impunity.

I guess the picture that I have painted so far is a gloomy one. I wish I could paint a rosier picture. But I am obstructed by the facts. As I said earlier, until and unless Liberia deals with the contradiction of being called a land of liberty while, at the same time, it continues to be a fertile ground for human rights abuse, Liberia will not find peace and certainly it will not prosper. This is however a challenge for us Liberians. Yet, the events of September 11, 2001 have thaught the world to be concerned about human rights violations everywhere. In this regard, you can help us. As professors and teachers you can focus your research on how to improve the situation in Liberia. You can make policy recommendations to your policy-makers. One thing that can be done, for example, is for the US Government to sent Americans of Liberian descent back to Liberia under the US Peace Corp program. This is one way of improving the situation in Liberia. I am making this suggestion because of the lack of trained human resources in critical areas in Liberia is an obstacle to the implementation of public –policy recommendations that could improve current conditions in Liberia.

It must be emphasized that the greatest solution to the Liberian problem is for Liberians to stand up for what is right. If Martin Luther King jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Park and other civil rights leaders had not stood up in this country, many of us, probably, would not have been able to obtain visas to enter the US. We, Liberians must, therefore, stand up for peace and liberty in our country. Fortunately, the United States has made a promise to stand with all oppressed people who stand up for liberty. In his 2005 inaugural address, President George Bush said, “Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:
All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you”.

In my view, for us in Liberia and Sierra Leone, standing with us for freedom is taking concrete actions to put and end to impunity. And this must begin with the trial of Charles Taylor, the man who bears the greatest responsibility for the conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia and has been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, for his role in the Sierra Leonean civil conflict. The current state of inertia, since Taylor went into exile in Nigeria, undermines peace stability and liberty in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the entire West African sub region. With the silencing of weapons and substantial disarmament and demobilization of former combatants and the gradual return to normality, it is important for steps to be taken towards ending impunity, in order to consolidate peace in Liberia.

I thank you.

Tiawan S. Gongloe is an exiled Liberian human rights lawyer and currently, fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Kennedy School of Government, and Harvard University. He can be reached at and