Should Indigenous Liberians Support Indigenous Politicians Blindly?
By Benedict Wisseh
August 14, 2009
Mr. Simpson’s assessment and conclusion, undoubtedly, were prompted by the recognition that the fortresses constructed by the Americo-Liberians to protect them against any challenge to their rule do not exist any longer and can never be constructed again. The army, used by the ruling class to suppress and control political dissent, can never be counted on to play the same role again after the 1980 coup. There is now parity in education between the Americo-Liberians and their indigenous Liberian counterparts, the lack of which was expediently paraded in the past as legitimate reason to exclude the latter from participation in government and business. There is the dissolution of the Americo-Liberians’ social networks of family linkage and elite solidarity that were indispensable for their preservation and concentration of political power among themselves. Marriage of an Americo-Liberian to an indigenous Liberian, once a sacrilegious act, is now an act of commonplace today. The result of all of this is reflected today in the different backgrounds of people who constitute every branch of the Liberian government, especially in parliament.
Liberia is unique because it is a paradox with a problem-plagued history. It was created as a refuge for former American black slaves who were looking for freedom from an inhumane feudal treatment they had suffered in the hands of their white masters. But having created Liberia, they proceeded to transplant the same inhumane feudal system with themselves as masters over the native Liberians. Although Liberia became independent in 1847, it was not until 1904 did the Americo-Liberian ruling elite reluctantly grant citizenship to the indigenous Liberians. But the benefits of citizenship, from education, voting rights, infrastructural developments, healthcare, to unrestricted movement in the country, were denied to the “country people.” The accumulated resentment for this treatment, built up from generation to generation, understandably, drives my friend to argue that “ we the country people must support our people in government no matter what.” But who are these indigenous people who must be supported with blind loyalty? Do they genuinely care for the improvement of lives in the villages where they were born once they become government officials in Monrovia? Who do they choose as friends and why, once they become government officials? Do they care for the fortunes of other indigenous people side by side with their own? The answers to these questions lie in the stories of three prominent indigenous Liberians.
In 1980, the Americo-Liberians were dislodged from power in a military coup executed by indigenous Liberian military officers. Indigenous Liberians greeted the blooded coup with euphoria because, for the first time in Liberia‘s history, they, with their numerical advantage in population, were in control of the authority to transform Liberia politically and economically. For them, therefore, the coup had ushered in a new order in which they saw a reversal of fortunes that would benefit them under the leadership of their kind. But while they celebrated, Doe saw a recognition that, as head of state, he and those poor indigenous people had nothing in common. Unlike them, he had power and, therefore, access to money and opportunities to make more money. Mr. Doe, by his actions, demonstrated that indigenous political solidarity was irrelevant because it was not as significant as a friendship determined by shared elite, political, and personal financial interests. Driven by this conviction, Doe’s first instinct was to summarily execute Gen. Thomas Weh-Syen and four other fellow indigenous military colleagues who gambled their lives in the successful planning and execution of the coup that put him in the position from where he ordered their execution. Then he proceeded to purge the national army and pack it with his own fellow tribesmen, the Krahn, to the extent that they became known as “Doe‘s Krahn soldiers.” Emulating characteristics of the Americo-Liberians, Doe set up his own ethnic hierarchy dominated by his Tuzon clan, and appointed its members to significant government positions for which many were not qualified. Later on, he ruthlessly jettisoned the other remaining indigenous but non-Krahn members of the ruling military council.
The second instinct was to court the friendships of Willie Givens and Emmanuel Shaw based on an apparent introduction to him by George Boley, who, until April 12, 1980, was a closet Krahn man. Mr. Doe‘s preference for Shaw and Givens was not driven by any evidence that they were public policy experts. Rather, it was driven by Boley’s recommendation that these men knew too much to divulge about the late president and had the expertise to financially turn Doe into another Mobutu Sese Seku. It is no wonder that, as Mobutu did in his village, Gbadolite, the only development Doe brought to Tuzon was a construction of an airport and a mansion for his personal conveniences. Who were Emmanuel Shaw and Willie Givens before April 12, 1980?
In the 1970s, Shaw was a protégé and confidant of Stephen Tolbert, President Tolbert’s multimillionaire younger brother, who served as minister of finance. Under the younger Tolbert, Shaw learnt how powerful people in government can use their official positions to enrich themselves illegally. After the younger Tolbert died in 1975, President Tolbert became Shaw‘s primary benefactor and appointed him deputy minister of state for economic affairs in his office, where he worked until the coup in 1980. Mr. Givens, on the other hand, was a journalist in the ministry of information, writing propaganda editorials for the government. Apparently impressed by his work and through family connections, Mr. Tolbert made Givens his press secretary and took him as his confidant. Therefore, Mr. Doe’s prompt appreciation of Shaw and Givens, as trusted counselors, just after he and his military colleagues had killed the man whose personal and family’s support benefited the careers of these two men, was baffling and inconceivable to outsiders.
Mr. Doe, however, saw this courtship to be essential because of the personal financial and elite benefits he expected to receive from it. As a result of this courtship, Shaw, as a front man for Doe, founded an insurance and oil importing companies that did business with the Liberian government. Apparently impressed by Shaw’s ingenuity for corruption, Doe appointed him minister of finance, a position that had lived in his dreams from his days as Stephen Tolbert’s understudy. As minister of finance, Shaw, undoubtedly with the complicity of Doe, convinced the government to increase gasoline price and rescind its subsidy of rice price. The promulgation of this policy, according to sources, was contrived to benefit Doe and Shaw financially through the activities of Shaw‘s company, the Liberia National Petroleum Company (LNPC). In 1990, as the civil war left Liberia without a government, and people were dying helplessly in the streets from hunger and bullets, Shaw, unscrupulous and without a modicum of rectitude, sued the Liberian government for $27m he asserted the country owed him for oil importing services that LNPC provided. The calculation of this unscrupulous genius was that since there was no central government to represent Liberia in court, the court was legally bound to rule in his favour by default. As a result of Shaw‘s lawsuit, the Liberian presidential aircraft was ordered grounded by the courts in London, where it had taken Nancy Doe, Doe’s wife, into exile. Mr. Givens was appointed ambassador to England but functioned primarily as Doe‘s real estate and financial agent in London.
Mr. Doe’s arrogant disregard for the feelings and concerns of other indigenous groups did not stop with the mindless execution of his People Redemption Council (PRC) military colleagues. Mr. Doe’s wrath, as demonstrated by his actions, was undoubtedly reserved for prominent indigenous politicians. In 1985, after the general elections, Doe arrested Tuan Wreh and some members of the opposition Liberia Action Party (LAP) for questioning the fairness of the presidential election in which Doe was declared the winner. Tuan Wreh was taken to the Executive Mansion and shown on national television with conspicuous physical evidence of torture. As the country watched on national television, Tuan Wreh was made to knee before Doe and excoriated. In a manner of a father, Doe, an irascible fellow, verbally insulted and lampooned Tuan Wreh repeatedly, reducing him to a pathetic figure that he begged Doe to forgive him because he (Tuan Wreh) was just “a poor country boy.” This humiliation left Tuan Wreh, a proud Kru man, physically and psychologically broken until his death shortly afterward. The painful irony about Doe’s humiliating treatment of Tuan Wreh was that another Liberian president, William Tubman, an Americo-Liberian, subjected Tuan Wreh to the same humiliation in the 1950s. Tuan Wreh’s crime, then, was that in his writings as a young journalist, he delved into and criticized how the Americo-Liberian ruling elite treated their indigenous counterparts in the country‘s national life.
During the life of his decade long rule, Doe, in victory, was not magnanimous toward his vanquished enemies of indigenous backgrounds, even in death. Few weeks after the coup in 1980, Major William Jeboh, a Kru man and a highly respected professional army officer and a burly former center forward of the Liberian national football team, was hunted down and killed by government forces out of fear that he was leading a counter-coup. After his body was brought to the Barclay Training Center (BTC) from the border with Sierra Leone, soldiers, as if Maj. Jeboh was still alive and resisting arrest, kicked him, spat on him, insulted him, and stamped on him repeatedly. The same scene was repeated in 1985. After his incompetent efforts to unseat Doe failed, Thomas Quiwonkpa was “killed” by a group of Khran soldiers led by “Field Marshal” George Boley. As Boley, excited and waving a submachine gun in hand, boasted to television cameras of his military genius in capturing and killing Quiwonkpa and how it saved Liberia from the abyss, his soldiers triumphantly kicked and spat on the lifeless body of Quiwonkpa while dragging it around. How the treatment of the remains of Jeboh and Quiwonkpa, in such barbaric manners, would have offended the pride of their people and created tribal animosity did not matter.
Another irony about Doe was that under his regime, more indigenous intellectuals and activists were driven into exile than they were under the regime of his predecessor. Incredibly, Doe and his camp criticized them for their legitimate political activism that challenged the rule of the Americo-Liberians and exposed the serious political, economic, and social shortcomings that Doe had conveniently cited as reasons to justify the coup. Then he followed that with an assertion that the indigenous intellectuals and activists had conspired with Gen. Weh-Syen to overthrow him and then conduct a campaign of revenge against the Americo-Liberians.
In 1989, while the civil war to remove him from power was in its embryonic stage, following the armed invasion of the country from Nimba County, Doe, dressed in one of the Emmanuel Shaw’s recommended smart coat suit, publicly warned the Gio and Mano people of the county that “those who they considered to be innocent in Nimba at this particular time, I am appealing to them to leave Nimba immediately or else, their relatives, their children will never be seen again.” Yes, as he had threatened, Samuel Doe’s boys systematically conducted a campaign of pogrom against the people of Nimba. According to sources, this led to the disappearance of thousands of Gio and Mano citizens who have never been seen and, apparently, “will never be seen again.” The last time a Liberian president threatened and carried on a campaign of pogrom against a particular tribe was in 1915, when President Daniel Howard ordered the Liberian army to teach the Kru people a lesson, slaughtering more than thousands of kru people mercilessly in less than a week.
In the early 1970s, after he returned home with a doctorate degree in political science, the late Dr. Edward B. Kesselly, a Mandingo from Lofa County, was chosen to deliver the keynote address on national Independence Day. In his speech, Kesselly argued that Liberia’s national motto, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” as was phrased, excluded native Liberians as citizens of Liberia. If anything, Kesselly suggested, it should have been “The Love of Liberty Met Us Here.” The speech catapulted the previously unknown Kesselly into national prominence. Few months after the speech, President Tolbert appointed him minister of information and later as minister of internal affairs. As minister of information, Kesselly articulated and defended the same government policy and attitudes he criticized in his speech. At the Ministry of Internal Affairs, he articulated and implemented them in the rural communities without equivocating. In 1980, few weeks before the coup, he led a group of traditional chiefs to the Executive Mansion and pledged his loyalty to President Tolbert following the arrest of the leadership of the United People’s Party of Gabriel Mathews. Dr. Kesselly assured the president that “you are not alone, if there is anyone you can count on as a loyal friend and supporter, it is me.” However, after the coup, Kesselly was arrested and put on trial before the military tribunal trying officials of the deposed Tolbert administration. Faced with the reality that he had lost the protection and benefits of the political elite club, he told members of the tribunal that “they only had me in the government because I was a country man. They made all the decisions.” Admittedly, Kesselly was aware that his appointment in government was a political game of tokenism by the Americo-Liberian ruling elite. But the elite protection and benefits he enjoyed from his government positions were too good to abandon via protest resignation from government.
In his own appearance before the same tribunal, Jackson F. Doe, a former minister of education and Nimba County senator, determined to ingratiate himself, struggled, like Kesselly, to detach himself from the Americo-Liberian political and social elite club with denouncement of how public policy decisions that he implemented were made by government in favour of the Americo-Liberian community. He heaped encomiums on the indigenous coup makers and congratulated them for “a job well done.” Sadly, Jackson Doe, David Dwanyen, Moses Duopu, and Samuel Dokie, all prominent citizens of Nimba County, were murdered by their own fellow tribesmen, on the instructions of an Americo-Liberian rebel leader, Charles Taylor. The murder of these men by their own kinsmen underscores the fact that indigenous people are their own worst enemies, deadly potent to certain extent, perhaps, than the Americo-Liberians are to them. For the record, Jackson Doe, as a young man, was a ward of Louis Arthur Grimes, a former chief justice of Liberia and father of J. Rudolph Grimes, a former secretary of state and Antoinette Brown-Sherman, a former president of the University of Liberia, whose husband, George Flama Sherman, was replaced by Doe as minister of education.
Yes, the history of how the tribal people were treated is an emotional issue as reflected in my friend’s position. Therefore, we have been unable to assess and recognize that it has not inspired the need for unity among the indigenous people as they deeply remain suspicious of each other as illustrated by the scramble for power and control in the PRC, influenced by tribal interests from outside. Also, it has made it difficult, if not impossible, for us to see that it is being used by some members of the indigenous intelligentsia as a convenient avenue to government positions to benefit them and their immediate families and friends. These people have shown that shared political and business interests, as well as absolute personal elite interests, not ethnic backgrounds and interests, that determine what they care for. It is only after they are threatened with ostracism or ostracized from the political and business elite club and denied access to the continued enjoyment of its benefits, provided by their privileged positions in government, that they invoke ethnic identity as demonstrated by Edward Kesselly and Jackson Doe.
As president, Samuel Doe became the only avenue that indigenous Liberians had to rule Liberia for many years. But he did everything to antagonize every indigenous group ala a bully. Doe disregarded the code of indigenous solidarity and did not hesitate to use act of extreme violence against other indigenous people to protect his interests and those of his kinsmen. It is only after he lost the protection of the presidency, abandoned by sycophantic friends, and came face to face with his own death, which was about to occur via castration at the hands of Gio and Mano armed insurgents, that Doe begged them to recognize that “we are all one people.” How late, very, very late was it for him to have come to this realization. Indigenous political support for indigenous politicians should not be automatic because of last names. Rather, it should be conditional on what they have done for their people before getting into trouble.