By: James Thomas-Queh
At a mere glance it may not seem that there is a connection between the theme of this paper and the historical excerpts by Mrs. Doris D. Grimes (Reflection: The Day Liberian President William V.S. Tubman Died”- www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/op-ed/commentaries-features/5974-reflection-the-day-liberian). But I have no doubt that among the roots of the succession acrimony narrated by her, one could sort out the perverse unconstitutional practice –that is, the prerogative of the President to leave anyone in charge of the government in his or her absence and not the Vice President - the elected bona fide deputy of the President. This practice has been overly used since Liberian Presidents have made themselves the indispensable globe-trotters. Our current leader has even taken it to a rotational process among her favourite Ministers – thus at time making the government to be seen as ‘not too serious’ or a play, play personalized business entity.
For his part, Tubman was consistent in using only his Secretary of State, Hon. J. Rudolph Grimes – the doyen of the cabinet. And though this is the highest-ranking cabinet position, and as all other officials within the Executive – it is subordinate to the Vice President. So even while the Vice President may not have been left in charge, for Tubman, the use of the highest senior official still kept the Presidency at its stature of nobility. Tubman lived and considered the Presidency with a certain national grandeur (not only personal) and respectability that could never be compromised. Because if the President does not respect the presidency, then obviously the people will not respect the President.
Now, the theme having been introduced, let us examine it within the context of Mrs. Grimes reflection in order to grasp the weirdness and the effects of the practice. When President Tubman died suddenly on July 23, 1971, in London, it was quickly rumoured (or rather a blatant lie) around Monrovia that Mac Deshield (then chairman or secretary general of the True Whig Party-TWP and Post Master General) said that when Tolbert (then Vice President-VP) had not come to be sworn in (apparently on his farm in Bong County) – J. Rudolph Grimes said make me President and Mac Deshield closed the door and said “Nobody leave until Tolbert comes.”
First, the fact that 44 years later Mrs. Grimes has come public to set the record straight and clear the reputation of her late husband – the last illustrious Secretary of State of our Republic - indicates how this succession feud put a fatal dent into the unity of the ruling class that would forever haunt the presidency of Mr. Tolbert and the TWP. And second, it also reveals that where a sibling of the President usurps state powers arbitrarily all to himself or herself, it has the propensity to undermine the very presidency and propagate bad governance and animosity among the officials.
So why did Mac Deshield, (who constituted the TWP all to himself) chose to lie on a dignified statesman as Hon. J. Rudolph Grimes (himself a monument – founder of our famous Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia) and a man who knew fully well the protocols and lines of succession at a finger tip? And that even ponders the mind of Mrs. Grimes, and she also asked: “Why did he tell such a lie? Could it be due to ignorance? No, I think it was more than that.
Let us imagine that for the longest that J. Rudolph Grimes was at the head of the Department of State ( first as Acting Secretary from 1958, then became the Secretary proper in 1960 until 1971) he was certainly left in charge of the government - and not the Vice President- for the many times that Tubman travelled abroad during those years. In other words, in Tubman’s 27 years of reign, J. Rudolph Grimes served him 12 years as his most trusted and devoted chief international spokesman and representative. And believe me, those were the times that when the Secretary of State spoke on the international stage, it was the President that spoke, and too it was LIBERIA that spoke. So on both fronts (internal and international), J. Rudolph Grimes had overshadowed the Vice President unbeknown; thus a reason for all the political machinations. It was certainly perceived that Tubman was grooming his very brilliant and dedicated Secretary of State as his real heir apparent. And from whence may have come the envy and hate from the camp of the Vice President, especially those officials whose rise to fame and power derived only from the TWP’s sycophancy, family and county connections.
Tolbert was Vice President for 19 years, practically forgotten in the background – an experience that impacted him greatly. And that may have induced him to have had the two most politically involved Vice Presidents – the late James Green succeeded by Bennie Warner. These men were actively engaged in people’s projects, mass mobilization and also on the international stage as much as the President himself. So that they were seen as having the full trust and confidence of the President and regarded as his principal lieutenants - working in tendon and mutual respect to accomplish a national agenda in the interest of the nation and people. Undoubtedly, Tolbert made his Vice President to be clearly perceived as his undisputable natural successor.
I dare say that the situation today is no different from that of Tubman and Vice President Tolbert. Truly, look at the cacophony display of the ruling Unity Party, and just when the country yarns for stability and continuity. And then a two-term democratically elected Vice President, in this age and time, would choose to go his people in Lofa to request him to run for the presidency in 2017, and not submitting himself first to the selection process of his ruling party. In this commotion and disregard for modern democratic practices by the Unity Party, one can clearly see the demons of our inglorious past still at work; that something is missing among our leadership trio: the President, the Vice President and the ruling party. And one of the real culprits for this missing link is no other than the perverse unconstitutional practice. Because for the million times our President has been departing for the world stage in the last ten years, some controversial Ministers have been parading around Monrovia with sirens and security escort as “Acting Presidents”; and while the Vice President looks on only “in consultation” and dismay. As a result the public has not fully perceived the capability or worth of the Vice President (and worse, in a regime with a credibility deficiency). And God knows, this well composed, astute politician is among the most highly professionals, educated, experienced and industrious of Liberians.
I will briefly retrace the chain of events leading to the scandalous rumour detailed by Mrs. Grimes. Evidently, Tubman was seriously ill and rushed to London on July 18th, 1971. Secretary of State Grimes was left in charge of the government as usual and not the Vice President. On the trip was the Under Secretary of State, T. Ernest Eastman – supposedly the direct representative and liaison of the Secretary of State.
Two days later (July 20th) a female friend came by the home of the Grimes and told a dream– a sort of premonition- that someone repeatedly said “A nation mourns”. I deduce here that somebody already knew that Tubman was either dead or in a very deep coma, and yet the Secretary of State – in charge of the government - had no official confirmation on the real condition of the President.
By July 23rd the events accelerated. First, Secretary of State Grimes mentioned to his wife that President Tubman informed him that he had decided to undergo a surgery that he had refused the day before. Based upon this information, Secretary of State Grimes summoned the cabinet and advised everyone not to leave the city. Vice President Tolbert was present and led the group in prayers. But apparently when the meeting was adjourned the Vice President left the city for his farm in Bong County.
Frankly, I do not think it was in the habit of the Vice President to disobey or rather revolt against this perverse unconstitutional practice for the many times the Secretary of State had been left in charge of the government. But this time, I guess, he had the first hand information (long before the Secretary of State) that Tubman was definitely dead, and now “it was his time” after 19 years of uncertainty in waiting. He was already flexing his muscles.
And the narrative continues. On the same day (July 23rd, 1971), just before Secretary Grimes got home for lunch, there came an anonymous call from the Vice President’s house that said, in a low voice “they say he is dead and the Tolbert family people are arriving” and then the line went off.
Unbelievable, the official left in charge of the government got home still not informed that Tubman had died – a crucial moment that could have had the propensity for a major security crisis. But more, just as Mr. Grimes relaxed himself and ready for lunch, the doorbell rang and at the same time too the telephone. Mrs. Grimes went to open the door for the visitor, and while her husband took the overseas call from Mrs. Tubman. And while Mrs. Tubman was on the phone telling Secretary Grimes what she had been told that her husband was in the recovery room – the operation was successful, etc, Mrs. Grimes was being informed by the male visitor that he had just left the Vice President’s home and Ernest Eastman (under Secretary of State) had called to tell the Vice President (and not his boss – the Secretary of State) that Mr. Tubman had died.
Secretary of State Grimes did not get an official confirmation on Tubman’s death until he had returned to his office after lunch on July 23rd, 1971, and inquired from London. Of course, it was then that the succession process was launched, but only to find out that Vice President Tolbert was absent from the capital; thus causing a delay of extreme anxiety and impatience – a setting fertile for rumours.
In short, because of a perverse unconstitutional practice Secretary of State Grimes was fed misinformation and undermined; thus he missed several days in which to have put the security forces on high alert just in case of any eventuality. But we were lucky, at least back in 1971, there still were men and women of stature, integrity, discipline, law and order, standing personalized state institutions and a single party – TWP – was still a formidable political machine to reckon with.
But let us transfer this identical scenario into today’s Liberia – a ruling party in shambles, a fragile society and political system, a Vice President flexing his muscles at regime’s ending – and wherein a nascent democracy the President dares to leave her Minister of Defence in charge of the government. Tell me, should that Minister decide to make himself the President, the army Generals standing behind him in full support, who could oblige him (or the army) to abdicate? Oh for heaven sake, will we ever learn from our past experiences?
And herein lies the weirdness and the potential danger to our national security of this perverse unconstitutional practice. That were it intended to deter a Vice President from overthrowing a President, then no doubt, it has already attained its zenith of ridicule.
If there is no guarantee to abandon this perverse unconstitutional practice in the very near future, I would suggest we do away with the Vice Presidency. Instead of paying somebody only to stay in waiting for a succession, we should create then the position of a “Prime Minister” – someone who is in charge of the daily running of the government; draft and defend government policies before the national Legislature; control, coordinate and follow up on government decisions, etc. He or she is automatically in charge of the government in the absence of the president; thus a visible and constant continuity of governance.
We are currently in a situation where the President only delivers one long and fancy annual message before the Legislature (and hardly anyone cares about the content); then departs for a world tour, if not the retreats, for the rest of the year – leaving behind the Ministers with the Legislators to figure out how to best to run the country. And when, rightly so, the Legislators summon the Ministers we see it only through the corruption prism, and not as a consequence of a wider governance crisis.