The Divisive Politics of Liberia (Past and Present)

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 14, 2002

Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis
I published an essay earlier this year under the title, "The War Next Time: Fighting Fire With Fire". In that article, I observed that the Christian Church of Liberia, in the midst of hellish conditions imposed by the government, had remained complacent, supine or outright silent when it was its moral duty to be actively involved. "...It is quite clear that some well-respected segment of the Liberian society needs to rise up and highlight the transgressions the people suffer at the hands of this monstrous group calling itself a legitimate government. Some segment of society with a moral legitimacy and obligation needs to challenge this so-called government and take it to task for its dismal and abusive human rights records and failed policies. The segment I have in mind is the Christian Church", I wrote.

In that article, I wondered aloud as to whether the church had lost its conscience. I felt duty-bound, however, to praise Archbishop Michael Francis for his outspokenness and forthrightness. I described him as being a "thorn in the side of the government". My impression, according to published reports, was that his eminence was moving in the right direction in personifying the people's collective conscience. He had demonstrated a free-spiritedness to challenge the government when his fellow moral leaders sought to play it safe.

In a follow-up article titled: "The Role of Liberian Christian Leaders: A Case Restated", I compared him to other church and moral leaders and agreed that the archbishop had shown compassion and understanding. I said, "It is safe to say that Archbishop Francis stands above the rest".

Well, quite a lot has transpired since I painted such a rosy picture of the bishop's stature. Being a man of conscience myself, I am compelled to examine recent statements attributed to him and wonder if he actually "stands above the rest" or if he is just another third-world politician masquerading as a high-profile prelate.

At the same time I was writing such high praise of the bishop, the Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, called upon him to head the so-called National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation. The bishop accepted the challenge and began a few missteps to be chronicled in the body of this article.

In his opening address to the conference, this is what the bishop said: "...From the founding of our nation the process of reconciliation was never put into motion - there were two classes: a superior one and an inferior one. The latter was looked upon as barbarian, uncivilized and needed to be Christianized. In the process our forefathers on both sides meted out injustice to each other..." (I urge our reading public to seek a transcript of the Archbishop's speech and see for themselves what he said publicly.)

Firstly, does the bishop believe that the settlers were superior to the indigenous? If so, what made them so? Would it be some two hundred years of cotton picking and tobacco farming as slaves? Or was it sharecropping under the most inhumane conditions ever recorded in modern human history that gave them their superiority? In my study of American history, I have learned that these poor creatures were treated as the scum of the earth, abused and disenfranchised. They were said to be regarded as less than human and teaching them to read and write was considered a waste of time and, therefore, a crime. The vast majority was functionally illiterate. To what does the bishop attribute this superiority over others? Isn't it a twist of logic that being an ex-slave is a badge of honor and superiority?

It is a definite case of tragicomedy that these former slaves became slave- masters themselves at the expense of the unsuspecting and all-trusting natives. One of our colleagues, a fellow Liberian named Nat Galarea Gbessagee, in a brilliantly written critique, was the first to tackle the bishop's public statement. In reference to the bishop's claim that "both sides meted out injustice to each other", Mr. Gbessagee questioned: "How ironic? Is it possible? Can the slave-master and the slave each be blamed for meting out injustice to each other"? He exactly expresses my sentiments.

Taking a close look at Liberian history, several instances stand out where the ruling class, the pioneers or settlers, meted out injustice to the indigenes. The reverse is not so clear. The classic case of taxation without representation comes to mind. The government went as far into the hinterland to collect hut tax from the natives but did not see itself obliged to render any services to them. As a matter of fact, the government classified the natives as "subjects" and did not elevate them to the status of "citizens" until over a hundred years after the republic was formed. These so-called subjects were not allowed to legally and officially own land – land that was originally theirs.

The government did not build roads, schools and health care facilities in the interior for over a hundred years. The ruling class definitely created an underclass by denying them (the natives) basic education, legal rights and political representation. The settlers went as far as to deceptively have natives sent to the Spanish island of Fernando Po where they were forced to work in slave-like conditions. After the intervention of the League of Nations, an entire administration was forced to resign. (C.D.B. King and Allen Nathaniel Yancy were president and vice president respectively).

The foregoing may very well pass as fiction - but such is the reality of Liberia's ugly past. The question, it seems to me, men of conscience should be publicly addressing and analyzing is: What civilized group of people (especially formerly enslaved themselves) would enact such draconian and inhumane laws and procedures without provocation?

In the very next paragraph, the eminent bishop does a disservice to the interpretation of Liberian history when he touches on the ugly issue of "two sets of laws, Indigenous and Civil - one for the so-called "civilized" people and another for the 'indigenous' people." (Or shall we say one for the superior people and another for the inferior people?) He said: "It was only in 1964 that this country became one under one law and administration and the Interior Administration, as we knew it - absolute and dictatorial - was abolished This was the first real attempt to resolve the first class-second class reality of our citizenship."

I find it quite troubling that the bishop examines over one hundred years of the "settlers" rule over the "indigenes", during which time the settlers established separate and unequal laws described by the bishop himself as "absolute and dictatorial", yet heaps praise on the late President Tubman for instituting some cosmetic changes through his "Unification and Integration Policy". The bishop apparently minimizes the magnitude of the issue at hand, the "dictatorial and absolute" rule of one group of citizens over another, when he says: "President Tubman made an attempt to reconcile the two segments of our society through his Unification and Integration Policy. To his credit he tried and this process brought our country under one administration and though imperfect, the disadvantageous segment of our nation was given representation in the National Legislature."

Was it not entirely conceivable that such massive abuse of power for so long by an elite minority over the vast majority would climax into a national catastrophe? Such is what finally happened in Liberia in 1980. Is it not, then, shortsighted and misleading to equally blame the slave-master and the slave in the event of a rebellion? Yet, the bishop does just that.

The bishop continues, in an obvious attempt to downplay the brutality and lawlessness perpetuated against the masses for close to a century and a half, but places a great deal of emphasis on the events of 1980 that culminated into a bloody coup. He says: "In 1980 there was a bloody coup and many of the children of the pioneers were killed and their properties confiscated. Many are still in self-imposed exile. There was no attempt at reconciliation and the bleeding continues which makes reconciliation imperative."

In my view, it was quite a tragic apex in Liberian history for the country to have experienced the unfortunate incidents of 1980. But to downplay the long and evil history of the first republic or to marginalize the suffering and indignity imposed on the indigenous populace is another tragic mistake. The bishop should know better than to play with the facts for the benefit of the government or the ruling class. True reconciliation requires that we deal with hard facts – no matter how ugly they may seem.

Needless to say the bishop's speech made me to ponder my earlier assessment of the man and his role. I was quite dumbfounded. However, I did not react to the speech because Mr. Gbessagee beat me to the punch and did quite an impressive analysis of it. I was willing to let sleeping dogs lie and pursue other matters. But then the bishop did it again recently - by attacking all Liberians away from home as being in "self-imposed" exile.

Not too long ago, the bishop had the opportunity to install officers of the Rotary Club of Monrovia. Again, as he did in his so-called "National Reconciliation" speech, he failed to examine the root causes but wrongly pounded on the symptoms. Does the bishop simply relish pitting Liberians against each other in these trying times?

According to the website,, the bishop is said to have denounced and condemned "exiled Liberian politicians and others living abroad, who want to become president of Liberia without making any meaningful contributions to the country." He is also quoted as saying: "Those of you who are home (in Liberia) making immense contributions for peace and development are the giants."

The foregoing leaves one to wonder what the bishop intends to achieve by making such inflammatory remarks. Does he really believe that the Liberians living abroad are any less patriotic to the country than those living at home? Does he really believe that those living abroad are not "serious" and make no meaningful contributions to the country?

There is great danger in making such reckless comments because some childish and feeble-minded individuals will fail to analyze the full magnitude of these remarks, and in their frustration find new (perceived) enemies. For example, one of the government's henchmen wrote: "Liberians living in Liberia must work harder for the progress and development of our common patrimony. Frankly, Liberians should not dignify and glorify these failed, self-serving and self-exiled politicians. Yes! Archbishop Francis says Liberians who are home are great people and are on the right side of history. Indeed, the Archbishop has spoken!! Self-exiled Liberian politicians where are you? Are you there? Are you listening?"

We understand the difficulties in living in a totalitarian and tyrannical state. One must walk a delicate line for one's own safety. But sometimes it is best to remain silent than to openly sing praises to an evil regime, and there is actually no need to antagonize your brothers and sisters just because they are abroad. It is no secret that many Liberians abroad are responsible for the support of relatives back home. We need each other.

So, your highness, please tune down the negative rhetoric. There may not be any "giants" abroad, but we know there is only one "giant" in Liberia right now. The grapevines tell us he is looking for a second banana to be his running mate to legitimize the up-coming elections. So are these campaign speeches we are hearing? If so, good luck and welcome to secular politics. After all, there is precedence for such lunacy. Remember?

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