New Perspectives on the Causes and Consequences of Institutional Decline in Liberia

By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 30, 2002

I decided to write this article in light of recent and past publications of a couple of books, academic and non-academic articles trying to explain the causes and consequences of institutional failures in Liberia. I believe that the question of how best to refashion existing institutional processes in Liberia is the most topical issue of our times--- at least in the context of the generational challenge to design a new institutional and political order that would be based on our reflective, integrated and superior meaning perspectives.

Meaning perspectives are as much a function of cognitive processes as they are reflective of our individual and collective human actions and affective endeavors to impose meanings on our daily experiences. The need for the proliferation of rigorous social science methodologies in the explanation of the most fundamental causes of institutional failure, calls for an approach that illuminates the biographical and idiosyncratic circumstances of significant actors in political history such as leaders. Only such an approach, which combines structuralist approaches with an authentic theory of consciousness, can lead us closer to more holistic methodologies.

On the question of meaning perspectives, these are also a product of the institutional arrangements we have sought to create in a way that they reflect our predispositions, historical norms and value systems. Educational, political, economic, and cultural institutions and norms must be justified in terms of the ideal conditions of discourse (Mezirow, 1985). The criteria of making value judgments, which in effect are the criteria of validating the ideal conditions of discourse (ibid), presuppose that cultural and historic norms and psychosocial assumptions are barriers, which must be overcome in fostering social action and transformation of existing institutional arrangements in Liberia. The ideal conditions of discourse such as equal opportunity to participate, equal protection under constitutional law, can only exist if the institutional barriers to full participation in dialogue are reasonably constrained or if not eliminated.

These barriers to the ideal conditions of discourse, seem to be a commonality to all existing historical societies often bedeviled by class, race, ethnic and social differences. However, the barriers often differ in varying degrees of complexity predicated upon the limitations imposed [or lack thereof] on individual liberty by the nature of authority relations in society. The barriers to the ideal conditions of discourse in Liberia are associated with the failure of the Liberian state and a lack of appreciation of the tenacity of enduring democratic practice manifested in dialogic processes.

Full participation in dialogue across social class barriers is a necessary condition for forging a collective civil identity as an initial step to social transformation (see Jarvis, 1987). This social transformation is imperative because it is a breach to the future of intellectual maturity and sound public practice. But before going to that future, the history of the past must be retold in terms of the correlation between our goal directed actions and psychosocial categories which drive these actions. Thus, the history of institutional failures in Liberia has its roots in the evolution of patronage as a distinguishing feature of the Liberian social formation. It is also a product of the persistence of particular forms of consciousness and historical norms.

The evolution of patronage

The evolution and consolidation of patronage, clientelism, and social cleavages in the Liberian society belie the high-sounding principles and political ideals, which are said to have inspired the declaration of independence in 1847. The professed aims of the declaration of independence were to constitute a sovereignty that would guarantee to “all men certain inalienable rights; among these rights are life, liberty, and the right to acquire, possess, enjoy, and defend property.” (Cited in Dun and Tarr, 1986, p.44).

But the challenges of social life within an alien environment combined with political and institutional inertia over the years, to produce an outcome that negated the professed aspirations advocated at the outset of nationhood--- to built a Christian and Enlightened Black Civilization---by establishing the ‘genius of self government’----among the “backward” inhabitants of the west African sub-region. Commenting on the failure of settler society in Liberia, Basil Davison (1992,P.247) has made this cogent and critical observation:

“In Liberia the perversion of community can be rationally explained as arising from the consequences of the slave trade. But alienation from ancestral community was then carried further, and systematized, by imposition of the culture of an imported oligarchy whose ignorance of local realities was easily encouraged, by the corruptions of power, into a contempt for the peoples who lived in these realities.”

The changing contexts of party politics and the weaknesses of the institutional bases of the state machinery have played a decisive role in the evolution of patronage. Between 1822 and 1839, when various settlements were combined into a single micro-polity, there developed the beginnings of electoral politics featuring two main political parties; one representing the interests of an overwhelming commercial class based in Monrovia, and the other representing the interests of a more inland and coastal agricultural class (see Dunn and Tarr, 1986). This political arrangement lasted for the duration of the Commonwealth period (1839-1847).

Between 1847 and 1877 partisan politics in Liberia took on a racial dimension. A mulatto commercial class controlled the echelons of power opposed by a predominantly black agricultural class. The Republican Party of the mulatto class remained in power until temporarily disrupted by the newly formed True Whig Party of the blacks in 1869. The rise of the True Whig Party in the 1870s was a response to the political aspirations of lower class elements within settler society (Sawyer, 1986). However, the electoral victory of the True Whig Party in 1877 did not merely set out to correct the excesses of mulatto domination of an incipient political and institutional process.

This political confrontation led to a temporary crisis in the social order inaugurated by settler society. The crisis engulfed the founding fathers of the nation including Blyden, Alexander Crummell, E. J. Roye and others. Crummel denounced Roye’s opponents in this political struggle as people who were opposed to the true spirit of the Black republic. In the eyes of Alexander Crummell, this spirit was undergirded by three central pillars - the goals of civilization, enlightenment and missions (Brown, 1986,p.228). 1877 was the beginning of political consolidation in the face of the emergence of a new oligarchy that exercised complete domination and monopolization of power until it was dethroned by a military take over on April 12th 1980.

The dominance of sections of the settler population through the instrumentalities of the True Whig Party came at the expense of the vast majority of the general population - particularly the indigenous population. In the bipolar political arrangement (involving settler blacks and mulattoes) the indigenous population found themselves at the bottom of an unfolding social structure, with very minimal stake in governance and transactional relations. The indigenous population was subject to continual patronage, and in some instances overt mistreatment by all sides embroiled in this evolving political divide. During this time, only a small number of indigenous children received education, those living close to Americo-Liberian settlements.

Most of the indigenous population living in the hinterland did not get even a glimpse of Western education. The crisis between the central government and Christian missionaries in the 1870s led to the shortage of teachers, finance, and hindered the development of the educational system. Adjustments to this socio-political order were made from time to time as was the case in the 1930s, when some indigenous leaders posed serious challenges to national authority, and sought disengagement from the body politic (Sawyer, 1986).

A decade after independence, Edward W. Blyden observed in an Independence Day address in 1857 that “prosperity is not real, the prosperity of a nation is real when the springs of that prosperity are contained within itself, when its existence depends on its resources”. Blyden when on to indicate, “I am afraid that the conditions which obtain between the whites and blacks in America are the same which obtain between us and our native brethren here. I am afraid too that as individual citizens we are throwing barriers in the way of assimilation and confederation which must necessarily take place between us and them” (see Smith,, p.1; Lowenfopf,1976).

From 1878 onwards a series of presidential successions took place within the framework of the True Whig Party. These presidents included for example, Anthony W. Gardner (1878-83), William D. Coleman (1896-1900), Charles D.B. King (1920-30) etc. President W. V. Tubman (1944-1971) was the longest serving president in Liberian history. Tubman ruled Liberia for twenty-seven years.

President Tubman appropriated the excesses of the True Whig Party in his search to achieve a complete personalization of political power. Thus, the unlimited growth of an elaborate patronage machine and clientelism in the Liberian society saw its zenith during the twenty-seven long years of the Tubman administration. I have decided to devote the next section to explore the hallmarks of patronage and institutional decay under the Tubman administration. For it is this patronage and institutional paralysis that has posed obstacles to undistorted communication and social change. It is therefore, suggested that in order to remove these obstacles, the nation must come to terms with the imperatives of installing a new constitutional order based on dialogue, mutual respect, tolerance, and participatory democracy.

The Tubman administration (1944-1971)

President Tubman was born one of six children on November 29, 1895, in Harper City, Maryland County. His ancestors came from Georgia in the United States as freed slaves of Richard Tubman. Tubman received all his formal education in Liberia. After graduating from high school he read law under Monroe Cummings and Anthony Woods, and was admitted into the Maryland County bar in 1917 through the apprenticeship method----at this time law school did not exist in Liberia (see Wreh, 1976).

The Tubman era in Liberia signified the most vivid example of the personification of institutional and political power in the country. Tubman’s inaugural address upon his accession to power in 1944 reflected the critical issues that his administration had to contend with. Tubman announced that the spirit of his administration would be one of "No Reprisals; No Pay-Backs; No Get-Even With". He also indicated that "let the dead bury its dead." (Townsend as cited in Lowenkopf, 1976,p.3).

The lingering suspicions that still existed among the various political factions, which prompted these declarations, included the slavery issue of the 1930s, in which Tubman was indirectly implicated, and the disappointing returns to Liberia from the Firestone rubber venture, ”compared to the burden of the loan that accompanied it.” (Ibid; also see Wreh, 1976). In addition, age-old geographical rivalries among coastal politicians had emerged during the contest for the presidency. The first prescription for strengthening the hegemony of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy was to infuse the population with new immigrants from the United States, the West Indies, and the British West African colonies. This was also Tubman’s first prescription for his approach to national integration and unification policy (Lowenkopf,1976).

After ascending to the presidency, Tubman packed the legislative branch of government with his servants, favorites, and cronies, many of who were illiterate. Some chiefs elected purely on the basis of Tubman’s selection had to use interpreters in following debates- to translate from English, the official language into their indigenous languages (ibid). Judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and traditional chiefs - all owed their appointments to Tubman--- the President. Tubman’s wielding of power over the intelligential as demonstrated by his control of the University of Liberia - the nation’s highest institution of learning---was absolute. Faculty and staff members were elected by the board of trustees on the basis of recommendations approved by Tubman. The board of trustees was often dominated by members of the legislative branch, most of whom as indicated earlier, were handpicked by President Tubman (ibid). Free political expression on the campus of the University of Liberia was “carefully guarded” as was the expression of dissent in the larger society (ibid,p.3).

President Tubman threatened to suppress any public sentiment that did not support his established orthodoxy on the most crucial issues - such as the economy, social policy etc. He had opposition party members removed from state employment and even private employment. These opposition activists could not get employment in any sector of the economy without his clearance. Unlike his predecessors, Tubman sought to become the unchallenged master of Liberia using the most hideous but sometimes subtle autocratic methods. Institutions such as the Legislature and the Supreme Court---which were meant to provide checks and balances in the political system---were never allowed to pursue any path inconsistent with his idiosyncratic wishes and preferences.

During the Tubman era, the decision-making process in national government became his exclusive domain. Tubman was the most consummate micro-manager in this sense. To ensure complete control over institutional and social processes, President Tubman set up an elaborate security and patronage network. He set up the National Intelligence and Security Service, the National Bureau of Investigation, the Special Security System and the Executive Action Bureau. In addition there was also the notorious Public Relations Officers (PROs). The PRO system was initially conceived as a social welfare and pension scheme to provide financial assistance to the less fortunate in society. But later this scheme degenerated into an institution, which would buttress the patronage system.

The gainfully employed, the strong and healthy and others who preferred to live off someone else, were allowed to draw free checks from government largesse (ibid). PRO funds were also used to buy the support of opposition politicians to keep them loyal to the Tubman regime. The PRO like other dubious schemes undertaken by the Tubman administration, ended up depriving the nation of needed development funds. Lowenkopf (1976) has divided the Tubman era into three main periods. The first period (1944-55) saw successful efforts by Tubman to supplant his old political enemies with individuals from both sides of the national ethnic divide loyal to him (see Sawyer,1986). The second period (1955-68) was the period of consolidation of the gains of a decade, which saw unprecedented foreign investment. The last period (1968-71), which ended at his death in 1971 was the period of retrenchment. This period was marked by diminishing returns in many spheres of national life, and a leader simply trying to hold on to power. Dunn and Tarr (1986) have broadly agreed with this historical taxonomy of crucial phases of the Tubman era.

The national bureaucracy was a mere patronage device under Tubman as it had been during previous administrations. Before the mid-60s as much as 40 percent of total government employment was disbursed outside budget channels. There was the notorious President Contingency Fund - from which the President disbursed monetary rewards to chiefs, party members, civil servants and other ostensibly needed causes. To the extend that the national bureaucracy was been used as a tool for personal political gratification, it could not be expected to serve as an engine of economic and political modernization. The economic impulses facilitated by the open door policy added an impetus to the expansion of Tubman’s patronage machine thanks to the additional resources it may available. Stephen Ellis (1998,p. 158) in his description of the accentuation of the patronage system under Tubman has observed that:

"Tubman’s centralization of patronage combined with the great increase in revenue which resulted from the commercial alliances with foreign companies inherent in his open door economic policy to produce a political system in which the leader was seen as the personalization of the nation."

When President Tubman died in 1971, and was replaced by his than serving vice president--- William R. Tolbert. The Tolbert period was marked by unprecedented political ferment following an intense period of political patronage and paternalism during the previous regime. The growing political agitation on the part of hitherto disenchanted sections of Liberian society was a manifestation that longstanding dialectical contradictions within the patronage system had come to a head. Social classes that had long been ignored were becoming vocal in demanding new structurally organic systems of political discourse and a greater share in institutional processes. Sawyer (1986,p.2) has eloquently captured this growing political ferment in the decade of the 1970s:

"During this period, the political pressure was all-inclusive and self-sustaining. For the first time in the political history of Liberia, peasant groups seeking more government outputs and/or greater opportunities for self-reliant development Raised their voices around the country at the same time when government… When descending students founded student political parties, when the emergent Liberian entrepreneurial class developed autonomy within the more cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce, when the civil service itself sought aspects of a merit system, when market women sought greater control over the affairs of the urban market places, and the army of urban unemployed grew restless. These assertive groups covered a cross section of life in Liberia."

Many commentators and students of Liberian affairs have indicated that increased agitation by political movements, such as the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) that later became the Progressive Peoples Party (PPP), hastened the demise of the Tolbert regime by fertilizing the soil for the usurpation of power by non-commission military officers on April 12th 1980 (see Clampham, 1982; Sawyer, 1986; Reno, 1995; Ellis, 1998; Dolo, 1996).

President Tolbert tried to liberalize the political system but was willing to go as far as was being demanded by an increasingly radicalized opposition clamoring for rapid structural and institutional change. The reason while Tolbert could not keep up with the pace of change in political consciousness was because Tolbert, like his predecessors, was born and bred in a value system and political culture that was not only allergic to change, but was ossified by historical and organizational norms that inhibited critically reflective learning and action. Because learning to think for oneself, and liberating oneself from our conditioned and taken-for-granted assumptions about the world, ourselves, and others is critical to making responsible moral decisions in a fast changing world (Mezirow, 1998). Among the reasons for Tolbert’s failures and perhaps the failures of most Liberian leaders is also, the result of what Mezirow has come to refer to as systemic critical reflection of assumptions.

This type of reflection involves critical reflection on one’s assumptions pertaining to the linguistic, political, economic religious and other taken-for-granted cultural systems in society. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon (1978) have distinguished single-loop learning from double-loop learning in their exploration of organization as learning systems. Single-loop learning seems to be present when values, frameworks, and strategies are taken for granted. But in double-loop learning, learning involves the modification of the underlying principles and polices of an organization. There is a symmetry between double-loop learning, which no lest involves significant learning, and systemic critical reflection of assumptions. These paradigms of learning (double-loop and single-loop learning, systemic critical reflection etc.) are critical to our understanding of human action as a product of patterns of social cognition.

Sirleaf (1999) has intimated that the Samuel Doe regime, which took over from President Tolbert and ushered in a new era of non Americo-Liberian rule in Liberia, could not meet the popular expectations of the people to formulate a vision for a country long in need of institutional and political change. This was because the coup leaders were essentially a product of the value system of the past and was unwilling to free themselves from the pathologies and psychological trappings of this past. What took place, then, was a passing of the guard from a tired and failed True Whig Party to a band of marauding soldiers who would unlashed havoc on all sections of society. Lacking coherent social, economic and educational policies, the Doe regime sought to rule by intimation, fear and the brute use of force.

The almost ten years of military rule saw one of the most horrendous abuses of personal liberty and political freedoms. The political liberalization, which began under Tolbert in the 1970s, was torpedoed at the dawn of a new era—which began on April 12th 1980. Brutal military repression gradually took root as an institutionally legitimate mode of behavior in the decade of the 1980s. With the coming to power of Samuel Doe in 1980, the era of political rule though military force had begun in earnest. It was apparent that the country would never remain the same as the military sought to consolidate their rein using perilous methods. The military first embraced the populist movements, then the technocrats, and later discovered a commonality of interests with discredited fortune hunters (Sawyer, 1986).

The dynamics of psychosocial and hegemonic assumptions

On December 24, 1989 some 100 insurgents claiming allegiance to the national patriotic front of Liberia attacked the border town of Nimba County from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. This was the start of a destructive civil war that would last for seven years. More than 200,000 people lost their lives in fighting or massacres, and almost half of the country took temporary shelter in neighboring countries (Reno, 1998). In July 1997, nationwide elections were held and Charles Taylor, the leader of the National Patriotic Front, emerged as winner, and thus became president. These elections marked an end to the most destructive phase of the war (Ellis, 1998).

However, the elections presented a serious dilemma to the Liberian people. There was a stark choice between not choosing Mr. Taylor, and thereby continuing the war as he had implicitly threatened to do, or vying for an alternative political party, which would have restored genuine peace and stability. In addition, the results of the elections were also a demonstration of regional political exigencies. These exigencies led regional players in the Liberian peace initiative to opt for a compromised solution at all costs (Tiepoh,

Charles Taylor, as he had already demonstrated during the war, was more interested in building a personality cult like Tubman, than in building a moral consensus for reconciliation and national reconstruction. After winning the 1997 elections, Taylor sought to establish a politico-military regime predicated upon oppression and the ruthless silencing of any attempt to question the conduct of national policy. These actions were in conflict with Taylor’s initial pronouncements, which were ostensibly to restore order to national life by liberating the masses from the tyrannical clutches and myopia of Samuel Doe.

In the span of four years, however, Charles Taylor has proven to be one of the worst tyrants the country has ever known and perhaps---one of the worst tyrants in the checkered post-colonial history of the West African sub-region. This regime bears all the hallmarks of a regime that seeks to limit the possibilities for institutional development and capacity building to accommodate free full participation in dialogue and the reactivation of civil society to become a dynamic force for change and modernity.

The obstacles to institutional growth under the Charles Taylor administration have been catalogued in numerous human rights reports, Journal and magazine articles, etc. One of the main problems of the Taylor regime is that there have never been any concerted efforts launched to ensure an enduring process or system of rehabilitation of former combatants. These are young men who committed hideous crimes during the war and still haunted by the traumas resulting from these tragic episodes. In fact what the administration did against reason and popular will was to incorporate former combatants into a new security machine whose only purpose has been to instill fear in the general population. All the promises made by President Taylor to respect the freedom of free expression and other elementary freedoms guaranteed under the Liberian constitution have been violated with contempt.

Hence, the political history of Liberia has shown that when alternative voices are silenced, and when the decision-making process is concentrated in few hands, in the face of fragile structures of authority, institutional power degenerates into personal power. Such process of transformation of institutional power into the personal power of the leader is often the corollary of economic and social underdevelopment. Scholars on the right and left of the intellectual spectrum are in agreement that the highly centralized, postcolonial state in Africa is restrictive, overbearing, and predatory (Cited in Sawyer,1992). The overbearing state is noted for social penetration of the most fundamental aspects of what Habermas refers to as the public sphere (see ibid; also see Fleming, 2002). It attempts to exercise complete domination over the levers of economic powers and civil society. This process of state monopoly, which is often manifested in institutional and structural backwardness, is essentially what I am attempting to explain through the lenses of a cluster of cognitive and developmental assumptions, regarding the nature and causes of institutional impediments in cultural and social systems.

Critically examining these institutional pathologies, which can sometimes become dependency-producing constraints as we have seen during the Tubman administration, and others following it, and establishing the parameters of collective social action to eradicate them is one of the cardinal tasks confronting those who seek to articulate a rigorous tradition of interpretivism (Mezirow, 1985). This mode of critical examination constitutes a cardinal element in reflective social practice. It is also a prominent feature of the practical and analytical tasks I have set out to accomplish in this article. Brookshield (2000) has also referred to this type of cognitive examination and critical reflection as ideology critique. Ideology critique is critical reflection to uncover hegemonic assumptions, which over time become imbedded in our consciousness as part of our every-day life and taken-for-granted conventional wisdoms. Guess (as cited in Mezirow, 1985,p.145) has identified this form of consciousness that produces dependency relationships as false consciousness.

In Liberia one might regard the overbearing nature of the state and the growth of clientelism as ideological forms of false consciousness. These falsely perceived forms of ideology and social practice have fostered dependency producing relationships over the years, and buttressed the formation of the cult of presidential power embodied in an elaborate patronage machine, which in turn has constrained the growth of ethical norms as governing principles for civil society, institution building and genuine civic consciousness. Removing these impediments is the challenge of social criticism, praxis, and concrete political and social struggles in Liberia in this new century. This challenge also calls for strengthening civil society against what Fleming (2002) calls colonization by the system, and placing the commitment to fostering critical reflection, critical learning and discursive understanding, at the center of national discourse. I will end this section by referring to Hart (1990, P.128) who has eloquently captured Habermas’ idea of practical discourse:

"Within the framework of critical theory, practical discourse and critique refer precisely to the process of investigating and denouncing social and individual damages caused by power."


This article has attempted to shed some light on the causes and consequences of perennial institutional failures in Liberia. The article has emphasized the need to adopt holistic methodologies integrating structuralist approaches with cognitive theories, which emphasize the influence of developmental factors in rational decision-making and civic actions. The cognitive construct of false consciousness has been identified as a fundamental basis for paternalism and the unlimited social penetration of an overbearing state. This penetration, which is a characteristic of most postcolonial African states, has resulted in the most callous forms of autocracy through the transformation of institutional power into personal power. It is suggested in this article that the aforementioned institutional pathologies can be eliminated through collective struggles predicated upon equal participation in practical discourse and decision-making at all levels of our modern social system.

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