Liberia: Who Are We?

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 11, 2002

Students and teachers of psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, humanity, and a host of occult and other social sciences have tried very hard over the centuries to capture the essence of human beings without much success. Who Are We? How did we come to be called Americans, Liberians, Africans, Europeans, and blacks or whites? What about our language, our culture, our dress, our leadership and artistic prowess, or the lack thereof? These are some of the vexing questions that continuously confront us each day as human beings.

Oftentimes we want to know if there are any deeper meanings to our individual personalities, or to life in general! Why are some people so kind, and others so mean? Why are some people so orderly and respectful, and others so disorganized and disrespectful? And in pondering over the complexity and deviancy of human nature, we have arrogantly concluded that we as humans are the most intelligent beings in the world, and that all other living things are below us - The occultists and spiritualists may have a different story. But that’s another matter - Yet with all our sophistication and intelligence we still can neither fully understand nor with certainty explain human nature. We are still as baffled by human nature today as yesterday!

But enough of my intellectual rambling about human nature. I had set out in this article to discuss the Liberian crisis, or the crisis amongst Liberians. It would seem to non-Liberians that Liberia lost her luster as a peaceful and progressive nation with the military takeover of government in 1980, and the brutal civil war of 1989-1997. Liberians, notwithstanding, know quite well that the 1980 palace coup and the barbarous seven-year civil war only brought to the fore the level of inequality, depravity, hatred, and resentment that had long existed, and continued to exit, in Liberia. From the time of its so-called founding in 1822 and declaration of independence in 1847, Liberia has always been burdened by a serious crisis of identity, of class, of education, of culture, of politics, of governance, of leadership, and of religion. These problems still persist, and are most likely the root of our present predicament as a nation and people.

First, by the dawn of the 17th century three of the four preeminent ancient African Empires or Sahelian Kingdoms - Ghana Empire (AD 300-1000), Mali Empire (1300-1500), Songhai Empire (700-1600) and Kanem Empire (700-1890) - had disintegrated and citizens of these empires had pushed in every direction across the African Continent in search of fertile land to farm, hunt, fish, and breath new sigh on life. Similarly, in the 19th century in the Americas and Europe the once thriving slave trade had become costly and unprofitable in the plantations or agricultural industry as a direct consequence of the advent of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution brought about new challenges, new fears, and uncertainties for both the slave-masters and the slaves. The main challenge became how to integrate slave-owners and slaves in the same society as free men and women competing for their livelihood together. So the brainstorming sessions began, and soon the idea of repatriating former African slaves back to their ancestral land in Africa took root in the United States. And soon the American Colonization Society was at work repatriating voluntary and non-voluntary groups of freed black American slaves to Africa, in and around present day Liberia.

Historians tell us that Paul Cuffe, a wealthy shipowner of Negro and American Indian ancestral successfully led the first group of 38 freed or emancipated American slaves to resettle in the then British colony of Sierra Leone between 1815 and 1816. But Cuffe’s abrupt illness and sudden death in 1817 created a huge vacuum in the repatriation efforts that were later to be filled by the American Colonization Society ACS). The ACS, founded in 1816, copied Paul Cuffe’s efforts at repatriating freed American slaves to their ancestral land in Africa by sponsoring a voyage to Africa in 1820 with its own first group of 88 freed or emancipated American slaves - the supposed founders of Liberia. The ACS group of freed slaves arrived at Sherbro Island in 1821 in modern day Sierra Leone before being driven by circumstance to Providence Island at Cape Mesurado in present day Liberia in April 1822-the date widely celebrated as the founding of Liberia.

Of course, by circumstance, I mean many former slaves died at Sherbro Island as a result of bad weather, insect bites and related uninhabitable conditions. And many Liberian history books indicate that these former slaves or pioneers, as they later came to be called, were warmly received at Cape Mesurado by the indigenous people who inhibited the land. But even with the generosity of the indigenous people regarding Providence Island or Cape Mesurado, the original names of their leaders were deliberately substituted in the history books with such names as “King Bob Gray, King Long Peter, King Long Fellow” and so on. And I am not stretching the issue here. Pick up any Liberian history books regarding the so-called purchase of land by the pioneers, and the closer you would come to a real African name in the alleged negotiations is King Sao Boso (King Boatswain by other historical accounts). But the lack of recognition and respect for the traditional names of the indigenous people near Providence Island was just a tip of the iceberg for the conflict that eventually spilled over into the 1980 coup and the 1989-1997 civil war.

To the emancipated American slaves, nonetheless, the voyage back to their ancestral land in Africa was as heroic as it was filled with promise and mixed emotions. First, it must be understood that the repatriation process from slave life in the American plantations to freedom in a new homeland in Africa was beset by conflicting goals at the very onset. Many white Americans saw repatriation as a means of getting rid of blacks who were thought of at the time as social misfits and an economic drain on American society. Some former black slaves thought the voyage to their ancestral land in Africa would restore their self-pride and self-worth in carving a better life for themselves and their children as compared to the slave life in the American plantations. Yet others black slaves thought the voyage would produce an economic bonanza to the extent that they could re-enact and relive the princely lives of the former slave masters in the Americas. So the die was cast, and it was only a matter of time before these conflicted or convoluted objectives were sorted out and made manifest at the end of the voyage depending on which group - the group in pursuit of freedom and self-respect or the group in search of economic bonanza -would prevail.

The promise and challenge of the journey back to Africa was obvious to the emancipated slaves for many reasons: For the first time in their lives the former slaves had the power and opportunity to chart their own destiny without the usual constraints of the slave masters. They had the opportunity to establish a new homeland bereft of the cruelties and indignations of slave life in the American plantations. They also had a great challenge to disprove and dispel the prevailing notion or myth at the time that the Blackman was an inferior member of the human race and incapable of self-rule. But the success of the voyage still depended heavily on the honesty, leadership, and tenacity of the prevailing group. And coincidentally, the journey to Africa by the emancipated American slaves was reminiscent of similar freedom treks by citizens of the disintegrated African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai centuries earlier who had since moved on to establish new homelands on more fertile lands. In essence, both the former American slaves and their African kinsmen from the disintegrated empires were on parallel tracks - even if at different historical periods - in search of freedom and new homelands to carve a better life for themselves and their children. Regrettably, though, the fateful exchange at Providence Island or Cape Mesurado between the two groups of freedom seeking peoples turned out to be only a temporary marriage of convenience that never germinated into peaceful co-existence and fruitful relationship.

By all historical accounts and practicality, it would seem that the former slaves and their colonial benefactors in the American Colonization Society (ACS) had decided earlier on to wrestle away the land from the indigenous peoples they had encountered near Cape Mesurado and create a new homeland for themselves and their children to the exclusion of the indigenous people. ACS agents Dr. Eli Ayres and U.S. Naval Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton are said to have coerced Dey and Bassa kings near Cape Mesurado into signing at gun point a battered treaty involving the exchange of land for perishable and non-perishable goods which were not fully delivered (see detailed accounts in "The fourth annual report" of the ACS at the U.S. Library of Congress under the African-American Perspectives) The role of the legendary Maltida Newport in supposedly subduing the aborigines, the authoritarian policies of ACS governor Jehudi Ashmun and other early leaders of Liberia point to concerted efforts to both marginalize the indigenous people and confiscate their land. And lest I be accused of exaggeration, let’s consider a few examples from the history books.

In 1862, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the aborigines were nothing more than only subjects of the state who were required to abide by the laws of the land but not entitled to citizenship because of the "peculiar situation of the Africans in their incapability to understand the working of civilized governments." And in his inaugural address in 1900, President Wilmot David Coleman played to the stereotype inherent in the Supreme Court ruling this way: “I have not the least doubt that all intelligent citizens (Americo-Liberians) are desirous for the elevation of this class (indigenous Liberians) into complete citizenship, and as the Christian people generally believe, that the sooner the fall of the superstitious customs that now exist among them, the sooner the object will be attained. Therefore it is quite natural to expect that the effect of our civilization and Christianity has been to break down these greegress and other heathenish beliefs of our native brethren; this effect is just what is rightly to be expected as a result of our contact with them."

In 1855, Rev Alex Crummell, a leader of the Liberian Christian Church said in part in an independence day oration: "Gentlemen, we are all descendants of Africa, and hence we claim a special interest in, and a peculiar right to, her fruits, her offerings, and her gifts ...I am aware of our slender resources and our thinly-scattered population, and no wise man expects an infant to do a giant's work. But we can do something. Let us systematically, year by year, push more and more into the country (indigenous land), if it be but ten, or even five miles a year; open gradually a highway into the interior ...and appropriate it..."

Throughout this time, the main focus of the pioneers had been on how to marginalize, and not how to integrate as equals, the aborigines they had met near Cape Mesurado. But educator Edward Wilmot Blyden, one of the few early voices of dissent, warned fellow Americo-Liberians in a speech at Buchanan in 1906 about the dangers inherent in their treatments of the indigenous people with disdain, and their general proclivity for western ways of life over the local African customs and traditions. Said Blyden: “…The Republic (of Liberia) has just celebrated its Diamond Jubilee. Still Liberia is called by foreigners an experiment. Nothing of the kind has ever happened before in the world’s history. A group of returned exiles - refugees from the house of bondage - settled along a few hundred miles of the coast of their Fatherland, attempting to rule millions of people, their own kith and kin, on a foreign system in which they themselves have been imperfectly trained, while knowing very little of the facts of the history of the people they assume to rule, either social, economic or religious, and taking for granted that the religious and social theories they have brought from across the sea must be adapted to all the need of their unexpatriated brethren”.

Blyden also observed that, "Liberia is a little bit of South Carolina, of Georgia, of Virginia - that is to say - of the ostracized, suppressed, depressed elements of these states - tacked on to West Africa - a most incongruous combination, with no reasonable prospect of success; and further complicated by additions from other sources. We take a bit from England, a bit from France, a little bit from Germany, and try to compromise with all. We have no definite plan, no dominating race conception, with really nothing to help us from behind - the scene whence we came - and nothing to guide us from before the goal to which we are tending or should tend... We are severed from the parent stock - the aborigines - who are the root, branch, and flower of Africa and of any Negro State in Africa".

By Blyden’s definition of Liberia, it is not far-fetched to suggest that Liberians are anything but Africans. At least who else will hold African names, religion, customs and traditions in contempt if not non-Africans? Even the granting of formal Liberian citizenship in 1904 to the indigenous people who previously occupied the landmass that became Liberia by the ruling Americo-Liberian elites did little to change the Liberian outlook and perspective of governance and national unity. The indigenous people had little or no access to education, healthcare, employment, and political office. In fact, as a condition of citizenship, they had to abandon their language, customs and tradition in favor of English and western ways of life. English became the lanqua franca and medium of instruction in Liberia, while local African languages were prohibited from being spoken in public. Evening or dinner wears, Tuxedos and coats and ties, rather than African attires, became for generations until after the 1980 coup, the official dress at all public functions - school, church, funeral, government functions.

As Liberians we seemed to have lost touch with our roots, our customs and traditions. We have abandoned the African value system of communalism or “one for all and all for one” in favor of a system of class distinctions based on rich and poor, and private property ownership. We have still got a long way to go to fit into the western culture and traditions we have adopted. We are a lost people with an identity problem, a religious problem, a cultural problem, a philosophical problem, a political problem, a social problem, and an intellectual problem. We have preferred a master-servant relationship with our kinsmen as opposed to peaceful coexistence and equal opportunities for all based on individual talents and abilities. Hence, the group of former slaves intent on re-enacting and reliving the princely lifestyles of their slave masters in the American plantations had won over the other group of freed slaves with intent on restoring their self-pride and self-worth from the degradation of slavery, and carving a better life for themselves and their children. So the seed of division was planted not only between the aborigines and Americo-Liberians, but also between fair-skinned and dark-skinned Americo-Liberians. In essence, the Liberian nation was born without any clear-cut definition as to who are, or should be, the real Liberians. Are the real Liberians the indigenous peoples who inhibited the land prior to the arrival of the freed American slaves in 1822? Are the real Liberians the dark-skinned former slaves, or the light-skinned former slaves? Or are the real Liberians a combination of the three groups? Logically, the correct answer would be a combination of the three groups, but that’s not how the issue of Liberian citizenship turned out to be.

You already know that the indigenous peoples did not become citizens of Liberia until 1904 - at least 57 years after the declaration of independence in 1847. But you must also know that the dark-skinned former slaves, in spite of their automatic Liberian citizenship at independence, were equally deprived of political, social, and economic power by the light-skinned Americos and their ACS benefactors in like manner as the indigenous people until the election in 1870 of Edward James Roye, widely regarded as Liberia’s first dark-skinned president. Roye was assassinated in 1871 in an intriguing political plot masterminded by the light-skinned Americo-Liberians and their white ACS masters, but the dark-skinned Americo-Liberians wrestled back political power from the light-skinned Americo-Liberians under President Anthony W Gardner (1878-1883), apparently vowing never to give up power again to any other Liberian groups until a group of 17 enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia, of mostly indigenous stock, seized power in a military coup in 1980.

At this junction, it is my hope that you have absorbed sufficient (verifiable) historical facts to appreciate the dynamics and complexity of the ongoing Liberian political and social drama, and why a solution to the present catastrophe in Liberia seems elusive. Descendants of Americo-Liberians and the indigenous people have yet to come to a common understanding on the best course of action for genuine peace, unity, reconciliation, and development in Liberia. Each group is in denial as to the extent of its culpability - albeit if only after the 1980 coup for the native-Liberians -in the current Liberian malaise. Each group feels wholly justified in its past and present actions even where obvious. But as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner noted in a speech in early 2002, "Greed and lack of good governance are the root causes of Liberia’s descent into its present deplorable state of affairs..." And I strongly believe that Kansteiner is right, as the issue may no longer be Americo-Liberians vs. native Liberians - though some remnants of the two groups still think that is the case!

Issues associated with greed for power and prestige, lack of good governance, and the continuing efforts at resurrecting the Americo-Liberian vs. native-Liberian controversy may just be symptomatic of the conjuring Liberian psyche and general scorn for issues of morality if Liberian politician and educator, H. Boima Fahnbulleh Jr. can be taken any seriously. “There is something about the Liberian psyche that has nothing to do with pigmentation or environment. It has more to do with the crisis in the soul that lends itself intermittently to a form of neurosis that can be termed conscious debasement. An offshoot of this is that duality of character that makes it difficult to distinguish between pretenses and genuineness, honesty and dishonesty, sycophancy and loyalty, piety and profanity when dealing with Liberians. There is always a façade that has to be maintained - behind which are concealed pretenses, lies, conceit, hypocrisy and spiritual emptiness,” Fahnbulleh wrote in a May 2002 article in The Perspective, titled "Crisis In the Soul".

Like Fahnbulleh and Kansteiner, I want to believe that the Liberian crisis is about greed and lack of morality. And any talks about Americo-Liberian vs. native-Liberian may be superfluous as it is difficult to identify any true Americo-Liberians and native Liberians in Liberia today due to intermarriage and other social mechanizations. For if the true Americo-Liberians and native-Liberians still existed in Liberia today, the two groups might have reasoned together by now that the pains and sufferings had become too much not to reconcile and live in peace. I also want to believe that those perpetuating the civil strife and causing great divisions in the country might just be the deviants (the extremes) of the two groups who want to return to past glory, or who want to even up the socio-economic and political scores.

In addition, self-erected barrier bordering on politics, education, social class, culture and religion are being created everyday in every segment of Liberian society that may not portent well for true national peace, unity and reconciliation. With a population of less than four million people, most of whom are internally displaced or languishing in refugee camps across Africa, Liberia has over a dozen feuding political parties, nearly 20 human rights and civil society groups, and countless other religious and social organizations and groups whose goals seem to run counter to each other. So the question becomes why such great disunity and infightings in Liberia? Is it for power, prestige or what? For, if so-called civil society and human rights groups can’t merge their splinter organizations into one or two viable and effective force for society change for fear of losing their individual clouts, can we ever imagine the day that political groups - whose very lifeblood and institutional viability thrive on posturing and issues manipulation - will agree to unify and work for the national good?

Sadly, in the midst of the political infightings, power struggles, and blatant uncertainties lies the bigotry of education, culture and social class. Mind you, I deliberately used “bigotry” to qualify education, culture and social class because these entities are mostly positive rather than negative reinforcements in society. But in the case of Liberia, that might not be true all of the time. For instance, in a country with literacy rate of barely 30 percent, there has always been a general tendency to rate people by their college or high school degrees and not on the basis of job performance. Oftentimes, new college graduates had felt that they were more qualified - by virtue of their college education - than persons who had held the same jobs for five or more years, and demanded to be automatic bosses. That kind of attitude sometimes led to rancorous outbursts between college graduates and their non-college educated co-workers and supervisors, not counting low morale and low productivity.

Even some so-called professional organizations had tended to lend credence to this kind of egotistical bigotry in order to preserve the monopoly of a privileged few. Just last month, as in the late 1980’s, the Liberian National Bar Association publicly opposed reintroduction of Legal Apprenticeship System in Liberia and demanded that potential Liberian lawyers and legal practitioners be graduates of law school, without any regard for the fact that the country lacks the needed educational institutions to fulfill such requirement. The opening of the School of Mass Communication at the University of Liberia in 1984 may have equally led the Press Union of Liberia, of which I was a part, to require Liberian journalists to be journalism school graduates just as the National Bar Association did with the opening of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia in the 1960s. But this is Liberia. We do not set standards based on objective criteria, reality, or prevailing socio-economic conditions of the country. We set standards to suit our interests and to marginalize others, not necessarily to promote national growth and development. College degree is the object, not job performance, competence and experience. The lack of decentralized higher institutions of learning, insufficient educational institutions and specialized schools in the country, and a very high adult illiteracy rate of 70 percent are less important factors in whatever standards we attempt to set. After all, our goal is to adopt standards we admire in other countries, not how those countries arrived at such standards.

On the issue of culture and social class, Liberia is miserable. Unlike most Africans whose countries of origins are easily identifiable by their last names, most Liberians are not easily identifiable by last name. A country that prides itself as the oldest independent republic in Africa chose to use western names instead of African names. Western names such as Jones, Taylor, Harris, Green, Werner, Johnson, and so on became common Liberian names, while names such as Obasanjo, Nkrumah, Sankara, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Selassie, etc., became some of the endearing African names on the international scene. Even the name of the first modern Liberian president of indigenous stock, was Doe, not African names such as Quiwonkpa, Yarkpawolo, or Weh-Syen.

Moreover, because it was “uncivilized” to speak an African language at school, church or play in Liberia, most Liberians cannot speak any of the country's 21 major African languages at all, or fluently and eloquently. Most Liberians know little or nothing about Liberian traditional cultural norms and mores because joining the two preeminent traditional teaching institutions of Sande and Poro were considered "uncivilized". African attires were not permitted at most government and public functions, and if you wore African attires in public, you were considered either uneducated or uncivilized. And shame on any western-educated Liberian woman who wore African attires in public because she may never recover from the society slur-"lappalonian". Even at some point in Liberian society, playing football (soccer) or singing in public except in the church, was considered "uncivilized acts" for "gronna boys and girls" (the Liberian parlance for wayward youths). So it seemed that Liberians have always been in a social straightjacket. You had to fit in the "civilize" mode of things or be left out. Even "civilized" and "uncivilized" schools and churches were delineated, and attitudes were formed by persons belonging to each group regarding love, marriage, and general social contacts.

So who are we Liberians? Why are we in such a quagmire and don’t seem to know how to get out? Are we so consumed in vain pride or are we just helpless and hopeless to do something? Well, retired Liberian General Mayfield Yancy answered the question for us back in 1984 at a political rally when he said, “Liberians are a funny and peculiar people…” Indeed, we are a “funny and peculiar people.” We are most likely to overlook our own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of our friends and relatives, while feeling justified and greatly motivated to magnify the shortcomings of our opponents. We seemed so submerged in our thoughts and conditioned to blaming others for every mishap or failure that we don’t necessarily see the big picture until everything gets out of control. More so, we have come to believe that whatever we hear about our opponents, especially from people we respect and trust, ought to be the gospel truth. So we magnify the accusation or the glorification with little or no efforts at verifying the information and questioning the motive of the person providing such information. We tend to take everything at face value and vehemently act on it until we fall out of grace, and then we want automatic forgiveness without confession or repentance. Oh, who are we!

Well, we are Liberians! We are a lost people groping in the dark for direction while failing to pause and notice the flashes of small lights emitting from the sky in the tiny holes up the roof. We seemed contented in our miseries yet despaired and wallowed in the fond memories of our individual past. But we are persistent in our resolve to self-destruct, and we wouldn’t heed any warnings, not even from our parents, our elders or the clergy.

"If we examine our personal, societal and national lives there is much that is sinful, much that is wrong, much that calls God's wrath on us. We must therefore examine these and with God's Graces, repent of them, ask for God's and our neighbor's forgiveness and reform our lives. For what is going on in our society today, in our country and our nation one wonders if the past has taught us any lessons. We do the same things, commit the same sins and spiritually destroy ourselves. WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE ARE WE? (text highlighted by author). Can we learn from the past? Where are we headed to as a People and Nation? We always blame others for our negative and sinful behaviors, not ourselves", Catholic Archbishop Michael K. Francis was quoted in a recent article by fellow Liberian George Werner.

Werner had attempted to counter conclusions by another fellow Liberian, Theodore T. Hodges, who faulted Liberian Christian Church leaders for slacking in their religious role and responsibility to help heal the wounds and bring about peace and unity in the Liberian society. And Hodge may have been within his rights as a Liberian to question the sincerity and forthrightness of the church leaders by their selective reactions to societal ills throughout Liberian history. But Werner shout back by enumerating the good works of the Liberian Christian Churches, especially Liberian Catholic Church, and declared: “There is something both divine and human about the Church. The Church is God's but she is also ‘the people of God’. At such, individuals within the institutional Church err and are in need of conversion. This should not, however, undermine the good efforts of the Liberian Christian Church (and the Liberian Moslem community) aimed at bettering Liberia…”

Werner also declared: “… I made the point that while Charles Taylor must be held accountable for some of the atrocities committed against the Liberian people in the past twelve years, Liberians should not hold him alone responsible for our misfortunes. Liberia has never been a truly united country, before and after 26 July 1847. Some ethnic groups have always been ‘more equal than others.’ Stark divisions have always existed economically, politically, socially, and religiously. The history of Liberia is replete with stories of ‘dark things’, stories of compatriots whose lives have been sacrificed on the field of greed for power and wealth, stories of a promise betrayed….” Well, if you noticed that Werner did not address the substance of Hodge’s statements and conclusions, except to introduce new topics of his liking, then you will soon understand WHO WE ARE as Liberians. We tend to defend people and things we respect and value even if there is no need to defend!

So to overcome our present predicament, we will have to define who we are as a nation and people. Are we Africans or westerners? Can we draw on our diversity and create workable political, economic and social structures for our betterment? And on the whole, we will do well to find the answers to these and other questions in Blyden’s warnings that “…Our progress will come by connection with the parent stock. The question, therefore, which we should try to study and answer is, what are the underlying principles of African life? Every nation and every tribe has a right to demand freedom of life, and abundance of life, because it has a contribution to make peculiar to itself toward the ultimate welfare of the world. But no nation can have this freedom of life, and make this contribution, which no other nation can make, without connection with its past, of which it must carefully preserve the traditions, if it is to understand the present and have an intelligent and inspiring hope of the future.”

We will also do well to rediscover WHO WE ARE as Liberians by taking steps to recuperate from what Fahnbulleh Jr. calls “…our collective amnesia…” entrenched in an “unsettled psyche that hovers between the debasement of the spiritual self and the cowardice of the hypocritical weakling.” For indeed, there are men and women among us capable of great leadership and general greatness who will stoke at any available opportunity to lead and unify Liberia. But Liberians ought to first understand what it means to be Liberians and the corresponding responsibility of being Liberians. I hope we can truly find out WHO WE ARE and begin in earnest to rebuild our shattered homeland.

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