Saturday, November 12, 2011


President Tolbert with muslim community leaders

It is not very difficult to see why the National Unification programme succeeded. The enthusiastic response and cooperation of the chiefs and people, the infusion of foreign capital from the mining and rubber concessions, the country's impressive growth rate, improved credit rating and increased production output, the Free Port, free trade agreements with Ivory Coast and Guinea, foreign assistance from America, Israel and other countries, peace and stability, all contributed to its success. The question of why its architect succeeded where his predecessors failed requires deeper analysis. Tubman's sheer force of personality was a factor, his almost uncanny ability to either achieve consensus or bypass official opposition and take his case directly to the people, to suppress dissent while at the same time endearing the populace to himself, were gifts of a grand master of political strategy, without a doubt. His ability to compress a complex vision of economic development and national unification into simple two-prong five year development plans is impressive even to his critics. Still, one might wonder, why him? Equally visionary leaders such as William David Coleman, Edward James Roye, Arthur Barclay, and Edward Wilmot Blyden had all attempted the same grand vision and failed, Roye losing his life and Coleman resigning in despair. Blyden all but gave up on the country and moved to Sierra Leone where he died. What was so special about Vat Tubman? Why did he have his hand so much more "on the pulse of this country," as Archbishop Michael Francis put it? Most scholars point to his increasingly dictatorial control of the Legislature, and the one-party, so-say-one-so-say-all nature of that body. It wasn't all that difficult to push through legislation in a virtual one-party state, they argue. Maintaining an elaborate intelligence network of PRO (Public Relations Officers) spies also would enable anyone to have his hand on the pulse of the country.

But the simple fact of where Tubman came from is never given much consideration, or totally overlooked by the scholars. Having Maryland County at his back changed everything. It accounted for why his programs succeeded as well as his longevity in office. Since the 1910 war, power had been gradually shifting toward that long shut-out portion of the coast. The two vice presidents of the CDB King administration both came from Cape Palmas, Henry Too Wesley for the first term and Allen N. Yancy for the second. Exactly why Wesley was shunted aside in favor of Allen Yancy in 1927 will require more research, but Yancy seemed totally convinced that he would succeed King as President. It certainly leads one to speculate as to what back room power sharing deals were consummated in order to settle the 1910 conflict.

Certainly Edwin Barclay could have easily hand-picked any of a dozen other people to succeed him. Why Tubman, a Monrovia outsider with a reputation for unpredictability who made the True Whig Party conservatives uncomfortable? Was Cape Palmas promised the presidency to get the Grebos to put down their arms? It's interesting that they never did take up arms again after 1910, no matter what Allen Yancy did in Cape Palmas, from murder to strong arming others for their property to commandeering conscripted road labor for his own use, to forcing young interior men into baracoons for shipment to Fernando Po against their will. It does seem curious that a group that took up arms about every two years over land, trade, even women, allowed Allen Yancy to operate with complete impunity in Cape Palmas. Even President King seemed afraid of Yancy, refusing to take any action even when informed of murder, not to mention the fact that King himself never profited from the Fernando Po racket. Why would he allow Yancy to endanger his administration when he stood to gain nothing from the criminal enterprise?

Charles S. Johnson, who met and interviewed Yancy in Cape Palmas while on the League of Nations Commission, also wondered why and how Yancy rose so high so fast without any qualifications, and got away with so much. But even Johnson missed the significance of the fact that Yancy was married into an influential Grebo family and reportedly involved with the secret societies. Or that P. Gbe Wolo, legal advisor to the King administration, was the son of the Grand Cess Paramount Chief. The complicity of Grebo leadership in Fernando Po would explain a lot. The threat of another Grebo war would explain why King was afraid to move against him. It would also explain why Tubman lasted so long in office, assasination attempts, coup plots, political wizardry and security network not withstanding. That the Grebos saw Tubman as one of their own is beyond dispute. Anyone who saw the thousands of Grebo and Kru war dancers at Tubman's funeral, holding aloft placards reading "Africa has lost a great leader," could not have failed to be impressed with the fact that Maryland County was solidly behind their son.

Where the Unification programme failed on the other hand, was not in intent, as most scholars maintain, but in design and implementation. The critics argue that Tubman basically created a facade of unity while keeping in place the mechanism that allowed his Americo-Liberian upper class to maintain power. That their insistence on westernization as the criteria for assimilation was counterproductive to unification, and that while the Programme encouraged intermarriage as a furtherance of unification, intermarriage invariably meant absorption into "settler culture." The critics overlook the fact that intermarriage is usually between people of the same class, lifestyle and philosophy. It is difficult to imagine what kind of "mechanism" would keep power in the hands of Americo-Liberians if the Unification Programme was allowed to run its full course. As it was, two-thirds of the government was of pure indigenous ancestry by the late Seventies, including the National True Whig Party Chairman, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Director of the Budget, etc. And that's where the confusion between ethnicity and class came into play. Tubman, an avowed capitalist, probably never intended to erase the divisions between the classes, which is what the critics seem to have expected the Unification Programme to do.

As for the requirement of westernization for assimilation, one wonders how else a sense of national identity would be forged from a cornucopia of related but very diverse cultures and ancient animosities. An African-American scholar takes the opposite view, arguing that the National Unification Programme was actually premature:

"The American settler community ought never to have brought the aboriginal peoples into Liberian society without having them first fully assimilated into Western culture. Having NCOs, and other soldiers in the Army with dual loyalties is not cohesive to say the least. Clausewitz claimed national identity is central to national survival."

To succeed the programme had to be continous, long term, and incremental. It could only succeed ultimately if it addressed economic inequality as well as ethnic disparities. Only thus could the expectations it raised be met and not become a powder keg. While it united the country, the perception remained, real or imagined, that power remained in the hands of the American settler upper class. That perception was stronger among the younger generation of the Seventies than the previous one, because, unlike their parents, they did not remember the days before the Unification Programme, the Frontier Force soldiers running amok, the beatings, chainings and torture for failure to pay the hut tax, the forced labor and unwritten rules of where the "uncivilized" could or couldn't go, the feeling of being colonial subjects rather than citizens. All they knew was that times were hard, getting harder, and the big shots seemed totally indifferent to their hardships. They didn't know that most of those big shots were assimilated indigenous people with western names or products of the ward system, many direct beneficiaries of the Unification Programme. It might not even have mattered whether Tubman's successor was Americo-Liberian or indigenous as long as the real divisions in society, economic disparities, remained unaddressed.

It probably wouldn't have made a difference if William R. Tolbert had continued and expanded the Unification Programme, which he did in a way, with more of a focus on raising living standards than his boss of nineteen years. It could be that the Unification Programme had outlived its effectiveness, or had served its purpose. Liberia, and Africa, had changed too much in the post-World War II years. Too many false perceptions had been created, too many expectations raised that couldn't possibly be fulfilled, not even by "the Solomon of Africa," as one Tubman administration official called the Old Man. In that sense, perhaps the Unification Programme was not so much a victim of failure as it was of its own success.


WILLIAM V. S. TUBMAN PAPERS, Executive Branch Administrative Files/Department of Internal Affairs


Tubman birthday celebration, Gbarnga, Nov. 29, 1967



Dunn, Beyan, Burrowes, HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF LIBERIA, 2nd Edition

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