Why Liberia Should Stop Celebrating William Tubman’s Birthday



By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 4, 2014



President William V.S. Tubman

Last year, the birthday of the late president, William Tubman, was celebrated as a national holiday. This year, 2014, I suppose that as November approaches, the government of Liberia, in collaboration with the family of Tubman, will begin making plans to celebrate his birthday.  I suppose because Tubman’s birthday was celebrated as a national holiday during the 27-year life of his presidency and 42 years after his death. On this date, then and now, every meaningful activity of life in the country is sequestered to celebrate Tubman. Government offices, business houses, schools and markets are ordered closed by the government. Last year, celebrating Tubman’s birthday, the vice president, Joseph Boakai, visited Tubman’s grave and laid wreaths on his tomb. Although government offices, business houses and schools were closed, the celebration was restrained by comparison to the celebration in 2012.

In 2102, President Sirleaf led the country in festivities celebrating this date. In her remarks, the president was promiscuous as she heaped encomiums on her late predecessor as the “president every Liberian must be proud of because of his accomplishments.” This comment, undoubtedly, leaves one assured that no conclusion is in site to the celebration of Tubman’s birthday. But do we have to continue celebrating Tubman’s birthday? If we must continue to do so, why must we?  President Sirleaf asked Liberians to be proud of Tubman for his accomplishments. Undoubtedly, there are Liberians who share her praise and admiration for Tubman’s achievements. But the achievements on which she based such instruction are not substantiated by any evidence of meaningful developments that took place during Tubman’s rule.  However, the examination of his achievements must be preceded by the examination of how he retained himself in power for so long.

Mr. Tubman, in our national discussions of the Liberian presidency, will always be the primary subject mentioned repeatedly. He will be mentioned not because of any meaningful accomplishments by him for the greater good of the country. Rather, he will be mentioned because of the 27 years he ruled Liberia as president. But the longevity of his presidency was not sustained by results of free and fair elections in which Liberians continuously voted for him. Mr. Tubman came to the presidency under a constitutional provision that limited one to serve only two terms of eight years albeit that the outcomes were decided by the then ruling True Whig Party. Therefore, Tubman, though handpicked by his immediate predecessor, Edwin Barclay, according to accounts of some historians, was expected to adhere to the same rules at the conclusion of his second term, perhaps, in favor of Clarence Simpson who had served as Barclay’s secretary of state and harbored an ambition to be president too. But Tubman thought otherwise.

As president in his first term, Tubman became obsessed with the preservation of personal power and the protection of greed and privilege for himself and his loyalists. This obsession commenced a number of well calculated and deceptive political moves that retained him in power for 27 years. He looked askance at friends and opponents he thought were not heaping encomiums on him and, such people, Tubman dealt with ruthlessly. He subverted the constitution and used its outcomes to legitimize his presidency.

Generally, Tubman’s political decisions and behaviors were calculated and driven by deception to serve his obsession to hold on to the presidency. This was demonstrated in his dealings with the indigenous people. He ingratiated himself to them by dressing like them and dancing among them, conveying the impression, although cosmetic, that he deeply cared about them. Yes, by comparison to the mindlessly inhumane treatment of the indigenous people by his predecessors, Tubman seemed to be genuine to the indigenous people.  But this was a masquerade.  

Undoubtedly, Tubman’s interest in the indigenous people was to use them as fortress against any attempt by the Monrovia-based Americo-Liberian political power brokers to dislodge him from the presidency. His calculation was informed by his sense of history regarding the election and removal of President Edwin J. Roye from office and the cruel treatment of the indigenous people by the then Americo-Liberian ruling class.  Although it is officially recorded that Roye was deposed because of his mismanagement of a loan he secured from England, other historians assert that he was overthrown and murdered because of his attempt to amend the constitution to extend his presidency. Another reason mentioned was that he was suspected to have had sympathy for the indigenous Liberians. Roye’s ascendency to the presidency was begrudged by the Monrovia-based light-skinned Americo-Liberians, having been elected by an enthusiastic support of the dark-skinned Americo-Liberians, backed by an indisposed support of some light-skinned Americo-Liberians because of his superior education and positions he held in government. But the indigenous majority, for whom Roye had carried sympathy, was excluded from voting. So, when Roye attempted to amend the constitution to extend his presidency, he came under strong suspicion that he intended to grant citizenship to native Liberians if he got the amendment passed. Hence, conveniently, his opponents used the issue of the loan as the reason to move against him. Tubman saw some similarities between himself and Roye as political outsiders.      

 Like Roye’s, a fellow dark-skinned Americo-Liberian, Tubman’s ascendency to the presidency was begrudged by the Monrovia-based light-skinned Americo-Liberians. Therefore, Tubman knew that an attempt by him to amend the constitution to extend his presidency would be resisted, leading to his removal from office, perhaps violently, as they did in removing Roye from office over the same reason. So, if Tubman was to succeed, he had to, unlike any of his predecessors, reluctantly embrace the indigenous community. This led to paramount and clan chiefs being invited to Monrovia to participate in parades and dine with Tubman at the Executive Mansion. Some of them were appointed by Tubman to serve in the legislature and participate in a process that they did not comprehend was contrived to keep him in power. Simi-illiterate indigenous young men were recruited into the military and found satisfaction in seeing their chiefs and Tubman interacting. This won, for Tubman, their loyalty and obedience and took the military option from the advantage of his opponents to use violence against him. To his light-skinned Americo-Liberian opponents, the combination of all of this depicted a picture of a president supported overwhelmingly by the indigenous majority and, as he had planned to achieve, intimidated them into political paralysis and fear to prevent him from amending the constitution to retain himself in power.

Having succeeded in consolidating power, Tubman inherited and had under his control a country that was underdeveloped in its infrastructure. There were no direct roads that connected the counties and, for the most part, people walked long distances for weeks, sometimes months, from county to county. Schools and hospitals did not exist in the rural communities. But fortunately, it appeared, iron ore was discovered and made Liberia the third largest exporter of iron ore from Yekepa and Bong Mines, in addition to having the world largest rubber plantation. By the 1950s, according to economists, Liberia had the second largest rate of economic growth in the world behind Japan, spurred by iron ore and rubber and guided by Tubman’s “Open Door Policy” that increased foreign investment in the country. We know what Japan did to its economic growth. 

But did Tubman, in the 27 years he ruled Liberia, develop the rudimentary conditions in which he met the country? No, he did not. Under him, the construction of roads was determined selectively by the economic interests of the government in a county. Generally, they were narrow, unpaved roads that had no lights and were perilous to travel in the night and when it rained. However, the roads that carried the addresses of Tubman’s properties and those of other powerful government officials were paved. He selectively paved the road from Monrovia to his Totota residence and left the rest of it, from there through Gbarnga, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh counties to Pleebo, Maryland County, unpaved. At the time he died, people walked almost a week from the former Kru Coast Territory to Karweaken, Grand Gedeh County for cars to take to Monrovia. Generally, he failed to transform Liberia into a country with one of the most modern networks of roads in Africa. One can understand while it was no surprise that his son, William Tubman, Jr., in a state of delusion campaigning for the Liberian presidency in 2005, got lost in  Grand Gedeh County while travelling by road from Monrovia to Maryland County.  

Monrovia, at the time Tubman died, was a city with few streets, many of which were remarkable for being unpaved and dusty. The absence of paved streets made Sinkor inaccessible as if it was a faraway place. The only street that led from Sinkor to downtown Monrovia was Tubman Boulevard, suspiciously paved because it was named after him. The main road from Waterside to Logan Town, New Kru Town and Caldwell was not only unpaved, it had street lights that were scattered about 100 yards apart from each other. Auto road to the Red Light, from the Monrovia Freeport through Gardnerville, did not exist as it is today.

Regarding education, it is not known how many schools were constructed by Tubman’s administration to determine how well he did to make education accessible for Liberians to be educated. But no account of record-keeping is required to make such determination because his achievement in this area is self-evident. Under him, sadly, access to education throughout the country was another casualty of his neglect of national development priorities. At the time of Tubman’s death, each of the then nine counties had one public high school, many of which were constructed in the last ten years of his administration to celebrate his birthdays in those counties. The high schools, which ran from 7th grade to 12th grade, however, were located in the capital cities of the counties. But no high school was built in any of the then five territories- Kru Coast, Sasstown, Rivercess, Bomi and Marshall- besides very few elementary schools with classes conducted in mud and thatched houses constructed by the villagers. In these schools, pupils sat on bamboo benches without back support. To Tubman’s admirers, this was a remarkable achievement.

However, when this achievement is examined and put in context, the failure of Tubman to make education accessible at every level emerges with very disappointing and profound long-term consequences for Liberia’s educational system. In the territories, while access to elementary schools was relatively common, access to high schools was uncommon. The opportunity for students to continue their education, after elementary school, existed only in the capital cities of the counties where the high schools were located. This meant that those who graduated from public elementary schools had to travel to the cities, if they had relatives there to live with, to continue going to school at the next level. Conversely, if they did not have relatives living in the cities, it meant the end of their dreams and efforts to be educated further. Even having relatives in the cities to host them did not ensure automatic enrollment in the public high school because of competition that came from other students to enroll in that one school.     

In Monrovia, during Tubman’s administration, there was only one public high school, Laboratory High, which was later renamed Tubman High School in the late 1960s. Not only was it the only public high school in Monrovia, it was the only public high school in Montserrado County attended predominantly by students from high poverty backgrounds.

Hence, students who did not get admitted there were forced to abandon the pursuit of their education for a year or two, sometimes forever, because there were no other public schools to attend. How many young men lost their opportunities to be educated? No one knows because the government kept no record. But one consequence that is cleared is that it made it impossible for Liberia to develop and produce a skilled labour force for the future.

When Tubman came to the presidency, there was one publicly funded college in Liberia. When he died 27 years later, Liberia had one publicly funded college. The only change that took place was that the name of the college was changed from Liberia College to a glamorous name, the University of Liberia. While Tubman built nine public high schools, one technical school, and one teacher training school but no college in 27 years, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, in nine years as prime minister and president, built 10,000 elementary and junior high schools, 85 high schools, 47 teacher training colleges, 11 technical schools and 3 universities. It is no wonder today that Ghana’s educational system and literacy rate are far better than Liberia’s. 

In the area of healthcare, Tubman had no vision and commitment to make it accessible. He undertook no public health programs aimed at eliminating common diseases and lowering the rate of infant mortality. Preventive health programs did not exist to educate Liberians about stroke, heart attack, cancer and diabetes that they needlessly died from them. For his supporters, John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia is an accomplishment in Tubman’s efforts to make medical treatment accessible. But where, besides Monrovia, can we find such comparable hospital in Liberia?

The concept of leadership presupposes the proposition that those who seek it can make a difference in the lives of others by mobilizing and inspiring them so that they act together for the common good of all. Hence, the actions and decisions of a leader are a public transaction with history. Sometimes the actions and decisions serve good purposes and sometimes bad purposes. But whether the ends of the actions and decisions are good or bad, leaders are people who leave their personal stamp on history.

As president of Liberia, Tubman left a personal stamp on the country’s history. But when his leadership is measured by results, we cannot circumvent the conclusion that it was a terribly failed one. He desperately sought power and ruthlessly jettisoned anyone who stood in his way. But once he got it and consolidated it, he failed to advance the cause of Liberia’s development. Not only did he condemn the future of the country to permanent underdevelopment, he made corruption and waste a way of life in the country. Although the economy was good, no money was invested in public work projects like the construction of roads and buildings to house schools, hospitals and government offices. Instead of using the money to construct buildings to house the ministries of Defense, Justice, Planning, Agriculture, Health, Education and Internal Affairs, he contracted his political cronies and relatives as landlords and paid them well for allowing government to use their buildings to house these ministries.

So, when President Sirleaf instructed Liberians to be proud of Tubman for his achievements, one is constrained to ask what developments?  For the irreparable damage Tubman did to Liberia, the time has come to stop the celebration of his birthday as national holiday. Only a leader who has done good, however little, but yet profound, to advance the good cause of his or her people deserves such national reverence. Tubman was not. April 12, 1980, should have been April 12, 1950 or 1960, and William Tubman, not William Tolbert, should have been in the Executive Mansion that fateful morning when the soldiers came to take over the country and its government. 

 BENEDICT NYANKUN WISSEH is a former football player who is known for being a teammate of James Barnnerman and Nelson Sonpon, when they played for IE. Wisseh is a graduate of Lincoln University Graduate School of Human services. Email: nwisseh14@aol.com.

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