What is wrong with Liberians?

By Bai M. Gbala, Sr.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 9, 2014



The Subject of Chapter 2 of the book (Liberia: A Century of Survival, 1847-1947) by Raymond Leslie Buell was or is “What is wrong with Liberia?” The book was published on the 100th birth anniversary of the founding and declaration of political independence of the Liberian State in the year of 1947. This was a rhetorical question, the answer to which was the subject of Mr. Buell’s analysis contained the book (Buell, 1947). Liberia was found in 1822 and declared a sovereign, independent nation-state, styled and known as the Republic of Liberia, on July 26, 1847 by emancipated, repatriated African-Americans and indigenous (native) Africans, then on that land mass.

In these, rather, brief retrospective, contemporary reflections, I chose to navigate the critical issues facing our country, Liberia, in an attempt to seek answer(s) to ‘what is wrong with us’, Liberians, rather than, What is wrong with Liberia”, the land mass.

Born out of a Need

The Republic of Liberia, as a nation and people, was born out of a need, an abiding, enduring need or quest for human freedom, justice, equality and “the pursuit of happiness” – socio-cultural, economic and political well-being. Achievement and realization of this need, however, depend or rest upon the ability and commitment of individuals, a people and/or nation to create the enabling, socio-cultural, economic and political condition(s) for support/sustainability. Economists and other, relevant experts have argued and continue to argue the major definition of one of these enabling, pre-conditions - support/sustainability of this Need or Quest for a nation - as the “Premier Effect” or the primary, public policy priority in national, economic development.

In the light of our (Liberia’s) historic relations with the United States, our mentor, Liberia has the ability – the determination, commitment, education, training/experience, natural/human resources – to achieve this need. However, this primary, public policy priority in national development had been and continues to be elusive.

Our History as a Nation

A. Relationship with the USA
Since political and economic independence in 1847, Liberia and Liberians, had been and are privileged to have and maintained historic ties, friendship and solidarity with, and enjoy socio-economic and political benefits, throughout the years, from one of the greatest, if not the greatest, most successful, economic and technologically-developed nation on earth, the United States of America. Throughout these years, up to the present, the United States provided Liberia with socio-cultural, economic, political, humanitarian and military support, numbering in the hundreds of thousands of billions of US dollars.

B. The Founders and the work Ethic

One segment of our founding-forefathers, the repatriated, African-Americans, inherited and brought with them, into this country, the modern version of the work ethic, of thrift, love of and commitment to education, knowledge, hard-driving and competition as a pre-condition for the accumulation of wealth, equity, the good life and happiness. They built ocean-going vessels, produced, processed and exported several types of commodities, goods and services, in a vibrant, national/international trade and commerce. However, this enterprising, entrepreneurial element of our founding fathers dropped their implements, inspiration and commitment to agro-industrial occupation in 1870, returned to the City of Monrovia from the “Up River” settlements, in response to systematic exclusion and denial of political participation to them and off-springs, due to skin-colored (dark-skinned) segregation/discrimination to which they had been subjected by the dominant light-skinned, mulatto, political class (Kraaij, 1983).

C. Education, Open Door and National Unification Policies

Upon becoming President of Liberia in 1944, Dr. William V. S. Tubman reinforced the quest for and love of education and knowledge, as the major, rational pre-condition for national economic development, by introducing the foreign scholarship program. This program or policy made possible the education and training of thousands of Liberians in the schools, colleges and universities of several, western countries, with the United States as Liberia’s leading choice.

Also, President Tubman announced and launched his Open Door Policy (Wreh, 1976) and later, his Unification Policy in a speech in the city of Voinjama, Lofa County. These efforts were in response to the realization that economic development and unity are critical ingredients for total development of the nation. Therefore, the President responded by creating the first four, new counties in the hinterland Grand Gedeh, Nimba, Bong and Lofa counties in 1964. With creation of the counties came the inevitable, senate and house representations, then vehemently opposed and denied (Smith, 1964). 

This effort of the Open Door Policy by President Tubman was designed and intended as a public policy tool which would or could provide economic benefits, with political benefits of participation by legislative representation to hinterland citizens in rural Liberia.  However, Mr. Gus Liebenow describes, graphically, that the “. . . appearance of reform being far greater than reality . . . the Tubman engine ran out of steam . . . It was clear that the overwhelming thrust of integration . . . of the First Republic was still in the direction of accepting settler (African-American, founding fathers) rather than tribal norms of behavior. . . Detracting from the benefits to be derived from the extension to the tribal hinterland of suffrage and representation in the Legislature”, he wrote, “was the fact that elections had actually become almost meaningless exercises within the single-party state”. Continuing, he observed that “real power had gravitated even more effectively from the legislature to the president and those influential Americo-Liberians who surrounded him. Although education provided more bureaucratic jobs for tribal youth and lower-income Americo-Liberians, the really significant executive, legislative, judicial and ambassadorial positions were retained by the leading families at the core of the Americo-Liberian elite (Liebenow, 1987)”.

In other words, although President Tubman’s vision of liberalism and national unification, as critical pre-condition for national, economic development were recognized, appreciated and rewarded by the Liberian people with a 27-year reign as president, the oppressive marginalization and denial of basic, civil and political rights of the people, by someLiberians, still continued.

Moreover, then came the inevitable, violent, 1980 Event. In a classic, prophetic observation, Raymond Leslie Buell held, in 1947, that “It seems only a matter of time when the preponderance of the ‘civilized Natives’ (indigenous Liberians) over the Americo-Liberians will become overwhelming. Once awakened to western ideas of democracy and freedom, the educated Natives will demand the right to participate in government . . . But whether the struggle (for political participation, equality and justice) becomes violent or whether the transition of power to the Natives is gradual (peaceful, for benefit of all citizens) depends on the wisdom of the present, governing class (of Americo-Liberians) . . . Undoubtedly, some members of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy do not wish to open up and develop the hinterland . . . (Buell, 1947)”.

D. Our Early Thinkers

From cradle to grave, education and knowledge had been hammered into the heads and conscious of Liberian generations throughout the history of this nation, not only for the sake of knowledge, as it were, but also because education and knowledge are a critical precondition to national development. Periodically, Liberia pays homage and honor to the memory of the nation’s early philosophers and celebrated intellectuals, such as Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, who pioneered Liberia’s academic thought and practice.

The Recent Past & Contemporaries

Our recent past saw the emergence of the nation’s literary giants, men and women of letters and professors such as Drs. T. Dusomu Johnson, Doris Banks-Henries, Roland T. Dempster, Mary A. Grimes, Bai T. Moore, T. Ebenezer Ward (former President of the University of Liberia), etc. Contemporaries include power-house, academic/intellectual nationalists and historians as Drs. Amos C. Sawyer, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., Levi Zangar, Patrick L. N. Sayon, Joseph Saye Guannue, Togba Na Tipoteh, McIntosh Gaywea, S. Byron Tarr, etc.

A. Emerged/Emerging

Then there are the emerged and emerging students of social and physical sciences; young, energetic, dedicated, fearless and questioning, academic/intellectual heavyweights such as Drs. George Kieh, Emmanuel Dolo, Wleh Wilson, Nathaniel Gbessagee, Arthur Johnson, Abugarshall Kai, Alaric Tokpa, Syrulwa Somah, Joseph Gbaba, Sr., Eminent, Writer/Publisher Siahyonkron Nyanseor, and the corps of young professors now at Liberia’s leading colleges and universities of higher education. Others with undergraduate and graduate education, training/experience in, almost, all disciplines, are returning home from foreign colleges and universities.

Our Partners in Progress

These include our traditional partners, the United Sates and USAID; United Kingdom (UK) and its associated agencies; the European Union (EU) and individual countries with their aid agencies; the United Nation’s UNDP, aid agency. Most of these countries have been with us through thick and thin throughout the years, with commitments to continue their contribution to our development.  The partners now include developing nations, such as India, the People’s Republic of China, etc.  Social, economic, political, military, humanitarian aid has increased, considerably, after our 14-year, civil tragedy. It is reasonable to believe and hope that aid to Liberia will continue, at a greater rate and volume than in the past.

Natural, Human and related Resources

It is important to note that our country is endowed with much more than its share of natural resources, in relative terms. To identify a very few, there are known deposits of iron ore, gold, diamonds, oil and, perhaps, natural gas; streams, creeks and rivers with several species of fish; and forests, also, with several species of timber. These are assets that are available to be exploited and utilized in capital formation for national development.

As indicated earlier, we have a great pool of highly-educated, trained and experienced, energetic, dedicated professionals; also educated, but a trainable corps of energetic and dedicated, young Liberians.

Yes, indeed, we have had and have it all – that which it takes or would and could have taken to cris-cross our small nation of less than 4 million, sparsely populated people, with an area of 43,000 square miles, by all-whether, super-highways/roads; for, we have (1), the Need; (2), Knowledge – Education, training/experience & commitment; (3), Resources – human, natural & financial assets.
This, according to development economists and related experts, is the Primary, Public Policy Priority, defined as “PREMIER, MULTIPLIER EFFECT” in national, economic development.  But we have not, did not apply this approach.

All-whether, Highways & Roads – Modern Communication System
Modern, twenty-first century system of communications drives business which, in turn, drives the economy. Liberia, then, should and must plan and build a national system of all-weather highways and roads, linking all county capitals to one another and all productive, trade and commercial centers to the nation’s political, commercial capital city of Monrovia. But, we did not.

It has been shown, and prevails successfully, that all-weather, modern highways & roads built between points A & B, citizens and businesses relocate along the new highways and roads. They buy land and build homes, motels, hotels, restaurants, shops, service stations and rest stops for motorists/travelers. But, we have not. But, effective/efficient, modern communication system of highways & roads facilitates not only convenient, mass movement of people, but also the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services; facilitates national and international trade, commerce, and enormous opportunities for investment and employment of citizens. It is in this respect that implementation of the communication system, particularly of all-weather roads/highways, constitutes a “multiplier effect” in national economic development. Add to this, the condition of the developing, modern information technology, you have the recipe for success that will drive Liberia into the 21st Century economy.

Kill several Birds with one stone

Prioritization of the policy of the “Multiplier Effect” in national, economic development by the construction of all-whether highways and roads throughout the length and breadth of the nation is, in fact, the practical realization of the proverbial “:kill two birds with one stone”; only at this time, one stone kills several, not two birds. With the “multiple” results indicated above, there is an additional, very important and critical achievement to be derived.

For examples, the prevailing rapid population growth, rural-to-urban, economic migration; the unprecedented exodus of refugees from the atrocities of the civil war into the city of Monrovia as the only safe haven; the rise of the “consumption generation” without production, a fact which gave rise to the prevailing socio-economic and political constipation of the nation’s capital city, rendering it over-populated, congested, uncontrolled street selling and ungovernable; the 24-hour, Monrovia bumper-to-bumper, uncontrolled traffic jams, the phenomenal increase in the volume of vehicular/pedestrian traffic much, much more than the roads/streets, paved, unpaved, designed and built some 45-50 years ago that cannot, now, facilitate safe, efficient flow of traffic.

Apparently, all vehicles imported to Liberia are concentrated in the Monrovia area because of the critical absence of safe, efficient roads/highways in rural Liberia.

In the light of these conditions, the reasonable solution of Liberia’s major socio-economic (and political) problems lie in the application of the priority policy approach of thePremier Multiplier Effect” by the construction of all-whether highways/roads throughout the nation.  Efficiently/effectively managed, the transport and communication system will release the pressure, hopefully, on the capital city by socio-economic and political incentives not only to attract Monrovia street-sellers, but also, all other rural migrants - nurses, doctors, engineers, lawyers, educators/academicians, business managers, economists, investment promoters, information technologists, etc., now here in Monrovia, back to their home counties, and entrepreneurs wishing to migrate.  However, we have not, yet, applied this priority policy of the “Premier Multiplier Effect” in national, economic development, although we have had and do have what it takes. But we must, since we have not . . . what, then, is wrong with Liberians?

Bai M. Gbala, Sr.

About Bai M. Gbala, Sr.
Bai Gbala was born many rice farms ago and raised in Menyea Town, about 5 miles south of Zwedru, Capital of Grand Gedeh County, southeast in the ethnic/tribal, Traditional Society of rural Liberia. Those formative years within the socio-cultural environment influenced and shaped his political beliefs and, therefore, worldview. For, he saw, lived and experienced it all one-party, single socio-economic class rule; taxation without representation, forced collections of rice, palm oil, chickens, goats, cows, wild meat, etc. from the villages and towns; forced, unpaid labor for construction of district compounds, military barracks, “roads” or paths with crude implements such as hoes, cutlasses, diggers, axes and shovels; forced  individuals  from the villages and towns to carry loads/luggage and district and other officials in hammocks as “porters”; and many other such practices to which his parents, uncles, other relatives and citizens in the district, were subjected.

As the eldest of three brothers of a powerful tribal leader, Political consciousness, courage, advocacy, activism and leadership came as a matter of family tradition. Politics is in the genes and runs in the blood. He and two brothers were introduced to western education at an early age on the Assemblies of God Mission, Boarding School in Zwedru, the County Capital. The socio-political indignities to which their parents and people were subjected and the introduction to western thought, somewhat modern enlightenment at the Mission school fed, ignited, planted the passion to “learn and know book” (to be “quee”) in order to be an agent for change, reform and transformation. Hence, the journey from the village of Menyea Town to the Mission school in Zwedru, to faraway Monrovia, and finally, to the strange land, USA, due to and grounded in this passion for knowledge and change. Mr. Bai Gbala’s entire life has been and is guided, consistently, by this passion and conviction.   

Buell, Raymond Leslie, Liberia: A Century of Survival 1847-1947, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947
Kraaij, van der,  Fred  P. M., Open Door Policy of Liberia,  Bremen, 1983
Liebenow, Gus J., The Quest for Democracy, Bloomington, Indianapolis, 1987
Smith, Robert A., The Emancipation of the Hinterland, Monrovia, 1964
Wreh, Tuan, The Love of Liberty . . . The Rule of President William V. S. Tubman, 1944-1971, London, !976             

Harry Conway
Excellent piece.
Harry Conway at 07:52AM, 2014/07/09.
Sylvester Moses
Wow! As usual, what a well - wrought piece, Gbai; nonetheless, rather than an inclusive rhetorical question (to all Liberians), it should be directed pointedly to those in the legislative and executive branches who are clothed with the power and authority by the people to implement “the ‘Premier Effect’ or the primary, public policy priority in national development”.

Obviously the same selfish (I - me - we) mentality, which dissuaded some members of the Americo - Liberian oligarchy to not "wish to open up and develop the hinterland” in spite of Tubman’s Open Door Policy, still persists. The cruel irony is that the wherewith all to ensure your progressive vision is actually in the hands of “civilized” and “educated natives”.

But the sad reality is that our voters continue to elect “civilized natives” like Senator Neyeanbo whose public admission to a question from the press implied that he is more sensitive to the wishes of the President than being responsive to the reasonable demands of his constituents, and the residents of Grand Gedeh. Now, sir, we can just say, “let the real struggle continue“.

Sylvester Moses at 11:18AM, 2014/07/09.

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