Leaders with Slave Mentalities: The Strange Case of Liberia
By Theodore T. Hodge
Theodore T. Hodge
When one examines the history of the Republic of Liberia, one will find that one of the earliest and most tangible documents establishing the infant nation in the early 1800s is a document called the Declaration of Independence. In that document, our founding fathers, who termed themselves “Representatives of the People of the Commonwealth of Liberia”, wrote that they sought, “first to expatriate themselves from the land of their nativity and to form settlements on this barbarous coast”...
Firstly, I find it strange that these men who had just come out of slavery and bondage in a strange land and returned to the land of their origin were careless and bold enough to describe America as their “land of nativity” and their original home as “this barbarous coast”.
It is clear that these men used the term nativity in the narrowest sense: The land of their birth. But nativity extends way beyond simply where one is born. There are other synonyms to denote a wider use of the word, for example: Beginning, creation, dawn, embarkation, emergence, foundation, genesis, start, origination, rise, or outset. Those who came back as settlers should have known that this land (Africa) was indeed their true land of nativity, the home of their fathers and mothers. It becomes apparent that these folks did not accept Liberia as their homeland to which they had returned after so much turbulence and tribulation; they remained psychologically bound to a land where they had been treated less than animals.
Imagine, for a moment, Jews that were dispersed from their homeland and roamed the world for hundreds of years, in many cases becoming victims of persecution and war. Can you imagine a Jew referring to Egypt, Syria, England, Germany, France, Poland, or any other place as the “land of my nativity”, simply because he was born there? No. The idea of mere birth does not take precedence over one’s origin, hence the reference to Israel as the “homeland” of all Jews.
So, whereas the Jew had fought tooth and nail to extricate himself from slavery and resettle himself in his true homeland, his land of nativity, the Liberian settler had never extricated himself from mental slavery, although he was physically set free by his former slave masters.
It was an unfortunate choice of words to apply the word “barbarous” to describe the West African coast where these settlers returned. The term barbarous was used by Europeans to describe the African coast, but any reasonable person will take the description with a grain of salt. Imagine an entire continent of peoples being invaded and the invaders describing the victims as barbaric to justify their invasion. If these Europeans and Americans were so civilized and Christian, why would they be encroaching on defenseless people and turning them into slaves and treating them as animals? Is that civilization? Is that Christianity? Should we actually look at these invaders as civilized and their victims as barbaric peoples? Is it not puzzling that those returning from slavery were proudly identifying themselves with the former captors and referring to them as our “fathers”? This phenomenon, that I shall refer to as “victimhood of cultural indoctrination”, was to later be described by Carter G. Woodson as the “Mis-Education of the Negro” in his book of the same name in which he wrote:
“When you control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
One could easily overlook the reference to America as the land of “their nativity” but the terminology is used over and over again for emphasis. Our “founding fathers” clearly set themselves on a course to establish two different societies, obviously with the intent to dominate their hosts, the natives were considered to be of inferior breed because they had not had the sophistication or “fortune” to have been American slaves. Somehow it seems, in a twisted kind of logic, that they were asserting their superiority because of their strange fate. This is kind of painful, but here are a couple of quotations from the official Declaration of Documents, our “most sacred” document establishing the Liberian nationhood:
“We the people of the Republic of Liberia were originally inhabitants of the United States of North America…
“The western coast of Africa was the place selected by American benevolence and philanthropy for our future home. Removed beyond those influences which oppressed us in our native land…”
Would it not have been more logical and reasonable for the returning sons and daughters to reunite with their long-lost brothers and sisters on the continent of their true nativity? Wouldn’t that have set them on a course of progress, seeking their mutual interests together? Instead, they (the returnees) looked with suspicion at the indigenous people and described them as barbaric heathens. They (our founding fathers) described their ex-masters as their benefactors; heaping praises on them for their “benevolence and philanthropy”. Imagine that. Did it ever occur to them to accept the monies given to them as partial reparations and payment for services rendered? Isn’t that a more realistic perspective?
The main aim of this article is to refute the assertion (or belief) that Liberia’s troubles started with the advent of political agitation in the 1970s that culminated into the overthrow of President William Richard Tolbert and military rule under Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. That’s revisionist history at its best and disingenuous thinking at its worst. Anyone who’s interested in tracing the origin of division in our society needs to go back to the beginning and read the Liberian “Declaration of Independence”. It started there.
The “founding fathers” set the country on a collision course; the collision finally took place on April 12th 1980. They set out to create two distinct societies; separate and unequal, settler and indigenous, rich and poor. It should be little wonder that we ended up where we are. The amazement is that even now, few people actually get it. But I hope that the simple, logical thinking that I have articulated in this short article, as others have done before me, could be used as a genesis to begin a real debate. We owe it to ourselves to re-examine our past with some critical lenses. To paraphrase a wise man, ‘No one knows where he’s going until he knows where he’s coming from’. In order for us to have true reconciliation and peace, we need to discard the slave mentality. We are all Africans, one and all.
ADDENDUM: In the foregoing, I concentrated on what was said and written by our country's so-called founding fathers, but I failed to mention some key policies and practices that caused the actual division between the two major groups, indigene and settler. The settler community set itself apart and above the indigenes by instituting divisive policies, for example in the key areas of justice and education. There was a two-tier system of the administration of justice. There was a court system patterned after that of the US court system run and administered by the settlers for the benefit of the settler community. But there was also a system of native courts run and administered by tribal chiefs. One court system (the Westernized one) was superior to the other. A commissioner or magistrate appointed by the government could overturn the decision reached by a tribal court, but the reverse was not true... The government court system had jurisdiction over all citizens and "subjects" residing within the boundary of the nation, but the tribal courts only had jurisdiction of members of specific tribal groups. One system was considered "universal" while the other was severely restrictive, and sometimes meaningless.
In education, no government-run schools were built and administered in the vast interiors of the country. For example, the interior counties of Nimba, Bong, Grand Gedeh and Lofa were established by a presidential decree during the administration of the Late William V. S. Tubman in 1964. A government high school was built in each of these counties, the first since the founding of the nation. Until that time, only religious-run institutions (mainly by the Episcopal and Catholic churches) could be found. There was one government-run university (the University of Liberia) in the nation's capital and entering it was a privilege, not a right.
Perhaps most important, was the practice of discouraging intermarriage between the two social groups. Settlers did not readily marry outside their social group, although because of the large number of natives, concubinage relationships were common. The cohabitation of settler men and native women without legal or formal marriage was commonplace, but somehow mysteriously, the offspring were counted among the ranks of the superior social group. On the other, it was less common for a native man to marry into a settler family. Of course, there are several instances of legitimate intermarriage between the two groups, but the process usually ended up as an example of assimilation. Once a native married into the settler group he or she was basically assimilated into the supposed superior network at the expense of the tribal group. Because of the social divide, intermarriages were seen as a means of promotion. The bottom line is such a system did not encourage genuine integration.
In my view, as I have stated above, the set up of the Liberian social system was tantamount to the Apartheid system of South Africa; an unnatural division of people based on intangible and superficial differences. When we try to analyze how the system came to collapse in early 1980, we owe it to ourselves to examine our history and our sociology. The system failed because it was set up on false premises that one group was superior to the other. Had our forefathers had the foresight to build a fully integrated society with dignity for all, the outcome would have been different. The challenge now is to set ourselves on that path. It is never too late to transform a society. As a matter of fact, transformation is a natural ingredient to nation-building. It is a continuous and continuing process; the challenge is ours... but first we must be willing to face each other with honesty and institute a national dialogue instead of relying on revisionist history to move forward. Sometimes honesty is like a bitter pill, but the patient is forced to take if he looks forward to well-being. That is the way I see it.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on August 24, 2010 in the Liberian Journal. It is hereby been republished by permission of the author, Theodore T. Hodge. The addendum was added to the original piece by the author on November 29, 2014. Theodore Hodge can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org