Lesson for EJS: "Town Trap Not For Rat Alone"


By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 8, 2014


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President William V. S. Tubman died in 1971. He was Liberia’s longest-serving president. During his 27-year rule, Liberia was stable. He ran a tight ship…  Some say he was successful because he was a tyrant who ruled with an iron fist. Others say he was simply a benevolent, personable character who knew his people (the Liberian people) and ruled them with according understanding. Perhaps it was a combination of those factors (dictatorship and benevolence) coupled with other tangible and intangible factors that made his tenure a success.  

His successor, William Richard Tolbert, opened up Pandora’s Box and Liberia has not been the same since. While his predecessor favored and championed the one-party rule, Tolbert took the gamble to open up Liberia to the multi-party system. Simply put, it backfired and led to his early demise.

The beginning of the end came for Tolbert when faced with political opposition (which he had allowed), he tried to stifle free speech and movement. A popular demonstration was called by the opposition over the high price of rice; it led to an uprising. Tolbert panicked and tried to halt the event. It was too late. Things turned ugly and the police and citizens confronted each other in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Mysteriously, the army did not responded handily or aggressively enough in support of the government; it seemingly favored the masses.

Tolbert, realizing that he was up against a more formidable force than he had anticipated, appealed to his Guinean counterpart, President Sekou Toure, who responded by sending Guinean army troops to help put down the ensuing unrest. In Tolbert’s zeal to forcefully quell the uprisings, and to stifle free speech and other civil liberties, he committed the biggest blunder of his political life. The masses never forgave him; they never trusted him again. And in the upper chambers, his elite colleagues and comrades questioned his leadership style.

One year later, after taking bold steps to trample dissent again by the opposition, the army moved against him. Tolbert went down in history with many a checkered legacy; he is perhaps mainly remembered as the president who failed to calm the masses he had uncharacteristically awakened… the man who opened Pandora’s Box and suffered the deadly consequences.

The man who led the military coup also became a victim after failing to realize that once the genie was let out the bottle, it could not be re-encaged. Samuel K. Doe enjoyed popular support on the backs of the masses who had become enraged over Tolbert’s attempts to marginalize them. But when he tried to use similar tactics by issuing one military decree after another, he also suffered a similar fate.

Then came Charles Taylor. About him there is not much to be said except that he was such a total disaster. He set out to be an absolute dictator, and acted as such until he ended up behind prison bars, where he belongs. He has descended to such low depths unprecedented among modern presidents. Perhaps it is unfair to use the honorific title "president" to describe him.  He was never a president in the truest sense of the word; he was a hoodlum, a ragamuffin.


There is a character who played a role in each of the administrations enumerated above. Her name is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It must be admitted that she did not play a major role in the Tubman administration, but was a witness; she came of age during the Tubman years. When she was only a young girl, her father became a member of the House of Representatives and was on the verge of becoming the Speaker of the House when, according to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “a sad and sudden turn of events knocked our family off the ladder of success…” Her father had suffered a stroke. However, the family had become settled within the periphery of elite Liberian society. She and her sister went to an elite school, the College of West Africa, CWA. They had friends in high places.

Later on, speaking of the Tubman style of leadership, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote: “But in reality, the Unification Policy was largely symbolic; the ideal of equality it represented lacked both substance and girth. Although tribal people from the country’s interior gained representation in the legislature, they remained underrepresented; power and privilege continued to be monopolized by the settler groups."

She wrote further of Tubman: “Tubman also forcefully oppressed political opposition, punishing those who rose against him or his ruling True Whig Party with harshness.” She goes even further, writing: “President Tubman had presided over our country for over twenty-seven years of patronage and oppression, of Old World charm and ironfisted control. He was a president deeply loved by the people, but in truth, he was all pageantry and pomp.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became a major player in the Tolbert administration, becoming the first female Minister of Finance of the Republic of Liberia. She was a member of a commission appointed to look into the rice riots of 1979, mentioned above… In retrospection, she writes: “That June, our commission delivered its report. It was a tough and critical one that called for amnesty for the demonstration leaders and investigation of the police director and the ministers of justice, defense, agriculture, and finance. We called on the president to create a code of conduct for all public officials that would begin to tackle the corruption and conflicts of interest so rife throughout government. Quite pointedly, the commission called on President Tolbert very specifically to examine the social impact of the very high visibility of so many of his relatives in monopolistic ventures.”


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has written a scintillating book that gives an eye-opening account of the history of past administrations. In the foregoing, she has made some fundamental observations about her predecessors, but nothing sums up her brilliant story-telling than the next account. In November of 1980, shortly after President Tolbert was overthrown by the military, she was a guest speaker at the famous Booker Washington Institute (BWI) to mark a graduation ceremony. She writes: “I stood before the audience and criticized what I saw happening, which was essentially a re-creation of the same old story, only this time with new characters in the starring roles. I told the story of the rat trap in the house, in which a farmer sets a trap for a rat that has been stealing his rice. But the rat is too smart to be trapped; instead one day the farmer’s wife steps into the trap and injures her foot. Gangrene sets in, and the farmer has to kill his chicken to make soup to try to save her. She dies nonetheless, and the farmer has to kill his cow for the feast for her funeral. I told the story as a metaphor for the coup: in trying to kill the rat the coup leaders might also end up killing other things far more precious to the country and vital to the country’s survival.”

Is it not a puzzling matter now that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, sitting at the helm of leadership, seems to be just a new driver in an old cab? Has she stopped to re-examine her assessment of her predecessors, which she has already done so profoundly and eloquently? Has she looked in the mirror to see if perhaps now she has become like Tubman (“all pomp and pageantry and no substance”)? Has she not become like Tolbert who stuffed official openings with close relatives (nepotism)? Has she not become like Doe who over-extended himself in creating a new system only to replicate the old system?

Now, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has issued an Executive Order threatening the people with mass arrests. She claims to be doing so for the protection of the citizenry, but nobody believes her. She is operating under the guise of protecting the masses against the deadly threats of Ebola... but nobody believes her; everybody believes she has an ulterior motive... it is an open secret. The nation waits nervously for a potential clash of force between the masses and the armed forces of Liberia, which is inevitable.  Does Ellen not remind herself of President Tolbert? Does she not remember what her commission’s recommendations were to the late president? Does she not remember that the trap is not for the rat alone?

I hope the president will have the wisdom to curb her draconian measures she is threatening to take in the name of public safety and peace. She might have inadvertently set the trap. But who will the trap catch? That is left to be seen. When that next chapter is written, I can guarantee only one thing: Its author will not be Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Author: Theodore T. Hodge can be reached at imthodge@gmail.com                             

Rolo Tumasi
The Return of Africa’s Strongmen
Despite two decades of elections and growth, democracy has stalled, militaries are resurgent, and autocrats are in control.

Great article from last weekend's Wall Street Journal
Rolo Tumasi at 07:58AM, 2014/12/08.
Flahn Momoh Dualu
... and if this trap is to catch (there is no doubt it will), may the coming gangrenes set in the souls of those who continue to bury our collective future! An article written with a mirror - may EJS look through its lenses! Thanks once again, Mr. Hodge.
Flahn Momoh Dualu at 11:23AM, 2014/12/08.
Ziggy Morgan

Mr. Hodge does it again! The simplicity is astounding. The eloquence is astounding. When are we going to rise up and recognize this brother as a powerful force in our midst? He is wonderful at telling our stories and reminding us of our past so we can understand our present and be aware of our future.

Brother Hodge is doing a great job and needs to be recognized and supported by all. Let's think about it...
Ziggy Morgan at 08:51AM, 2014/12/09.
Matthew T. Mangolie Sr.
Oh yes, I remembered the Pres. as our guest speaker and Boima Fahnbullah who made a special remarks on that day. I graduated with that class and never saw some of my good friends again until this year in June I saw some at our Convention in Atlanta, GA.
Matthew T. Mangolie Sr. at 08:13AM, 2014/12/14.
James McGill
This is a very illuminating essay especially to those of us who came of age during the Tolbert Era and never had the opportunity of being exposed to the true history of Liberia.

After reading this piece last night, I meditated deeply about the future of Liberia and what it will take to change the mindset of our people. The late Malcolm X cautioned African Americans in one of his famous speeches years ago that, “The language and logic of the oppressor should not be the language and logic of the oppressed.” I would imagine that when a people have suffered oppression, they should use their past experiences as guideposts to move their own civilization forward and never to repeat the mistakes of the predecessors.

Paradoxically this is not the case in Liberia. The author, Mr. Hodge, suggested that we as Liberians can improve our situation if we become open and upfront with the many deep-seated problems that beset us. Therefore I will be honest. Recent history has revealed and continues to reveal that the so-called native man himself has not only cultivated, but is in fact replicating the “slave master mentally” brought in by the settlers.

To make a point, when one examines the demographic makeup of the Liberian congress today, majority of the lawmakers are not the so-called Congo people or Americo-Liberians anymore. They are the indigenes hailing from the leeward counties. These senators and representatives, who are supposed to make the laws to protect the interest of our people, are now found in a flood of corruption scandals. Judges do not enforce the laws like they should because of solipsistic greed. It seems like a new class struggle and new class antagonism is brewing in Liberia again. The political pluralism and equal access to resources for which the native man has long agitated has blinded him. Consequently he has forgotten that a society whose elites that enriches itself at the continuous expense and humiliation of the underprivileged is always bound for chaos.

Thanks Brother Theo! You are removing the veil of ignorance from my eyes.
James McGill at 02:55PM, 2015/03/10.
The Bonding Code
Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!
The Bonding Code at 02:42AM, 2017/10/29.

Post your comment

You can use following HTML tags: <a><br><strong><b><em><i><blockquote><pre><code><img><ul><ol><li><del>

Confirmation code:

Comments script

© 2014 by The Perspective
E-mail: editor@theperspective.org
To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: submittingarticles@theperspective.org