H. Boima Fahnbulleh's Novel: Behind God's Back

A review by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


Behind God’s Back. By H. Boima Fahnbulleh. Cambridgeshire: Upfront Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-84426-312-6.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 4, 2006


There is a period in Liberian history that very few Liberians ever want to remember or talk about. It is the darkest part of the history of a nation supposedly founded to provide freedom, dignity, and pride to people of African descent. The darkest hour is said to be the moment just before dawn, when things come to light; and the years covered by this book are indeed clouded in shame, lies, and everything gloomy that made Liberia finally explode.

The whole city awoke as if responding collectively to the disappearance of night. In the slums surrounding the city, there was suppressed gaiety as people began to imagine what might have happened. In the plush sectors, those who had for long dreaded this occurrence stifled their grief with the delusion that this was not possible in their country. (Fahnbulleh 1)
This was the day Liberians awoke to a new era; a day of multiple possibilities, treacherous illusions, a day pregnant with the ugly past of a divided nation struggling to become one. Fahnbulleh examines that period which demanded courage, honesty and farsightedness when Liberia was really at the crossroads, and when thousands of possibilities could have been translated into reality. But the choices made by those who turned political opportunism into a science led to gunshots on an early April morning; a day that marked another beginning when the volcano, long suppressed, would blow up, covering the land with larva, burning everything in its path. Could Liberia have avoided the rocky road of social dissent, political upheaval, and the devastating armed struggle that led to rampant destruction? The choices in those days, 1979-1980, may now seem clear; but political myopia blinded those who had “perfected the hallucinating fatalism of Christianity which allowed the poor and downtrodden to accept their fate without recourse to skepticism” (Fahnbulleh 1).

To an entire generation of Liberians, the author, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, is known for his great political mind. He writes, reasons, historicizes, and analyzes the processes of social and political transformations. The youngest of the wave of highly-educated “progressives” who energized the University of Liberia in the 1970s and sharpened the minds of thousands of students who agitated for a radical transformation of the body politic, he came to symbolize a movement. Evolving with the times, he has never deviated from his ideological foundations. The publication, Behind God’s Back, is not a political thesis. This book does not offer any new political theories or analyses of the social problems that have rocked Liberia over the years. It is a novel with all the ingredients of a masterpiece. Those who know Liberia’s transition into the era of doom will find under every sentence the signs that led the country to where it stands today.

Behind God’s Back is about the 1980 coup, the military takeover that ushered in the People’s Redemption Council (PRC); it is about the political intrigue brewing before the coup, and it gives us brilliant insights into the future. Beyond the simplistic division of ‘happy native/country people and scared congau people’ as reported in the media, Fahnbulleh delivers a new reading of Liberian politics. While many in the slums danced and praised the military coup, and there were “screams of anguish, followed by tears and sobs” in the “plush” quarters, not everyone in the wealthy areas of the city felt threatened by the coup; in fact, some welcomed it.

Through the words of one of the main characters in the novel, Joe (Joseph) Benson, we learn about divisions within the “ruling class,” which many commentators always present as a compressed and homogenous group. A friend of the character Joseph Benson calls him on the phone and, announcing the military coup, says: “It has happened. The murderer is dead.” The “murderer” is none than the assassinated president: “the old man has been avenged.” Both characters welcome the change brought about by the coup and expect that the new regime will be friendly towards them for a cause they have defended.

The novel is also a love story between Joe Benson and Angie (Angela) Warner, both from “prominent families” and studying in the US, where they meet and fall in love. Joe’s father is an Associate Justice while Angie’s father is a doctor. The reader is introduced to the lives of Liberian students in the US during the 1950s, when everything at home is predictable and when people—at least from a certain social class—held certainties about their lives and future.

Structured around the love story between Joe and Angie and pre-1980 politics, the novel zigzags between the past and the present. Joe, a brilliant law student at Harvard, meets and courts Angie. They get married and return home. Joe enters government and makes his way up to Minister of the Department of State (now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Joe and Angie’s lives become intertwined in many ways with the political history of the country, starting back when Tubman arrested Coleman and others in Clay Ashland for high treason. The names are different but considering the dates and events, the Liberian reader can easily identify the historical period which Fahnbulleh covers. The death of President Tubman and the fight between the Secretary of State and then Vice President William Tolbert are all depicted dramatically. Joe becomes Secretary of State just before Tubman, referred to as “the Old Man,” goes to London and dies while undergoing a minor operation. Rumors in Monrovia flew then that the Tolbert brothers had something to do with Tubman’s death. This is hinted at in the book, and it is only towards the end that the reader clearly understands why Joe, a member of the “ruling class,” was elated on the day of the coup that the “murderer had been killed.”

Anyone familiar with Fahnbulleh’s work will recognize his omniscient voice in the novel, though it is Joe’s point of view which dominates throughout the story. The novel chronicles a system of governance that created de-facto segregation based on ethnicity, confiscated lands, forced labor and used the power of the church and Masonic Craft to rule the small West African nation on the coast. Fahnbulleh also covers the sexual exploitation of young girls in dramatic details that leave the reader sickened and disgusted. The narrator also does not hide his disdain for this “pathetic country under the rule of some of the most reactionary niggers in Christendom,” adding, “ . . . they import large American cars but do have not roads. Their wives behave like Aunt Jemima but with gloves and evening dresses in the tropical heat . . .This country is a negative advertisement for the black race.” (154)

The question Liberians and most people in the world have asked about the war has always been: how could so much savagery and brutality take place in a country that has always been so friendly? In its twenty chapters, Behind God’s Back succeeds in providing an explanation. When people have been suppressed into submission, forced to be friendly when they feel anger, forced to smile when they want to cry, they store inside a great amount of deadly acid, and when they have the chance to act freely, very few of them have the capacity to restrain their destructive instincts. As the radio sang “Papa’s Land” on that fateful day in April 1980, in Monrovia, “marauding bands of soldiers . . . raped wives and daughters of the some officials of government . . . cabinet ministers and members of the legislators . . . beaten and taken through the street naked . . .” (Fahnbulleh 61).

Liberia’s descent into the abyss can be understood when one looks at its history:
The niggers here turned the country into a brothel. The foreign companies plunder the resources of the country and the majority of people are wretched . . .These niggers think they are imitating America but they are making a mockery of themselves. They are too backwards to adopt American culture and yet they shun traditional African culture which is so rich and dynamic. (Fahnbulleh 155)

Fahnbulleh’s novel is political fiction of the best kind. It makes the point and links the dots. It is fiction because the voice of the narrator comes out of that chaos of creativity that knows no boundaries. It is also the political history of a wrecked land still searching for its soul, if it ever had one. It is a must read for anyone who wants to understands Liberia, its history and how it turned out to be what it is today.

Note: This Book Review Was First Published in the August 2006 Issue of Sea Breeze (http://liberiaseabreeze.com/)
© 2006 by The Perspective
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