The Self and the Emergence of Tragedy in Liberian Society
[A dialogue and treatise in education]


By: Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 8, 2005


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A tribute

I write this article in memory of our dear friend and brother, D. Sumoiwu Pewu, who passed away on Sunday, October 2, 2005, after a struggle with cancer. Pewu was always animated by the spirit of free discourse and social criticism. He showed permanent interest in the affairs of his country, and countrymen and women. Pewu was also a man of strong intellect and character who had a rare zeal for genuine social change in his native country. There is no doubt on my mind that like many of us, he had become convinced through experience and insight that through the virtues of dialogue and understanding we can uplift the Liberian nation and its people. In this our difficult hour of tribulation, I ask you O Lord of the Universe to give us wisdom and guidance, as we make sense of this terrible lost. I also ask O Lord that may Pewu’s soul rest in perfect peace, until you bring back those who have fallen asleep in your heavenly son Jesus Christ!


We were made a separate and distinct class, and against us every avenue of improvement was effectively closed. Strangers from other lands, of a color different from ours, were preferred before us. .. All hope of a favorable change in our country was thus wholly extinguished in our bosoms, and we looked with anxiety for some asylum from the deep degradation.

The Liberian Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1847.

This work could not have come at an important time in the checkered history of Liberia. Roughly a week from now, Liberians will go to the polls to choose a new crop of national leaders that will mark a significant milestone in the process of national renewal. Hoping that all goes well and the right candidates win! One hopes for the best because competitive and democratic politics should always be the art of the possible. This dialogue accepts as a given the notion that selfishness is a destructive force that can lead to the breakdown of national order and society. This work, like others I have done, constitutes a search for meaning and critical understanding in terms of the relationship between our sense perceptions and how they affect subsequent courses of actions. It departs from the essential and interrelated questions: How do the relationships between mind, body, and soul impinge upon our various definitions of self? And how do these definitions affect the course of human action in society? How does selfishness affect the doctrine of common destiny?

The dialogue is an imaginary one that reflects a variety of sources and methods across social science disciplines. It is furthermore an exercise in learning and criticism as David Bohm and George Gadamar would understand it. The writing in this piece reflects a unique style that combines the language of both academic and ordinary discourse. Thus, in this dialogue, I have presented a model of an ideal speech situation where participants also tend to use the expressions or language code available to them in everyday language. In this important respect the dialogue resembles the Socratic dialogues in which the reasoning process that leads to the elimination of contradictions in thought is more important than the mere presentation of facts or linguistic structures. I am hoping that at the end of this dialogue, readers will go away with an impression that the Liberian dilemma is, indeed, truly contingent upon several inadequacies, of both a cognitive and historical nature, in our existing institutional forms and social practices.

The Dialogue

This dialogue has two main characters, which include Moses, the retired professor at the a local technical college located on the southeastern coast of Liberia, and his pupil Big Boy, who is going into his second year at the national university on the southwestern coast of the country. His mother, Madam Esther, makes a very brief appearance just to remind them of dinner at the close of their conversation.

Moses: How are your parents doing today? I have not seen them for quite some time since my last visit to the southwestern coast.

Big Boy: Yes, that is true since your last visit to our home. But they are doing fine today sir!

Moses: Are you ready for our session today? This will be a very hectic session so I want you to be in the best of moods, and your mind, in the best shape conceivable.

Big Boy: I believe I couldn’t be in a better shape to pay keen attention to what you have to teach me today. But, I must ask you one question sir, will we be going over old grounds so that I can clarify few things in my mind?

Moses: Maybe not, because I want us to discuss a new topic today. But we will see as our talk progresses. Don’t forget that all things are interrelated even the ones that may be seen as being seemingly far apart. As you know life is meaningless without the continual clarification of troubling concepts, the meaning and classification of things, and actions. This is perhaps a lesson we learned from the great philosopher Aristotle.

Big Boy: What is that topic, sir?

Moses: I really want us to discuss or perhaps start off by agreeing on a definition of the self. We need to establish a conceptual platform from which we could proceed with our discussion. I am troubled that for the last generation our nation has been torn apart by rage and selfishness. Last week we discussed temperance as one among the various forms of virtue. Today, I want us to focus on selfishness and what it does to a human community.

Big Boy: Why do we need to discuss this topic now, why not something else? Why not talk about the forthcoming elections in our country?

Moses: My son, the reason simply resides in the fact that this is the greatest challenge we face today as a nation, this is why in fact am greatly troubled by it. In Greek society, men of wisdom always allocated time to contemplate and discuss the greatest and most immediate challenges that faced them; such as wars, forms of authority and legitimacy, division of labor between free persons and slaves, what constituted the parameters of valor and the good life etc. In our time, it is paramount that we seek to find ways through which we can curb wars for example, and redefine the relationship between self and societal responsibility. We need to find and elaborate various ways to accentuate a meaningful coherence between these two abstract concepts. I am fully aware that this can be done in the field of theory and in social practice as well.

Big Boy: Now I see! How would you define selfishness then? Is there any definitions that exclude how and why we define ourselves in various ways? Where does our knowledge of self come from? I have the opinion that there are many interpretations out there!

Moses: You have posed a complex array of questions. But I will try and answer them in turn. Interestingly, I will begin with your last question- where does our knowledge of self comes from? I intend to do this by way of examining Mead’s concept of mindedness (cited in Johnson, 2004:170). Mead has intimated that the concept of mindedness relates to our capacity for critical reflection, which requires a developed mind and life experiences. It is suggested in this formulation that the initial development of the mind and our sense of self, which develops through social interaction, must begin by internalizing existing knowledge structures (ibid).

We could conclude from this that each child is born into existing meanings and social arrangements that becomes a part of her earliest definitions of self and world. So, we could conclude that our definitions and knowledge of self begins in childhood. But did you know that there is a parallel notion that alienation can lead to the formation of certain types of identities and sub-identities across various age and demographic sections in society? Just as you have cultures and subcultures in many contemporary societies, so you also have identities and sub-identities within the confines of a geographical boundary like ours. But, may I warn you that these are just a few among the multiple perspectives in our understanding of this question! There is another explanation of the origins of our knowledge of self based on Old Testament teachings.

In the book of Genesis there is something about violating God’s rule by eating of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. The inherent morality of man, meaning freedom from original sin was decimated when he ate of this tree. I would like to speculate that the breakdown of this covenant with God led to the emergence of our awareness of self. This was the ultimate test given to man by his Creator at the beginning of history predicated upon free will and conscious choice. This is why our knowledge of self and the selfishness that it sometimes leads to is absolutely abhorred in the sight of God. There is a lesson here that speaks to our yearnings for relatedness that I will come to later. Another aspect that this highlights is the dependency relationship that exists between us and our Lord God. However, I realize there is a problem of free will often alluded to by some logicians, but which can not be totally and satisfactorily addressed with in this framework alone.

All these things I have just said could be read from an entirely different perspective, especially with regards to the subject-object relationship in cognitive psychology. The object in this relationship describes the thoughts and feelings we have. The subject refers to the thoughts and feelings that exist within us (cited in Johnson, 2004:171). This might be confusing. But let us look at it another way to perhaps simplify the matter: The subject-object schema above offers us a different interpretation in terms of the role and meaning of self awareness. Self awareness in this construct is seen as a positive development from the point of view of the development of one’s consciousness.

It is held that our critical and conscious awareness about the thoughts and feelings that exist within us will eventually lead to our liberation from dependency relationships. At the core of this process is the attainment of critical consciousness, which is by all means the same as merging our identity with an external force or source of identification (ibid). So you see how a secular approach that focuses on the role of consciousness in terms of the problem of identity formation and transformation can lead to an entirely different solutions and dispositions! Now what do you think?

Big Boy: I see the wisdom in what you are saying. But I have a question for you. If selfishness began in the genesis of our existence, how could we bring it to an end?

Moses: There are various things we need to do including strict adherence to the canonical teachings, supplemented by a pure ecunumencal life. Now, there may be various paths to this ecunumencal life in my estimation, such as the ethical and deeply communal values eschewed in the African tradition. And as you may be aware from our discussions last time, the canonical teachings are those enshrined in the scriptures of the Holy Bible. Paul in his letters to early Christians pointed an elaborate roadmap that would lead to the end of selfishness, which may be viewed as the origins of all sins. The end of time prophecy in the book of revelation also addresses this problem of alleviating all forms of sins and selfishness from our earthly world in the most poetic fashion.

Big Boy: Your analytical distinctions are very helpful in clarifying key concepts! They establish the basis for deep thought! This is just exactly what I need for my preparation for an advanced course in philosophy this semester. But here is another troubling question: Is it selfish for someone to try to do something that they know within themselves that they can not do? Like say, if I want to be the leader of a municipality and I know within myself that I am not qualify for such a position? How would you explain that?

Moses: Before we comment on that issue we must be certain that that person is fully aware of his ignorance and capabilities to undertake the task of leadership. That would constitute the premise of our explanation. You remand me of a recent speech delivered by a prominent member in our society. I believe that the human rights and community activist Koffe Woods recently said something to the effect that one should know his limitations. If I am not making a mistake, he may have said that there is certain confusion among certain sections of our society, particularly the young, regarding one’s popularity and his capacity to govern these days. Let me share with you what another venerable politician and social activist has recently written in regard to this question (see Fahnbulleh, 2005:9):

“I am neither a medical doctor nor a nuclear physicist and there is no way I can comment on these areas with authority. If I do, I will be considered a fool, especially if I have not done any research in the disciplines. In order to know my limitations, I must be aware of what I am good at and what I do not know. This helps in life, because we do not want to increase the danger to ourselves in society by allowing carpenters to perform surgery or “sidewalk mechanics” to lecture university students about thermodynamics. We achieve much and move forward if people stick to what they know and can do better. This is called the division of labor. It does not only relate to economic matters; it also takes place in all areas of life.”

You see, my son, there are many implications of these utterances. In fact this leads to the Socratic maxim that says “Know thy self”. Know thy self is the beginning of self-knowledge that brings a sort of personal liberation from the eternal varieties of a deeply spiritually bankrupt universe. Know thy self also means knowing that there is virtue in knowing one’s limitations i.e. that there are things that you don’t know. It requires a sort of continuing self-assessment that allows one to almost feel the limitations of his mental and intellectual resources. You see, my son, the great Socrates claimed that his wisdom sprung from the awareness of his ignorance! For him, man did not know better; so what was important was the path to wisdom. The great Chinese teacher Confucius also said something similar to that effect; that the path to virtue was more important then whether one ever achieves it or not. Now, what could be more powerful then these basic maxims!

Big Boy: What then, are some of the consequences of not knowing yourself?

Moses: Good question! There are many consequences, some small, some big! The immediate big one I could think of is when catastrophic failures engulf the entire nation. We see these ones especially in the arena of politics. As you know in our life time we have seen leaders often misleading their people into catastrophic failures, with utter consequences. We saw that in the 1980s and 1990s, and now we may see it again if we are not very careful.

Among these leaders one could say that there have been many who have never heeded the maxim “Know thy self”. We have had for example, a Master Sergeant who thought that he could rule without the necessary preparation that comes with education and experience. We saw an economy descends and everything else around us falling apart! Perhaps you might say that those were the hard years of the locust. As things fell apart, we saw the foundations being laid for a national catastrophe that have challenged our civil existence. We must now ponder these questions as we seek to reconstitute a new civil discourse. And this is the challenge for today’s power seekers and self proclaimed social reformers!

Big Boy: So, what I gathered from your talk so far is that it is selfish for someone to pretend that they can do something that they may not have the ability or capacity to do.

Moses: Yes! This happens, especially in the arena of public discourse and public life; where the majority can sometimes be wrong. This is what is sometimes called the tyranny of the majority. The opinion of the majority is not always right, simply because they may not always have the correct information to make wise and informed choices; regarding what is and what ought to be in the realms of human affairs. So, even though the majority or what seems to be a majority might say you are right to do so and so, it is left up to the individual conscience to decide on what they can or cannot do on the basis of the evidence, which may be only available to them.

Failure to do so with all the consequences that it entails could be characterized as selfishness. The heart and good conscience of the individual matters! Good conscience is like virtue which, according to Socrates, is self-development and the spirit of community. For, we can only truly follow our hearts in fostering a spirit of brotherhood and community as a poet once told me. We do this to secure a critical balance in our actions and intentions. We lead ourselves with our hearts as well as our logical apparatuses. This is demonstrative of the unity of the mind, soul and body! So, we may say that following one’s heart is not necessarily a spirit of disunity, but perhaps the basis of common human understanding. This is how the poet himself has characterized these thoughts (see Azuonye, 2005:1):

I think that brotherhood is a force field
Raised around true friends.
It is about understanding at the end
Of the day, that we are free spirits,
With distinctive emotional fingerprints
In each eye of our individual minds
The world wears a unique mask.
We walk hand in hand most of the time
But we really follow our own hearts,
And this in itself masquerades
As the spirit of disunity- which it is not.
If only we can understand this
We will re-write alphabets of forgiveness,
And live in peace forever…

Big Boy: So, the heart matters, Ah Ah! I see why it is often difficult to gauge the intentions and contemplations of individuals when it is very easy to mask those intentions. I think it is good when our intentions also reflect the emotional side of us rather then always reflecting cool logical calculations. In this instance you can guarantee the purity of heart and perhaps unity and connectivity as the poet is trying to convey.

Moses: I got the point! What a smart boy!! You are very steady and a quick learner as well! What you may be reflecting in your thoughts also is an evolving body of theory in cognitive science that emphasizes emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is as important as one’s rational dispositions.

Big Boy: You seemed to have said earlier that selfishness exists among our midst, like perhaps in most human societies, if I understand you correctly. One thing I would like to know is that where does it come from? You have given me the biblical and perhaps some psychological explanations. Is there any historical explanation that doesn’t go as far back as the beginning of time, as the biblical explanation tries to do?

Moses: I suspect you want to know the roots of selfishness in our society, right?

Big Boy: Exactly!

Moses: Well, this is a very good question because the entire conversation has been about just that! And that is to trace the evolution of selfishness and its destructive consequences in our society. The history of our society tells us that some of us came to these shores as the result of the age old problem of slavery in antebellum America. The effects of this problem are so vast and far reaching that they are still being felt as we speak. The 20th century in America was referred to by his eminence W.E.B. Dubois as being defined by the color line, although some have said that this century might be defined by what you might refer to as the class line, the race problem is so stubborn that it can never go away completely.

Big Boy: What do you mean by antebellum America, sir?

Moses: By antebellum America I am referring here to a whole period in United States history when a social system based on chattel slave labor was fostered in that country. This period is often looked back on with sentimental nostalgia by some whites in the south as an idealized genteel and stable agrarian society. But there is something wrong with this romanticized vision because of a central fact. And that is in this imagination the issue of slavery is largely ignored. There is nothing genteel about a society based on slavery.

When you factored slavery as a mode of economic production and exchange in this societal framework, you begin to see the part played by selfishness in it. Anyway, this was the background and the historical circumstance that propel the idea of colonization of the West African coast, which led to the formation of our modern Liberian state. What we have seen and experienced in our lives is that the virus of selfishness and greed that were associated with a backward and hierarchical society in the American South may have affected the project of colonization and the subsequent early attempts to build a human community in Liberia. Had selfishness and greed had been perpetuated attest to the validity of a theory of continuity. On the other hand, the early communities that existed in the subregion that later became Liberia where not gardens of Eden under any circumstances. There were also problems associated with selfishness and the establishment of order in those communities. I am sure you are aware of the transatlantic slave trade and the numerous social and economic consequences it inflated on this region.

Big Boy: How would you define a culturally centered identity? What is the difference between a culturally centered identity and selfishness? Does a culturally centered identity conflict with the notion of private property? I have been troubled by these distinctions as I have listened to you throughout the entire course of this afternoon.

Moses: There are various ways one could approach this question. Perhaps you could learn some lessons from Nobles (cited in Parham et al, 2000:43[1984]). He has laid down the following markers for a culturally centered identity. They include the following:
· A sense of self that is collective or extended.
· An attitude wherein one understands and respects the sameness in oneself and others
· A clear sense of one’s spiritual connection to the universe.
· A sense of mutual responsibility for other African people
· A conscious understanding that human abnormality or deviance is any act that is in opposition to oneself

I could choose to further elaborate on any number of these points. For example, I like the one that talks about respecting the sameness in oneself and others. I have the gut feeling that until we recognize the sameness in all human beings, we will never cure ourselves of the disease of selfishness, especially when the self becomes an obstacle to organizing communal sensibilities that reinforce collective undertakings. These undertakings offer a specific framework for conscious action that limits the possibilities for human abnormality or deviance.

Only when we can begin to see that acts undertaken against the collective interest are in opposition to one, before we can begin to curb the challenges posed to communal life by selfishness. Quite simply, there can be no collective solidarity without acknowledging the unity of all beings in terms of one’s interconnectedness with the other. I think at a deeper level there is an element of compassion in this thought as you would find in the teachings of Buddhism. This thought is also pervasive in our African heritage. For you see, it is believe that the universe was built that way, my son! Some things are delicately interconnected with other things. In fact the communal values that reinforced collective action was very powerful in ancient times in this area now known as Liberia (see Seibel and Massing, 1974). It has also assumed immediate importance in recent times, especially in the face of anarchy and armed violence in our society.

I would also like to draw your attention to Nobles point pertaining to the causes and circumstances of human abnormality. This brings into play W.E.B. Dubois problem of double consciousness. On this subject he had said that (see Appiah, 1994: 5):

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the past of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

I am curious to know which side of black American identity is selfish and I wish you could also pose this question to yourself as well. Is it the American side or the Negro or Black African side in this dual consciousness construct that Dubois has formulated? However, I am hard pressed to state that such a question itself would be highly problematic because here we are talking about an African society that has been challenged by the destructive tendencies of the self. Perhaps the challenge presented by Dubois’ formulation is how best to blend the positive features of both worlds, even though they tend to be seemingly irreconcilable. By doing this we might remove the contradictions presented. This is how Dubois himself has clarified this aspect of the phenomenon of double consciousness:

“One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Big Boy: Fine, but how about the question of culturally centered identity and selfishness? Is there any relationship between the two?

Moses: Culturally centered identity, my son, does not necessarily contradict the notion of individualism or private property as a corollary of this concept. And I say this to return to an earlier point. But there are dangers that you need to be aware of, especially if property rights start to infringe upon individual rights and liberties, as they did during centuries of chattel slavery- the worst kind of man’s inhumanity to man. We know now and perhaps then, that the great constitutional compromise in the United States could not have been justified under any strict moral or ethical principle. The main point I am trying to make here is that private property might lead to selfishness under certain circumstances. Just so you should know, there are three fundamental values that are significant to contemporary American political culture; they include liberty, equality, and property.

These fundamental rights, especially the right to property, have gained hold in the American imagination, as they lay at the core of its political culture. In the American capitalistic economy, the pursuit of happiness is closely related with property rights (see Bardes et al, 2004). There is little doubt that these underlying value systems tend to account for some of the extremes of poverty and wealth in the United States. This is another down side of the value of property rights. I believe this is important to stress in terms of striking the balance. Some European public leaders have even called for a more caring and sensitive state in America in the wake of the recent hurricane disaster on the Gulf coast. I am amazed that most of the candidates in the current elections in our country failed to address how the notion of private property has affected land distribution in Liberia. This along with other important issues is being ignored. But then again, one needs not be surprised because we always seem to be going around in vicious circles. We never quite manage to get to our laudable expectations!

Big Boy: You seem to be drawing some sort of equation here! Are we to conclude, then, that private property leads to selfishness?

Moses: It depends on how we strike the balance between private property rights and the rights of the collectivity, between autonomy of the self and contingency, as I indicated earlier. This will certainly bring us back to a point where the individual self is anchored in a collective consciousness. What I suppose we are trying to do is move away from any operative concept that makes selfishness a central and organizing norm of a society. When we move away from that we realize in the end what this does is to reinforce Nussbaum’s concept of compassion that I have alluded to earlier. It also reinforces the positive virtues of the African heritage that have been celebrated in the intellectual and practical concerns of Edward Blyden – an architect of Liberian education and modern Pan Africanism.

Big Boy: Would such a movement signify an affinity for economic socialism or other total concepts in this mode? Can I conclude then, that this is a metaphor or allegory for a doctrine of the class struggle?

Moses: Not necessarily so, I believe that at the core of the movement is an embrace for the protection of our collective humanity, and dignity, because of our commonality of interest. The realization of these virtues, both in form and content, does not necessarily imply an inevitable class struggle. The type of dialogue and learning we have engaged in this afternoon suggests to me that there are many options available to us as a society. All we have to do is to be open-minded and pragmatically optimistic (in a way that reminds one of a sort of prophetic pragmatism as Cornel West would proclaim) in adopting stances that are grounded in our concrete historical experiences. We should try to construct, therefore, a new basis for national dialogue anchored in this awareness. This will hopefully help us to deal effectively with the problem of short term memory in our society. There is an inability to learn in this, but you see we have to learn to remove contradictions from our reasoning processes before we change for the better. Sometimes I tend to think that this could be one of the anomalies we inherited from the American experience because they are all too pervasive in contemporary American culture. You only need to look a little bit harder to see it!

Big Boy: I have learned a lot this afternoon as I always do when you are visiting with us. I can’t tell you how grateful I am! It has been almost four hours and I can’t tell you how tired I am. It seems I have drink sufficiently from your endless fountain of wisdom and knowledge. I am grateful for having been a very lucky pupil to have you to clarify things that always trouble my mind. I wholeheartedly look forward to your next visit.

Moses: Just before we depart I should tell you one thing! We seem to have dwelled sufficiently on historical and psychological issues, but it seems we have not done quite enough in highlighting the economic and institutional sources of selfishness in Liberia.

Big Boy: Could we attempt to do that, then? I begin by asking you to reflect on economic and institutional failures that surely make a mockery of our current constitutional framework; and let alone the plead for justice, compassion, and common human understanding so powerfully expressed in our declaration of Independence.

Moses: First of all one should admit that Liberia lingers today on the periphery of the world economy, as ever dependent and venerable in terms of its political and institutional values. At the core of this venerability is an issue of sustainability (see Mikolajuk, 2005), which is often ignored in much of development discourse; but that is at the core of economic fragility in Liberia. Hence, institutional and cultural networks that helped to sustain communities in the sub-region that became Liberia have been greatly challenged by domestic and international pressures due largely to civil conflicts, the reasons for which we have already highlighted. Furthermore, patterns of economic decline and dependency can be traced in the very logic of economic modernization in Liberia, particularly in the period between 1931 and 1970.

Burrowes (1996) has correctly hypothesized that this same period can be linked to an era marked by the lost of liberties; such as the decline of press freedom and the gradual decomposition of an earlier consensus around republican ideals. The 1931 to 1970 era could also be characterized as the era of clientelism (ibid). Robert Cole (1971) drew on elite theory to hypothesize that the failure of economic development in Liberia was due to the impact of political aristocracy. Thus, I am left wondering that there may have been certain positive trends in terms of governance and authority relations prior to and after the declaration of independence in 1847 that might have been conducive to long term economic growth and sustained development.

But this is just a mere conjecture without the requisite empirical data to verify and unpack its underlying assumptions. The republican norms and Christian ideals that undergirded governance and authority relations in the republican era were reflective of the liberal American heritage of Liberia’s founders. That heritage had its most potent expression in the United States declaration of Independence in 1776 (cited in Appiah, 2000:305):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”

In W.W. Rostow (1960) stage theory of economic growth, the take-off period (stage 3) is said to be accompanied by the evolution of new political and social institutions that support industrialization. There are many obvious limitations of this theory as a linchpin for modernization in non-western societies, which I will not go into here. However, I am generally interested to know if a correlation between long term economic development and democratic performance holds in certain cases. In Economic Development and Democracy Revisited, Foweraker and Landman (2004) have postulated that economic development has positive effects on democratic performance across diverse aspects of performance and also across regions.

But can one argue with reasonable degrees of certainty that the same postulation holds true when democratic performance becomes the independent variable and economic development the dependent one? This brings to mind a cluster of cases in Asia including China’s ongoing economic and structural transformation. A positive affirmation in response to the above formulated question/hypothesis would show that Liberia could have made uninterrupted economic progress had the cluster of ideals and republican norms such as decentralized government, checks and balances between branches of the government, and a general responsiveness of the evolving political system to participatory processes and demands that began to take roots after 1847, been preserved (see Burrowes, 1996). Had these ideals of selflessness and collective purpose remained the driving force of economic and political change, perhaps we would have had a different set of empirical circumstances.

The republican period in Liberia was followed by an era of transition that saw a gradual shift away from republican roots such as a tradition of social criticism essentially manifested in the existence of a vibrant press and relatively free and fair elections (ibid). The era of clientelism which was generally accentuated by the long tenure of President William Tubman, saw a consolidation of patterns of economic dependency and institutional patronage. Lowenkopf (1976) has divided the Tubman regime into three main periods [1944-55; 1955-68; 1968-71]. It is the second period (1955-68) that particularly features prominently in terms of discussing the consolidation of the structure of economic dependency, such as the patterns and nature of foreign direct investment in the Liberian economy.

During this period the national government employment increased from a few thousand in 1941 to 22,247 in 1973. The rate of expansion of the economy during the decade preceding 1961 surpassed that of almost any other country in the world perhaps with the notable exception of Japan. A great number of Liberians were mobilized to work in cities, mines, plantations etc. (Dunn and Tarr, 1988; Sawyer, 1992). Expansion of the modern sector took place with an unprecedented increase in the provision of health, education and social services. In fact not until the end of the 1940s, government revenue hovered around $3 million annually, with customs receipts and hut taxes as the most important sources.

But this situation was to change in the growth years of the 1950s and mid-1960s. Rubber production increased steadily in the 1950s and so did government revenue. By 1950, corporate income tax from Firestone alone accounted for about 26 percent of government revenues (Clower et al as cited in Sawyer, 1992:283). By the late 1960s 24 companies had invested in Liberia amounting to the tune of $800 million. President Tubman used the new income to tighten his grip on power and consolidate the patronage machine by financing his network of informants and expanding his security apparatus. The Liberian economy grew at a rate between 4 to 7 percent annually between the mid 1950s to mid 1960s; more than 80 percent of this growth was produced by activities connected with extractive industries such as the exploitation of iron ore, rubber, and timber.

The greatest portion of this growth represented investment in capital equipment (ibid). The development of indigenous entrepreneurship suffered as it depended entirely on personal political connections to the extent that it may be plausible to argue that foreign investment contributed to the decline of local production (ibid). This in turn aggravated the classic symptoms of economic and structural dependency in Liberia. And of course within the context of our discussion, one can say that it has aggravated and redefined selfish behaviors in our midst. Stephen Ellis (1988:158) in his description of the accentuation of the patronage system and institutional breakdowns under Tubman has intimated that

“Tubman’s centralization of patronage combined with the great increase in revenue which resulted from the commercial alliances with foreign companies inherent in his open door economic policy to produce a political system in which the leader was seen as the personalization of the nation”

Even as we speak, I can see gloomy and challenging prospects on the horizon, as we slowing emerge from the throws of national conflict. The problems that I have highlighted did not just start today; they have afflicted the country probably, as long as the existence of the Liberian state itself since the 19th century. The record shows that our nation has had to confront issues of fiscal probity and international receivership on several occasions in the last century. Isn’t it perhaps clear now that selfishness and greed have had a lot to do with our current economic and institutional performance? In fact I hear that today the situation has gotten worst than it had ever been! We seem to be endlessly going down the up escalator in the global frame of things, if you see what I mean!

Big Boy: I am very amazed at your explanation! Yours is certainly a very fine, detailed, and illustrious exposition!! You keep coming back each time and focusing on multiple dimensions of selfishness and its many inauspicious consequences. What an interesting analytical technique and interdisciplinary approach?

Madam Esther: Big Boy, are you hungry? What about you Moses? I have just finished preparing dinner.

Big Boy: Yes I am! Mom!

Moses: I think your son might be dying of hunger for having tolerated me for all these hours. I hope you have some cassava leaf for dinner. I also hope you have a few bottles of bear. I would like to quench a very deep thirst before I return home tonight!


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About the author: Tarnue Johnson currently teaches at a local University in Chicago. He can be reached at: