The 23rd Or Not the 23rd: The Evolving Debate on Ranking Liberian Presidents


By William E. Allen, Ph.D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 19, 2005


Dr. D. Elwood Dunn asserted in an article in (12/16/05) that Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will be the 23rd president of Liberia. The article is entitled "Liberia's Presidential Successions: From J. J. Roberts to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf." I have some serious misgivings about how Dr. Dunn arrived at the conclusion that the next president is the 23rd.

Primarily, my concern is that Dr. Dunn introduced a new method for ranking the presidents without first putting forth any new supporting historical facts. For one, Dr. Dunn counted James Smith, President E. J. Roye's vice president, as the 6th president, claiming that Smith served "briefly." This is a controversial topic, and becomes highly questionable without the backing of fresh evidence. Scholars are generally reluctant to count Smith as president because they do not have hard evidence to prove that the vice president was actually sworn into office after President Roye was overthrown in 1871. One of the earliest Liberian historians, Abayomi Karnga writing in1926, suggested that Smith was not enthroned as president. According to Karnga, at the time of the coup, Smith was at home in Grand Bassa. Roye's political opponents promised to inflict "bodily injury" on Smith if he returned to Monrovia and insisted on his constitutional right as Roye's successor (Karnga, 1926, 47-48). On the other hand, the archives clearly show that the Committee of Three (an interim administration) was hastily organized after Roye's removal in 1871 to run the affairs of the country. That committee turned over power to Roberts in January of 1872. This partly explains why most scholars have ordinarily not counted Smith as president. They instead record President Roye as the 5th president. For Dr. Dunn's new model to be credible, he must put forth the evidence that demonstrates Smith "served briefly."

Another problem with Dr. Dunn's system of presidential ranking is his decision to omit from the headcount the second non-consecutive administrations of Joseph J. Roberts (1872-1876) and James Spriggs Payne (1876-1878). He gave the following reason: "We share the view that having already served as president they should not be counted twice." This is unusual because all the standard historical sources count the second tenures of both Presidents Roberts and Payne. This is why most scholars have counted Roberts as the 1st and 6th, Payne the 4th and 7th, and eventually ascribed the 18th to William V. S. Tubman. The argument that "we share the view" is hardly sufficient to overturn a long-established historical tradition. In other countries, counting non-consecutive second administrations of presidents is an accepted standard. Using an example from the U.S., President George W. Bush is currently referred to as the 43rd president of the United States because scholars count the two non-consecutive administrations of President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) and (1893-1897). By omitting the two non-consecutive administrations of Roberts and Payne and counting Smith as the 6th President, Dr. Dunn repositions Tubman as the 17th president of Liberia. (We all remember, as school children, reciting by heart: "Dr. William V.S. Tubman, the 18th President of Liberia."). To replace the established paradigm, Dr. Dunn needs to provide more compelling reasons and historical evidence.

Finally, I strongly disagree with Dr. Dunn's inclusion of Charles Gyude Bryant in his count of Liberian presidents. Mr. Bryant came to power outside of the normal tradition of presidential succession; he was not elected through the usual Liberian electoral system. Rather, following the forced departure of elected president Charles Taylor, Mr. Bryant was chosen outside of Liberia by a handful of individuals representing armed factions, selected political parties, and civil society organizations. Accordingly, Mr. Bryant's administration is an interregnum, a deviation from the norm through which presidential successors are chosen. This explains why his official title is "Chairman," not the traditional nomenclature of "President." Dr. Dunn's argument that "Taylor empowered representatives. . .to convene in Ghana" reinforces my contention that the leader that emerged out of that unusual arrangement in Ghana was selected outside of Liberia's constitutional tradition of succession. The Bryant administration falls in the same category as the Committee of Three of 1871 and the various interim governments that followed President Samuel Doe and preceded President Charles Taylor, i.e., Dr. Amos Sawyer, Mr. David Kpormakpor, Mr. Wilton Sankawulo, etc. If Dr. Dunn counts the interim government of Mr. Bryant as the 22nd, he is compelled by logic to also include the other interim governments because all ascended to power outside the usual Liberian constitutional tradition of succession. These interim caretakers were all waiting for the Liberian people to elect the next constitutionally-mandated successor. Dr. Dunn is correct to add Mr. Moses Blah to the list of presidents. As President Taylor's vice president, Mr. Blah assumed power through the normal constitutional process after the removal of the president. This also demonstrates, for example, why Vice President Alfred F. Russell is included in the presidential count. When President Anthony W. Gardiner resigned in 1883, Vice President Russell was sworn into power, in accordance with constitutional provision, to complete Gardiner's term.

Dr. Dunn's argument that Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will be the 23rd president lacks the force of historical evidence. Furthermore, his method for ranking Liberian presidents is highly controversial, and it rests mainly on assumptions that he will have to prove.

Dr. William E. Allen teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at