Happy Birthday, Liberia!
(Independence Day Editorial)

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective

July 26, 2001

Liberia celebrates this week its 154th independence anniversary. This calls for celebration. The very existence of Liberia as an independent state in the midst of colonial conquest of the rest of Africa by French, British and Portuguese must be seen as a miracle. The creation of Liberia as settlement for former slaves will be a subject of contradiction for many years to come. Some scholars will call it a racist enterprise while others will laud the American Colonization Society for its humanitarian vision that provided a safe haven to people treated as animals in America. Just as America will never stop dealing with issues of racism, Liberia will never stop wrangling about tribal opposition, simply because of the way it was created. Those ideological differences put aside, there is something to be thankful for: the existence of a nation-state, the unique cultural identity of Liberians and the uniqueness of our past on a vast continent.

As a beacon of freedom, Liberia helped many to be freed from colonialism. When we met Nelson Mandela in Cairo, a few years after he came out of jail, his face lighted up when he learned we were from Liberia. He said he had a Liberian passport back when he was starting the ANC. He used to come to Monrovia for counsel and money from President Tubman. He recalled those days when Ernest Eastman drove him through the streets of Monrovia. Mandela said that when he was arrested, he still had American dollars that President Tubman had given to him. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, Ahmadu Bello of Nigeria and many others came to Monrovia, to find money and counsels in their struggle to free their people from the shackles of colonial rule. Meanwhile, Liberia refused to look at its own internal contradictions.

Birthdays are the occasion to look back, assess the progress and make resolutions for the future. For nations, it's the time people give thanks to the Almighty for the Blessings bestowed on the land. Every person living joins in the celebration. Those who passed away and made great contributions to the common cause are remembered and honored. Every year, an oration by a prominent citizen takes a look back and raises issue with the present and poses challenges for the needed progress. The challenge, for this year, is the end of tyranny, the end of violence and the end of corruption.

From Joseph Jenkins Roberts to Charles Ghankay Taylor, Liberia has gone through trying times. The people who came from America in the early 18th century did not walk into already made state structures. They labored to create one, against all odds. Those who occupied most of the land at the time did not just hand to the newcomers their lands and freedom. There were wars and conflicts, some of which still continue today in various forms. Some Liberians hold more to tribal linkages than to national identity, but they are the minority. For some hundred years, there was a class democracy, where anyone from a certain given tribe, the American Negro class could hold high positions in the society. Liberia was a state in a making, in perpetual transition.

This present generation has experienced perhaps more changes than any other in our history of Liberia has. In the early 1970s, the death of President Tubman brought into office his vice-president for 19 years, William R. Tolbert. Mr. Tolbert was an "enlightened" aristocrat of the old Liberian order. He had the fate of the enlightened aristocrat of 18th century France. He knew, understood and sometimes subscribed to the ideals of the new intellectual petty bourgeois of his time. However, he was not strong enough to break the old order, he was not smart enough to bring the new challengers on board, through coercion or corruption as did his predecessor, Mr. Tubman. That weakness and his international flip-flops between Liberia's oldest ally the United States and the Eastern block sounded his ultimate death. Tolbert was killed not because an obscure Master Sergeant of the ghettos of the military cooked up a military uprising. He set the stage for his own end.

The successor of Mr. Tolbert, Samuel Doe was not a revolutionary. He stumbled into something he did not understand. He and his fellow enlisted men killed Tolbert by accident. Had it not been of the intervention of a certain Charles McArthur Taylor, Doe and his friends would have disappeared into the night or been hanged for assassinating the president of the Republic. In its first press release, the PRC said that "President Tolbert has been assassinated." Later on, the message was corrected. The soldiers of the PRC were not up to a military coup. It was Charles Taylor who turned an assassination into a coup.

Just six years earlier, the same Charles Taylor was among some Liberians in the United States, protesting against the "corrupt oligarchy of the Tolbert regime" and carried a coffin with the effigy of Tolbert. It is ironic that when he launched his rebellion, some thought that he was coming to restore the "old Congo order."

Samuel Doe, between 1980 and 1985, learned quickly to be a dictator. Corrupt and brutal, he used the presidency for the fulfillment of his personal thirst for absolute power. Illiterate, he forced teachers from the University to bestow on him fake degrees and knowledge. A Korean university gave him a doctorate he proudly carried like a tropical don Quixote. He lacked the common sense that breeds true nationalism. Samuel Doe interrupted the natural evolution of a social change that was taking shape at the time. It is common knowledge now that there was another coup in the making, during the same week, which would have led to a bloodless take-over while the President was in Zimbabwe. The old guard of Tubman, in association with some new young political leaders at the time and some members of the Tolbert entourage had planned a palace coup. And when Doe and his men went to the Mansion - for an obscure reason - and killed by accident the President, they changed the course of history.

Liberia is still living the aftermath of that historic and barbaric accident. It's been two decades - some may argue otherwise - since the nightmare started. Those who were yearning for a smooth transition to democracy seem to have all given up.

However, whatever Liberia endured in the 1980s under Doe is pales in comparison to what she went through in the 1990s, staring with the "so-called" revolution of Charles McArthur (now Ghankay) Taylor. First there was the total destruction of the country a la Pol Pot. Then other men from the Doe era emerged. George Boley, Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson, Prince Johnson, all claimed to have come to salvage Liberia from the dooms. Alhaji Kromah came in from Sierra Leone, saying that he was bringing the refugees home. He didn't stop until he entered the Executive Mansion. Once in there, he was busy competing with Charles Taylor over cars and shoes and air-conditions. George Boley took the Northeast, accusing Kromah of failing ULIMO and launched the Liberian Peace Council, he too made it to the Executive Mansion. Then came Roosevelt Johnson. A former high school teacher turned General, betrayed so many times and still wondering what hit him. The mid 1990s was a time of organized banditry, when a group of criminals toke over a nation and turned it into their own little joy toy. Lord, please don't let them come back, unless it is to face a tribunal.

In the mid 1990s, Liberia was divided in small chunks, with each warlord with a fiefdom. Each of these men exploited diamonds, gold, timber, and slave-like child -labor in their area. They killed, maimed and raped with absolute impunity. It is rather a macabre irony that all these men are still alive, enjoying the wealth they have looted from the land. Liberians are a forgiving people. They run into George Boley in Takoradi, Ghana, they just look at him and smile. They run into Alhaji Kromah in Silver Spring, MD, they just look at him and smile. They see Roosevelt Johnson in Lagos and just look at him and smile. They watch Taylor every day and wonder when he is going to wake up and clean up his act before the same fate he brought to Doe befalls on him.

This infantile attitude of not making people pay for their bad deeds is probably the reason of this whole curse. Can Liberia start to make people accountable for their actions and make them pay for it? Baccus Matthews once said that Taylor was acting the way he was because he was never made to pay any price for his actions... Well, is Mr. Taylor paying well enough now?

How does Liberia go from here? Will Taylor change? Should he be gotten rid of like Doe and Tolbert? Are Liberians ready to put an end to the cycle of violence? To many, it is impossible to expect any personality change in Taylor. Some believe that he has gone beyond salvation. Some put their faith in the military adventurism of the likes of LURD. How many more wars can the country sustain? In Philadelphia, in New Jersey, Rhode Island, California, Illinois, in Atlanta, in prison in foreign lands, in border towns in West Africa, and in the darkness of the streets of Monrovia and Bassa and Gbarnga and elsewhere, Liberians will be celebrating their 154th birthday, with one prayer and one wish:

Let the nightmare stop. It doesn't matter how. Let it simply stop. Enough is enough.

Happy Birthday, Liberia!

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