Liberia's Ugly Past: Re-writing Liberian History
By: James D. Smith

In a One - two punch, President Taylor tried to rewrite and re-invent Liberian history by making preposterous, ill-conceived remarks about citizenship and ethnicity. Many consider such pronouncements as a strategy by a leader trying to deflect responsibility to the desperate need for solutions to a dire web of complicated issues most of which is the result of his actions.

A few months ago, Mr. Taylor suggested proposing legislation that will change the constitution to allow peoples of non-Negro descent to become citizens of Liberia. He fantasized that this would curb capital flight and revitalize the decimated economy.

Under the constitution, the president is empowered to make proposals to the national legislature for consideration. This constitutional empowerment did not specify the quality of proposals, so the president can submit all sorts of legislative packages. In the case of constitutional amendments, the people, too, are empowered to have the final say. Therefore, the nation awaits for Mr. Taylor to reduce his rhetoric to legislative proposal, so Liberians will have the opportunity to debate the pros and cons of this controversial issue.

While it is premature, and perhaps, presumptuous and self-serving, I will be asking my editors and colleagues to allow me to research what's tantamount to the enabling circumstances to the original Liberian constitution. I cannot help but envision a spirited debate among Liberians.

Mr. Taylor must be commended for his chicanery to use controversies and mundane issues as a diversion for lack of solutions to the pressing matters of state. Since he took office, he has engineered a series of attempts to implicate his opponents in destabilizing the country, a practice which could unravel the fragile peace.

The timing of a constitutional amendment debate on this controversial matter, the fact that the president would consider it as a priority when we have no clear direction of effectively dealing with the most immediate problems, is a source for discomfort. Which is important, constitutional amendment to allow Asians, Lebanese and whites to become citizens or a commission of truth and reconciliation to examine the conduct of the war?

Most Liberians believe reviving the shattered economy, helping displaced and disabled citizens find shelter and rebuilding damaged infrastructure should be our top priority at this time.

No doubt, every sector of Liberian society has a stake in this issue. The African-Liberian majority, who has been marginalized by the defunct establishment over the years, will view this as further attempt to limit their rights. Whereas, remnants of the elitist establishment will have to wager, hoping that the new immigrants will reinforce their control. But there are no guarantees here. One can only envision a future loaded with perils and possibilities, which could change the political and economic landscape of Liberia. Debates on this issue should be heated as well as enlivened.

In another attempt to runaway from the economic and political problems in Liberia, Mr. Taylor has advanced yet another idea. He wants to detribalize all Liberians, making it a criminal offense to call someone Congo or Country.

Whatever one thinks about the president, he must be applauded for his cunning ability to come up with all the fuzziness of ideas. Having successfully used tribal children as guinea pigs to fight his war for power, President Taylor now disdains tribalism. He has just discovered that tribalism has the potential of reigniting the civil conflict. So he is prepared to propose legislation to criminalize the age-old Liberian predicament of categorizing citizens into classes: Congo and Country.

But every Liberian should approach this issue with some objectivity; free himself of the inherent prejudices and pains associated with this social divide. One must be able to digest the matter and derive sound conclusions based on the merits, not emotional hypes. Certainly, this issue should be discussed publicly, so Liberians can lay out the damages that the nation has sustained because of this artificial distinction and seek ways to remedy its decimating effects.

My only concern with the Taylor's remarks is a question of approach and substance. I believe the proper way to approach this question is in the context of a broader reconciliation conference, during which all the contributing factors to Liberia's quagmire are put on table.

Liberians who have connection with slavery are called "Americo" or "Congo" while they call those who are indigenous to the land, Country. About 98 percent of the population of Liberia belongs to the latter category, while the former makes up the remaining two percent. For more than a century, this tiny minority ruled the majority with iron hand, controlled the economy, exploited and abused the African majority.

During the heyday of the elitist rule, it was prestigious to be called "Congo" while that group, in a disparaging and demeaning way, looked down upon the indigenous population as heathens , savages or Country.

Gripped by fear of losing control, and the sheer desire to dominate others, goaded by a mentality rooted in backwardness, the elitists used the class system to deter progress and foster division. The policy of assigning persons to classes was the foundation of the oligarchy's authority. The result of this national conduct has been devastating and quite noticeable: Eighty-five percent of illiteracy, a vast majority of citizens lives in abject poverty, with its associated affliction of disease, ignorance and malnutrition.

Perhaps, a brief discussion of these terms is in order here to help those who are not familiar with Liberian history. In the early 1800's, several organizations in the United States decided to aid freed men of color relocate to their ancestral African continent. What is now Liberia was chosen to be the place.

Over the years, many former slaves were shipped to this location. As would be expected, the original inhabitants did not welcome these encroaching, unwanted, displaced and homeless freed slaves. Disputes and fighting over ownership of the land ensued, and a bitter legacy was established.

In order to distinguish themselves from the African majority, these ex-slaves called themselves Americo-Liberians. When slavery was abolished, all the Africans who were captured and enroute to slavery on the high seas were shipped to Liberia. These people, many of whom were thought to come from the Congo River region of Africa, were classified as "Congo". They became second class citizens. Over the years, the two groups joined forces to dominate the native population. Nowadays, the term Congo is generic for both groups.

From 1822 to 1980, these people formulated policies which made it possible for them to be entrenched in power. They carried with them many of the characteristics of slavery. They made sure that education was not available to the natives, just like the slaves were not given education. The natives or Country People paid taxes without representation. Natives were not allowed to vote. The irony here is they were all black people.

In an effort to bolster their number, which was undoubtedly minuscule compared to the majority population, the elitists granted preferential treatment to nationals of other African and Caribbean countries. As a result of this policy, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Togolese, Jamaicans and others received favorable accommodations and occupied prestigious positions in the political apparatus, at the expense of the African-Liberian majority.

And for many years, the Americos and their ally, the Congos, refused to be called Africans. Though they have had more than a century of interaction with the owners of the land, this colonizing population elected to establish its own unique identity. Many forbade their children from learning the several African languages spoken by the various ethnic groups of the country.

Ironically, while they disdained everything African, however, most of these so-called Americo-Liberians married women from the various indigenous populations along the Atlantic coast. This move was necessitated by the fact that fewer women opted to join the return to Africa movement of the 1800s.

Logically, such a move of intermarriage would have been a moderating factor on the social divide. But this was not the case in Liberia.

The most debilitating effect of the Americos' supremacist strategy is the dehumanization of African-Liberian people. Not only were these people made third class citizens in their own homeland, abused and exploited by the colonizing minority, they also were conditioned to feel inferior and worthless, with no self-esteem. This is the benchmark of Americo-Liberianism.

Most of present generation of Americo-Liberians has some root and connection to the native population. But because they were conditioned not to acknowledge this segment of society, many would prefer to be identified only with their paternity.

There are several examples that I could use to illustrate my point. But because of space and other constraints, I have chosen to limit myself to the current president. President Charles MacArthur Taylor is a good example in that he is viewed by the defunct oligarchy as their redeemer. Many Congo people see Mr. Taylor as the man who retook their legitimate entitlement - power - from the control of the African-Liberians.

But Mr. Taylor is a hybrid of sorts - and I use the term without its negative meaning, but simply to make a point. Throughout the discussion of Mr. Taylor, his primary benefactors will not mention that his mother, Lucy, is a African- Liberian from the Gola ethnic group. The Golas, along with the Bassas and Deys constituted the majority inhabitants of what is now Montserrado County for hundreds of years before the ex-slaves arrived.

Mr. Taylor and thousand others, who have this kind of parentage have been impacted by the social conditioning to devalue their indigenous connection, which is inferior and worthless; therefore, demeaning and lacking intelligence, according to Americo-Liberian ethos.

Sadly, many African-Liberians have also bought into this psychology of disparaging Liberians of tribal origin. Many coastal African-Liberian people have been adversely affected than others. Some coastal indigenous people have taken on characteristics of the Congo people, preferring western to African names, and frowning on traditional African culture.

One of the bizarre ironies of this social conditioning is the number of comments we receive from African-Liberians expressing their discomfort about the Congo - Country palaver. Many African-Liberians have ambivalence about our focus on the past; some call our efforts overkill. These same people, however, are eager to voice their support privately and in the absence of the elitists.

My effort of focusing on the past is not to inflame a touchy, taboo subject, and put a wedge which could further widen the division. My sole intention, however, is to force Liberians to face this issue publicly, with the aim of stimulating discussions which could lead to lasting resolutions. I would be naive if I did not admit that it be would hard to change attitude overnight.

But we cannot pretend seeking solutions to our problems without addressing the issues raised in my series. A comprehensive national reconciliation commission will be a good starting point.