Liberia's Ugly Past (Part II)

By James D. Smith

The American Colonization Society, one of the forerunners of Liberia, was founded by leading Americans of goodwill who were deeply concerned about the purity of European culture in this society and the maintenance of economic viability.

These Americans, some of them with religious affiliation and conviction, were concerned about the social problems which were boiling under the surface in this country about the freed slaves, and felt they should find a solution to rid the country of former slaves.

There were two camps within this group. One consisted of persons with political connection who thought it was the right thing to do by lending their names to the group's cause, so as to gain the necessary momentum it would need to enable it to send black people back to Africa. This camp included such notables as Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, nephew of U.S. President George Washington; Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

At that time, southern plantation owners were afraid of the impact on their slaves of freed black Americans. They prevailed upon their political leaders that such a dreadful condition would adversely affect their control over their slaves. And if they could not maintain absolute and complete control over their property (slaves), this could threaten their economic survival.

This powerful political constituency brought pressure to bear on the politicians to offer their support to the crusade to ship freed slaves back to Africa. Most of these former slaves settled in what is now called Liberia.

The other camp consisted mainly of philanthropic and religious leaders who saw the American blacks as an opportunity for establishing a beachhead in West Africa for Protestant Christianity.

The freed slaves brought with them some of the attributes of America, a society which had consigned them to subhuman conditions, considered them as property for nearly two and quarter centuries before they emigrated to Liberia.

Instead of being guided against such inhumane treatment they suffered at the hands of their former masters, they took on the characters of the slave masters and began to treat the Africans in similar manner as they encountered in slavery.

Their rationale was the Africans were hostile elements who were against the idea that the ex- slaves had come to take their land. No doubt, they engaged the settlers in battle for control of their land, which was taken from them through all kinds of fraudulent schemes.

Upon declaring Liberia independent from the various colonization societies which organized and sponsored the return of freed slaves to the Grain Coast of Africa, the Americos instituted rigid policies to separate themselves from the Africans. For many years, the Africans were mere property of the state and were not considered citizens until quite recently. The same kind of injustices that America had subjected the ex-slaves to were imposed on the Africans: The Africans were denied education, they paid taxes without representation, the state denied them all benefits available to its citizens

One of the unfortunate saga of Liberian history which most Liberians do not know about is that the struggle for equality, equity, justice and fair treatment for all Liberians is as old as the republic. This fact undermines and invalidates the contention of some old order apologists that some of us demanded radical changes without giving the authority enough time to formulate a gradual transitional set of programs. But of course, the government was not ready for peaceful change.

After being rejected by Rutgers and two other universities because of his race 1849, seminal black scholar, Edward Wilmot Blyden, sought assistance from the American Colonization Society, which helped him repatriate to Liberia in 1850.

Blyden rapidly advanced to become a man of letters, an editor, statesman, linguist (learning 26 languages), educator, author, professor and president of Liberia College (now University of Liberia).

In Liberia, Blyden did not hide his disdain for the country's mulatto ruling class, even though in 1856, six years after emigrating, he married Sara Yates, a mulatto from a wealthy family. He believed the mulattos used their privileged position to exploit the black masses and hinder advancement. Thus, Blyden became a highly controversial figure. One day he was dragged through the streets on the verge of being hanged by the ruling class, but was saved by a close friend. He fled Liberia and settled in Sierra Leone.

This trend of restricted policy designed to limit the ability of the African to become useful and enlightened individual, as manifested by the Blyden episode, continued until the military coup of 1980, when the oligarchy was overthrown. It was an unwritten code that African-Liberians were forbidden to become president. Most were not allowed to participate in electoral politics, since they did meet the property requirement put in place to deprive them from voting.

This blatant slave master's mentality continued until the 1970s. In Liberia, it was sedition for anyone to question government policy regarding the equity of treatment against the majority of its citizens. Many people who had the guts to raise concern about this issue were thrown in jail on charges of sedition and attempting to undermine the "constituted authority".

On paper, Liberia was a democracy. But in reality, it was a dictatorship. For a stranger who read travel brochures about Liberia or who relied on information in the public domain about the country, would have come away with the impression that the place was a microcosm of the United States in Africa. Similar governmental structure: Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches. The truth is all legislations were drafted, not only proposed, from the Executive Mansion and sent to the so-called legislators who merely rubber-stamped them. The outcomes of all cases involving the government were essentially determined by the president. In other words, the Liberian president was an absolute ruler.

Every four years, we had nominal election - selection will be the appropriate word - to choose the president and members of the legislature. In this display of charade, the president who was standard bearer of the sole party, the True Whig Party, had already dispensed positions to those who had done his bidden and disposed of those who had not met his arbitrary requirement before the election began. In other words the president had chosen those who would be senators and representatives before the election. The outcome was known before the process.

During the heyday of the True Whig Party rule, it was difficult to distinguish between official and private business. Key legislators were agents of foreign corporations, making laws against citizens interest to benefit the foreign companies they represented. Most government officials, including the president, vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, were shareholders and board members of corporations which had joint venture agreements with the state. The concept of conflict of interest had no meaning in Liberia's officialdom.

Often, the government sided with foreign corporations by making laws which depressed wages of the peasant workers while top officials received kickbacks from these same corporations. Corruption was the mother's milk of Liberian politics.

All along most Americo-Liberians felt Liberia was their private property; that they had a divine right to exploit the land and its African majority population. And for years, they indulged themselves to the erroneous belief that they were Americans and that they could return to America without any hassle. But we all know the truth now.

Their claim of special relations with the United States was a scheme designed to intimidate African-Liberians that they were special and important than other people. Some of these internal Liberian imperialists have the gall to stand in judgment of white racism in this country when they practiced those same policies against fellow Liberians. At least the white people can use race, though foolhardy, as reason for their abominable actions against black people. What plausible rationale can you give to justify your intolerable actions against African-Lberians, Americos?

Since we began to articulate and lay bare the horrendous political and economic condition which permeated Liberian society before the war, many Liberians have complained to me, saying why not forget about what happened in the past and just seek solution to our current crisis. I am taken aback by this sentiment because in order to deal with the problem effectively, one must know the cause or causes.

One thing must be made clear, in all the attempts to solve the Liberian problem, the perpetrators of this conflict as well as the benefactors, those whose policies we have previewed above and elsewhere in this publication, have admitted no wrong doing. For them, the basic premise is : "The Americo-Liberians are the only people who can rule Liberia" and that the "Native people are incapable of ruling Liberia."

Such a sentiment does not augur well for coalescing a united front in search for lasting solution to the Liberian predicament. Many Americo-Liberians still believe they must rule the country or else Liberia should not exist. This is not engaging in overly dramatics.

At height of the 1992 the Octopus, when the NPFL besieged Monrovia and thousands of people were killed, one Americo-Liberian, who was a junior minister in the Tolbert regime, angrily questioned my concern about rebels killing innocent people. He said, "If rebels don't kill native people, they will die from mosquito bites anyway". This statement profoundly affected my views politically.

At a November 23, 1996 Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) installation in Winston Salem, N.C., Mr. Lafayette Diggs, the guest speaker, attempting to justify Americo-Liberians' actions said: "The major point that was missed by everyone was the fact that the people who were returning to Africa were not Africans at all. The only tie they had with Africa and its people were a common heritage and a somewhat black skin complexion. Other than that, there were no other ties. They had already been in the Western Hemisphere for almost 300 years so when they arrived in Africa, their relations with the indigenous population were the same as that of any other colonial people with an air of superiority and the will to dominate. The Biblical word "heathen" characterized most of their relationship with the indigenous population."

Mr. Diggs tried to rationalize what he called "the double tragedy of Liberia" by suggesting "the colonizers were ill-prepared in every single aspect to govern another people..." and that they were at a disadvantage since their number never exceeded 15,000.

But let's put the issue in its proper perspective by briefly looking at two key aspects of Mr. Diggs's argument. 1) The Biblical word heathen and 2) the number 15,000. Heathen means a person who is not a believer in any of the world's chief religions, especially one who is neither Christian, Jew, nor Muslim. An unenlightened person, one regarded as lacking culture or moral principles.

In Liberia, this small number of people - 15,000 people- put in place a diabolical system which fostered heathenism and they used religion in a bizarre way to justify their actions. These neo colonialists perpetrated atrocities against the majority indigenous population by instituting policies which prevented the African-Liberian from reaching his potentials.

In an effort to bolster his line of argument, Mr. Diggs said, "However, a significant milestone was reached in 1947 when government instituted a 'National Unification policy' designed to bring all of the different groups together and enfranchise the vast majority. Schools were established throughout the country and political participation and representation for the indigenous population was allowed."

Forgive me for my youthful ignorance since I was not around in 1947, but I have never read about this "significant milestone" in Liberian history, and I certainly did not see all those schools, at least, not in my area of the country.

The denial of education was the single most effective means by which the Americos kept African-Liberians in that state of heathenism. They knew it. Every government policy was based on this strategy. Many now regret allowing the missionaries who opened schools in the interior and the peace corps volunteers who provided substantial, forbidden reading materials on politics to their students.

This arrogance continues today through such old order apologists like Mr. Diggs, who made a speech on our crisis without mentioning the all important character, Charles Taylor, as a factor. Such an attempt at redefining history, to me, lacks integrity, and must be dismissed as propaganda which does not add anything of substance to our search for genuine peace in Liberia.

I am disappointed about Liberians' ambivalence to join the debate in the Perspective, but I am not surprised. For many years, society prohibited us from expressing our views on matters of this significance. Others made whatever decision they felt was good for us and we had no recourse to reject. Free speech was not an element of our paper democracy. However, I thought by now, since some of us have been in the U.S. for some time, we would have overcome our fear to address matters of public policy.

In our search for peace, we will do ourselves justice if we remain loyal to the truth, regardless which side one supports.