Liberia's Ugly Past (Part III): The True Whig Party In Unusual Waters

By James Smith

After more than one hundred years of uninterrupted rule in Liberia, the True Whig Party is overwhelmed by unusual circumstances, in the ever evolving political dynamic in Liberia. The True Whig Party, which symbolized political repression and is noted for its notorious human rights abuses against the indigenous majority population, finds itself in the midst of a political environment to which it's not accustomed.

For several years, the party which catered primarily to the elitist ruling class never accepted dissent within its hierarchy. Neither did the party machinery tolerate outside challenge or change. The True Whig Party operated on the core understanding which was characterized by the slogan: "So say one, so say all." This means whatever the party bosses said, which was often what the president wanted, goes. No one dare question the rationale or what efficacy such proposition would advance to benefit the people.

For instance, if a senator or member of the House of Representatives was against an issue which the party had put forward, that individual would be considered as voting against the president. Such a development, which was very rare, had other dire consequences as well. The legislator could lose his seat or it could mean an end to one's political career, since such a person would not be allowed to hold government job anymore in the country.

Participatory democracy was never a part of their culture. The True Whig Party which was the sole political party in the country selected all the candidates. There was no interparty primary election to determine the choice of members. Instead, the party bosses, which consisted of the president, in consultation with the secretary-general and chairman of the party, decided who should be selected for what position. The party control mechanism was such that it did not allow interparty rivalries.

With such a dismal human rights record and an unshakable stigma which will always be associated with the party, True Whig Party officials and politicians will find it difficult to make meaningful contribution to political discourse in the third republic.

For this reason, it will be prudent for those who wish to reconstitute the True Whig Party to abandon this ignoble endeavor. Instead, they should join other progressive political parties, such as the Liberia Action Party (LAP), Liberian People's Party (LPP) or United People's Party (UPP). Many former TWP government officials and would be TWP partisans can contribute enormously to the political process this way.

In other words, there should be no concentration of one group or class in one political organization. And in the case of the True Whig Party, such concentration will heighten fear and concerns that those who used power imprudently to benefit the selfish interests of the minority at the expense of the majority are once more attempting to monopolize power. This arrangement will certainly advance diversity of view in articulating national policies and bridge the gap of suspicion that has been exacerbated by the civil war.

Naturally, some people will say that it was the progressive political groups that helped bring down the True Whig Party. Yes, that may be true. But no honest, nationalistic and objective TWP politician can say with pride that the party policy advance unity in Liberia. So we must make a radical departure from our old ways, if our country is to move forward. This will be a major step in the right direction.

Nowadays, many Americo-Liberians give the impression that they are interested in free and fair elections. Often, they make it seem like they support the evolution of change which is engulfing all of Africa; that they, too, support democracy and its attendant consequences. They do not!

During the 1980s, they led the chorus of criticism against President Samuel Kanyon Doe for not allowing the democratic process to take its course, especially during the 1985 elections. And they ridiculed Mr. Doe for rigging the elections. But the records show they introduced fraud into Liberian politics before Mr. Doe was born. They do not recognize inequities until they are the victims. They are not interested in fairness in the established institutions.

That's why the current euphoria about democratic elections in Liberia and the True Whig Party's involvement in it seems odd. The party is not used to competition and its structure and the way of doing things are at variance with the tenet essential to a pluralistic democracy. And this is why many leading Americo-Liberians are having a sleepless nightmare which they will refuse to admit.

During the heyday of the True Party rule, an individual could cast his vote more than once during elections. Elections in Liberia reached comic proportions when the president allegedly dressed a monkey in frock coat, took it to the poll and allowed it to "vote". The whole exercise of elections was a sham, particularly during the dictatorship of William V.S. Tubman which lasted more than 27 years unabated.

To maintain their grip on the political and economic apparatuses, they shrewdly married within their own class. And like most class-based cultures, this helped foster their monopoly of the country for many years before 1980.

Prior to 1980, when the military seized power and neutralized the entrenched establishment, a sketch of the Liberian government looked like a big family tree. Most members of the top echelons were related either by blood or marriage. This kind of nepotism became more prevalent and pervasive during the Tolbert administration, when the president had more than a dozen of his relatives in high positions of government.

Beside the unfamiliar waters of competition which could adversely affect a reconstituted True Whig Party, a more serious legal problem could loom over the horizon for the party. During the long period of control, the True whig party forcibly deducted certain amount of money from those who worked for the Liberian government. The party hierarchy used the money to support their ostentatious lifestyles. This money was taken from the Liberian people's paychecks without their consent. Many believe the party should be required to make restitution.

In the 1920s, progressive forces helped bring to light before the League of Nations the role leading Liberians were playing in the slave traffic in Liberia. The situation had become more than transparent that the descendants of former slaves were now slave masters.

African-Liberians were forcibly exported to the Spanish Island of Fernando Po and the French Gabon where they had to work for whatever period their "contract" stipulated. Liberian officials and Spanish agents agreed in written contracts that Liberia would supply the agents with whatever number of people the agent needed to perform certain tasks. The agents in turn paid the TWP government for supplying the workers. Unfortunately, the workers had no role in the decision that shipped them away to labor camps nor did they receive any payment for their labor. More important, this was against their will.

These people were taken from their families like stray animals being hunted by animal control to be taken to the pound. The worst offenders outside Liberia were the Spaniards. The Spanish Cocoa planters in Fernando Po wanted as much cheap laborers as they could get. For this reason, their recruiting agents in 1928 entered into agreement with a number of Liberians, some of whom were officials of government, including President Charles B. D. King.

The president agreed to a contract in which foreign agents paid forty-five dollars per boy for each group of three thousand boys exported; plus a bonus of five thousand dollars for every additional group of one thousand five hundred boys. Boys were hunted almost like animals, herded to the ports.

Allen N. Yancy, who was vice president at the time, was one of the most mischievous characters ever known in Liberia. He once boasted that he would soon be "president of the Republic" and that "no man could possibly halt or hinder him even if a paramount chief should refuse to provide him with enough boys, he would have the chief publicly flogged in front of his people". One chief who testified before the League of Nations quoted Vice President as saying: "If I want to ship you to Fernardo Po now I can do so, no one can stop me".

In 1926, the True Whig Party government entered into a lease agreement with the Firestone Plantations Company, which gave Firestone the right to lease up to one million acres of land, which is roughly four percent of the entire country, for a period of ninety-nine years.

The indigenous population of the affected areas was uprooted and displaced without any compensation. I still believe the people have a right to seek legal action against the government for fair compensation for their land, as required by the concept of eminent domain.

In 1951, Mr. Didho Twe achieved something almost impossible in Liberia at that time - he organized a genuine opposition political party. At the last moment, however, the enraged True Whig Party officials managed to prevent him from taking part in the elections, by using a "technicality".

Upon reflecting on this disappointing experience, Mr. Twe wrote President Tubman a dignified letter in which he urged electoral reforms. Mr. Tubman's reply was as follows: "For the present time, my reply to your note is that you are inherently a traitor to your country, a consummate liar, a senile visionary, a sophisticated bigot and an uncompromising egotist, the true of which you will be made to realize".

This response is typical with almost all True Whig Party politicians who believe they are endowed with certain divine rights to rule over other Liberians without accountability. Many believe Liberia belongs to them, exclusively, and they could not care about African-Liberians' aspirations or needs. Hence, their support for Charles Taylor's incubus adventure.

But those of us who believe in democracy must do all within our power to defeat the enemies of equality and fairness . And bring to justice all those who kill other Liberians in order to impose a dictatorship upon us.