Liberia's Ugly Past (Part V)

By James D. Smith

For more than a year, I have regularly used this space to review the unpleasant realities of Liberian history by attempting to spotlight the inhumane treatment that the Americo-Liberian elite perpetrated against the African owners of the land. I have, in effect, underscored some of the sleazy manipulation they used to reinvent an untrue history of Liberia and create a fascinating legacy based on illusion devoid of truth.

Some people may say, correctly or incorrectly, that I have been an Americo-Liberian-bashing zealot. I am sure that many readers of this column are wondering what my next angle of discussion will be, since Mr. Taylor, an Americo-Liberian agent of death, has assumed control of Liberia, replacing an African-Liberian tyrant.

Likewise, others might be suggesting that perhaps my short hiatus was due to lack of issues to discuss. I am sorry to disappoint all of you in your collective speculation. I am back and here to stay.

However, this column will be different from my previous attempts to lay bare Americo-Liberian dehumanization of the African-Liberians. It will, in the mean, be an exercise in divisive politics which significantly contributed, though by no means the only factor, to the defeat of the progressive politicians, and returned control of Liberia to apologists of the old order.

The attempt here is to look at political developments in Liberia over the past two decades, a period during which the progressive political movement came to prominence, and present a brief outline of their self-destructive maneuver. It will be an effort to underline some of the major events that culminated to the Americo-Liberian return to power and dismantled the progressive elements permanently.

As I read the results of the Liberian elections last July, Mr. Taylor's victory did not surprise me at all. The so-called progressive politicians had already made winning easy for him. Ambitions and personal egos obscured their better judgment and they became oblivious of the fact that in politics number is an important determinant.

Over the years, they and their supporters engaged in this silly, self-defeating game that one side or the other has all the solutions to Liberia's problems and the support of the people. They eagerly indulged the notion of neutralizing one another, thinking that such actions would pave the way to their political kingdom. They were all wrong.

As a result of this miscalculation, many progressive politicians and the revolution of the seventies will probably be a footnote in Liberian history.

Prior to the 1980 coup which wrecked the Americo-Liberian political apparatus and sent its members into temporary exile, most progressive politicians believed the Liberian system could be changed peacefully. They thought they could have a revolution without bloodshed. Little did they know that the elitists were ready go to extreme lengths to maintain their position of privilege.

So, they found themselves in awkward position when the military seized power and asked these politicians to join them to administer the affairs of the state. Some of these advocates for the political change had benefitted from the elitist system; therefore, they were not prepared for the kind of radical actions the military took.

Many in the progressive movement literally believed the provisions of the Liberian Constitution which gave the people the rights to peaceably assemble and petition their government for the redress of grievances.

But beneath the facade of flowery words expressing our abiding commitment and adherence to democracy in our constitution and laws, our extolment of democratic virtues, Liberian authorities generally despise democracy. Most Liberian officials think they are above the law.

While these progressive politicians were doing everything possible to neutralize each other, the remnants of the Americo- Liberian establishment were mapping strategies for their return to power.

From their perspective, Liberia is theirs - and theirs only. For many Americo-Liberians and their apologists, the military coup in 1980 which brought the African majority to power was an aberration, an unacceptable nuisance, which must be reversed at all costs. So they started to look at the options available to them. And to their surprise, there was conduit aplenty among which were elements of the progressive movement and a herd of compliant African-Liberians such as Tom Woewiyu and others, who were ready to supply their unsuspecting, illiterate brothers as guinea pigs for the cause of the Americos.

Here is how the progressive movement and their military allies fell victim to the elitist's deliberate, concerted and calculative drive back to the pinnacle of power, of course, with the help of the victims. The defunct elitists' first order of business was to seek ways to create a division within the military junta that had taken their power.

So when the Reacquisition commission, a brain child of Brigadier General Thomas Weh Syeh (Vice chairman of the ruling council), released its report containing holdings of various former government officials, many ex-officials became nervous. According to that report, former dictator William V. S. Tubman owned some 95 buildings and other properties throughout Liberia. Other former government officials who were major property owners included the late President Tolbert, Taylor E. Major, James T. Phillips, Lawrence A. Morgan, etc.

This revelation shocked most ordinary people. Many believed something was wrong with the system that allowed a select few to rob the majority. At that time, more than 90 percent of the population lived in substandard housing and condemned by the wrath of poverty. This woeful condition has been exacerbated by the war.

Suddenly, a number of strange events began to unfold. Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, Chairman of the People's Redemption Council and head of state, began to detest counter revolutionary activities among his comrades and others associated with the junta. He ordered the execution of Gen. Weh Syeh and his alleged collaborators, accusing them of attempting to overthrow the military government.

Observers say this single event gave the defunct establishment the impetus and a clearer sense that the military junta was, in deed, vulnerable and could be crushed from within, if properly engaged.

In this direction, elements of the wrecked political machinery began to make overtures to military junta, under the guise of national reconciliation. While this effort of inclusion seemed genuine and needed to move the country forward, some of the dethroned politicos and their operatives saw a window of opportunity to forment division and intensify rivalry within the ruling council.

As tension heightened and the nation abuzz with rumors of coup, Sergeant Doe began to concentrate on his own survival at the expense of the state. The cloud of suspicion mounted against both military personnel and civilian politicians, including some who were once allies of the junta. Arbitrary arrests, extra judicial activities, accusations of complicity to overthrow abounded.

This rash of events led to the transfer of Brigadier General Thomas Quiwonkpa as commander general of armed forces to secretary-general of the ruling council. This action enraged Gen. Quiwonkpa and his supporters and delighted the defunct oligarchy that their "divide and conquer" strategy was moving on course with intended result.

With General Quiwonkpa being the second casualty of Doe's consolidation of power, Sergeant Doe widened the pool of his enemies and set the stage for his eventual overthrow. General Quiwonkpa was whisked into exile to the United States, and many of his supporters, mainly, decommissioned security personnel, took refuge in neighboring Cote d'Ivoire where they began training to engage the Doe dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the seemingly formidable progressive movement was in disarray, with some of its leaders driven into exile; whereas those who remained at home were effectively neutralized.

With the True Whig Party dismantled, its leadership dislocated and the progressive movement marginalized, Sergeant Doe assumed complete control of Liberia with tyrannical muscles.

Against this backdrop, remnants of the old political order and element of the progressive movement in exile, once political antagonists, began to work together in opposition to Doe. As they say "politics makes strange bedfellows".

In this unholy alliance, each side cautiously engaged the other, while distrust became the common denominator as they coalesced toward their common objective - the removal of the Doe regime.

For its part, the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), an earlier supporter of the military the junta, became polarized by divided loyalty. Most of its leaders became spokespersons for the "opposition" in exile.

In 1985, Liberians went to the polls to elect members of the legislature and a president in order to return the country to civilian leadership. But the process that preceded the elections had already significantly decimated the progressive movement. Doe banned those parties and politicians he considered a threat to his masquerade.

So, Liberians were treated to the second spectacle of rigged elections in which Sergeant Doe and his National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) were declared the winners. This mountain of political shenanigan enraged all Liberians in general, and the opposition politicians, in particular.

Impelled by his sponsors, General Thomas Quiwonkpa returned home to launch his ill-fated coup against Doe, his one time comrade- in-arms. This event marked the first public display of savagery in Monrovia since the coup, as the world watched Liberians butchered, killed and ate one another in the street. General Quiwonkpa was among those killed in this venture.

As everything seemed to be going Doe's way, the displaced Liberian politicos, along with the so-called Liberian intelligentsia, resolved that the only remedy to Liberia's problems was to overthrow Doe. They offered what seemed pellucid analysis why the Doe regime should be removed.

However, they failed to consider what consequences could result by attempting to remove Mr. Doe by force. Many said the first and paramount concern should be the removal of the dictatorship, not the likely human tragedy that would follow. Some analysis!

With this kind of mind-set, the death warrant of the Liberian masses was signed by a handful of self-serving people, thousands of miles away from the scene.

So Charles Taylor & company went home to complete what Gen. Quiwonkpa had started, and of course, the rest is history.

Throughout the conflict, we were told that the war was necessary in order to restore democracy. But we have never had democracy.

In reality, our people were killed so Americo-Liberians could regain their political control. African-Liberians died for Americo-Liberian aspirations and political domination.

Finally, I must pose these two questions to the Liberian general public, and Americo-Liberians, in particular, especially, since the latter group is all over cyberspace providing valuable information about their heritage. Of the 250,000 people who died in Liberia, how many were Americo-Liberians? How many Americo- Liberians are there in Liberia?

These are serious questions which must be answered because we had just fought a bitter civil war so a particular group of people can assume power. We need to know why this group has exclusive entitlement to leadership in Liberia.

Regarding the numbers, my own guess is that the group referred to as Americo-Liberian is probably less than 40,000 people. But the history of Liberia is almost exclusively about this minute ethnic group. They control both the political apparatus and the economy at the expense of the majority. And the number of dead Americo- Liberians is probably less than 200.

Strangely though, those who fall under this label have begun to frown on the classification, preferring, instead, to be called just Liberian. I wonder why? Not long ago, it was chic and elegant to be a member of this elite class. But many are disavowing it with annoyance.

Another irony is the effort by some Liberian organizations urging us to petition American authorities to grant blanket resident status to all Liberians in the U.S. Why? The war is over. Liberia needs its citizens to rebuild and revitalize its economy.

Besides, most of the affected individuals are supporters of the new Liberian government. Why should we lobby for their comfort when their agents wrecked terror upon our people in Liberia? We cannot continue to defer to one class of people. All Liberians must be treated as equal