The Indigenous & Americo Liberians' "Palava"

By D. Sumowuoi Pewu

I still remember the observation made in 1985 by the late Counselor C. Abayomi Cassell, when he hosted a meeting of various opposition political parties planning to contest the general elections of 1985. In that meeting were senior representatives from every opposition party, except the Unification Party led by the late Dr. Edward Kessselly.

In a rather strange way, Counselor C. Abayomi Cassell began his opening statement by saying: "Before we begin our discussion, I want to make a statement." Almost everyone at the historic discussion paused and there was deafening silence in the room. He went on, "In the past, my forefathers arrived on these shores seeking a home. They were returning to the land of their forefathers from where they had been taken as captives and sold into slavery. They returned with new skills, and they trusted in God and the consideration that they were returning to their brothers and sisters in our common land of origin.

"Over the years, however, some of my forefathers have wronged yours [forefathers]. If you feel that this is the case, and if it disturbs you, then please allow me to apologize for any injustice done your forebearers by mine, which may come between us. The condition of our country must come first in whatever we do. Our personal and ethnic differences must not stand in the way of our desire to resolve more pressing national issues. And to this end, I am asking you to accept, on behalf of my forefathers, my apology." Everyone was deeply touched by the old-man's courage to concede that injustices were committed in the past against indigenous Liberians.

Uncle Christian ( as my late friend, Clifford Flemister would call Counselor Cassell ) set the pace for a major national discussion on reconciliation by accepting part of the responsibility then, thereby making the subject of national reconciliation little more easier to deal with under today's climate.

It is against such backdrop, several years ago, that I made a conscious decision not to get caught up in the very difficult subject of the "Congos" and the "Country Men's " argument. Because, no matter how our deformed perception, Liberians are fiercely defensive of their ideas and restrictive intellectual frame. I therefore see not much mileage in splitting heads over issue of injustices committed in our society that is so obvious that even the Ku Klux Klan and The White Afrikaans Resistance Movement would not only have envied, but would reach the same reasonable conclusion with the rest of us, that indeed, ethnic hatred and injustices were committed against indigenous by certain section of the settler community that ruled Liberia for more than 133 years.

Of course, we have tendency to see no evil associated with our families, and such attitude fits only a pattern of denial of our forebearers' unfortunate gruesome past. But what is even most important, we are afraid that if we concede wrong doing on our forbearers behalf, we will be generating a stigma not only for them, but for ourselves. We have a knack and an acute social pathology of confusing causation with effect as part of our social conditioning of misplacing blames. We all recall how people (including children, friends and relatives of former government officials) were angry at the Liberian opposition and Doe for the 1980 coup d' tat. Most people, as would be expected, were in effect reacting to the impact of the coup that led to the execution of 13 former government officials from the True Whig Party. In the emotional frenzy and grief stricken debate, many people failed to explore the past. Instead, they glossed over the cause of the coup: the exclusion of the majority of indigenous to equal access in the economic and political affairs of the state.

As a Liberian, it is all too familiar to me that the 1980 introduction of arms into our politics has not only greatly modified and intensified our internal division and conflicts, but the event makes it hopelessly unhelpful as we all frantically search and embark on an active soul stirring effort aimed at finding lasting solutions to our seemingly interminable crisis.

I have repeatedly indicated that we need to get back to basics to understand the nature of our problems. We have to go beyond the April 14, 1979 Rice Riot and the 1980 military coup that ushered in the era of military dictatorship as the beginning of Liberia's problems. Our country is quintessentially a product of difficult historical circumstances due in part, to the ill-conceived manner in which former slaves were shipped and settled in Liberia. Although these people were returning to the shores of their forefathers, most of them, were born in captivity where their socialization and political conditioning were patented on a master-servant relationship. Their social conditioning dictated a shallow understanding of society having only "masters" and "servants." This mistaken perception of societal relationship is quite evident even today amongst some children of descendants of slaves, who constantly refer to fellow Liberians as "Heathens."

The settlers made little effort to build a sustained connection to their roots or understand the various enduring cultural forces in our society. On the contrary, they viewed indigenous Liberians with suspicion. The natives were perceived to be primitive, superstitious, and mythological to the extent of being incapable of reasoning in contemporary fashion. Although the settlers themselves were only scarcely educated with limited knowledge of government, their arrival signaled a new configuration of politics in Liberia. Political power became an indispensable instrument in enhancing Americo-Liberians strangle hold on the economy. This acute power monopoly by Americo-Liberians soon engendered friction with the indigenous population that increasingly saw itself marginalized from the mainstream of politics and government. The natives were important in so far as taxes were concerned and were not allowed to vote nor consulted on public policy matters since the minority ruling class saw itself as omnipotent and, therefore, did not encourage indigenous initiatives.

In a bid to perpetuate its unsavory politics, the Liberian government 1871 embarked on a deliberate policy to keep indigenous Liberians from benefiting from education that was being provided by churches and missionaries in the heartland of Liberia. This policy was intended to keep indigenous illiterate, thereby, making it impossible to compete with the Americo-Liberians ruling class. The ensuing conflict, which started in 1875, eventually led to the shut down of Cuttington College (Cuttington University College as it is known today) located in Maryland County at the time. The Episcopal Church, sensing no wisdom in excluding natives from educational opportunities, soon invited the wrath of the government. Even the University of Liberia (Liberia College then), the only state run institution at the time, sustained through taxes from the Liberian people, denied admission to the indigenous until the 1950s when it finally changed its policy of non admission to indigenous.

Inarguably, the matrix of our political and social institutions were laced with ethnic prejudices. People were denied jobs, scholarships, etc., purely on the basis of their names and ethnic backgrounds. If you didn't bear certain names like Dennis, Henry, Deshield, and/or Tolbert, but instead had Flomo, Saye or Garpu, you were doomed. The system took on a character like those in South Africa and the system of "White Only" policies in America before 1964.

But, unlike Liberia, the United States and South Africa had black institutions, (though relatively inferior and underfunded than those of Whites) that at least, gave blacks some measure of opportunity to gain education. Indigenous Liberians didn't have such an option. Surely, the system in Liberia was broken and badly needed change. I am surprised it took more than a century and three decades before such a change finally came about. Now, I realize we might not all agree on or reach a consensus on the nature and degree of change that was needed in Liberia. However, what is less debatable is that change was inevitable.

Finally, I will return to a familiar theme that we need to understand the past and immediate backgrounds of the things that brought our country where it is today-divided and lawless. Unless we are less human than all others, the road to healing and national reconciliation would be found at the point where, we must all share in the blame and responsibility ( no one is innocent) for bringing our country's "down low." It is only then, by being courageous and upfront like the late C. Abayomi Cassell, that we can begin the arduous task of reconstruction and national renewal.