Atlanta - In his series, Liberia's Ugly Past, my colleague James D.
Smith had highlighted key indelible elements of the Americo-Liberian
legacy. Mr. Smith ably dealt with this issue that it would be
repetitive for me to venture redoing his brilliant pieces.
What I intend to do in this article is to look at that legacy and
pinpoint one of its lasting effects that has helped retard progress and
foster little social interaction between the Americo-Liberians and
Africans in Liberia. I have decided to do this because that particular
issue has become preeminent in every level of our discussion. Of
course, I am talking about ethnicity. Some people try to blame the
heightened awareness of ethnicity as one of the leading factors for the
current political upheavals in Liberia. Those who hold this view
believe accentuating ethnicity breeds division, which in turn rends the
nation asunder and promotes disunity that has seriously impeded
Another angle of this argument that is gaining currency in our
social exchanges, according to former Sen. Charles W. Brumskine, is
that ethnicity is used as a shield to "cover one's own inadequacies
while preying upon the fears and insecurity of others". The former
Grand Bassa lawmaker, who had seen ethnicity touted as a wedge by a
"small, but vocal, groups of Liberians," is concerned that unless this
issue is properly addressed, it will continue to be a source of
division. I am in complete accord.
However, ethnicity is a smooth euphemism for tribalism, which is the
appropriate, preferred descriptive word Americo-Liberians associate
with African-Liberians. In Liberian political parlance, the term
tribalism denotes derogatory, uncivilized propensity, though the
literal meaning refers to a strong sense of identifying with and being
loyal to one's tribe, groups, etc. But since the returned Africans
(Americo-Liberians) felt they were more refined and superior than their
African kinsmen, they found it necessary to use labels to distinguish
the classes. It's sad that we have to use such prefixes to describe one
another, but such is the Liberian reality.
Before going forward, let me define a few terms that will be
repeated throughout this piece. This will help our non-Liberian readers
to get a better understanding of the issue and refresh the memory of
those Liberians who have developed convenient amnesia. Americo-Liberian
refers to a Liberian who has freed American slave ancestry while Congo
refers to a Liberian of captured African ancestry who never reached the
west when slavery was abolished. These people were shipped to Liberia
and for a long time were second class citizens. Also included in this
class are people recruited from the Caribbean Islands and other African
countries. Over time the two groups combined and ruled the Country
people or indigenous owners of the land. The latter category, which
constitutes about 98% of the population and comprises 16 different
major ethnic groups, is sometimes called African Liberian.
Each of the words in this class system assumes added meaning in
Liberian socialization process: the phrase Americo-Liberian or Congo
person signifies superiority, access to educational, economic
opportunities and political power. In contrast, a Country or African
Liberian is considered a lowlife subject to exploitation, denied access
to opportunities and political power, and relegated to the demeaning
caprices of poverty
Instead of calling every citizen just a Liberian, the Americo-
Liberians created a class system modeled after the antebellum
plantations of slavery from which they had been extricated. In their
system they were the masters and the African majority became the
servants. As this nation of two states in which all the citizens did
not have equal rights or equal access to national benefits in all
spheres of social development evolved, efforts were made to suppress
any awareness of the African self-worth. One of the obnoxious reminders
of this insidious legacy is that some African-Liberians today feel
inferior as the system has conditioned them to be. Sometimes, they
exhibit a tendency of low self-esteem, timidity and deference,
especially so when the two groups interact. A friend and colleague of
mine once referred to this wretched effect as a "consequence of social
But the situation took a dramatic turn in the decade of the 1970s
when political consciousness in Liberia reached its zenith. During that
period, various progressive politicians and democracy activists seized
the opportunity occasioned by a national policy of casting the African
majority in low light and neglect. These reformist politicians began to
emphasize the virtues of African culture, urging Liberians not to be
embarrassed of their African heritage. This gave rise to a greater
awareness of ethnicity that the ruling oligarchy had tried to degrade.
No doubt, ethnicity is a two dimensional dagger which can do both
good and bad. On the good side, it helps shape one's perceptions of the
society around him. It's an essential source from which the family
derives its formative socialization. But excessive accentuation of
ethnicity can be a major huddle to national unity. Many examples of
ethnic strife abound. From Angola to Rwanda, from the Middle East to
Sri Lanka and from Turkey to Bosnia, we have seen some of the worst
excesses of ethnicity. If we are to rebuild a unified Liberia, we must
address those issues that are gravely undermining the cohesive fabric
of our society.
Our major problem is not that we do not know what ails our society
or the corrective measures that we must take to improve the situation.
The challenge is our inability to take the necessary actions to change
the course of events in Liberia. This failure to confront the corrosive
cancer that is eating at the core of Liberian nationalism is rooted in
many calculations: ethnicity, control of economic and political power,
Compounding the above huddles is the innate Liberian tendency of
internalizing rather than taking a position publicly on national policy
issues. This is why most people who support the Taylor administration
often preface their remarks with " I am not a Taylor supporter." Every
Liberian knows that the just ended war was fueled by ethnicity, but no
one is prepared to admit that publicly. Instead, most Liberians will
give other reasons.
The truth of the matter is when the military overthrew the elitist
government in 1980, the general consensus reached by every analyst was
that the native African majority had finally taken control of the
country. Virtually, all indigenous groups welcomed the takeover.
Understandably, no ethnic Americo-Liberian embraced the military
action. Initially many African Liberians considered the takeover as a
national feat, a sort of victory over the suppressing aristocracy, but
that was not exactly how the ethnic groups whose members actually
staged the coup viewed it. The Gio/Mano, and Krahn /Sarpo coalition
that dominated the military regime began to make it clear that this was
their "thing." And for a period of time, they abused, extorted and
harassed the rest of the population.
As Sargent Samuel Kanyon Doe, Chairman of the ruling People's
Redemption Council (PRC), began to consolidate power and eliminate
perceived potential rivals, a rift developed within the ruling council.
With support of his ethnic Krahns, Doe viciously went after his
colleagues, ridding most of the leading Gio/Mano members of the regime.
He filled key positions in both the bureaucracy and the military and
security apparatus with mainly ethnic Krahns and other apologists.
The coup, which was considered as an act to reverse the imbalance of
Americo-Liberian's domination of political and economic power since the
inception of Liberia, address the horrendous social degradation and
level the playing field for all citizens, merely transferred power from
one ethnic group to another. It further exacerbated the already
heightened tensions of ethnicity. The regime became a "Krahn"
But Doe's decision to marginalize his co-coup makers provided an
opportunity for his main enemy, the dethroned oligarchy, to join forces
with the pool of former coup makers and their ethnic supporters. A
marriage of convenience was consummated between ethnic Americo-
Liberians, with their enormous resources of wealth and connections
garnered during the many years they ruled and the mainly enraged ethnic
Gios/Manos, willing to do the fighting to avenge Doe's ruthlessness.
These two aggrieved ethnic groups led the war against Doe, which
plunged Liberia into chaos and destruction. Both sides went after the
civilian population, each side accusing other ethnic groups of
supporting the other.
Besides ethnicity another huddle to nationalism is power both
economic and political. In Liberia, most people enter public service
not because they have a burning desire to serve their country and
fellow citizens. They do so primarily as a means to economically
sustain themselves, government being biggest employer in the country.
And people within the system often try to entrench themselves in power,
which is a recipe for abuse and corruption. Political power means
wealth in Liberia. Those who control it live ostentatious lifestyle
while the rest of the people are left to the whims of abject poverty.
This corrupt structure breeds a citizenry devoid of patriotism. For
more than a century of rule, the Americo-Liberians did not initiate any
meaningful development programs, though the country was endowed with
mineral resources which were exploited at this time. Very little
national investment was made in infrastructure and human resource
Instead, national wealth was converted to individual personal
assets. This tainted practice, which was emulated by the Doe regime, is
the model used by Mr. Taylor today. There is no distinction between
national and personal property. Mr. Taylor, like his predecessors, is
raping the natural resources for personal use. He controls all funds of
the state without any accountability to the public. He and his
associates along with unscrupulous international firms are destroying
the rain forest without regard to future consequences.
The irony of the Liberian saga is that every Liberian is aware of
all this, but prefers to ignore it. Some are ingratiating the regime to
join now, hoping such a decision will become lucrative in the future.
Others castigate those of us who are calling for public evaluation of
this sick national characteristic that is rapidly eroding our
When the coup took place in 1980 and the military seized power,
those that led the takeover and their allies thought by killing a few
Americo-Liberians, crushing perceived enemies and building a massive
security network would guarantee their safety. Now, we know that no
military fortress can ensure a dictatorship.
But Mr. Taylor has become oblivious of this important fact. He
believes by killing a few ethnic Krahns, terrorizing imagined enemies,
and building a police state would guarantee his rule. He too must be
daydreaming. The damage that has been done in Liberia is so grave that
we need more than military power to re-establish moral authority,
confidence and trust in the citizens. In order to inculcate real, not
cosmetic, democratic culture and a value system based on respect for
each individual, we must disburden ourselves of this craving to use
violence as an alternative.
Liberia needs a national commission empowered to examine the mosaic
of issues that has bedeviled the country, including the civil war,
ethnic tensions and reconciliation. It's a folly to think we can brush
the war experience under the rug and forget it. Those who engaged in
atrocities outside international bounds of warfare and killed innocent
civilians must be brought before the panel to account for their
actions, and where necessary, bear the appropriate penalties. No
reconciliation or atonement can take hold without seriously flushing
out those who had committed war crimes from our midst. And no regime
can survive if it ignores this critical question, and Liberia cannot
move on to rebuilding its vital national infrastructure with this
nagging impediment embedded in its national consciousness.
In the course of that national self-examination, all ethnic groups
should understand that the country belongs to all its citizens and that
no one group of citizens is better or has more rights than the next.
Peace and stability in the country will largely depend on the
harmonious relationship among all the people. And genuine
reconciliation requires respect for each other, understanding that a
whole is the sum of its parts.
Anything short of this approach is posturing for selfish political
advantage and it does not serve the national interest. It's time we put
nationalism over greedy interest.
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