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The Liberian Saga: One Nation, Two Cultures

The Perspective
November 8, 1999
By Abraham M. Williams

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 nationalism.

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 orientation".

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, and selfishness.

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" government.

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 development.

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 nationalism.

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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Copyright (c) 1999 The Perspective. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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