Once upon a time, as the storyline goes, a group of eminent white American citizens – including literary giants like Daniel Webster and Francis Scott Key, and political titans like Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Monroe – reached a consensus that any efforts to create a truly integrated America with the formal abolition of slavery would amount to just a pipedream. They then decided to register an organisation known as the American Colonisation Society (ACS) that purchased a large tract of land along the West African coast from the indigenous population, where freed black slaves from the United States, the West Indies, and intercepted slave ships, would be resettled.
The first set of freed American slaves, packaged and financed by the Washington, DC-based ACS, landed in 1822 on Providence Island at the mouth of the Mesurado River. This group was joined shortly by another set led by Jehudi Ashnun, a white American dubbed by Caucasian historians as “the real founder of Liberia.” With the passage of time, the initial settlement previously known as Christopolis – most likely named after a founding Portuguese explorer/trader – was rechristened Monrovia in honour of President James Monroe.
Several tracts of land eastward were purchased from native tribes as the population of the young colony rapidly grew with increasing numbers of incoming freed slaves. But the need for space continued to grow. So, notwithstanding the acrimony and disputes such a move would generate with the affected colonial powers, the leaders of the colony decided to grab territories belonging to neighbouring French-controlled and British-controlled Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively, buoyed by the strong presence and protection of the US Navy in West African waters.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a young man who had arrived Liberia with his parents in 1829 at the age of 20 years, and who rapidly rose in influence and power, soon decided that the time had come for Liberia to establish a sovereign state with powers to make its own laws on governance and international relations. He was just 38 years old when he declared the colony of Liberia an independent republic on July 26, 1847 – and was overwhelmingly elected the first president a year later.
Given that the freed slaves resettled in Liberia came from the US, it is hardly surprising that the West African country has many things in common with the USA. The sub-political divisions are called counties as in the US, not local governments and provinces. The national currency is known as the Liberian dollar. The flag is similarly modelled after the US flag. Assassination of political leaders was another area that Liberia exhibited the notorious American pastime. Artistic licence – if Alaska and Hawaii that are thousands away from continental USA can become part of the Union, it is only because people sent to Liberia were black ex-slaves that prevented the newly established commonwealth from following suit.
Prior to the proclamation of independence, executive power within the colony was wielded by the ‘governor of Liberia,’ who customarily was appointed by the American Colonisation Society. It is therefore hardly surprising that it ruffled the feathers of the highly influential ACS, and that it was not until 15 years later in 1862 that the US Government finally established diplomatic relations with the fledgling republic.
Liberia has been a trailblazer in several aspects. The country has produced as many as two female heads of state and government. Ruth Perry was the last of six Interim Presidents appointed during the civil war, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected female president in Africa. Those who think this is not a remarkable feat worth celebrating in a society with a surfeit of violent male ex-warlords only just need to turn their attention to the supposedly more ‘enlightened’ African countries where a woman’s place is said to be in “the other room,” and where women are supposed to be heard but not seen!
Many readers will find it rather surprising but the truth remains that no other African leader- appointed or elected in modern history – has garnered the kinds of awards and recognitions harvested by Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia’s 24th President. She is the recipient of the following honours that considerably propelled her profile and that of her country to dizzying heights: Nobel Peace Prize, Mo Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance, Indira Gandhi Prize, and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, among others. Then, there is George Weah, the football legend who remains the only African and black man to win the World Footballer of the Year Award while plying his trade with the iconic AC Milan Football Club of Italy.
Liberia wielded considerable influence in African affairs in the late 50s and 60s. President Tubman led the ‘conservative’ Monrovia Group (or bloc) comprising Liberia, Nigeria, and most Francophone nations. The Monrovia bloc promoted the principle of nationalism versus the Pan-Africanism vision of the opposing ‘radical’ Casablanca Group. The conflict and eventual compromise between both groups led to the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – precursor of the African Union (AU) – in 1963, with the ideas of the Tolbert-led Monrovia Group prevailing against the supra-national ideas of the Casablanca Group comprising prominent statesmen like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Sekou Touré, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Between 1847 and 1980, the presidency was exclusively the preserve of Americo-Liberians, the original freed black slaves and their descendants. In a very ironic tale of man’s inhumanity to man, the former slaves – and especially those with lighter skin colour – passed very oppressive and suppressive laws against the indigenous folks, among which was denying them the right to vote!
Liberia’s First Republic ended in 1980 with the assassination of then-President William Tolbert in a military putsch led by then-Master Sergeant (Staff Sergeant) Samuel Doe. Compare the whopping 133 years of political stability with that of a country like Nigeria that has birthed as many as four republics just within a 40-year period!
Doe’s military coup ended the stranglehold the Americo-Liberians had on the presidency and Liberia’s politics. Doe, a Krahn from Grand Geddeh County, served as head of a military junta for five years, before casting aside his uniform to rig himself to power in a presidential election most foreign poll observers considered to be highly fraudulent. His military-to-civilian transfiguration was later simulated in Nigeria without success by Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha.
Twenty five substantive presidents and six interim presidents have presided over the affairs of Liberia since 1848 to date, making a total of 31 elected and appointed leaders. This works out on the average to one leader every six years. In a country like Nigeria with 15 elected and appointed leaders since independence in 1960, the ratio works out to one leader every four years. Liberia would seem to have an edge when it comes to leadership turnover.
It beggars belief how people only think of the five-year destructive civil war that engulfed the nation whenever Liberia is mentioned. Truth is that there is no African nation where a similar scenario either did not play out in the past or is not ongoing. The stereotyping is therefore baseless. Yes, like other mono-product economies, the Liberian economy is convulsing from the bad times that have befallen natural rubber in the global markets.
But George Weah, the 25th and current President, is no stranger to high-pressure tackling. As a member of the Kru ethnic nationality, he is the third President of tribal descent, and the first democratically elected indigenous President of Liberia. There can be no reason why Liberia cannot reset its coordinates as one of the most stable and fastest-growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa – promoting diversification of the economic base with emphasis on tourism and international trade with Nigeria.
Let’s hear it for Africa’s oldest republic! Happy independence anniversary greetings to our brothers and sisters in “the free land”!