Liberia: Battling the ghosts of ethnic politics

A woman dressed in the colours of the national flag stands under an umbrella at Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration in Monrovia on January 16, 2012 following her re-election. Politics in Africa's oldest independent country tend to be heavily tribalised. PHOTO  AFP

Liberia has just clocked 165 years;  the oldest independent nation in Africa. In fact Liberia, like Ethiopia, was never colonised in the real sense of the word.  Notwithstanding this remarkable history, Liberia still has a long way to go in claiming the glory it deserves due to its rich history.

Put squarely, Liberia can be considered underdeveloped because its development strides do not match its age. It lags far behind Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal and other African nations that can be termed developing.

Several factors account for this, the most notable of which are tribalism and sectionalism. These twin evils have marred Liberia’s march towards development. Parochial interests have subverted its evolution towards a national outlook.

Most Liberians view everything about their country through an ethnic prism. Whether in the allocation of jobs, in the selection of national leaders and other ventures, Liberians prioritize their kinsmen.

This practice dates back to the founding of the country when the natives were marginalized by the minority settler group. During this period, the natives were denied good jobs, standard education and other privileges including the right to elect and be elected to any national office.

Unequal treatment

Natives or indigenes could not win court cases even when they were right because judges who were all members of the settler community interpreted the law in favour of their kinsmen, even when they were wrong. Natives were rarely treated as equal humans.

According to historical accounts, parents of a native who was unfortunate to be hit by the vehicle of a Congo Man were compelled to “wash” the vehicle in question by paying damages to the owner of the vehicle. This is how depraved Liberian society was. This was the time when politicians and other people in high places promoted skewed resource allocation and plum jobs for their tribesmen.

It was this marginalisation that fanned the flames of agitation, giving rise to the uprising by natives that culminated in the April 12, 1980 military coup by non-commissioned officers of the armed forces of Liberia, and the ultimate ascension to state power of the first native as head of state and his subsequent election as president in the controversial 1985 general and presidential elections.

Samuel Doe’s ascension to state power was initially welcomed by all natives who were agitating for a change of status quo. An estimated 90 per cent of Liberians hailed the 1980 coup, and Doe himself was hailed as a Messiah.

The military strongman, who hailed from southeastern Grand Gedeh County, started his rule on a good footing. He increased the minimum wage of government workers by an estimated 500 per cent and effected huge tax cuts. He even abolished the obnoxious Hut Tax which was used by security officers during the rule of the settler minority as an instrument of intimidation.

Doe also embarked on an unusual mission of addressing the infrastructure deficit that had plagued the nation over the decades.

With time however, Doe’s zeal for development and reform were marred by tribalism, corruption and extra-judicial killings. Like all tyrants, Doe did not brook opposition or criticism, and dealt decisively with critics and pro-democracy activists.

Doe’s revolution lost focus and instead of promoting the welfare of citizens whom he claimed he had come to ‘liberate’, he had become a threat to the survival of the very democracy he had vowed to uphold.

President Doe had given the Liberian people a bad check, giving rise to a fresh revolution which took the shape of a rebel incursion launched by Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe’s former General Services Agency director general and deputy Commerce Director.

Cost much

Due to the ethnic dimension the Taylor “revolution” assumed, it cost Liberia much in terms of human lives and property damage. Charles Taylor himself told the BBC while his forces were still in the forest that he was out to revenge the execution of the 13 Americo-Liberians who were all officials in the William Tolbert government by the military junta in 1980.

The Charles Taylor revolution was also fuelled by the ethnic divide between Doe’s Krahn tribe on the one hand and the Gios and Manos of Nimba County on the other who are historical arch enemies. He drew most of his ‘special forces’ commandoes and fighters from Nimba County. In fact, Taylor used the enmity between the people of Nimba and Grand Gedeh Counties to launch his incursion in Nimba County and to eventually subdue the regime of Samuel Doe who hailed from Grand Gedeh County.

The war claimed an estimated 10 per cent of Liberia’s population at the time and lasted for about 14 years because the Gios, Manos on the one hand and the Krahn and Mandingo on the other were out to eliminate one another. The Taylor ‘revolution’ failed because no revolution based on ethnicity and sectionalism can succeed. It was also marred by corruption, greed and other ills that many Liberians took up arms against.

Even as we speak, nationalism in post-war Liberia is tainted by negative ethnicity. The results of the 2011 polls from certain communities in Monrovia and political sub-divisions demonstrate that certain groups of Liberians are still obsessed with tribalism in choosing national leaders.

The West Point and New Kru Town communities in the capital Monrovia which are dominated by members of the Kru ethnic, threw their weight behind former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah of the main opposition Congress for Democratic Chance because Weah himself is a member of the Kru ethnic group. Also, Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties in southeastern Liberia which are made of members of the Kru ethnic group, voted massively for Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change.

Ethnic voting

In the capital Monrovia, people considered the down-trodden, who are in the majority in the capital, voted massively for Weah’s CDC which is considered a party of the masses because Weah thrilled the masses in his football career.  Street vendors, petty traders, petty criminals and members of the Kru ethnic group and other ethnic groups in southeastern Liberia, gave their votes to the CDC. 

Results of the presidential poll also demonstrated that Nimbaians voted massively for their tribesman, former warlord Prince Y. Johnson, who emerged second runner-up in the first round of the 2011 presidential race.

Grand Gedeh County, made up mainly of members of the Krahn ethnic group, who are opposed to the current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf due to the role she played in bringing down the late president Samuel Kanyon Doe who hailed from that county, massively voted for President Johnson Sirleaf’s main rival, George Weah.

In fact Weah lost the presidential poll in 2005 because Nimba County, the second most populous county turned its back on Weah when they discovered that the CDC standard bearer was supported by the people of Grand Gedeh. Indeed, it is obvious that certain groups of Liberians are yet to disabuse their minds of putting tribe above the national interest.

Another interesting aspect of the  “revolution” is the practice of building political parties around personalities. Liberians have since the 1980 revolution voted personalities and not parties into power.

From Samuel Kanyon Doe who hijacked the 1985 presidential election to Charles Taylor who was voted to power by more than 70 percent of the population in 1997, parties in Liberia have been built around personalities. This is evidenced by the fact that following the exit of their leaders, the National Democratic Party of Samuel Doe and National Patriotic Party of Charles Taylor have faded into oblivion, and all efforts to revive them have so far proved futile.

Sirleaf charisma

The ruling Unity Party in fact emerged victorious in the 2005 and 2011 presidential polls because of the charisma of incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sileaf, a former rights activist and the support the international community gave her.

It is thus obvious that the Unity Party is built around Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as a person, and once she is no longer around to give the required clout to the party, it will, like other parties fade into oblivion.

Since the launch of the Liberian revolution in 1980, politics has been characterised by the multiplicity of political parties. This is also mostly due to tribal sentiments. Many citizens join parties led by their tribesmen, and this has subverted the creation of a national outlook in politics.

If Liberians threw their weight behind at most three parties, and not up to 20 parties, parties would not be based on personalities. The case of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the United States should provide a lesson for us. The longevity of these parties is assured because all citizens of the United States consider themselves as either Republicans or Democrats, and they align themselves to these parties no matter the circumstances.

Unless Liberians begin to put the national interest above parochial interests, the envisaged “revolution” will stumble and hold back the nation. Indeed, the peace now enjoyed will not be sustainable and development will elude the country for a long time.

Putting the national interest above other interests means abstaining from anything that will throw our “revolution” back. Corruption, greed, marginalisation and the ‘Class System’ have also proved to be setbacks to the “revolution”.

Reach goals

To attain the goals of the revolution, any government that ascends to state power should consider all ethnic groups and sections in the dishing out of jobs, because it is only when all groups feel that they have a stake in the government that they will protect it.

No group of persons should be marginalised in creating state machinery. Former combatants as well as retired army and police officers who are still able-bodied, should be integrated into the country’s defense and security system.

The country should not be fooled; sidetracking ex-fighters or security officers who served in the Charles Taylor regime will not help the process. This is because these people know certain security secrets that the current security officers do not have access to.

Security should not be politicised. The party in power should not encourage the notion that only its members should be integrated into the security of the state, because doing so will encourage dissident activities in the country.

If members of the opposition are also integrated into the state security network, they will take ownership of it. Where there are doubts about the conduct of certain persons like ex-fighters, certain security officers should be tasked with monitoring their activities. Excluding certain groups of people from the security forces will be counter-productive to our peace and the ‘revolution’.


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