For me, this book is ultimately and at once a readable, well-researched, well-written, informative and educating piece of hard work accomplished by a passionate senior citizen, for the information and knowledge of fellow citizens and all those interested in Liberia’s sometimes turbulent and sometimes tranquil story.
The book’s unique makeup is reflected in the author’s determination to dig out and bring forth the missing details of the twists and turns of Liberia’s unique history, and to do so in a way that wows even educated readers.
Kenneth recalls how several listeners of his lectures on the electoral history of Liberia (at the request of IREX and others) kept telling him the same thing over and again: that they had never heard some of the details he was narrating to them in his lectures. These comments, he wrote, primarily inspired the writing of the book.
In fact, one such person, as quoted by Kenneth in the Introduction of the book, exclaimed to the author, that “What you have said to us tonight are things that I had never, never, and never heard before!”
Add to this a similar sentiment expressed by no less a personality than the former Chief of Justice of Liberia, former Chair of the National Elections Commission, former Minister of Commerce, and, now, the Chairperson of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commissioner (LCC), Cllr. Frances Johnson Morris Allison, who emphatically assured the author that, “…the things you have said here today concerning Liberia’s elections over the past century and a half, I have never heard before.”
Certainly, the book contains information and historical facts that are familiar territory for many readers of Liberian History. This is clearly reflected in the many references and published materials the author used for his book. Notwithstanding, the book holds in its pages certain happenings and pieces of information relative to our electoral and political circumstances that had hitherto remained unknown and unrevealed to many, many Liberians.
Thus, depending on their temperament, political and moral sensitivity and disposition, many of those who will read the book after its launch today, would be surprised, angry and disturbed, or simply amused and or entertained by some of the revelations.
I think that is part of the real value of this book, as it attempts to bring out those hitherto unknowns to the limelight in a way no historian and political scientist may have done in the past.
One of the disclosures in the book is that despite what the author acknowledges were “its shortcomings,” “the elections of 1847 were arguably the first democratic elections to be held on the continent of Africa.” To some of us, the familiarity of elections these days on the continent, with the usual rigging and controversies that accompany them, may leave us less surprised by this otherwise pleasant historical piece of information.
To others, however, that real elections (where those qualified to vote were given a choice of candidates) were held at all at the very beginning of the evolution of the country in a continent that was then under colonial tutelage, must be an awakening of some sort.
Take also the historical facts surrounding the founding of the Liberian state and the personalities of those who engineered it: The author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner who had fathered mulatto children with African-American mistresses, is revealed as a key driving force behind the repatriation of freed Africans to Liberia — with Kenneth book going further to state that one less known personal reason behind the repatriation of freed slaves back to Liberia, was because of the embarrassment such men as Jefferson felt in seeing their mulatto offsprings subjected to ‘racial prejudices” in the American society.
Researching and examining historical data, the author revealed on Page 50 of his book the interesting irony that one of the seven founding fathers of the True Whip Party (TWP), established in Clay Ashland, was a woman called Lydia Ann Johnson, and this, despite the fact that women never had the right to vote until almost 77 years later in 1946, when President Tubman’s regime granted suffrage to them.
Time will not permit this reviewer to point out all the historical/electoral tidbits many of us did not know about or ‘’never, never, never’’ heard about before the book. Besides, I am not sure Kenneth has given me carte blanche to disclose all his hitherto unknowns to the point where potential buyers would have already come to know all of them and therefore hold back on their wallets and purses.
Still, the temptation to cite a few more interesting unknowns in this worthwhile narrative remains strong for this reviewer. Did you know, for example, that there has been a real argument as to whether long term leader, William V.S. Tubman, was the 18th or 19th President of Liberia—with implications for the exact ranking of succeeding Presidents?
Did you also know that but for some fluke of chance (call it twist of fate) Liberia would have had a Vice President other than President William R. Tolbert, Jr., after the death of Tubman in 1971, and therefore Tolbert would not have become President, and subsequently end up being assassinated in 1980? (Go o Page 93 and see why and how).
How many of us knew before reading Kenneth’s book that a mundane issue like a girlfriend palaver and jealousy, dictated a far-reaching decision of a former Liberian President as to who should or should not succeed him?
Did I hear someone postulating that the 1980 coup that consigned the TWP rule into the dustbin of history, as historians would say, was the first coup in the history of the country? You need to read Kenneth’s book to see that this perception is not true, as he points to the palace coup that brought a government down, even as the author, at the same time, lays out the argument regarding differences between the two coups—with one such difference being that one was a coup mounted by civilians (People Power), the other, of course, by the military.
Again, being a witness myself to the bloody 1980 coup that unhinged the TWP, I never quite understood why the junta had to strip virtually naked the dozens of arrested former government officials, while parading them in the streets. But reading through Kenneth’s book, I came across a worse incident during Tubman’s reign, when alleged “subversives” (the usual political cliché used to describe political opponents) accused of wanting to overthrow the government, were treated to what was then labeled as “nut parade”—meaning marching them through the streets of Monrovia, in Kenneth’s words, “stark naked”.
Perhaps, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the extent to which the lust for power and the virus of political arrogance and self-righteousness, can so pathetically blind leaders, especially African leaders, to the point where they embark on some of the most desperate and inhumane actions and intrigues against fellow citizens.
Kenneth Best’s book provides some dramatic details on this ever recurring theme in African political history, giving credence to the remarks made by a commentator on Kenneth’s book that “… good governance is a character issue, not an ethnic one.”
Thanks to Kenneth’s book, some, especially the younger generation of Liberians, will now know, that the brutalization and de-humanization of fellow Liberians at the hands of their leaders, for simply exercising one of democracy’s key tenets (freedom of expression), has in fact been part of our history long, long before the excesses of the military regime in the 1980’s, and those of the civil conflict in the 1990’s.
Stories of citizens been given lengthy jail terms, simply for expressing differing opinions from those of the leadership, and other medieval types of torture against political opponents are all captured in the book we are about to launch.
One of such detention cases (with a detainee serving his complete 15 years without parole) is recorded in the book as “the longest detention of any journalist in West Africa.” Surely, looking around us now, it’s clear that Liberia has come relatively a long way in its democratic evolution in this regard.
The book also offers the reader a front row view of how obsession to win elections by any and all means necessary, can lead men and women to conduct themselves in an infantile manner. Imagine a situation where a Presidential candidate claims to have received 240,000 votes in an electoral exercise with only 15,000 eligible voters, with the Guinness Book of Records archiving the farce as “the most fraudulent…ever reported in world history.” A mini version of such false electoral pretensions will later be unveiled during Tubman’s dictatorship.
And so if there is a lesson Kenneth wishes to drive home in highlighting these electoral anomalies, it is that Eternal Vigilance, as is always being touted by democracy advocates, remains the price Liberians, and by extension Africans, must always be willing to pay for ensuring Democracy — a key pillar of which remains the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections.
There are many other interesting details in the book for its readers, including the following:
• The role of the ever unrepentant and courageous pamphleteer, Albert Porte, in the eventual resignation of President King—by using his newspaper, the Crozierville Observer, in a typical Watergate fashion to leak the information that generated series of demonstrations culminating in king’s resignation.
• That, Arthur Barclay, who, in the fullness of time, became President of Liberia, came to Liberia on a ship as an 11 year old from Barbados—thereby casting Liberia at the outset as a sweet land of opportunity for all, irrespective of where you may have come from.
• Liberia’s narrow escape from been a mandated country which would have given some European power complete governance authority over the country — which in turn would have changed the course of the history of the first independent Africa Republic. If you want to know those erudite citizens of the country, who helped to prevent that potential distortion of our sovereignty, read The Evolution of Liberia’s Democracy.
• Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman, as the first African woman to head a University (that is University of Liberia)—a harbinger perhaps of female firsts, including, down the road, that of the first African/Liberian woman to be elected to the presidency in Africa.
• I had thought the description “Baboon” was introduced into Liberian politics only during the highly charged 2011 elections! No way, writes Kenneth, as he points out the existence of the “Baboon Society”, which sought to assassinate President Barclay, eliminate what its leaders referred to as the “Americo-Liberian aristocracy, “ and place the country in the hands of the aborigines.”
• Not sure how many Liberians know that during the 1985 elections under Doe, soldiers at the barracks were made to vote repeatedly for the Master Sergeant—with no electoral authority daring to stop them.
• Again, how many people publicly heard that some Ecomog troops, especially those from Nigeria during the Sani Abacha period, coerced Liberians in Nimba to vote for Charles Taylor, and that some West African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, were all too eager to have Taylor ascend to the Presidency in the 1997 elections?
• Similarly, how many people know, that during the 1997 elections, when Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrived in Gbarnga to campaign as a Presidential candidate, “’pro-Taylor supporters wasted caustic soda on the vehicle” she was riding in (according to sources quoted in Kenneth’s book) but “Luckily, her car windows were wound up, and she was unaffected by the attack”?
The Evolution of Liberia’s Democracy is certainly an informative, reference book, which, among other things, seeks to expand the knowledge of particularly Liberians about themselves, and about events and circumstances that have helped to shape their political culture.
Notwithstanding, like all other works of imperfect man, the book has its own limitations, as few as they may be in my estimation. But these are innocuous flaws that in no way detract from the overall value and significance of Kenneth’s commendable efforts.
Just as an example, some would have liked to see deeper analyses of some of the issues/events highlighted in the book, including a linkage between the missteps of the founding fathers of the country, and the subsequent political dysfunctional outlook of subsequent administrations. For instance, some have contended that the 1980 military coup and its fallout was a typical case of chickens from the past coming home to roost. And that the ensuing behavior and disposition of the young and unsophisticated coupists (e.g. living luxurious social life and developing a fondness for big cars) was basically a reflection of their predecessor leaderships.
Also, the book seems to commit the same sin as others before it which have often casually bandied about some unresearched figures around certain events; for example, the enduring figure of 300,000 people killed during the Liberian civil conflict, without actually pinning down the source and sources of this statistics. This raises the question as to whether we will ever know the real/true figures, given the apocalyptic nature of the generalized conflict that engulfed Liberia for some time.
Kenneth however endeavors to make up for this statistical gaps by stating that the exact cash amount the United States assisted the Doe regime with “…was more money than America had ever given all Liberian leaders, from J.J. Roberts to William R. Tolbert, Jr. combined.” He quoted not the familiar figure of U$500 Million, but U$750 Million—much of it, according to the author, “was squandered by Doe and his officials.”
Another criticism that may be fairly made is that the author should have also endeavored to break more fresh grounds by elaborating on the practical reasons why the 2011 referendum was such a monumental failure in terms of turn out and an understanding of the process—with implications for the outcome of some of the Propositions that were been voted on.
While Kenneth did a good job of it in cataloguing the efforts of the National Elections Commission, civil society organizations, and international partners and agencies (including Ecowas and UNDP) in carrying out public sensitization, in order, as he put it, to “deepen the understanding of the people about the referendum,” he left largely unanswered why, despite all these efforts, there was still such a very low turnout. His only attempt to do so comes by way of the Daily Observer editorial, which zeroed in only on the lack of information on how voters were to participate in a referendum as the main reason.
Again, a keen reader of the book will notice that the author digresses a bit in a few such cases—thereby dragging the reader into areas of little historical interest for especially the Liberian reader.
To m y mind, the reader of a 219-page electoral and political history can easily do without this extra tutorial.
Notwithstanding these few instances of what this review considers the downside of the book, and one or two printing mishaps, there can be no question that, all in all, Kenneth’s book has captured various epochs in our political and electoral evolution in a way that is unique to an author who masterfully combines the intellect of an academic researcher, with the distinctive writing skills of an energetic and courageous journalistic icon.
To this reviewer, the book‘s lasting utility lies in its unmistakable mission of expanding the knowledge of Liberians about themselves and their political and electoral pedigree. It seeks in a very subtle and unpretentious manner to alert Liberians (electorate as well as leaders) to what George Santayana, a European Philosopher, poet, essayist and novelist once famously observed about History in the following words:
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past:”
“Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”
Yes, The Evolution of Liberia’s Democracy certainly contains obvious historical facts and truths, but also quite a good doze of “never, never, never heard’ facts as well.
Indeed, for a 73 year old, still at his editorial desk, there can be no better legacy to bequeath to his compatriots than this readable, informative, knowledge-expanding, and entertaining narrative, complete with a comprehensive and much helpful Index. I strongly recommend it for use as a text book in the curricular of our higher institutions of learning.