In December 1979, Steve Tolbert Jr. was leading a life very different from that of most other 13-year-old Liberian boys. After all, not many Liberian pupils attended a boarding school set amid the ruins of a monastery in the southeast of England. His parents, although separated at the time, had reached the peak of Liberian society as successful entrepreneurs and diplomats.
His father, Stephen Tolbert Sr. was the founder of the Mesurado Group of Companies, the largest and most successful homegrown Liberian enterprise. His mother, Neh Dukuly Tolbert, was Liberia’s Ambassador to France, a polyglot just starting her career as an international diplomat. His father’s elder brother was Liberian President William R. Tolbert Jr., who was about to visit London on a state visit. Steve, in his own words, was feeling “extremely proud and very happy…and being very cool about it” as he prepared to take the train (all by himself) from Dover College to meet his Uncle.
While many Liberian youth would have given anything to be in young Steve’s place, the young Tolbert had already experienced great tragedy. When he was just nine, his father died in a plane accident after which Steve says he “had to grow up very quickly.” The evening of December 10 and the following morning would be the last time that the two Tolbert’s, born more than a half century apart, were together. The Tolberts would deal with much more tragedy after the President was unceremoniously killed during the coup of April 12, 1980, and surviving family members were placed under house arrest or imprisoned.
From 1979 to 1980, President Tolbert was the Chair of the Organization of African Unity, in which capacity he represented the continent where he was born, but to which his father, young Steve’s grandfather, had immigrated from the US state of South Carolina as a young boy in 1878. In the mind of young Steve, his uncle’s “whole life and responsibility were the affairs of state.”
President Tolbert had continuously served in government since 1943 when he was elected to the House of Representatives and was visiting London to lend the weight of his office at a crucial time during the Lancaster House talks that would eventually guide the British colony of Rhodesia to independence as Zimbabwe. Liberia’s outsized role in promoting the independence of Africa is often overlooked, although both President Tubman and Tolbert dedicated significant energy, time, and treasure to facilitating the total liberation of the continent.
These efforts were recognized by their contemporaries however. A briefing prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the British Prime Minister noted that President Tolbert “takes a close interest in the problems of southern Africa” and could be expected to “speak forcefully on what he sees as the threat that South Africa poses for peace in the region.”
Steve Tolbert recalls that the Lancaster negotiations had been covered in the British press and that he was “mildly aware” of what brought his uncle to England. Embarking at Kent and disembarking in London, young Steve took a taxi to Claridge’s hotel, an iconic mid-19th Century art deco luxury hotel where the President and his entourage (including current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) were based.
Clad in his school uniform, Steve approached the reception and asked to see President Tolbert. After it was confirmed that he was indeed a legitimate visitor, he was escorted to the presidential suite by both Liberian and British security.
His uncle was out, most likely wrapping up a late lunch at Downing Street with Prime Minister Thatcher and a number of high-ranking British officials. While the serious issues in Zimbabwe were a major theme of the lunch, the President still found time for some clever banter in his luncheon address. Tolbert adroitly availed himself of the opportunity to beseech the Prime Minister, nicknamed The Iron Lady, to grant Liberia most favored nation status because it was one of the world’s leading producers of iron ore.
While his uncle was out pressing for African independence and investment in Liberia, the younger Tolbert says he was “being treated royally. I had drinks and food and candy and was watching TV, which was a luxury.” Steve was quite excited to see his uncle, an opportunity he had about once a year. While he recalls that the President was “famously not a ‘splurgy’ guy,” his uncle would usually give him about $100 when they met – funds which could go quite far in procuring snacks and toys in the 1970s. He believes that on this trip his uncle generously proffered an extra $50 to compensate for the fare and inconvenience of the train ride.
Steve recalls his uncle asking, “what I was doing, how I was doing in school, if I was playing sports, if I was being prayerful, and all of that.” Steve adds, “you never talked about business and whatnot…when you’re a little kid and your uncle is President, you sort of listen, you don’t ask many questions.”
Amid this conversation, he recalls his uncle taking a steady stream of phone calls and processing a stream of papers that required his urgent attention. Joshua Nkomo, one of Zimbabwe’s independence leaders who would lose elections to Robert Mugabe in a few months, was a name that Steve recalls coming up several times. He also remembers his uncle fielding a phone call from Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary.
In the short days of the British winter it became dark quite early. The President didn’t want his nephew travelling alone at night, so requested that Steve lodge with him. He relates that this “was fine with me. I’d get to stay in a presidential suite and…do room service and all of that.”
His uncle’s entourage headed out to Covent Garden to watch the Russian ballet, Swan Lake. Steve dined alone, watched some more TV, and then went to bed early. When he woke early the next day for breakfast with his uncle, the President “didn’t say very much, at that point he was kind of pensive.” Steve adds, “he was clearly in a different mood. He was reading his Bible. It was a contemplative time for him, I believe.”
Steve was driven to the Charing Cross railway terminus by his uncle’s security detail and boarded the train back to Dover College. Almost exactly four months later, his uncle would be killed in a coup. Six days after that, Zimbabwe finally gained its hard fought independence.