Thursday, Nov. 29 is the Natal Day of Liberia’s 18th President William Vacanarat Shadrack Tubman (1944-71) and will be celebrated as a national holiday. President Tubman led the country for 27 years and led a legacy that the current generation of Liberians may not be aware of. I have heard many Liberians questioning the relevance of the country celebrating President Tubman’s birthday and last year, there were reports from Nimba County that many people could not recognize or identify with. In fact, because President Tubman spent 27 years in office, many other Liberians have also wondered his contribution to the infrastructural development of the country and many have also compared Liberia’s poor infrastructure, relative to that of neighboring countries. While this piece is not a treatise to defend what President Tubman should have done but did not do, it is worth pointing out that whatever the case; his contributions to Liberia have much to be recognized since it was the basis for the country to recognize them and to make a law for his natal day to be celebrated, as it is today.
Before assuming the mantle of leadership in 1944, Liberia was seriously underdeveloped, lacking basic infrastructure of roads, railways, and sanitation system. President Tubman noted that Liberia did not receive the “benefits of colonization,” which meant the investment by a wealthy major power to develop the infrastructure of the country. Therefore the onus fell on Liberian leaders to build the country. He, therefore, established an economic policy, known as ‘Open Door’ to attract foreign investment to the country. Before Tubman came to power in 1944, according to former secretary of the treasury (now Ministry of Finance) there had been only four concessions granted to outside investors.
They included Sir James Johnstone, who led a British firm that planted the first rubber plantation in the country in 1904. The next was in 1926 when Harvey S. Firestone started another much larger rubber plantation. In 1935 a Polish group also started a cocoa plantation and in 1938 a mineral exploration concession was granted to a Dutch joint-venture group and at the time Tubman came to power none of the concessionaires had succeeded except the Firestone plantations. Tubman encouraged additional investors, including UniRoyal and B. F. Goodrich, from the United States and companies from Germany, Holland, and Italy to have very substantial plantations and the production of Liberian farms increased from 4 percent in 1956 to almost 25 percent.
From 1944-70, it is reported that the value of foreign investments, mainly from the United States, increased by 200% and from 1950 to 1960 Liberia had the second-highest economic growth of 11.5% in the world. By the time of his death in 1971, Liberia had the largest mercantile fleet in the world, the world’s largest rubber industry, and Liberia was the third-largest exporter of iron ore in the world that had attracted more than US$1 billion in foreign investment.
With a steady economic growth, he created the Ministry of Public Works & Utilities and by 1950, four years after his five-year plan was initiated, all principal streets in the capital city of Monrovia were paved. Tubman gained revenues for the government to construct the Centennial Pavilion, two Executive Mansions, the Capitol Building, the Temple of Justice, the Ministries of Lands, Mines and Energy, Public Works, Finance, Information, Post & Telecommunications and the Monrovia City Hall, in addition to Administrative Buildings in all county seats and an educational method was launched in 1948. During Tubman’s administration, several thousand kilometers of roads were built, including a railway line to connect the iron mines to the coast for transport of this commodity for export. During this period, he transformed the Port of Monrovia into a free port to encourage trade.
His administration also paved the streets of Monrovia, established hospitals and a literacy program. He introduced the National Literacy Program, which adopted the “each one teach one” Laubach Method, a system which had been successfully carried out in the Philippines. In keeping with this method every person who learned to read immediately taught another individual what he had mastered. By early 1960, Liberia began to enjoy its first era of prosperity, thanks in part to Tubman’s policies and implementation of development. Regarded as a pro-Western, stabilizing influence in West Africa at a period when other countries were achieving independence, often amid violence, during the 1960s Tubman was courted by many Western politicians.
In the past, the bulk of the production depended on the rubber but with the modernization of the infrastructure of the state at the hands of Tubman, Liberia started to use its other national resources. Several Liberian, German and Swedish companies became involved in the exploitation of iron mines, making Liberia the first source of iron in Africa and the fourth worldwide. Tubman wanted to diversify the economy rather than basing it on rubber and iron resources which made 90% of exports, so he encouraged the development of coffee plantations, palm oil, sugar cane and especially rice cultivation in 1966.
To open up the country further and enhance accessibility, airfields were built in Grand Bassa, Sinoe, Grand Gedeh and Maryland counties. Tubman is regarded as the “father of modern Liberia,” because his presidency was marked by attracting sufficient foreign investment to modernize the economy and infrastructure. During his tenure, Liberia experienced a period of prosperity. He also led a policy of national unification in order to reduce the social and political differences in the country.
There were several other significant contributions of Tubman as president of Liberia. Hundreds of Liberians were granted government-sponsored scholarships to seek advanced studies abroad, in addition to which all foreign mission schools were subsidized by the government.
The beneficiary students were drawn from those who duxed their classes in their various high schools in their final examinations. Tubman Administration sent such students to universities in Europe and the United States, while others benefitted from schools in Liberia. The result was the first cadre of doctors, engineers, economies, geologists, among others that Liberia was blessed with subsequently during his administration.
Another was the afore-mentioned ‘Open Door Policy’, which encouraged the establishment, after Liberia’s counties were increased from five to nine, of ‘Executive Council Meetings’ he held in the various counties to bring the people together. The results of the meetings eventually put stop to inter-tribal wars that had been waged by native tribes. The Administration also ensured that the nine counties, including Montserrado, Sinoe, Grand Bassa, Maryland, Bong, Nimba, Lofa and Grand Gedeh had two senators each to represent them in the legislature.
Also, significant contribution was the suffrage given to women, following which they became fully involved in the task of nation-building. Notable among women who gained prominence during this period were Elizabeth Collins, the nation’s first female senator, Ellen Mills Scarborough, the first female representative, Etta Wright, who acted on several occasions as Secretary of Defense, and Angie Brooks, who rose to the prestigious position of President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1969.
A dignified statesman, Tubman was highly respected in Africa, in great part because of the significant role he played in the decolonization of the continent. Indeed, Guinea’s first president Ahmed Sekou Touré once referred to him as the “Dean of Independent African States,” and the continent’s new leaders often sought his advice. So while there was still much that Liberia needed to accomplish, Tubman’s Administration and successive governments have maintained the annual observance of the man whose years as a leader of Liberia has deserved recognition to remind us of the need to do all we can to unite and develop Liberia for future generations.