There is perhaps no Liberian in the annals of the country’s history, other than William V.S. Tubman who impacted the nation’s history as much as the late President Tubman of Liberia. Until his accession to the Presidency in 1944, Liberia (its interior) had consisted, for the most part of a patchwork of different tribal nations so to speak set apart also by a patch work of coastal settlements dominated by settlers.
These coastal settlements were called counties while the interior was divided into provinces. Western Liberia was ruled from Monrovia through a network of vice regents known as District Commissioners who in turn exercised jurisdictional authority through a system of chiefs under a Paramount chief. Tubman came to the Presidency as a virtual outsider to national politics dominated mainly by the Monrovia elites and wealthy up-river coffee and sugarcane planters.
It is said during President King’s visit to Maryland County the young William Tubman impressed him with his mastery of Masonic knowledge, thus paving the way for his entry into Liberian politics. His tutelage under President Barclay and his subsequent marriage to President Barclay’s niece, a Monrovia socialite, saw his rise as heir apparent to President Barclay who he succeeded in 1944.
Being the shrewd politician, he was, Tubman probably realized the exigency for change in existing relations between those of settler and non-settler descent. However, he would tread cautiously. Three years into his first term of 8 years, he declared suffrage for women in 1947 giving Liberian women for the first time since independence in 1847, the right to vote. He followed this with the convening of Executive Councils around the country, thus affording indigenous Liberians for the first time to come face to face with the President of Liberia where grievances and complaints against vice regents and other local officials could be heard and redressed.
But alongside this was a vigorous public works program involving the construction of roads and bridges to connect the country. Many of the bridges constructed during those years are still in operational use today. He also began a program of educational expansion with the construction of public schools in what was then called the hinterland. During the period, President Tubman also became engaged more with the African continent where he turned his attention to the liberation of those African countries under colonial rule.
Then Ghana became independent in 1957 under the leadership of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a man with who President Tubman is said to have shared familial ties. The late Mrs. Viola Mckrae Gray, former Director of the Liberia Movie Censor Board, would later recall in her memoirs that she and her siblings including Nkrumah had lived in Grand Beribe in what is now the Ivory Coast until the family separated with Nkrumah and his mother returning to Ghana while she returned to Maryland county in Liberia.
President Tubman also engaged with the liberation movements of Southern Africa, especially South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) and the African National Congress (ANC). He played host to Nelson Mandela and even provided him with Liberian diplomatic passports to facilitate his travels. And he did likewise for Sam Nujoma, first president of an independent Namibia. In 1961, under his leadership, Liberia and Ethiopia sued the racist Apartheid South African government at the International Court of Justice for illegally occupying Namibia then known as South West Africa.
But Tubman’s greatest achievement was his creation of four new counties in 1964, twenty years after he became President of Liberia. By then he had consolidated his grip on power with the brutal suppression of the opposition in 1955. The opposition was in the main led by Barclay his former mentor. Following what was widely believed to be a fake assassination attempt, members of the opposition including prominent individuals such as David Coleman, Nete Sie Brownell and S. Raymond Horace were rounded up and imprisoned.
Further he harassed his critics, prominent amongst who was the venerable Albert Porte, who he jailed on several occasions. Thus, his creation of four new counties was met with little or no opposition from the entrenched True Whig Party elite. Nevertheless, there were stirrings for greater inclusion and Tubman perceived this as a threat posed by educated individuals of indigenous stock to an entrenched settler grip on power. With the exception of the Superintendent of Grand Gedeh, the Superintendents of Nimba, Bong and Lofa were dismissed, arrested and imprisoned on sedition charges. That was followed by the treason trial of Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh.
Economically, he promoted what he called the “Open Door Policy” granting foreign companies the right to repatriate 100 percent of profits without restrictions. Under his watch, one of the most lopsided concession agreements in the history of Liberia was signed, virtually turning over to an American investor, Landsdell Christie, the rich Bomi iron ore deposits in exchange for a pittance with no benefit to the people. Liberia in fact recorded the highest growth rates next to Japan but produced no development. This anomaly became subject of the book entitled “Growth without Development”.
President Tubman’s long 27-year rule however, left a legacy of despotism and arbitrary rule which this country has long been trying to shake off. His critics often refer to what they call the “Tubmanization” of Liberia where streets, educational and other national institutions were named in his honor, i.e.Tubman University, Tubman Boulevard, Tubman College of Nursing, etc. It was under his rule that the Imperial Presidency became entrenched and lives with us today, casting its blighting effects on the growth and development of a healthy democratic culture.
President Tubman has been long since dead but his legacy lives on.