Remembering Chase Manhattan Bank in Liberia: CBL’s Challenge to Give Our Banks Staying Power

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Our front page story and Editorial yesterday on the passing in New York last week of the American billionaire banker and philanthropist, David Rockefeller, brings fond memories to many Liberians.

On reading yesterday’s Editorial, one University of Liberia professor telephoned the newspaper to recall seeing David Rockefeller on Ashmun Street in 1964 along with President William V.S. Tubman dedicating Rockefeller’s bank, Chase Manhattan.

It was he and his bank that erected the Episcopal Church Plaza, across from the Executive Pavilion, that was dedicated that year during Tubman’s fifth inauguration. It became the headquarters of Chase Manhattan Bank in Liberia. Meridien Bank came next, occupying the premises, before the emergence of Ecobank, which is now headquartered there.

The Chase Bank lasted in Liberia until the 1980s when it pulled out not only because it had difficulty with bad debtors, but also because of the global financial turbulence. This led to a merger with JPMorgan to become JPMorgan Chase & Co. The new company became a leading global financial services firm and one of the largest banking institutions in the United States.

The Rockefellers, however, never left Liberia. The Rockefeller Foundation has contributed substantially to educational causes here, including US$346,000 in 2011 to revamp the University of Liberia’s College of Agriculture.

The Paynesville City Corporation is expected to benefit from a US$164 million Resilient Cities Program helping to improve 100 cities around the globe.

Chase was the second major international bank that was established in Liberia during the Tubman administration. The first was the Bank of Monrovia, known as the Firestone Bank. All of Firestone’s local transactions were channeled through this bank; and all Liberian rubber planters channeled their financial resources through it as well. The Liberian government also banked with the Bank of Monrovia prior to the creation, in the 1970s, of the National Bank of Liberia (NBL), now Central Bank of Liberia (CBL). It was through the Bank of Monrovia that most government employees cashed their checks in the 1950s through the early 1970s.

The Bank of Monrovia, which was situated at the corner of Randall and Ashmun streets, where LBDI is currently located, later became Citibank.

The first Liberian-owned bank, the Bank of Liberia (BOL), was created and established by R. Romeo Horton shortly following his return from studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King. Horton did his Master’s at the Wharton School of Finance, University of Pennsylvania.

Liberians were very proud of the BOL. It assisted many of our people to achieve financial independence. Unfortunately, the BOL did not survive the 1980 coup d’état. Its building, at the corner of Carey and Warren Streets, soon became the headquarters of the Agricultural Cooperative Development, which was destroyed by the civil war. The Central Bank of Liberia later used that building until its new Executive Governor, Dr. J. Mills Jones, completed the CBL’s new headquarters on Ashmun Street.

It is most unfortunate that the clock has turned backward on Liberian banking, because there is not a single Liberian-owned private bank in the country, since the demise of BOL. One day Dr. Jones will explain to the Liberian people why during his 10 years as Executive Governor, he was unable to see to it that at least one Liberian-owned bank was established.

There is today one Liberian bank besides CBL, and that is the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI). This bank is a government-owned bank, which, fortunately, is allowed to be run independently by a Board of Directors and a president, who answers to the Board.

All the other banks in the country are foreign-owned.

This is one of the challenges of the new CBL Governor, Milton Weeks. But his most immediate challenge is to ensure that all of these commercial banks are able to stay afloat and grow to become bigger and better-run.

We cannot afford to lose any more banks. The existing banks should be allowed to grow, develop and expand. And we pray that one day soon, some bright, dynamic, visionary and serious-minded Liberian entrepreneur will come forward and do what Romeo Horton did in the 1950s.

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