We have to give it to Liberia’s early Fathers. In almost all of them, perhaps until the second decade of the 20th century, history records no lust for power.
Our first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, brilliantly and patriotically set the stage for the temperate and measured use of power. He and the drafters of the 1847 Constitution stipulated only two years per presidential term.
And this lasted until 1904 when the presidential term was changed to four years. President Arthur Barclay was the first to benefit from the extended term of office. In the 1930s under President Edwin Barclay, it was changed to eight years for the first term, and four for each succeeding term.
But just before then, alas, we are sorry to say that the tendency to hold fast and tenaciously to power in Liberia started with President C.D.B. King. Even before he became President in 1920, King, the lawyer and former Attorney General who should have known the Constitution and been familiar with the gallant strides his predecessors had made in obeying that sacred democratic document, had dreams of dictatorship or absolute rule. We recalled in a recent Editorial that King, as TWP chairman and presidential standard bearer, re-wrote the TWP constitution, ascribing the rigidity of party
loyalty to all TWP legislators—and to the press.
Moreover, King and his party machinery rigged the 1927 elections so boldly that those elections are said to have made the Guinness Book of Records.
King lived to regret it, though; for three years later he and his vice president, Allen Yancy, were forced to resign over the 1930 Fernando Po scandal.
Edwin J. Barclay, who succeeded President King, filled his unexpired term until 1931 when President Barclay was elected in his own right. He served his first eight-year term, 1932-1939, and another four years, 1940-1943; then stepped aside and W.V.S. Tubman was elected in 1943 and inaugurated in January 1944.
That began the second attempt at presidential longevity in Liberia. Tubman made it very clear in every succeeding term that he wanted absolutely NO opposition.
His successor, William R. Tolbert, Jr., who served Tubman’s unexpired four-year term, 1972-75, let it be known at his own first term election that he wanted only one eight-year term and he would step aside.
But many were highly skeptical of that pledge. For one thing, in typical TWP culture, the partisans, especially those who were benefitting richly from the regime, would most probably not have allowed Tolbert to step down. Remember what happened at the TWP convention in Buchanan near the mid-1960s?
Tubman told the partisans that he would not be seeking another term of office. But leading partisans got on their knees tearfully pleading, “Mr. President, we are in the middle of the ocean. If you leave us, we will drown.”
So Tubman was re-elected for a fifth term. Tubman later said he felt the time had come for him to recite what Episcopalians call the “Nunc Dimittis”—“Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace . . . for my eyes have seen . . . thy salvation . . .” (Simeon following the birth of Christ). And
Tubman added: “This time I am determined. If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
That immediately started a series of demonstrations—from every county, civic, social and political organization, the tribes, etc. The final were the Bassas, who crowned Tubman “king of the leopards,” their tribal totem, followed by a massive demonstration by Liberian women.
At a subsequent press conference, a young journalist, who is still around today, asked President Tubman whether after all these demonstrations, he was “still chanting the old hymn of Simeon.”
Tubman’s reply was swift and resolute: “I ain’t chan’tn not’n!”
He went on to run for and win the sixth and seventh terms, dying in office in July 1971.
Unfortunately, Tolbert was not afforded the opportunity to prove his sincerity about his one-term pledge. The 1980 coup d’état ended his regime, his life and the century-old TWP hegemony.
We see the same lust for power in many other African leaders. Look at Robert Mugabe. Ninety years old and still clinging to power, he seems determined to die in office. What legacy will he leave?
There was Gnassingbe Eyedema in Togo. After assassinating President Sylvanus Olympio in 1963, Eyedema took power in 1967 and ruled for 38 years, dying in office and leaving his son in charge.
Joseph Mobutu, after fleecing Zaire of its wealth, was overthrown nearly 40 years later and died a sorrowful death in exile, totally ignored by his people.
Oh, the lust for power!
Here now is Burundi’s President Nkurunziza, who despite his people’s opposition, insists on a third term. His country is now threatened with civil war.
Here, too, is Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, in power for 30 years and running again!
Will Africans never learn that the endless pursuit of power is all an exercise in futility?
As Edwin Barclay warned in his immortal poem, Human Greatness, “Then why, O man, lift up your head in pride?
You are but dust, and even Caesar died.”