Three Problems with the Progressives that Brought Change… Followed by a Long, Destructive War

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Dr. Dougbeh Nyan, in his Independence Day Oration last Tuesday, attempted a spirited defense of the Progressives of the 1970s through 1990s in Liberia. He even said they had “nothing to apologize for.”

We think, however, that Dr. Nyan failed to make a critical assessment of the role of his fellow Progressives in helping to bring about the change that all of us wanted in our country.

But first, who were the Progressives? They belonged notably to two political organizations—the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), founded in 1973 by Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, an economist turned politician, along with his associates, Dr. Amos Sawyer, a historian and politician, Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, also a historian, politician and eloquent orator, and Dew Tuan Wleh Mayson, one-time Political Science instructor. Among their younger devotees were John Stewart, former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Conmany Weseh, now River Gee Senator, and Dougbeh Nyan.

The other group of Progressives came from the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), founded by G. Baccus Matthews, a one-time diplomat working with the Liberian Consulate General in New York. Strangely enough, it was President Tolbert who, on request of Matthew’s father-in-law, Counselor Peter Amos George, a staunch Baptist like President Tolbert, appointed Matthews, a mere high school graduate, to the Consulate General in New York. While there he organized PAL.

Baccus returned home in 1978 to establish PAL on the ground. He bravely held the first non-True Whig Party rally that same year. No other group besides the TWP, since 1955, had ever dared to hold a political rally in Liberia. Some of Matthew’s associates were Blamo Nelson, Fred Bass Golakeh, Oscar Quiah and Counselor Chea Cheapoo.

It was President Tolbert’s tolerance that made both MOJA and PAL possible.

After he rose to the presidency following President W.V.S. Tubman’s death on July 23, 1971, President Tolbert in August, in a revolutionary statement at the Zorzor Teacher Training Institute (ZTTI), lifted the iron bar that Tubman had, for most of his presidency, imposed on freedom of speech and of the press.

The Liberian people joyfully embraced that new policy and immediately started speaking out against everything, including the government. But the first person they began to criticize was Tubman himself, blaming him totally for the country’s underdevelopment.

It was in that environment that MOJA and PAL were born. The two movements immediately started criticizing President Tolbert and his government.

There was another group that was equally critical—the Revelation Magazine, edited mostly by UL students, with K. Neville A. Best as Editor-in-Chief. The others were Victor Weeks, Ernestine Cassell, Willard Russell, Carl Patrick Burrowes and Aaron Brown, cartoonist.

All of these Progressives had been inspired by the veteran constitutional analyst and pamphleteer, Albert Porte.

But the Progressives we refer to primarily in this Editorial are those of MOJA and PAL, for they were the ones in the forefront, and were appointed to powerful positions following the April 12 coup.

The first problem with the Progressives is that they had no plan for any eventuality. So when April 14 occurred and Monrovia was thrown into complete chaos and destruction, most of Tolbert’s Ministers went into hiding, including Justice Minister Oliver Bright, who had misled the President into telling Matthews and his group not to march “otherwise we will shoot.” And shoot government did, killing three people, following which pandemonium broke out throughout the city. And although the government was paralyzed, the Progressives had no plan to seize the opportunity for leadership.

The identical thing happened when on April 12, 1980, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, staged the coup d’état, overthrowing the TWP government and killing President Tolbert. The Progressives had no plan and again failed to seize the opportunity for leadership. So, although many of them were given high positions of power by the mostly semi-literate coup makers, they were quickly outsmarted by Doe, who in 1981 demanded that all the Progressives who were Ministers be conscripted into the Army as Majors. They dutifully followed the order.

But shortly after the coup, the Progressives lost their way because some of them went on a binge of viciousness. Samuel Doe later told people that he and other coup makers did not know who the 13 top GOL officials executed on April 21, 1980 really were. Their names, he said, had been given by some Progressives. Those involved know themselves.

Within less than two years these powerful Progressives started falling from power. Justice Minister Chea Cheapoo, who had mishandled and abused his power by herding without due process hundreds of people into prison, most of them innocent, Doe fired in August, 1981. Planning and Economic Affairs Minister Tipoteh never returned from a trip to Ethiopia and fled into exile. Soon, Baccus Matthews, Foreign Minister, lost his job. In 1984, Foreign Minister Dr. Fahnbulleh resigned and shortly thereafter left the country, as did most of the leading Progressives, Dr. Amos Sawyer included.

The third problem with the Progressives is that when the government was placed squarely in their hands in 1990 as the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), the war was scarcely nine months old. Dr. Amos Sawyer had been elected IGNU President in Banjul, The Gambia in September 1990. Under his watch, the war dragged on, due, of course, not entirely to him alone but more so to Charles Taylor’s intransigence and rivalry within ECOMOG, between Ghana and Nigeria. Could Sawyer have insisted on Nigeria’s General Joshua Dongoyaro driving Taylor out of Liberia? Eventually someone else took over from Sawyer. But why did that have to be, after hardly four years in office?

Further, we cannot forget that when Sawyer and his team arrived on the ground, there were so many things intact, including the Centennial Pavilion, Foreign Affairs, and other important government offices. But while the first team of IGNU leaders was yet in place, these and other offices were allowed to be looted. What happened? They had ECOMOG right here on the ground, and yet…

All we have to do is to remember all the things the Progressive said about Tolbert.

We remember, too, what Dew Mayson told Kenneth Y. Best, at the launching of the book, Albert Porte: A Lifetime Trying to Save Liberia. “The day I meet President Tolbert in the Great Beyond,” Mayson said, “I will tell him, ‘My man, you got best’ — the Liberian way of saying, ‘I am sorry. I wronged you.’”

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