What Has Caused Liberia’s Perennial Leadership Failure?


This is a question all Liberians must ask themselves BEFORE casting their votes in the forthcoming elections next October.

Why have successive administrations, especially since 1920, failed to take Liberia on the great leap forward?

President Charles D.B. King reportedly once said “Fish starts rotting from the head.” He was the person indeed most qualified to say that, for it was during his administration—1920-1930—that corruption became rife in Liberian politics.

He built King Farm in Careysburg using government workers. Albert Porte, in a pamphlet, ironically compared that construction to Camp David in the Washington-Maryland area, which was built by American government money as a place where United States Presidents, burdened with the onerous responsibilities of office, could go for relaxation and reflection with their families, friends and visitors.

So Mr. Porte pleaded with the Liberian people to “be reasonable,” for President King was building Liberia’s “Camp David,” not for himself only, but for other Presidents for relaxation!

King’s reelection in 1927 was so terribly rigged, that it made the Guinness Book of Records as historically the most badly rigged elections!

Remember, too, the Fernando Po Crisis, when President King, his Vice President, Allen Yancy and others were found guilty by the International Commission in 1930 of shipping forced labor to Fernando Po under conditions that were “hardly distinguishable from slavery.”

King and Yancy were forced to resign.

Edwin J. Barclay succeeded King in 1930. After serving an eight-year term, Barclay graciously retired in 1943, succeeded by William V.S. Tubman.

Tubman did three things to intensify corruption in Liberia. First, he tolerated absolutely no freedom of speech or of the press, so NO ONE, with the exception of Albert Porte—dared to challenge Tubman or his administration on anything.

Second, Tubman gave away for little or nothing Liberia’s precious iron ore to Western investors in three places—Bomi Hills, Bomi County; Yekepa, Nimba County; and Fuama Chiefdom, Bong County.

In all three places, run by Western countries—American in LMC; Canadian, American and Swedish in LAMCO; and German in Bong Mines—neither the Liberian government nor the local people got much out of the deals.

In the case of Bomi Hills, the lone voice of caution was Albert Porte, who in a pamphlet in 1946 urged a renegotiation so that the Liberian government and people could get a little more out of the deal. But Tubman and his rubber stamp House of Representatives jailed Mr. Porte! His nephew, Kenneth Best, then only seven, had to take his food and changing clothes daily to the Central Prison at South Beach.

Tubman remained in power for 27 years—how? That was the other form of corruption, through the Elections Commission.

In addition, once he took that oath of office in January 1944, Tubman vigorously suppressed every attempt by anyone to form another political party. And when his predecessor, President Barclay, formed the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP) to challenge Tubman in the 1955 elections, Tubman and his cohorts on June 22, 1955, staged a fake assassination attempt on his life and blamed it on the ITWP. Hundreds of ITWP supporters were arrested and imprisoned, and some of its members, including its vice standard bearer, Counselor Nete Sie Brownell, were given a nut (stark naked) parade through the streets of Monrovia! Cllr. S. David Coleman, and his young son John, a civil engineer, were murdered, their bodies displayed for days at Monrovia’s Barclay Training Center (BTC).

Tubman’s successor, President William R. Tolbert Jr., in 1972 appointed his brother Steve, already a wealthy fishing tycoon, as Finance Minister. From this powerful and privileged position he started buying up businesses, especially Liberian ones, until Albert Porte, again, challenged these unscrupulous business practices and got sued by Steve for libel. Steve won the case, with US$275,000 libel damages. But Mr. Porte, unable to pay, was never arrested. Mr. Tolbert, a few months later died in a plane crash and that ended the case.

Another Tolbert brother, Daniel, became heavily involved in rice importation. So when it seemed that Tolbert was planning to increase the price of rice, which he said was meant to encourage local rice production, the plan aroused suspicion and led to the April 14 Rice Riots. That led to the 1980 coup d’état, Tolbert’s death and great human carnage. Ten years of terror, continued corruption, mismanagement and widespread murder followed, leading to the civil war.

Then came Charles Taylor, the warlord and his National Patriotic Party of Liberia (NPFL), who started the Liberian war. Taylor ravaged the country, turned over the nation’s forests to the Malaysian giant Oriental Timber Company (OTC), pillaged the public treasury, sharing the wealth with his women and cronies and destroyed the nation’s infrastructure.

And now Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, historically our most schooled President, the first with a Harvard education.

She worked with both Steve Tolbert and his brother, President Tolbert, yet was a fierce critic of both. She, however, fell into the same trap of nepotism that they did. That cost her dearly politically; and cost the country financially.

She among other things appointed her son Robert as Chair of one of Liberia’s most lucrative state enterprises, the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), which he soon made bankrupt, with over US$40 million lost!

She has not been able to fix the nation’s agriculture, education or health and now, in the final year of her presidency, the economy is almost in shambles.

Nor has she achieved much in reconciliation. What then, will be her legacy? That remains to be seen.


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