July 26 is the independence day of Liberia – Africa oldest republic. It is an important day in Liberia and important for Liberians in the Diaspora.
As a boy over 40 years ago in Liberia, Independence Day was like Christmas …. and it is still viewed that way. Back then, we kids went to the children’s dance on Independence Day. The big shots’ children would dance at the old Executive Mansion on Ashmun Street and the ordinary kids would dance at former Sport Commission Center on Front Street and Ashmun in the capital, Monrovia. But you had to wear a coat suit to attend. All we cared about was to have fun and enjoy sometimes fireworks. Adult Liberians, mostly government people, spoke proudly of our country and glorified our history and leaders in Independence Day orations.
But as I grew up as an adult in America and having read and critically looked at the conditions of Liberia, I ask: Independence Day, what are we celebrating for?
Since independence, Liberia continues to be underdeveloped. The majority citizens continue to be poor. Things are hard and are getting harder.
Liberia declared her independence on July 26, 1847 from the American Colonization Society (ACS) – a philanthropic group, which in the early 1800s sent, settled and sponsored American Black ex-slaves to Liberia. To the ex-slaves, coming to Africa would provide them land for plantation farming and opportunity to become landowners and masters like their former owners. To the society, particularly its religious supporters, the settlers would serve as agents for “Christianization and civilization” of the African natives. The ACS viewed that Christianization was civilization, though the settlers were neither Christians nor civilized in the true sense of the words.
From settlements to colonies, they became a commonwealth and later declared themselves an independent Republic of Liberia.
However, they excluded the majority of the indigenous Africans whom they met on the land from citizenship of the republic until 1917.
The government controlled the national economy and the natural resources. It gained international leverage as other nations, especially America, recognized the independence, despite challenges from ethnic groups.
A key challenge was that the land settled by the ex-slaves was taken at gun point and therefore, the settlement was illegal. Things went relatively well for the settlers besides social cleavages among them along color and class lines. They and their Congo counterparts were united in dominating the native majority. They took over commerce, seized land and became landlords owning properties in areas now classified as prime land in Liberia.
The desire for more territories became necessary. But as the government extended its territorial boundary, it faced the problem of administration.
Indeed, over 90% of the settlers were illiterate and had no skills and education to efficiently administer the extended government. Consequently, it turned to foreign born educated Blacks from other countries as an answer.
Regrettably however, the government appeared not to have considered educating its own people or instituting the necessary foundation for public education throughout its territory. The reason was political: foreigners would be more loyal to the regime while public education of the masses would in the future enable the majority to vote the settlers out of power. The strategy seemed to have worked for that period, but it affected Liberia future’s leadership and national development through education.
Certainly in 1946, the regime granted the masses voting rights, but it did not provide them educational opportunities in their communities. Hence, even though they had voting power, the majority of the people lacked knowledge of their constitutional rights, a reality which still exists today in Liberia.
In subsequent years, Liberia grew in natural resources. The country became a major producer of rubber and iron ore, which brought in millions of dollars in export revenues. Many government officials became absentee farmers owning rubber farms and selling rubber to Firestone, a US rubber plantation company. With money from rubber and from government operations, the elites bought more properties. Also, some became public relations agents and legal advisors to foreign concessions. For example, Richard Henries, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, was legal counselor to the Liberian Mining Company. Moreover, Shad Tubman, son of President Tubman, became head of the Liberian labor union as an effort to arrest strong unionization of Liberian workers. Tubman became not only the longest serving President of Liberia, but also one of the wealthiest leaders of the country.
Liberia took world center stage as she became a beacon to other African countries fighting for independence from colonial rule. She also provided Liberian passports to future African leaders to travel abroad. While resources grew, the Liberian population remained basically constant. But at the same time, the leadership neglected and failed to extend educational, health and other needed services to the rural areas inhabited by the indigenous people. A consequence of this action was rural poverty, resulting in rural-urban migration- a growth which the urban areas, mostly Monrovia, the capital, was unable to adequately accommodate.
The uneven distribution of resources together with corruption and repressive settler rule contributed to the “1980 Revolution”, a drastic change of the order of things, which overthrew the minority Americo-Liberian/Congo political dominance. The country also has undergone 14 years of civil war after about 10 years of the overthrow. Although there is now peace in Liberia, thanks to national and international efforts, Liberia faces further challenges. Liberia is rich in natural resources. It is said that there are about 37 natural resources in Liberia.
Oil has been discovered. But the resources could be controlled or owned by external forces if care is not taken by the Liberian leadership. Since President Sirleaf took power, over 15 billion dollars have been put into the country by international investments and donations. Yet like in previous administrations, the people and country are still poor.
Liberia is over 166 years old and is 71 years younger than the US. Moreover, Liberia is over 100 years older than Ghana and Nigeria, but those two are far developed than Liberia. Liberian past politicians have argued that the country did not benefit from colonialism and had to struggle on her own. While the argument is true, the fact also is that Liberia controlled her own destiny, government and resources during that period. Colonial countries did not. Their resources and raw material were taken to develop the economy of the colonial power. The wrongs of colonialism outweighed its benefits. It underdeveloped Africa, as the late Walter Rodney and others have shown us. Moreover, Liberia, considered America’s step-child, benefitted from US assistance during Africa’s colonization.
Liberia’s under-development continues presently. Liberia is one of the poorest countries and one of the most corrupt nations in the world. I observed her condition during my visit to Liberia recently. Many Liberians go to bed hungry. “Poverty is all around and you can see it in people’s faces”, said some Liberians in an interview. Some government workers openly ask for bribes. Food and other commodities have experienced double digit inflation with food at about 12% and transportation about 11%. Specifically for instance, the cost for a cup of rice, Liberia’s staple food, has increased from 20 LD (Liberian Dollars) to 25 LD from May to July this year. There is no price control, so a merchant can charge what he/she feels. Public transportation is inadequate. Hence, people fight to get in car or cab. Gas price has gone up, necessitating increase in public transportation fare. The average Liberian lives on less than one dollar a day. Unemployment is high, about 85%, a rate which remains unchanged since Sirleaf’s presidency. Employment or income has not kept pace with rising inflation, as reported by the Minister of Finance. The Liberian dollar has depreciated at about 8.2% from 2012-2013. Currently the rate is about 90 LD to 1 USD. Moreover, there is an acute income disparity: some government officials make $10,000 – $25,000 USD a month while most civil servants make an average about US$100.00 monthly. Many of the officials wire a large portion of their income to support families in America, thus helping the US economy and increasing demand of the US dollar in Liberia.
During the rainy season, the heavy rain has caused serious flooding in streets of Monrovia because of bad roads and the lack of proper drainage system. This has made transportation difficult for the workforce or road travelers.
The lack of good roads and preparation caused the postponement of the independence celebration originally scheduled in Sinoe and Grand Kru counties. Now the celebration was held in Monrovia /Montserrado County. However, millions of dollars has been spent on road construction. Chico, a Chinese company in Liberia, has received over 95% of the road construction contract projects, though the company’s work is considered sub-standard. The absence of cooperation between the Ministry of Public Works and the Finance Ministry has affected also construction projects.
In addition to the economic problems discussed above, Liberia faces the Ebola virus or disease, which has killed in Liberia over 115 people, according to the latest report. Some Liberians had suggested the use of the funds earmarked for the independence celebration to fight Ebola instead. Others had called for a national prayer on Independence Day and opposed celebration. They maintained that the country needs God’s intervention.
Liberia has been under-developed since independence, Liberians are living in abject poverty, corruption is increasing, and citizens are dying of Ebola, so what is there to celebrate?
By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, USA., published 27 July 2014