On April 12, 1980, our young democracy awoke to a shocked and charged atmosphere that was somewhat perplexing, full of disbeliefs and somehow sadness for some and joy for others.
Some of our citizens had expected this sort of thing, but from higher ups in the military and not from non-commissioned officers as they claimed. My observations of President Tolbert’s regime are based on increased political activities before 1979, and on the tensed and tumultuous political climate after the April 14, 1979 rice riot. From all indications, President Tolbert initiated some liberal reforms when he opened up the socio-economic and political atmospheres to our nation’s disenfranchised citizens who had been, supposedly, oppressed and denied full political discourse by President Tubman despite his introduction of the Unification Policy. The only way up, seemed to have been through unconditional pursuit of higher education in order to enhance the odds of obtaining good jobs, while some engaged in petty trading and other commercial activities. Others, including some educated ones, chose to affiliate with some fraternal organizations in order to find their places in our society. Tolbert embarked on his vision as soon as he ascended to the office of President of Liberia in 1971, but he remained reluctant to sensibly implement the final objective of the Unification Policy despite his vast experiences as the second man in command under president Tubman. That meant, to pick an academically trained but disciplined indigenous or native son for the position of Vice President. A smart move that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took advantage of in 2005. The man most admired and recommended at the time was, Hon. Jackson F. Doe. However, as Tolbert refused to do as several political elites advised, including his two brothers and Mr. Kenneth Y. Best, yet he warmly advocated media freedom or free press and he awarded many scholarships to bright, but underprivileged students to pursue higher education at home and abroad. Despite his good intentions, his costly mistake was his refusal to complete the final objective of the Unification Policy, an act that still ponders some minds today.
During the Tolbert era, a sizable fraction of our young populace genuinely pursued higher education. Today, they’re doing so in a messy system that is breeding with unchecked misdeeds, while some continue in hot pursuit of gravy pots. Whether the paths chosen in pursuits of these pots are immoral or unrighteous, I dare not infringe my liberty to pass on judgments for such moral issues, or dogma for both the young and the old in our society today. I will let the prophets, pastors and priests critique the issues and the unacceptable dogmas. When Paul wrote to Timothy in first Timothy Cpt., 5 verse 1, he said: “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.” As I highlight my observations and express my consensus and dissenting views, I bear sole responsibility for what I write. These include; uncorroborated but contemporary accounts.
TOLBERT’S VISION AND COMMITTMENTS
As the longest serving Vice President in the history of our country, Tolbert served with distinction, courage and patience. He admitted to some friends that he had planned for gradual implementations of progressive development programs to help improve the livelihood of most Liberians, if not all of them, whenever he was opportuned to do so. He envisioned a vibrant society where all Liberians would choose to be self sufficient in his/her own rights. He reflected on that vision in 1973 when he visited the town of Belle Yella, where I was present along with my dad as we all listened to him speak. He encouraged dialogues and traveled extensively in order to make friends and negotiate for foreign investments in Liberia. However, his gradual friendships with the Communist and Socialist East, rolled some eyebrows in the West. The CIA began to monitor every move that Tolbert made, whether it was in the interest of Liberia or otherwise. At the time, the United States in particular, and the former Soviet Union were arch enemies, engulfed in cold wars. According to uncorroborated reports, the President even suggested to some trusted confidants when he was sworn into office newly as president of the Republic, that a multi-party system would be good for Liberia at some point of time.
Changes in staff, negotiations and contractual modifications
Before the end of 1971, President Tolbert initiated several changes and he even replaced some government officials whom he knew were very inefficient and untidy at their jobs. As the early years went by, the President changed what was then (LST) Liberia’s Standard Time. Our time was changed to match West African Times or that of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the one used by the (BBC) British Broadcasting Corporation from the Bush House, in London. The late President also negotiated the change of contractual terms of the (PUA) Public Utility Authority, which soon became (LEC), Liberia Electricity Corporation. Trained Liberians were charged with the management of the corporation. He then negotiated with the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Marshall Territory, now Margibi; in order to replace the foreign expatriates (superintendents) with trained Liberians. This process saved Firestone hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions in salaries and benefits, but it also created employment opportunities for Liberian-Agriculturalists. He used an operational plan to implement a medium-term plan, using year-by-year implementations. He introduced our Liberian Populace to “Total-Involvement for Higher Heights.” Farms to market roads were constructed for the rapid transport of basic commodities to markets and various towns and cities for sale. He established corporations in collaboration with other international governments, that came to be known as; the (LRDU) Liberia’s Rubber Development Unit, (LPMC) Liberia’s Produce Marketing Corporation, (LPRC) Liberia’s Petroleum Refinery Corporation, (LCADP) Lofa County Agriculture Development Project, (NCADP) Nimba County Agriculture Development Project, (BCADP) Bong County Agriculture Development Project, (RDI) Rural Development Institute at Cuttington University, and the various Multilateral High Schools designed for comprehensive technical and academic training. He constructed many Estates: Cabral, Mattadi, Steven Tolbert, Barnersville, and several others and he was instrumental in the establishment of the Mino River Union and the (ECOWAS), Economy Community Of West African States. Like Madam Sirleaf, Tolbert was a visionary Pragmatist who believed that Liberians should improvise where necessity dictated, so he got heavily involved in farming which he long since did during his tenure as Vice President.
The Baptist Minister breaks a taboo
As a devout Baptist Minister and a man of great fate, Tolbert broke ranks with Christians when he allegedly embarked on a secret journey to the Muslim holiest city of Mecca, in the late 1970s in order to seek divine help from Allah, the God that is worshipped by Muslims around the globe. It is believed that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat acted as a quiet intermediary to allow President Tolbert’s passage through Egypt and then to Medina, and finally, Mecca. His journey remained classified with Egypt’s intelligence up to this time. Liberians only knew that their President had gone for an official visit to Egypt to see his friend, Annwart Sadat. The Israeli’s Mossad, a super spy agency which is an equivalent to the United States’ CIA and the Russian’s KGB, are said to have monitored his trip. This led to strange oddity among the Israelites, likewise the CIA, many of whose operatives knew that President Tolbert was a devout Christian who worshipped Jehovah-God or Yahweh. After the climax of the tumultuous social and political atmosphere that gradually declined at the latter part of 1979, the President’s world political legacy diminished, severely. As speculated, he later received a special Muslim envoy from Saudi Arabia’s Monarchy with a solemn message, a divine prophesy that it was advisable and nearing time that he ‘step-down.’ He accepted the advise but never acted on it.
When King Hezekiah was told by the prophet Isaiah to get his house in order, because he would soon give up the ghost, the King turned to the wall and cried bitterly. He hearken the message, but he reminded the LORD about his tithes, offerings and his good deeds in the community as a leader. In essence, he hearken to the message but he pleaded with GOD for mercy. The LORD was merciful and he even added 15 years to the King’s life. President Tolbert did not hearken to his message, however. One can surmise from this episode, that great leaders sometimes make the mistake to down play divine prophesy, especially when they feel secured in their authority. When God’s wrath of pestilence swamped Egypt, King Pharaoh relented briefly and even told Moses to get his people out of Egypt, but later, as the Israelites journeyed to cross the red Sea, Pharaoh took his elite guards to chase the Israelites in order to stop or slaughter them. However, divine intervention encircled the Israelites, and as the Holy Bible recalls; all the Egyptians that went after the Israelites, drowned and were never to be seen again-(Exodus 14).
During the eight years and nine months reign of the late President William Richard Tolbert, a man for whom I still hold deep regards and some nostalgia occasionally, Liberia progressively moved toward a broad development agenda. The Liberian populace were ushered to initiate some self help projects while the Government initiated major development programs like; AGRIMINCO, a joint Israeli and Liberian Rice Development Co-operative, that had a medium-term plan to help Liberia become self sufficient and a major rice exporter. This rice development entity was dynamic in mechanized farming and it helped local farmers as they rapidly went from one county to the other, developing rice for local consumption and future exports. However, the project collapsed after Liberia joined other African countries to sever diplomatic relations with Israel in 1976, regarding the Palestinian crises and other issues. Like President Sirleaf, Tolbert was a visionary pragmatist. But he had his faults, I must admit, he was quite stubborn at times. I now surmise that if President Tolbert had chosen an indigenous son as his pick for VP in 1975, he would have changed the course of history of our nation.
A brief outlook on US Foreign policy on Liberia in the 70’s
The CIA over the years lost its taste for the Tolbert’s administration. Subsequently, its quiet supports for political movements in Liberia grew. When food prices began to rise, especially rice, our staple food, Liberians took to the streets, mostly influenced by the late Baccus Matthews and his ProgressiveAlliance along with some UL professors and students. Before and about the same time, the price of our major exporting resource, iron-ore, had fallen sharply on the world’s markets and the United States foreign aid to Liberia also dwindled drastically. I began to deduce that the national political odds were against our President, as the smells of trouble filled the air. As a young Catholic student, I surmised that President Tolbert was in deep, deep trouble. Political tensions aroused when the so-called country boys, continued to spell out Liberia’s socio-economic ills with relentless vigor. It appeared that the way was lost; especially his (Tolbert’s) administration’s handling of the rice riot of April 14, 1979. Before the riot, I watched two of my intellectual models at the time, in person of Dr. H. BoimahFahnbulleh Jr., now Sr. and Dr. Togbah Nah-Tipoteh, joined by the late Baccus Matthews and his Progressive Alliance of Liberia, pierced the political clout of the Trug-Whig party and the Tolbert’s Administration. But, they suggested some tangible solutions to the socio-economic ills of Liberia. These suggestions did not appeal to the old-heads nor awake the consciousnesses of the administration. It was difficult to implement some of the solutions recommended, because Tolbert faced stiff resistance from the old-heads in both Houses of the Legislature and the True-Whig Party. These entrenched officials often lamented, as they echoed; “Willie don sell our country to these damned country boys.” Many of them wondered, with strange curiosity as to what was going on in the late President’s head. The notion that he was opening the eyes of the country boys and turning the nation to them, came to a shocking reality on the morning of April 12, 1980, when supposedly; a team of elite US Delta Forces who are expert assassins of world leaders that the United States classifies as enemies and has lost favor with, executed a mandate for ‘covert-operation’ from the White House to take Tolbert down. This mandate was supposedly ordered when the CIA gained intelligence that the political inmate; G. Baccus Matthews and other political prisoners were to be executed upon Tolbert’s departure for Zimbabwe in order to celebrate that country’s independence. In the plan, a US trained Liberian Army Ranger, Major William Jerbo was to assume power while Tolbert stayed out of Liberia for a-while and then return later as an active elderly-statesman. After the mission, the Delta Forces left the scene, leaving several non-commission officers in charge of the rest of the drama. The last of such non-commissioned officers was recently returned home among the deportees. Sources indicate that the Delta support troops from the Liberian Army headed by Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, freed Mr. G. Baccus Matthews and summoned him to the Executive Mansion where he was asked to take charge, but Mr. Matthews declined and, he instead told Sgt. Doe to take charge because it was a military coup d’état, but he Matthews would advise and guard the political process. Before 1980, Mr. Matthews, Dr. Tipoteh, and Dr. Fahnbulleh, along with many others, advocated for change that seemed impossible to come.
Over the last ten years and 11 months, our nation has come to face firm but the grim reality about the extreme difficulties that lay ahead in the re-building of a torn-apart country, that was once gulfed in warfare over a period of 14-15years. It is an extremely difficult task to re-build whether you agree with me or not. There are no quick, nor easy fixes after a nation’s destruction. Yes! my dear brethren; there are constraints, challenges, and deficits in many areas of our society today. In fact, these factors are being compounded by unchecked misdeeds, however, we must recognize that a President cannot micro-manage his/her country. The President has kept peace, build and paved roads, and she has advocated decentralization. When the President appoints ministers and managing directors, those ministers and directors become ethically charged with fiduciary responsibilities to conduct the functions of their entities to the best of their abilities, using ‘rational-actions’ as their prudent tools. I find it only fair to shift the most blames on the failures of corrupt heads of entities and not always the president. You know! the real stabilizer of planes’ wings help balance them in air, and their tails help the pilots steer the wheels toward the planned destination(s), while fish tails also help them direct their swimming paths, but when their tails fail, the pilots or fish are bound to experience extreme difficulties in steering to the right direction. I think that, it is time to cast blames on the corrupt wings and tails in our society, instead of the head.
Our President has great attributes as a smart and dynamically witty leader. As she aligns the implementations of her legacy projects, she remains cannily unpredictable. As we assume and predict her next moves, she often disposes as if she were a member of a Deity. You can never tell her next moves. Many pundits feel that she often doesn’t see the wrongs of some of her friends, even while they’re painfully stepping on her toes. They are the noisy minorities who want to draw her attention for good reasons. Hence, open dialogues with these minorities are no political-calculus. It is even better to engage them in open dialogues. The best solutions to their problems may come from themselves, through these open dialogues at our leader’s disposal. The term is short, but our leader’s wisdom can still prevail. When the noisy minorities vent their frustrations in positive manners, some solutions are bound to emerge. I suggest this! because; when the noisy minorities speak, it is the silent majorities that awake, when this happens, change or changes are bound to emerge. It was the frustrated and noisy Minorities that caused political revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria. The Kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan quickly made serious economic and political adjustments in governments and have made available; additional social overhead benefits for the silent majorities. Therefore, it is never too late to initiate dialogues. President Tolbert became frustrated with the noisy Minorities whose noise awoke the silent majority to a peculiar curiosity. He was forced to crack-down hard, on the culprit of political upheavals in our country. Because of his administration’s failure to reconcile the political differences that had stirred the emotions of the silent majority, Tolbert paid the ultimate price. His fate was domed. Both sides of our political stratosphere could not give in. In the end, the military became the harshest but unlikely intermediary.
As the Cold War continued during the 1970s, and up to the 1980s, those who criticized and hated the United States for its backing of Israel and were critical of Israel, but closely aligned with the Communist East, either for economic or foreign-military aid were classified by the CIA as; enemies of United States’ friends and interests. Tolbert became a victim of such ‘US Foreign Policy Philosophy.’ Although he was never an enemy of Israel, what he did was that he openly criticized Israel on a few occasions and even blamed the United States indirectly for its supposedly, blind support for Israel regarding the ugly relationship between Israel and Palestine. Besides, there was bad blood between the CIA and the late President, because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the cause of death of former US ambassador to Liberia, Dr. Samuel Z. Westerfield.
According to uncorroborated contemporary accounts, the ambassador had attempted to persuade the Chief of Staff of Liberia’s Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Korboi Johnson and the mild manner, but no-nonsense, Commanding General BeyanKesselly, to seize power after the death of President Tubman in a London Clinic. The ambassador is said to have pledged the US financial and military supports for the government had they implemented his preposition. Accordingly, the officers accepted the scheme, but as they entered the vehicle to leave the scene, the Commanding General is said to have stated, “Who the hell this Son of a B— thinks he is; to have us change an established system that has remained politically quiet for over half a century, suddenly, to a chaotic one.” He added in his Lormadialet; “Ngelemoeyen!” This is supposedly what comes from the mouth of a refined Lorma-man when he’s offended by a fool/idiot. The chief of staff is said to have chuckled at this, momentarily, then he said: “General! you know, you are right about this, you are damned right! we just cannot do this, we cannot.” So, they dropped the issue as if nothing ever happened. Instead, they told President Tolbert at a later time what had transpired. Such act by the Ambassador was deemed by President Tolbert as; Gross Diplomatic Sabotage. He felt betrayed and taken aback by the Ambassador’s alleged action and that; someone whom he thought was a friend had insidiously interfered into his administration’s affairs or that of the nation. Read! US foreign policy quotes:“The friend of my enemy is my enemy,”“the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Are these phrases familiar? Not quite to some of you. Hey! just drink a little coffee, and follow my pen.
As Dr. Wayne Dwyer often says; “In life, when we change the ways in which we look at things, the things we look at will change.” In my opinion, when we change the ways in which we look at our leaders, our leaders will change, hopefully, I say! For it is written: In Acts chapter 23 verse 5: “You shall not speak evil of the ruler of your people.” For now, I rest my pen.
About the Author:
Samuel TM Dunbar is Vice President for Administration of the Lofa County Community College in Voinjama City, Lofa County-RL, and he is the former Director for the integrated Departments of Human Resources, Planning and Research of the AMEUZ University where he also taught Public Personnel Administration, Development Planning and Public Financial Management. Email and Contact #s firstname.lastname@example.org 0880702909/0770015785.