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Special Feature

What is Wrong With Liberians?


The topic of Chapter 2 of the book, Liberia: A Century of Survival, 1847-1947, by Raymond Leslie Buell was or is “What is wrong with Liberia?” The book was published on the 100th birth anniversary of the founding and declaration of political independence of the Liberian State in the year of 1947. This was a rhetorical question, the answer to which was the subject of (his analysis contained in) the book (Buell, 1947).

In this, rather, brief retrospective and contemporary reflections, I chose to navigate the critical issues facing our country, Liberia, in an attempt to seek answer(s) to ‘what is wrong with us’, Liberians’, rather than with Liberia.

Born out of a Need

The Republic of Liberia, as a nation, was born out of a need, an abiding, enduring need or quest for human freedom, justice, equality, etc. The realization of this need or quest, however, depends or rests upon the ability and commitment of a nation and people to create the enabling, socio-cultural, economic and political condition(s) for support/sustainability. Economists and other, relevant experts have argued and continue to argue the definition of one of these enabling conditions – support/sustainability of this Need or Quest – as the “Premier Effect” or the primary, public policy priority in national, economic development.

In the light of our (Liberia’s) historic relations with the United States, our mentor, Liberia has the ability – the determination, commitment, education, training/experience, natural/human resources – to achieve this need. However, this primary, public policy priority in national development had been and continues to be elusive.

Our History as a Nation

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Relationship with the USA

Since political and economic independence in 1847 we, Liberians, had been and are privileged to have and maintained historic ties, friendship and solidarity with and enjoy socio-economic and political benefits, throughout the years, from the greatest, most successful, economic and technologically-developed nation on earth, the United States of America. Throughout these years, up to the present, the United States provided Liberia with socio-cultural, economic, political, humanitarian and military support, numbering in the hundreds or thousands of billions of US dollars.

The Founders and the work Ethic

Our founders inherited and brought with them, into this country, the work ethic, of thrift, love of and commitment to knowledge, hard-driving competition, as a pre-condition for the accumulation of wealth, equity, the good life and happiness. They built ocean-going vessels, produced, processed and exported several types of commodities, goods and services, in a vibrant, national/international trade and commerce. However, this enterprising, entrepreneurial segment of our founding fathers dropped their implements, inspiration and commitment to agro-industrial occupation in 1870, returned to the City of Monrovia from the “Up River” settlements, in response to systematic denial of political participation to them and off-springs, due to segregation/discrimination based on skin color (dark-skinned) to which they had been subjected by the dominant (light-skinned), mulatto, political class (Kraaij, 1983).

Education, Open Door and National Unification Policies

Dr. William V. S. Tubman, upon becoming President of Liberia in 1944, reinforced the quest for and love of knowledge, as a rational pre-condition for national economic development by introducing the foreign scholarship program. This program or policy made possible the education and training of thousands of Liberians in the schools, colleges and universities of several, western countries, with the United States as Liberia’s leading choice.

Also, President Tubman announced and launched his Open Door Policy (Wreh, 1976) and later, his Unification Policy in a speech in the city of Voinjama, Lofa County. These efforts were in response to the realization that economic development and unity are critical ingredients for total development of the nation. Therefore, the President responded by creating the first four, new counties in the hinterland – Grand Gedeh, Nimba, Bong and Lofa counties in 1964. With creation of the counties came the inevitable, senate and house representations (Smith, 1964). 

This effort by President Tubman was designed to give Open Door Policy which would or could give economic benefits, with political benefits of participation by legislative representation to hinterland citizens in rural Liberia.  However, Liebenow (Liebenow, 1987) describes, graphically, that the “. . . appearance of reform being far greater than reality . . . the Tubman engine ran out of steam . . . It was clear that the overwhelming thrust of integration . . . of the First Republic was still in the direction of accepting settler (Americo-Liberian) rather than tribal norms of behavior. Detracting from the benefits to be derived from the extension to the tribal hinterland of suffrage and representation in the Legislature”, he wrote, “was the fact that elections had actually become almost meaningless exercises within the single-party state”. Continuing, he observed that “real power had gravitated even more effectively from the legislature to the president and those influential Americo-Liberians who surrounded him. Although education provided more bureaucratic jobs for tribal youth and lower-income Americo-Liberians, the really significant executive, legislative, judicial and ambassadorial positions were retained by the leading families at the core of the Americo-Liberian elite”.

In other words, although President Tubman’s vision of liberalism and national unification, as critical pre-condition for national, economic develpment was recognized, appreciated and rewarded by the Liberian people with a 27-year reign as president, the oppressive marginalization and denial of basic, civil and political rights of the people, by some Liberians, still continued.

Moreover, then came the inevitable, violent, 1980 Event. In a classic, prophetic observation, Raymond Leslie Buell held, in 1947, that “It seems only a matter of time when the preponderance of the ‘civilized Natives’ (indigenous Liberians) over the Americo-Liberians will become overwhelming. Once awakened to western ideas of democracy and freedom, the educated Natives will demand the right to participate in government . . . But whether the struggle (for political participation, equality and justice) becomes violent or whether the transition of power to the Natives is gradual (peaceful, for benefit of all citizens) depends on the wisdom of the present, governing class (of Liberians) . . . Undoubtedly, some (Liberian) members of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy do not wish to open up and develop the hinterland . . .” (Buell, 1947).

Our Early Thinkers

From cradle to grave, education and knowledge had been hammered into the heads and conscious of Liberian generations throughout the history of this nation, not only for the sake of knowledge, as it were, but also because education and knowledge are a critical precondition to national development. Periodically, Liberia pays homage and honor to the memory of the nation’s early philosophers and celebrated intellectuals, such as Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, who pioneered Liberia’s academic thought and practice.

The Recent Past & Contemporaries

Our recent past saw the emergence of the nation’s literary giants, men and women of letters and professors such as Drs. T. Dusomu Johnson, Doris Banks-Henries, Roland T. Dempster, Mary A. Grimes, Bai T. Moore, T. Ebenezer Ward (former President of the University of Liberia), etc. Contemporaries include power-house, academic/intellectual nationalists and historians as Drs. Amos Sawyer, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr., Levi Zangar, Patrick L. N. Sayon, Joseph Saye Guannue, Togba Na Tipoteh, McIntosh Gaywea, S. Byron Tarr, etc.


Then there are the emerged and emerging students of social and physical sciences; young, energetic, dedicated, fearless and questioning, academic/intellectual heavyweights such as Drs. George Kieh, Emmanuel Dolo, Nathaniel Gbessagee, Nya Taryor, Abugarshall Kai, Alaric Tokpa, Syrulwa Somah, Joseph Gbaba, Sr. and the corps of young professors now at Liberia’s leading colleges and universities of higher education. Others with undergraduate and graduate education, training/experience in, almost, all disciplines, are returning home from foreign colleges and universities.

Our Partners In Progress

These include our traditional partners, the United Sates and USAID; United Kingdom (UK) and its associated agencies; the European Union (EU) and individual countries with their aid agencies; the United Nation’s UNDP, aid agency. Most of these countries have been with us through thick and thin throughout the years, with commitments to continue their contribution to our development.  The partners now include developing nations, such as India, the People’s Republic of China, etc.  Social, economic, political, military, humanitarian aid has increased, considerably, after our 14-year, civil tragedy. It is reasonable to believe and hope that aid to Liberia will continue, at a greater rate and volume than in the past.

Natural, Human and related Resources

It is important to note that our country is endowed with much more than its share of natural resources, in relative terms. To identify a very few, there are known deposits of iron ore, gold, diamonds, oil and, perhaps, gas; streams, creeks and rivers with several species of fish; and forests, also, with several species of timber. These are assets that are available to be utilized in capital formation for national development.

As indicated earlier, we have a great pool of highly-educated, trained and experienced, energetic, dedicated professionals; also educated, but a trainable corps of energetic and dedicated, young Liberians. Yes, indeed, we have had and have it all – that which it takes or would and could have taken to criss-cross our small nation of less than 4 million, sparsely populated people, with an area of 43,000 square miles, by all-whether, super-highways/roads; for, we have:

1. The Need
2. Knowledge

  • Education
  • Training/Experience
  • Commitment

3. Resources

  • Human
  • Natural
  • Financial asset

This, according to development economists and related experts, is the Primary, Public Policy Priority, defined as “PREMIER, MULTIPLIER EFFECT” in national, economic development.  But we have not or did not apply this approach.

All-whether-Highways & Roads – Modern Communication System

Modern, twenty-first century system of communications drives business which, in turn, drives the economy. Liberia, then, must plan and build a national system of all-weather highways and roads, linking all county capitals to one another and all productive, trade and commercial centers to the nation’s political, commercial capital city of Monrovia. But, we did not.

It has been shown, and prevails successfully, that all-weather, modern highways & roads built between points A & B where there were no highways & roads or any form of effective/efficient communication before, citizens and businesses relocate along the new highways and roads. They buy land and build homes, motels, hotels, restaurants, shops, service stations and rest stops for motorists/travelers. But, we have not.

Thus, effective/efficient, modern communication system of highways & roads facilitates not only convenient, mass movement of people, but also the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services; facilitates national and international trade, commerce, and enormous opportunities for investment and employment of citizens. It is in this respect that implementation of the communication system, particularly of all-weather roads/highways, constitutes a “multiplier effect” in national economic development. Add to this, the condition of the developing, modern information technology, you have the recipe for success that will drive Liberia into the 21st Century economy.

Kill several Birds with one stone

Prioritization of the policy of the “Multiplier Effect” in national, economic development by the construction of all-whether highways and roads throughout the length and breadth of the nation is, in fact, the practical realization of the proverbial “:kill two birds with one stone”, only at this time, one stone kills several, not two birds. With the “multiple” results indicate above, there is an additional, very important and critical achievement to be derived.

For examples, the prevailing rapid population growth, rural-to-urban, economic migration; the unprecedented exodus of refugees from the atrocities of the civil war into the city of Monrovia as the only safe haven; the rise of the “consumption generation” without production, a fact which gave rise to the prevailing socio-economic and political constipation of the nation’s capital city, rendering it over-populated, congested, uncontrolled street selling and ungovernable.

Moreover, the 24-hour, Monrovia bumper-to-bumper, uncontrolled traffic jams, arising from the phenomenal increase in the volume of vehicular/pedestrian traffic, have no roads/streets to ply. Apparently, all vehicles imported to Liberia are concentrated in the Monrovia area because of the critical absence of roads/highways in rural Liberia.

In the light of these conditions, the reasonable solution of Liberia’s major socio-economic (and political) problems lie in the application of the priority policy of the Premier Multiplier Effect by the construction of all-whether highways/roads throughout the nation.  Efficiently/effectively managed, the transport and communication system will release the pressure on the capital city by the socio-economic (and political) incentives not only to  attract  Monrovia street-sellers, but also, all other, rural migrants, including nurses, doctors, engineers, lawyers, educators/academicians, business managers, economists, investment promoters, information technologists, etc., here, in Monrovia, back to their home counties, and entrepreneurs wishing to migrate.  

However, we have not, yet, applied this priority policy of the “Premier Multiplier Effect” in national, economic development, although we have had and do have what it takes. But we must. . . what, then, is wrong with Liberians?

Buell, Raymond Leslie, Liberia: A Century of Survival 1847-1947, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947
Kraaij, van der,  Fred  P. M., Open Door Policy of Liberia,  Bremen, 1983
Liebenow, Gus J., The Quest for Democracy, Bloomington, Indianapolis, 1987
Smith, Robert A., The Emancipation of the Hinterland, Monrovia, 1964
Wreh,  Tuan, The Love of Liberty . . . The Rule of President William V. S. Tubman, 1944-1971, London, 1976

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