Liberia At 169: What Lessons

Written on:July 27, 2016
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The Lone Star forver Edwin Barclay

MUCH HAS BEEN said and written about Liberia in the past century. The oldest country in Africa has had its share of unfortunate events. From riots to coup d’etat and civil wars to a deadly Ebola virus outbreak which wreaked havoc and begged questions as to whether the country had been cursed.

HOW MANY BAD things can one country endure?  How much suffering can one people endure in the ultimate test of political survival?

TODAY, AFTER 169 YEARS as an independent nation, Liberia is still lagging behind many of its neighbours and countries which were still in diapers when Liberia was making history as the grandfather of modern independence.

WHEN SAMUEL DOE and his peers seized power on April 12, 1980, the mantra was to rid Liberia of rampant corruption. To validate that point, 13 officials of the Tolbert government were executed by firing squad, just days after Tolbert himself was slain in the coup that led to his demise and the rise of Liberia as a military-led government.

A YEAR EARLIER, Liberians were led to believe that the price of rice was too high and needed to be dropped. A progressives-led riot led to the chaos, destructions and a few deaths as Liberia began its plunge into political oblivion.

FLORENCE CHENOWETH, the minister of agriculture in 1979, had proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce rice as both a subsistence crop and a cash crop, instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations. However, political opponents criticized the proposal as self-aggrandizement, pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family of the President operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.

THE PROGRESSIVE ALLIANCE of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration to protest the proposed price increase. On April 14 about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion. The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 “back street boys,” causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction.

WIDESPREAD LOOTING OF retail stores and rice warehouses ensued with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million. The government called in troops to reinforce Police units in the capital, who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rioters. In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 500 were injured. Hundreds more were arrested.

SO WHY AFTER all these years, after all those attempts at trying to remove Doe from power and Doe removing the ‘corrupt’ Tolbert government from power, is Liberia still struggling to rid itself of the cancer and the inadequate nature that has defined its existence for much of the past century.

AS FAR BACK as the 1800s, Liberia has been struggling. During the reign of Edward James Roye, regarded as the first truly black President, corruption dominated the politics. Under Roye, the Congau elements gained equal status to Americo-Liberians but his reign was marred by one of the dark chapters in Liberia’s history.

IN 1871, ROYE’S government engineered a loan agreement which was deemed hurtful to the economy. The terms of the loan, according to the book, Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America, were not approved by the legislature. This led to corruption charges against Roye who was removed by a coup in 1871. Roye was also taken to task for trying to change his term of office from two to four years. He was imprisoned with his son and several cabinet members and died of unknown causes, reportedly while trying to escape.

IRONICALLY, TODAY, the term of office is six years, not the original two during the Roye era or the four he sought. A 20-pound bag of rice which was US$22 has nearly doubled in price as many search for answers in a recurring bad dream of mishaps and familiar refrains from yesteryears.

TODAY, THE ECONOMY is on the decline with only 0.3 percent growth in 2015, compared to 0.7 percent, according to the Central Bank of Liberia Annual Report of 2015.

THESE NUMBERS, according to economist Sam Jackson, is striking fears that in the short run, the consequences could be felt at all rungs of Liberian society with some pointing the blame on the country’s hybrid monetary system of two currencies.

TODAY, THE EXCHANGE RATE is running at US$1 to LD$97 or higher.

AS WITH PREVIOUS administrations, there are cries of corruption, fears of instability and wanton calls and accusations of rampant corruption among government officials.

A RECENTLY-RELEASED damning Global Witness report linking senior current and former officials of government to bribery for concessions has put the country in yet another dark light that continues a damning tradition that has done nothing but put Liberia on the fringes of political instability and uncertainty.

LIBERIA HAS COME so far and yet remains entrenched in a paradox of unfortunate predicaments and recurring plays that rings familiarity over and over and over again.

THROUGH IT ALL, Liberians have shown an ability to stand the test of time and persevered when the odds were stacked against us. Over and over again, Liberians have shown an ability to bounce back and redeem itself from qualities that drifted a nation to near obscurity.

WHAT WE DO Have is hope for a brighter tomorrow and the dream that perhaps the future is bright and there is at least some light at the end of the tunnel.

AFTER 169 YEARS, it is time for Liberia and Liberians to look at themselves in the mirror and make a change for the better by examining the frailties of the past that has led us to failure and looking toward the future with promise.

AS WE LIMP TOWARD the 2017 Presidential elections, it is our hope that Liberians will take a cue from history in choosing their next leaders. It is never too late to change and never too late to turn the corner. But 169 years is a long-time to be drifting in a recurring state of uncertainty, obscurity and a treacherous path toward insecurity.

WE CAN AND MUST do better to preserve what our forefathers fought for, and what many of our predecessors laid their lives on the line to preserve and protect, so that we can have a better today and an even more prosperous tomorrow. HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY LIBERIA! editorial

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