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The Atlantic Monthly | March 1973

by Stanley Meisler
Funerals can confuse a visitor to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Is he on the western coast of Africa. or in New Orleans? First, the big brass band marches down Broad Street on a hot Sunday afternoon, playing rollicking hymns, not exactly "Didn't He Ramble?" but something like it. Then comes the second line, the youngsters singing and waving their open palms high in the air, and a soccer team, in uniform, tossing a ball to the rhythms.

The casket follows, carried by a jaunty crowd moving to the beat. Schoolchildren in uniform and college graduates in mortarboards step behind. Finally, a long line of mourners, walking two by two, closes the parade. They wear black dresses and suits made of cloth far too thick for the incessant sun. Some men sport Homburgs.

It shouldn't be a shock to come across a New Orleans funeral an ocean away in West Africa, but it is. A few moments' reflection, however, produces the obvious logic for it all. Slaves from Africa, with their traditions of joyous mourning, turned the sedate white man's funeral into a black man's jazzy funeral in Louisiana. Freed slaves then carried it back to Africa. But, despite the logic, it is hard for an American visitor to stifle his surprise.


The sensation quickly drives home a reality of Liberia. A century ago, when Sir Richard Burton, the British explorer, visited independent Liberia, he called it "the Yankee Doodle niggery republic." Outsiders customarily have snickered at the little African settlement of former American slaves who spent so much of their energy mimicking the white society that once ruled them in the antebellum South. In fact, Liberia cannot be understood without an understanding of its ties to the United States. The United States has acted as a kind of indirect, halfhearted, peripheral, offhanded colonial ruler in Liberia.

This special relationship has helped create a special country. The United States has taken some of the benefits of colonialism from Liberia and provided some of the services, but it has never had any of the responsibilities. This lack of responsibility has insured minority rule in Liberia.

Protected by America, Liberia is and always has been a settler colony, much like those of southern Africa where white minorities rule masses of black Africans. In the case of Liberia, the settlers, unlike the Portuguese of Angola or the British of Rhodesia, are not white but black—former slaves from America. There is, of course, a vital difference. Since the skin color of the rulers and the ruled is the same, Liberian society has a flexibility inconceivable in southern Africa. Nevertheless, an oligarchy of 45,000 Americo-Liberians (as the descendants of the settlers are called) still maintains political power over almost 1.5 million indigenous tribalists. The reasons for this are rooted in the relationship with the United States.

It is hard not to notice the signs of American influence. Liberians use wrinkled, faded American dollar bills as currency. The police wear the summer uniforms of New York City police. A newcomer may have to look twice to be sure of the difference between the American and Liberian flags: the Liberian flag has one white star on a field of blue and eleven red and white stripes. Radio announcers read the news in American Southern black accents. On Sundays, the radio offers little but American gospel music. Monrovia is the only capital in black Africa where almost half the cars are oversized American ones.

The comparison should not be carried too far. Although there are a few rotting, two-story, porticoed, plantation-style houses in Monrovia, the city no longer has the feel of the Old South. That was partially destroyed during the long administration of President William Tubman, who ordered the construction of the government skyscrapers that look like Miami Beach hotels, and by squatters who have set up ramshackle tin houses.

The city's movie theaters, when they are not showing Italian-made Westerns, show old and new American movies, but that is true of every English-speaking country in Africa. Monrovia's night life is mainly for visiting whites, especially sailors. Its strip joints are owned by Lebanese, and the strippers and B-girls are also Lebanese. Although there is no more drinking in Monrovia than in any other African city, bars are an important diversion, and alcoholism is a growing problem here as elsewhere in Africa.

Washington connection

Though Liberia is an undemocratic, one-party state, politics too has an American ring. Congress meets on Capitol Hill. The President has his office in the Executive Mansion. The only political party is the True Whig Party. The geographic names are familiar. Aside from Monrovia, named for the fifth President of the United States, there are Maryland County, Providence Island, New Georgia, Harrisburg, Greenville, Louisiana, Harper, and Buchanan.

None of this is facade. American investment amounts to at least $400 million, perhaps $500 million, half of all American investment in black Africa. Trade amounts to almost $100 million a year, with the United States supplying almost half of all Liberia's imports. Liberia depends heavily on the United States for its canned and packaged food, machinery, vehicles, and spare parts. The United States is also Liberia's biggest customer, buying a quarter of all its exports, mostly latex, crude rubber, and iron. No other supplier of economic assistance to Liberia comes near to matching the U.S. aid figure of almost $300 million. Four thousand five hundred Americans live there, mostly missionaries, U.S. officials, Peace Corps volunteers, and businessmen.

Since 1959, the United States and Liberia have had a mutual defense pact. It is a vaguely worded document, but Liberians believe that the United States will come to their aid in case of attack. The United States arms the three-thousand-man Liberian army and trains it with a military advisory mission of seventeen men.

Judging by statistics, Liberia has not been hurt economically by its close ties to the United States. In 1969, the Secretariat of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) ranked Liberia fourth in Africa on a special index of development. Among African nations, its per capita gross domestic product is second only to that of Gabon.

Although Liberians own only two merchant ships, Liberia, on the record, is the world's largest maritime power. At the beginning of 1972, shipowners had registered more than 2200 vessels there, putting Liberia ahead of Norway, Japan, and Britain in ship registration. Ships sail under the Liberian "flag of convenience" because of the low fees—$1.20 a ton on registration and 10 cents a ton annual tax. In Britain, a shipowner would have to pay registration fees of $39 a ton on the first 1500 tons and $19.50 for every additional 500 tons. Some critics contend that shipowners also like the Liberian flag because Monrovia is not as fussy about safety rules as are other governments. Whatever the reasons, the attraction of the Liberian maritime flag earns the government $5 million a year.

The statistics on Liberia's economic status must be treated with care. Much of the nation's wealth is in the hands of foreigners, who ship a good deal of it away. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor is very wide in Liberia, probably wider than in almost any other African country. In 1966, for example, the government reported that per capita income for Liberia's subsistence farmers, who make up two-thirds of the population, was $43 a year. The other third in the money economy earned an average of $346 a year. Even here, the statistics distorted the story, for they did not reveal how much of the income in the money economy was earned by the small Americo-Liberian elite.

Settling in

Liberia's American ties are rooted in history. The country was settled in 1822 by the American Colonization Society with the help of a grant of $100,000 from the U.S. Congress. The society was made up of white philanthropists and white slaveholders. The philanthropists wanted to relieve the distress of a half-million black freedmen in the United States. The slaveholders wanted to get rid of a potential source of trouble.

The first black settlers were put ashore at Cape Mesurado, the site of Monrovia today. The local chiefs had been persuaded at gunpoint by an agent of the society and a U.S. naval lieutenant to sell the cape to them. The sale used up little of the congressional grant. The chiefs sold the land for less than $300 worth of muskets, beads, tobacco, gunpowder, bars of iron, iron pots, silverware, hats, coats, shoes, pipes, nails, looking glasses, decanters, tumblers, beef, pork, and biscuits.

The American Colonization Society never accomplished what it set out to do, for it gradually lost support at home. In pre-Civil War politics, it became too closely identified with the losing cause of Henry Clay. More important, the society enraged William Lloyd Garrison and the other abolitionists, who looked on Liberia as a palliative that eased the conscience of whites without dealing with the real problem: slavery. Garrison mounted a vitriolic campaign against the society. By the end of the Civil War, the society had settled no more than thirteen thousand freedmen and six thousand blacks recaptured from slave ships.

The black settlers, who declared a republic in 1847, behaved much like the white settlers in southern Africa. The former slaves kept to the coast, occasionally sending troops out to pacify rebellious tribes. The settlers forced the tribalists to labor for them and, like the Portuguese, sent labor out of the country to work on foreign plantations. Because of the latter practice, a commission of the League of Nations accused Liberia in 1930 of practices "scarcely distinguishable from slave-raiding and slave-trading." The tribal peoples were not granted citizenship until 1904 and could not vote until the late President William V. S. Tubman came to power in 1944.

The Americo-Liberians were so different from the aborigines, as they liked to call the others, that Liberian history records a black explorer, Benjamin Anderson, who, just like David Livingstone and Henry M. Stanley and Sir Richard Burton, set off into the interior in 1868 to see what darkest Liberia was like.

A visitor to the Executive Mansion in Monrovia today can see the portraits of the early Presidents and sense how different the settlers were from the Africans who lived in Liberia. Most were obviously mulatto, and they dressed like American Presidents of the time, with high collars, cravats, and gentlemen's coats. In fact, Joseph J. Roberts, the first President, who was at most an octoroon, looks like an unbearded Abraham Lincoln, with the same high cheekbones, hardened features, piercing eyes, thick hair, and a mole.

The Americo-Liberians evolved a society based on what they knew about the formalities of the aristocratic white class that once ruled them in the American South. The elite wore top hats and hoopskirts and lived in mansions with porticoes.

Power rested with those who had connections to the proper (that is, American slave) families, the Baptist Church, the Masons, and the True Whig Party. Aborigines were excluded. This Americo-Liberian elite, with the same family and institutional ties, still rules, in much the same way, with many of the same formalities. For example, the most faithful churchgoers in Africa belong to this elite, wearing stiff, heavy clothes on Sunday despite the hot sun. (This is not true of the tribal peoples, who, like others in Africa, accept Christianity mainly for its benefits, such as education, but do not follow all the rules slavishly.)

Firestone to the rescue

The independence of Liberia and the power of the Americo-Liberians were threatened in the early twentieth century, but American neocolonialism saved both. The threat came from the British government, which looked on Liberia as too farcical for sovereignty. After 1900, when the Liberians reneged on repayment of a loan from British bankers, the British took over Liberian customs and sent their Sierra Leone Frontier Force under British officers to the interior of Liberia to collect taxes. Liberia appealed for help from its first benefactor.

The United States sent financial managers, arms, and black American soldiers to command the Liberian army, but the U.S. Congress refused to appropriate funds for a loan. In 1926, however, Liberia did receive a sizable American loan, not from the U.S. government but from a private source, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. Firestone authorized a loan of $5 million, but Liberia drew only about half, using almost all of it to pay off past debts to foreign bankers. Even cut in half, the loan was a sizable one in those days. Liberia was unable to pay it back until 1952. As late as 1955, the total revenue of the Liberian government was only $13 million a year.

The company made the loan in exchange for a ninety-nine-year lease on a million acres of Liberian land for rubber plantations. Firestone later became such a dominant factor in the Liberian economy and so great a source of public services such as roads and schools that cynics enjoyed joking for years that, while most of Africa was colonized by Britain or France, Liberia was colonized by Firestone.

The importance of the Firestone loan became evident in the early 1930s. Citing the charges of near slavery in Liberia and reports that Liberian soldiers, under command of an American black, had massacred Kru tribesmen in Liberia, Britain demanded that the League of Nations take over Liberia as a mandate. That would have meant the end of Liberian independence. As a British or even an American colony, Liberia surely would have come to independence in the 1960s with power in the hands of representatives of the tribal masses, not a settler elite. It probably was only the presence of Firestone and the commitment of the U.S. government that enabled the Americo-Liberians to resist the pressures of the British and the League and keep Liberia independent.


The tribalists finally won some attention after Tubman came to power in 1944. Although he had fought in the pacification wars as a young man and was carried by hammock on the shoulders of aborigines on his first presidential tours, Tubman instituted what he called the "Unification Policy" to give the tribalists some of the benefits that had been reserved in the past for the Americo-Liberians. Yet today, after the twenty-seven-year reign of Tubman and the two-year administration of President William R. Tolbert, Liberian society is still extremely stratified. The hallmark of Liberia, in fact, is the extreme neglect of the interior of the country, where most of the people live.

Educated tribalists blame this on the existence of an Americo-Liberian government that does not understand the needs of the people of the interior and therefore fails to respond to them. "If I went to President Tolbert, good as he is," one educated tribalist told me, "and explained to him the problems of my village, he would not understand... The government doesn't even know my village exists."

A trip from Monrovia to Bong County in the interior of the country shows the problem graphically. While millions have been squandered in Monrovia for a resort-hotel-style Executive Mansion and a skyscraper for the True Whig Party, Gbarnga, the capital of Bong County, has no paved streets. It is a baking, somnolent town which features a single main street packed with Lebanese-owned shops.

Foreign educators in Gbarnga say that the school system is in chaos. Children in the lower primary grades are taught by ninth-graders. "Kids walk to secondary school six miles," said one foreigner. "Then the teacher isn't there. I don't blame the teachers for staying away. They don't get paid." Most secondary school students drop out before graduation. They are driven away by costs, their poor preparation in earlier grades, and the unlikelihood of moving on to a university or a good job with their weak secondary education.

Statistics for the country as a whole also show the neglect. Bong, Grand Gedeh, Loffa, and Nimba, the four interior counties with half the population of the country, have only eight of Liberia's thirty-four secondary schools. Montserrado County, in which Monrovia is located, has one hospital bed for every 250 people. Grand Gedeh County has one bed for every 5882 people.

Tribal people often feel that the only sure way to get attention in Monrovia is to pay homage to some influential Americo-Liberian. A chiefdom of the Pele people in Bong County believes that it has a school and toad now only because the Pele allowed Tolbert; when he was Vice President, to buy a thousand acres of their land. In fact, land could become an issue in Liberia much as it has in settler colonies elsewhere in Africa. Although the government has no records, it is obvious that the "Honorables," as the elite of Americo-Liberian society is called, have acquired huge tracts of tribal land for themselves.

Yet there is little evidence of overt friction between the Americo-Liberians and the tribal people. Tribal people wait hours in the hot sun for a chance of a glimpse of their Americo-Liberian President. As the educated tribalist put it, "Even if we had a free election right now and I was running against Tolbert, the tribal people wouldn't vote for me. They expect Liberia to be run by someone like Tolbert."

Since Tolbert became President in 1971, Liberia has had an unusual flurry of activity at the top and a more unusual air of change. Tolbert himself seems an unlikely agent of change. Now fifty-nine, he worked for two decades in obscurity, the diffident Vice President to old man Tubman, who, with his political shrewdness, manipulation of spoils, and security police, ruled Liberia with flair and firmness from 1944 to 1971.

"Higher heights"

Few Liberians represent the Establishment more than Tolbert. He is Grand Master Emeritus of the Masons of Liberia, former president of the World Baptist Alliance, and the son of an American black who emigrated from South Carolina in 1880 and became chairman of the True Whig Party. Even when he cries out for change, the President does so in archaic rhetoric. His slogan, for example, is, "Total involvement in our sustained upward thrust for higher heights."

But, if only to escape the shadow of Tubman, Tolbert has been trying to shake up Liberia. Some of his innovations are showmanship. He makes surprise visits to ministries at 8:00 A.M. to catch civil servants late for work. After returning from the Organization of African Unity summit meeting in Rabat this year, he publicly returned $7000 of his unspent expense allowance. He sold Tubman's luxury yacht, which had cost the government a quarter of a million dollars a year to run. And he has made speeches in the Pele language to persuade tribalists that, although descended from an American black, he understands their problems.

Beyond the showmanship, however, there is a good deal of substance. Tolbert has dismantled Tubman's old security apparatus and encouraged some expression of conflicting views. He released Henry Fahnbulleh, a well-known tribal man who had been jailed under Tubman on trumped-up charges of leading a conspiracy to destroy the Americo-Liberian class. Liberian journalists like to tell visitors that, in the old days, Liberians at a bar would halt their conversation whenever a security man walked in. Now they stop talking when a journalist comes in. The story exaggerates the power of the press in Liberia. But recently the newspapers have been publishing some unprecedented criticism of government officials and policies.

Perhaps most significantly, the men under Tolbert, including his brother, Minister of Finance Stephen Tolbert, seem intent on infusing the bureaucracy with efficiency and rational planning and on ridding the government of officials who cannot or will not do their jobs. At the least, there is a good deal of activity now, even in the interior.

But none of President Tolbert's changes weaken the hierarchy of Liberia. In choosing a Vice President in 1972, the True Whig Party under Tolbert did not fool with any newfangled open democratic procedures. Instead, the party met in closed caucus and picked Senator James E. Green, who, like Tolbert, like Tubman, like all the other historical leaders of Liberia, is pure Americo-Liberian.

There is a more profound and fundamental agent of change in Liberia than Tolbert. It is the flexibility of the ruling class. Unlike most white ruling minorities in Africa, the Americo-Liberians have a system of drawing tribal people into their culture.

There is some intermarriage, but more importantly, Americo-Liberians accept the illegitimate children of tribal mistresses as their own, and, in what is known as the ward system, adopt tribal orphans and bring them up as members of the family. Skin color accounts for the ease with which this happens. As a result, there are many Honorables now who have at least some tribal blood, though culturally they belong to the Americo-Liberian class.

In fact, much like the new interest in the African past on the part of blacks in America, there is a tendency now for Americo-Liberians to boast about their tribal background. It has become fashionable in the elite schools of Monrovia, for example, for students to use an African name rather than a Christian name. Some politicians and important civil servants, perhaps sensing what the future holds, have decided to do the same.

Harry A. Greaves, the superintendent (or appointed administrator) of Bong County, is a good example of how confusing it sometimes is these days to differentiate an Americo-Liberian from a tribal man. The Greaves family is one of the most honorable of the Honorables of the coastal town of Buchanan. Greaves himself is so much a part of the Americo-Liberian Establishment that he once served as chairman of the True Whig Party in Nimba County.

Yet Greaves is actually a ward taken into the Greves family after his tribal father died. His tribal name is Zachpah. Though culturally an Americo-Liberian, Greaves likes to describe himself these days as a tribal man trying to encourage economic development in the Bong County of his tribal peoples. "Out of respect to the Honorable Mr. Greaves [his adopted father]," he says, "I will always keep his name. But I have insisted that all relatives that I am now putting through school will use the name Zachpah."

Greaves exemplifies how the social structure of Liberia is slowly changing from a caste system to a class system. Wealth and education can overcome lowly birth. A tribal man is no longer rigidly excluded from the elite because his forefathers were not slaves.

The flexibility of the Americo-Liberians gives Liberia a chance for orderly change. In the nineteenth century, power passed in Liberia, though not without violence, from the mulatto ex-slaves to the black ex-slaves. The system seems geared now to allow power to pass first to the Americo-Liberians with some tribal blood, then to the tribalists, such as Greaves, who have been assimilated into Americo-Liberian culture, and finally to the real tribal people. The selection of Green as Vice President shows that the pure Americo-Liberians are resisting change. But it is inevitable.

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Stanley Meisler is the author of United Nations: The First Fifty Years. He has been publishing his online news commentary since 1996.
Copyright © 1973 by Stanley Meisler. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1973; Liberia; Volume 231, No. 3; 14-23.