By Samuel D. Tweah Jr
At a time Liberia struggles with national reconciliation and a cohesive national identity, it pains to pen this article. But Dr. Elwood Dunn, a noted Liberian historian and scholar, leaves no choice in his less than honest assessment of our past during his July 26, 2012 Independence Day oration.
Every Independence celebration presents an opportunity for Liberians to reflect upon their accomplishments and failures. An Independence Day oration should aim to motivate Liberians to hanker after greater national futures and should press them to assess the tragedies of their past. Dr. Dunn’s oration leaves too much to be desired in interpreting our past. Dr. Dunn makes several troubling assertions, which are teased and fleshed out in the following sections.
In describing the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of Liberian history, the professor asserts: “In the beginning of Liberia there was a contestation of visions, but a single vision prevailed for long and shaped the country’s development or evolution.”
What he calls ‘contestation of vision’ can more accurately be considered an ‘imposition of vision.’ Contestation of vision implies the contest takes place in the realm of ideas, perspectives or direction. Before and after independence, the political landscape in Liberia was marred not by ideological or visioning perspectives, but by battlefield contests over settlers’ need for territorial acquisition, without which asserting authority would be difficult, and tribal peoples’ need to retain control of traditionally inherited lands.
Describing these clashes as a contestation of vision is a tragic, if not deliberate, misnomer. But even if one grants the Professor’s interpretation of contest in terms of visions and ideas, the problem is still not remedied. Contestation implies the existence of rivaling, competing forces of consequence. For a description such as contestation to be justified, rivaling and contesting forces need not be equal in power, resource or intellectual endowment, but must each be able to exert a credible toehold on the contest and influence the course of events.
No such condition existed at the founding of Liberia. Americo-Liberians, who founded the state, had an incontestable, near unanimous vision to; i) to bring more territories under the control of Liberian governing or political authority and; 2) to exclude indigenous peoples from the echelons of power, since they clearly avowed hostility to Americo-Liberian pretentions and interests. The settlers at our founding never admitted indigenous peoples into legislatures or constitutional conventions, where debates to influence the course of Liberian history were held. The bassas and krus, who might have provided an alternative vision, were nowhere around the seat of governance.
To justify and make concrete his idea of contest, Professor Dunn brings in the venerable Edward Wilmot Blyden as a kind of stand-in for the indigenous masses.
He asserts: “Two decades later, an alternative paradigm or vision was proffered [by Blyden], that of blending Western and African values symbolized by planting the state firmly in African soil.”
First, Blyden was an erudite African philosopher, in much the same or lesser tradition as John Locke or Rene Descartes. To mistake his philosophical rendition of the Liberian society as providing grounds of contests, two decades after our founding, against the ruling political establishment is a fundamental misreading of Liberian history. Blyden too, like the Krus and Grebos, was never admitted into circles that could influence the course of events.
Also, no consequential political faction existing at the time drew from Blyden’s ideas and philosophies, in the way American Founders drew from John Locke or David Hume, since Blyden’s ideas were clearly at variance with prevailing Americo-Liberian governing values and norms. Blyden’s thinking did not influence and could have influenced the trajectory of Liberian political development in the 1800s, an outcome that justifies describing his vision as providing a foundation for contest against the ruling establishment.
What is interesting is that Professor Dunn’s argument of contestation of vision is contradicted by his reference to a historian who writes that: “Blyden’s oratorical prowess thrilled his hearers but did not change social norms. He was rewarded with distant diplomatic appointments in Europe. He was fluent in a number of languages including Arabic—but if he had learned Kru and began to express his challenge from Sasstown he would have been considered more threatening than the Court of St. James in [faraway] England.”
Despite this evidence of the negligible impact Blyden had among founders of the Liberian state, Dr. Dunn still believes Blyden provided an alternative paradigm that probably had a chance of success. In arguing that “a single vision prevailed for long and shaped the country’s development or evolution,” the Professor avoids stating the ‘single and only vision.’ The ideas Blyden provided stood no chance of success at the time.
Probably the closest to a contest of political consequence we find at the founding of Liberia was a contest between light-skinned Americos called mulatoes, hailing from the Republic Party of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, and dark-skinned Americos, who would subsequently establish the True Whig Party. This was a contest not in ideology, direction or vision, but on the basis of skin color, in which the predominant majority of indigenes had absolutely no say.
In short, the history of the founding of Liberia is a history of the primacy and the imposed supremacy of a singular vision of dominance of an indigenous majority for political ends.
The second troubling aspect of the oration, and this is an aspect of OMISSION, is that Dr. Dunn does not seriously hold accountable those originally entrusted with what he calls the ‘Promise’, neither does he hold accountable succeeding generations who mismanaged that promise for about 110 years. Where he attempts criticism, it is 1) weak and sugarcoated and 2) selective.
Sugarcoating the Past in discussing the impact of what he brilliantly calls our ‘Triple Heritages,” Dr. Dunn argues that:
“Some [Liberians] have enjoyed more privileges than others, our exposure to the three heritages has been uneven, and this has left in its wake a certain misunderstanding.”
And in providing an answer to what happened in Liberian history, the ‘what’ of his oration– the contest of visions– Dr. Dunn argues that the contest of vision (the what) happened because of ‘the preferences and prejudices of the era’ (the why).
First who are ‘some Liberians’? What accounts for the unevenness in our heritages?
Third, the consequence of the subjugation of traditional and Islamic heritages by the western heritage, which the professor does not discuss, cannot be described as a ‘misunderstanding.’ Just about a week ago, Liberians belonging to the Islamic heritage complained of the absence of a prominent role during the very program in which Professor Dunn delivered his oration. That oversight, as it was subsequently described, is as a consequence of decades of subjugation of the Islamic heritage, particularly during the Americo-Liberian hegemony. Today’s biases and prejudices meted against those from the Islamic heritage are inherited from the first 133 years of our national existence.
Also, the Professor summarizes 133 years of political wrongdoing as prejudice. This is gross, tendentious understatement that has to be challenged. And more to the point, he uses ‘prejudices’ alongside ‘preferences’ as if to argue that ‘preferences’ define or connote the positives of the era while ‘prejudices’ explain the negatives.
Drilling down deeper into the logic of the relationship between ‘the what’ and ‘the why’ provides something more revealing.
Dr. Dunn implies that throughout Liberian history there was a ‘contestation of vision’ because of ‘preferences and prejudices.’ Take this statement as given. For a ‘contestation of vision’ to be explained by ‘preferences and prejudices’ it has to be the case that the contest in question does not consist entirely of intellectual disputation as proffered by Blyden, Teage and others.
This is the meaning of contest the Professor leaves in the mind of his Liberian audience. But it has been shown that people sometimes react in violent ways to prejudices meted out to them. How could the Kru and Grebo wars of 1843 and 1854 over control of coastal regions and issues of land rights respectively, be described as a “contestation of vision? The Krus and Grebos fought wars for their lands. Clearly what Dr. Dunn means by ‘contestation of vision’ is the Liberian government’s post-independence imposition of political authority, usually with the aid of the United States Navy, on tribal peoples.
Since ‘imposition of vision’ is a pejorative, the professor opts for the verbal palliative, ‘contestation of vision.’ Critical Selectivism Examples of critical selectivism can be found in his criticism of President Tubman’s Open and Unification Policies as well as his criticism of the constitutional drafting process of the 1980s. Dr. Dunn asserts that: “If we went back to the 1860s we would discover a Liberian entrepreneurship characterized by self-reliance, innovation, creativity and risk-taking.
These early Liberian business people produced goods and services that they then traded internally and externally and held their own for decades. Goods produced in Liberia were transported to Europe in Liberian-built vessels. With the initiation of patronage politics by what became a hegemonic True Whig Party politics soon became king. The Open Door Policy that made politics king then sealed the fate of independent Liberian business. A paradigm shift to a rent-seeking economy, incompatible with productivity, innovation and self-reliance, has bedeviled us since.”
There are several things atrociously wrong with the above assertion. First, the True Whig Party was hegemonic since 1869 when it was founded and did not become hegemonic merely after William V.S. Tubman took its reins. Hegemonic proclivities are seen clearly in the TWP’s suppressive dealings with tribal communities prior to 1944. The TWP was the hegemon of the era, bullying tribes and local peoples into submission and compliance, usually with the aid of the U.S. Navy.
Second, Tubman or the True Whig Party did not ‘make politics King’. Since 1847, politics, especially that of the patronage kind, was King. It was patronage politics that led to the formation of the True Whig Party, since dark-skinned Americos resented the control and influence enjoyed by their light-skinned compatriots of the Republican Party of Joseph Jenkins Roberts.
Third, the decline of innovation, creativity or risk-taking among Liberian business people, to the extent such a decline happened and the decline was caused by patronage cannot originate with the Open Door policy, since entrenched patronage networks existed long before the advent of Tubman. While many historical accounts have documented Liberian merchant ships manned by Kru seamen carrying coffee and palm oil to foreign markets, there is no evidence that patronage occasioned the end of such trading.
That end could have been a consequence of the invasion of coastal territories by the Liberian government, distorting incentives among seafaring peoples of the coast. It could be that the British and other foreign powers in the region, took over trade in palm oil. It could be for a variety of other reasons. In short many events may explain the decline of trading and to chalk it up to patronage is less than instructive.
Third, there is no established consensus among economists or political scientists that patronage increases risk aversion or discourages business innovation. A business that is connected to the political elites may in fact lower operating costs. In avoiding taxes due to political connections, a business may plough the tax savings back into research and development or might use the savings to expand output. While patronage is generally negative, the context of patronage has to be studied before specific, causative references can be made.
Fourth, the Open Door Policy was a response to a national capability deficit. The path to Liberian development in 1944, when Tubman assumed power was inconceivable in the absence of foreign technical knowhow or expertise. The major criticism of the Open Door Policy is not that it engendered a ‘rent-seeking economy incompatible with productivity.’ (Dozens of economic papers have documented the coexistence of rent-seeking and business productivity; Asia has provided examples in the coexistence of patronage military dictatorships amid industrial, entrepreneurial surges), it is that after opening the door, Liberians did not develop institutions and capabilities to transfer skills from expatriates to local denizens.
The Management of our ‘Triple Heritages’ Accounting for the management of Liberia’s Triple Heritages—its African Traditional Background, its Islamic Heritage and its Western Exposure–which the Professor lucidly discusses, ought to have been a central thrust of his oration. How is it that Liberian Western Heritage succeeded in subjugating the other heritages for decades?
What forces or factors bear responsibility for this subjugation? How do Liberians prevent such subjugation in their post-conflict future? These are interesting paths Dr. Dunn could have explored, placing him at an objective, dispassionate distance above the political culture and its morasses. He adequately defines the future role of law and culture in our national reconstruction, but his near partisan treatment of the Liberian past undermines even these positive aspects of the oration.
Though rejected by the original handlers of Liberian heritage, Edward Wilmot Blyden remains resonant in post-conflict Liberia. This era of anti-corruption radicalism and of political pluralism and inclusion furnishes a fertile soil in which the ideals, philosophies and ideas of Blyden can find nourishment. Any contestation of ideas or visions may now be grounded on the thinking of Blyden. We live in Blyden’s Century.
Somewhere in his oration, Dr. Dunn implores: “We should encourage Liberian historians to hash out a national narrative that is truthful, inclusive, and does not shift blame from individual wrongdoing to groups; whether in the distant past or more recently.”
Even Professor Elwood Dunn crumbles under the weight of his own standard of truthfulness of historical narrative.
Samuel D. Tweah Jr., can be reached at email@example.com