Part I of this series ended with the quotation from Frank Sherman’s book: “Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture.” Part II will focus on the practices of a tribe or the behaviors of most tribal people.
While the Germanic and Nordic tribes from Angeln, Jutland and Saxony who settled in the 5th Century in the area known today as England, worked from the start to integrate with the indigenous Celts and Britons that turned England into a great power, the Settlers in Liberia did the exact opposite; they distinguished themselves from the natives of the area, who later became known as ‘African-Liberians.’
Most Liberian History (Settlers’ Histories as they should be called) books that I reviewed for this essay, list the number of tribes or ethnic groups in Liberia as 16; adding their subgroups increased the number to 28 ethnic groups. The 16 tribes are: Kpelle, Bassa, Dan (Gio), Ma (Mano), Klao (Kru) Grebo, Mandingo, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Vai, Bella (Kuwaa), and Dei (Dey).
The Liberian Past and Present website (http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/index.html) lists the number of tribes in Liberia as 16 as well. Since most of these books list the tribes of Liberia to be 16, that’s the number I agree with. The 16 tribes make up about 95% of the population; the Americo-Liberians are 2.5% (descendants of the Settlers from the U.S. and the remaining percentage consists of the Congo People, those from the Caribbean and other African countries. Now, the question that needs to be answered is who are the Americo-Liberians in Liberia? Are they a tribe of Liberia? Based on my research findings, the Americo-Liberians make up the 17th tribe of Liberia, and the Congoes (pronounced Kongor), the Caribbean immigrants and immigrants from other African countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, etc. fall within the Americo-Liberian tribe’s subgroup.
Some tribes, based on Biblical evidence were named after their leaders. The tribe of Ephraim is a good example. And according to Cultural anthropologists, a tribe is any of a variety of social units; the term is usually applied to a unit of social organization that is culturally homogeneous and consists of multiple kinship groups. Most tribes are organized as unitary political entities, within which people share a common language and culture. Some tribes are confined to a limited territory, sometimes a single small island, within which everyone knows everyone else very well. What unites societies of such diverse scales as being “tribal” is their own internal sense. A tribe may consists of several villages, which may be cross-cut by clans, age grade associations, and secret societies; each of these cross-cutting institutions may, at different times and in different ways, perform economic, political, legal, and religious functions.
It is therefore safe to conclude that Americo-Liberians meet the definition of what constitutes a tribe. The Anglo-Saxon tribe of England and the Americo-Liberian tribe have these characteristics in common:
- Language (Liberian version of the English)
- Religious Belief (Christianity)
- Power – obtain power by force and will do whatever it takes to hold on to it
- Protective of their group interests
- Thinks of those who are not part of their group as inferior
- Abrasive (Rude towards others)
- Dress Style
- Food, etc.
Based on these shared historical or anthropologic characteristics, we can conclude that Americo-Liberians are the 17th tribe of Liberia.
The Uncivil Discourse on the Liberian Listservs
However, during the 80’s and up to the 90’s, there was a native man from Pallipo named blojlu Tarty Teh single handedly took on members of the Americo-Liberian tribe and their native apologists for the abuse and exploitation they meted out to the majority – African-Liberians. In those debates with his adversaries, Teh’s arguments were supported by facts – not opinion. He accused the Americo-Liberian tribe of monopolizing every conceivable socio-cultural, political and economic activities of Liberia, which started from the inception of the country. He talked about how the land and the resources of the country were misused by these tribesmen/women (Americo-Liberians) as if they were their personal properties. Teh at the time engaged these tribesmen/women and their wards in heated but civil debates, without resorting to the kind of personal attacks that is taking place on the Liberian Listservs today.
The Teh’s approach civil; he did not abuse or disrespect his fellow countrymen and women because they disagreed. From these exchanges, Teh found an ally who respected his passionate views about his people. The gentleman to whom I am referring is the late Foreign Minister Charles Cecil Dennis, Jr., who was executed on April 22, 1980. Mr. Dennis established genuine friendship with Mr. Teh because of the manner in which he engaged him and his Americo-Liberian tribe for their continued mistreatment of his people – African-Liberians. And when Mr. Dennis was executed, my friend cried. Why? Because Mr. Dennis was one of the Americo-Liberian tribesmen who were willing to address the Liberian palaver amicably without resorting to insults like the example provided below. To my friend Teh, C. C. Dennis’ death was not only a loss to him, but a major loss to our country.
September 15, 1992
A. Romeo Horton
Chairman, Liberian Elections Support Group, Inc. (LESGO)
P.O. Box 73
Glenside, PA 19038
Dear Mr. Horton:
I am enclosing some materials which I hope will give you some ideas about me as a person. They reflect some of my experiences and beliefs which form the basis for my opinions. I think that our future conversation will be more focused if you know me just a bit more.
I believe that we Liberians will only begin to address the cultural and political problems of our society after we have taken stock of our own social make-up.
I believe that after more than 150 years of attempted co-habitation with the African natives, you Americo-Liberians have shown no willingness to understand the culture that is all around you.
Every attempt we have made to tell you who we are is consigned to the heap of useless verbiage as “tribalism.”
But when you talk about trek from slavery you expect us to take note because it is history being told. What about those of us who were born tribal and act like it?
Shouldn’t we take off our business suits every now and again and slip into something more comfortable, namely, being tribal?
What should I, for instance, do [away] with the songs I learned when I was growing up in Pallipo? Not sing them because Mr. Rudolph Grimes doesn’t think its music?
We waited for more than 100 years for this new and superior culture you brought with you to take hold. It never did.
It remained stagnant because you refused infusion of the values of the cultural majority, fearing that every African influence in your social life would corrupt your Western profile.
So the Liberian society remained a disgustingly bad imitation of Western culture. We Africans are sick of this pompous pretense.
Sir, I disagree totally with your point of view expressed herein. Furthermore, I am not an Americo-Liberian. I am a Liberian, born and raised. What are you?!!
(Check out some of Tarty Teh’s writing on http://blojlu.wordpress.com)
Why did I reference this story? I brought it up to serve as a reminder to the apologists on the Liberian Listservs who are mostly wards that refused to be liberated from their former masters; and who are still of the belief that they are chosen and given the exclusive RIGHTS by God Almighty to speak on behalf of Liberia and its people; therefore, individuals like Nat Galarea Gbessagee, Dennis Chewlae Jah and others with alternative views should ‘SHUT-UP.’
In their schemes, they would fabricate lies against those I named and many others in an attempt to render them insignificant in the eyes of the public. This strategy reminds me of the Liberian proverb that says,” Empty drum makes the loud noise.” The fact of the matter is, when one has nothing valuable to contribute to a discussion, their ONLY way that person see fit is to rain insults on their opponents. They will go to the extent of referring to their opponents as Lieutenant Gbessagee, Jah the tribalist, and Kirkpatrick Weah as the attempted murderer; and in the same manner diagnose me (Siahyonkron Nyanseor of the Eminent Persons of ULAA) as senile, without the requisite credential of a psychiatrist. This gives evidence to the fact how little knowledge can become dangerous.
Another classic example of this way of behaving is exemplified in the letter President William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman wrote to Welleh Didwho Twe (commonly known as D. Twe in the History of the Settlers, i.e., Liberian History). D. Twe’s crime was the challenge he pose to Mr. Tubman for the Liberian presidency in 1951.
When Tubman was first elected, it is said that Twe and other indigenous people felt that the Tubman Administration could bring about the changes that they long awaited. They had this belief because of the positive relationship that Tubman had with the indigenous population. In Tubman’s home county (Maryland), he was considered a friend to the poor. In other quarters, he was known, as “Poorman Lawyer” because he represented those who could not afford a lawyer’s fee; he represented them free of charge. But little did Didwho Twe and the majority of the people know that all along Tubman had other motives – motives that were not in their best interests.
During Tubman’s first term, Twe supported him. Those who knew both men considered Twe as one of the contributors of Tubman’s famous Unification Policy. However, due to the slow pace by which Tubman and the True Whig Party (TWP) were going about to fully include the participation of indigenous people made Twe and his followers to oppose the Tubman Administration.
They did so by forming a political party called the Reformation Party of which Twe was selected as its standard bearer. During the 1951 Presidential Campaign, one political commentator wrote, “Didhwo [Didwho] Twe, a Kru running against Tubman for the presidency, used an old distinction to rally his followers, and Tubman found it necessary to deny the implications of the distinction in an election eve broadcast.” Find below what Tubman said about Twe:
…Mr. Twe refers in his acceptance speech to Americo-Liberians and aborigines. Who are or ever were Americo-Liberians? Certainly not that band of stout-hearted men who gave us, under God, this goodly heritage, its name, style, and title! If any set of people were ever full-blooded Liberians and nothing else but Liberians without any other qualifying word or antecedent, it was they.
Mr. Twe and his adherents complain that for hundred and four years of the independence of this country, no aboriginee had had the honor of being President of the Nation. Whom does he call aboriginees, he and his dangling group of a fifth of the Kru Tribe (emphasis are mine – Nyanseor)? I protest! I contest his supercilious misconceived notion. H. R. W. Johnson, Daniel Edward Howard, Charles Dunbar Burgess King, Edwin Barclay and William V. S. Tubman are all aboriginees and indigenous people of this country, for we were all born, bred and reared here” (Area Handbook of Liberia, 1972 – 48).
“He and his dangling group of a fifth of the Kru Tribe” is a strategy implored by members of the TWP when challenged, and they had nothing relevant to say in their defense. Twe or his ancestors were not the ones that came up with the distinction? So, why was Tubman protesting when it was his ancestors that came up with the distinction? Twe had nothing to do with “THE LOVE OF LIBERTY BROUGHT US HERE” and the name, Americo-Liberian! This kind of attitude exists today whenever the mistreatment of African-Liberians is being discussed. (See my articles: Unraveling Our Past to Make Necessary Corrections, February 28, 2001 and The Myth of Our Once “Peaceful Country”, June 23, 2003, both published in The Perspective.org’s online edition.
For example, an individual is accused of practicing tribalism if he/she supports the individual from his/her tribe that possesses the requisite skills or qualification for a particular position. I don’t see the reason why he/she should be accused of engaging in the practice or promoting tribalism.
Given the history of the Americo-Liberian tribe, it is correct to say that they are the ones we should accuse of practicing tribalism in Liberia based on the following reasons:
- The evidence shows that Americo-Liberians have supported and continued to support their tribesmen/women over an African-Liberian who is more qualified for a position than their tribesman/woman with lesser qualification;
- It was a practice to award scholars to study abroad to their tribesmen/women over African-Liberians, even if the African-Liberians were the ones that scored the highest on the scholarship exam. In some cases, sponsorship was based on property; property value was required if an African-Liberian was selected;
- Children male members of the Settlers have with African-Liberian women are referred to as ‘OUTSIDE CHILDREN’;
- Prior to the initiation of President Tubman’s Unification Policy, the policy of segregation was the practice in Liberia, and
- Up until 1980, the Americo-Liberian tribe maintained power by what Malcolm X referred to as “Power by any means necessary.”
Conclusion & Recommendations
Finally, our insistence in the debate about Liberia is not to change history but to correct its conclusion. In search of finding a lasting solution to our pregnant problems, those of us who considered ourselves Liberians cannot continue to have “historical amnesia” when discussing the mistakes and atrocities caused by the Settlers in establishing Liberia. In short, we would like for our fellow countrymen and women to know that those of us who continue to push for this dialogue have no intention to change what has already taken place. If we wanted to, we couldn’t; rather it is our desire to correct the mistakes made by the Settlers and their descendants, so as to establish genuine relationship and lasting peace amongst the citizens of the Republic of Liberia.
Today, many of the legacies of the past that continue to plague Liberia mirror those of the Europeans when they came in contact with Africans. For example, the missionaries’ approach to the indigenous Africans’ way of life was VERY negative. The African was regarded as a child. He must be nurtured and guided through a process of slow and carefully controlled growth toward a time in the dim future when he would be ready to look after himself. (Taryor, Nya Kwiawon, Impact of the African Tradition on African Christianity, 1985)
Joseph S. Sherman, the author of the article: The Challenge of Ethnicity and Conflict in Post-War Liberia” answered the question: “Is tribal loyalty or loyalty to a group in conflict with loyalty to the state or patriotic nationalism?”
…Eradicating ethnic loyalty is illogical. Ethnic affiliation as an extended family is a great asset in nation building especially when acting as a moral retaining influence upon, and means of security for its members. Furthermore, family, clan, and ethnic group are still the essential structures of social relationship in Liberia. Nevertheless, in order to minimize internal and political conflict emanating from ethnic loyalty or alliance, leaders of post-war Liberia should formulate a new concept of the common good based on ethnic identities, political consensus, and people’s consent. To develop such a concept does not mean that ethnic differences must be denied; rather ethnic identities should be tolerated on the basis that fosters the common good. This task involves developing a more profound unity that underlines ethnic differences (Liberian Times, March 16, 2006).
Moreover, it is about time that we heal the scars of the physical and psychological impact of the Americo-Liberian Plantation hegemony perpetrated against African-Liberians, and to move forward with creating a new society in which ALL Liberians will be treated equally before the law, and in every area of human endeavors. Our history books will have to be corrected to reflect the sacrifices and contributions made by both African-Liberians and Americo-Liberians. African-Liberian cultural and religious practices will have to be respected in the same way the cultural and religious practices of Americo-Liberians are respected. However, Liberia will be doomed should there be any attempt to return to the Americo-Liberian Plantation hegemony, which will subject the Tehs, Jahs, Tugbehs, Gbessagees, Somahs, Nyanseors, Zumos, etc., to second class-Liberian status. This is a compromise we will NOT accept because WE NATIVE or COUNTRY PEOPLE OF LIBERIA DID NOT COME FROM INFERIOR CULTURES!
In short, Liberia’s political culture needs to be completely overhauled in order to resolve its palava of inequality. The conflict that evolved as the result of this palava has not been addressed amicably. As a result, the system is dysfunctional with no plan in place to help resolve the conflict. Instead of finding lasting solution(s) to the palava, the leadership wants the aggrieved party – the indigenous tribes to be the one to give in or make the adjustment in the relationship. This time, it won’t work!
As a believer in history, I feel, in order to correct the wrongs of history, the truth must be told for the necessary corrections to be made; and for similar wrongs to be avoided in the future. In this regard, we (Liberians) must without malice put our cards on the table to ascertain their authenticity as we reason together through our physical and psychological injuries.
I don’t know about you or what others will say or do, but as for me, I will write and say what’s on my mind, when I can, and will not let anyone or government regulate what I say or how I say it. Any attempt to return to the so-called ‘sweet old days’ where the natives were the servants and the Americo-Liberians (and Congoes) were the masters are wishful thinking. The current discourse going on in the Diaspora and at home is the way forward for patriotic Liberians to once and for all fix the mess we brought upon ourselves regarding these NAGATIVE tribal distinctions by ALL of the 17th tribes of Liberia.
Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “A Cultural Legacy of False Starts,” published in
ThePerspective.org, November 16, 2000.
Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “Unraveling Our Past to Make Necessary Corrections,”
published in ThePerspective.org, February 28, 2001.
Nyanseor, Siahyonkron. “The Myth of Our Once ‘Peaceful Country’”, published
in ThePerspective.org, June 23, 2003.
The Declaration of Independence in the July 16, 1847 Constitution of
Commonwealth of Liberia.
Easton, M.A., D.D., Matthew George. (1897) Easton’s Bible Dictionary (formerly
known as the Illustrated Bible Dictionary) New York: Easton.
Taryor, Nya Kwiawon, Impact of the African Tradition on African Christianity.
Edition, reprint. Publisher, Strugglers’ Community Press, 1984.
Dunn, Elwood D., and Svend E. Holsoe, eds. Historical Dictionary of Liberia.
Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985
Sherman, Frank (January 10, 2011). Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and
Culture. New York: New Africa Press.
A brief history of the tribes of England:
The Free Dictionary Com:
Liberian Past and Present:
Tarty Teh’s Letter to A. Romeo Horton, Chairman, Liberian Elections Support
Group, Inc. (LESGO), dated September 15, 1992 and Horton’s Replay.
Discourses: The Liberian Listservs
Liberia: The Land, Its People, History and Culture:
Sundiata, I. K. Black Scandal: America and the Liberian Labor Crisis, 1929–36.
Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1980.
Wiley, Bell, ed. Slaves No More: Letters from Liberia 1833-1869. Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Shick, Tom. Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler
Society in Nineteenth-century Liberia. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Staudenraus, P.J. (1980) [Columbia University Press, 1961]. The African
Colonization Movement, 1816 – 1865. New York: Octagon Books.
Wreh, Tuan. (1976) [C. Hurst & Company] The Love of Liberty: The Rule of
President William V. S. Tubman in Liberia, 1944 – 1971.
Garrison, William Lloyd. Thoughts on African Colonization. Boston, 1832.
Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.
Johnson, Charles S. Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic. New
Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1987.
Mehlinger, Louis R. “The Attitude of the Free Negro Toward African
Colonization” Not a Slave! Free People of Color in Antebellum America, 1790-1860, ed. In Lacy Shaw New York: American Heritage Custom Publishing Group, 1995.
Smith, James Wesley. Sojourners in Search of Freedom: The Settlement of
Liberia by Black Americans. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1987.
About the Author: Siahyonkron Nyanseor is a native of Liberia. He is a poet, a playwright, a journalist, a cultural and political activist and was ordained on May 19, 2012 as a Minister of the Gospel. Mr. Nyanseor is a founding member of the Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA), Inc. as well as the organization’s eleventh President and its historian. He is the Chair of ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc.; he is the publisher of the 1st Liberian Online Internet Newsmagazine – ThePerspective.org; Senior Advisor to TheVoiceofLiberia Online News website. He is a founding member and current Treasurer of the Liberian History, Education, and Development (LIHEDE), Inc., an organization dedicated in promoting indigenous Liberian history and the advancement of human and civil rights for Liberians. In addition, Mr. Nyanseor is the Organizing Coordinator of the Tarty Teh’s Memorial Foundation, which the ‘Friends of Tarty Teh’ is in discussion with the Teh Family to establish the Tarty Teh’s Pallipo Foundation. One of the foundation’s goals will be to publish Teh’s body of work. Mr. Nyanseor can be contacted at: Siah1947@gmail.com.
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