Rule of the Last Whig

President William R. Tolbert
Credit: Indiana University

William R. Tolbert took over a nation that was still controlled by the minority Congo people and a one-party system. A small number of natives were becoming educated, but the native majority was still excluded from key political and economic spheres.

In addition to completing Tubman’s term in 1971, the government adjusted the law and allowed Tolbert to serve as President for the following 4 years that Tubman had won. After being the backstage Vice President for 19 years, he assumed his term with bold policies that differed from his predecessor.


From Mat to Matress

Tubman’s 27 years, although liberating to the natives, still left the country in a very undeveloped state. A majority of the development in Liberia had primarily focused on Central Monrovia and its environs. In Tubman’s case, he had also developed his hometown of Harper. However, a few miles from Central Monrovia and beyond, lived Liberians without running water, proper schools and lacking in many other necessary facilities.

Tolbert began his tenure as one that would change the lives of common Liberians, and lift them from poverty. He championed this important measure of improving the lives of the majority with his “Rally Time”, “Mat to Mattress”, “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” and other such slogans. He sought changes in Liberia’s foreign relations by befriending communist nations, re-negotiated foreign investment terms to benefit the nation, and broke with Tubman’s imitation of the West.

A Changing Political Climate

He saw the pending change in the political atmosphere and that the natives would not always remain an oppressed people. He tried to remove Americo-Liberian symbols like Mathilda Newport Day, but not much else was accomplished on this front. Tolbert also made it easier for the press, promising not to jail any reporter that disagreed with the government.

In 1975 Tolbert was reelected unopposed as the True Whig Party was still the nation’s only political party. Nevertheless, the national and political atmosphere was changing as the populace became tired of the Congo oligarchy.

The Tolbert administration eventually faced opposition from the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) originating from academia, and having Dr. Amos Sawyer as one of its co-founders. There was also the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) originating from politics, and headed by Gabriel Bacchus Matthews. With the rise in the black power movement, many natives becoming more educated and seeing that other African nations were running their own affairs, it was only in time that the Liberian natives would control their country.

Liberia had always focused on urban development mainly in Monrovia and abandoned the rest of the country and interior. This resulted in migration of many hinterland people to Monrovia. This new urban population reduced the growing of local food crops and an increase in the price of rice, the nation’s staple food. In 1979, rice price increased to $30 per bag. The President believed that this would increase funding for rice farmers and Liberia could stop rice imports. Those returning from their studies abroad were also frustrated with the economic climate and this led to the rice riots on April 14, 1979.

The President did not trust the Liberian soldiers to find and kill the perpetrators to stop the riots, so he brought in 700 soldiers from neighboring Guinea. The riots resulted in the looting of hundreds of business and about 41 people were killed. The government arrested 40 people, and Bacchus Matthews, Chea Cheapoo and others were charged with treason. Not long after, the charges were dropped as Tolbert needed a peaceful atmosphere for the upcoming Organization of African Unity (OAU, now African Union) Summit.

Commemorative $100 coin of the 1979 OAU Conference
Credit: APMEX

Hosting the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit in 1979 meant a big deal for Africa’s first nation and a President trying to show a united Liberia. The Hotel Africa complex in Virginia, estimated at approximately $200 million, was constructed for this event. This facility and other amenities provided for the visiting heads of state would plunge the already shaky Liberian economy into more debt. Tolbert was elected chairman of the OAU at the summit.

The president proudly spoke of this event in his January 24, 1980 annual message, describing the facility as a part of Liberia’s tourist potential. He followed with a claim that this did not imply a neglect of the rural and urban areas, but had numerous ongoing projects within the nation.

End of Whig Leadership
By 1980, 5 percent (or less) of the elite Americo-Liberian class controlled the majority population of 95 percent indigenous people. This ruling class was educated in the United States at institutions such as Harvard or historically black universities such as Howard University or Lincoln University. Occasionally, a country person was allowed to go abroad to study. He or she often returned with the extremism of the newly converted, becoming holier than the pope, more “Americo” than the Americo-Liberians.

-Edward Perkins, 2006

These progressive ideas were opposed by the True Whig party. Eventually, this administration that had begun with much promise proved to be like its predecessors, marred by corruption, nepotism, and privilege for the Americo-Liberians. In the end, his slogans were meaningless.

The strained relationship between the Country People (native/indigenous) and Congo People (Americo-Liberians & recaptured slaves) that had lasted for more than a century resulted in the coup of 1980. A group of army men overthrew the government and killed President Tolbert. A few days later, 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet members were killed after a pseudo trial that found them guilty of high treason. However, for the first time in her history, the nation would be under a native Liberian head of state, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe of Grand Gedeh County.

Ironically, President Tolbert who had started as one of Liberia’s most progressive Presidents became the victim of the conflict that had characterized relations between the Americo-Liberian colonists and the Afro-Liberian population since the arrival of the first settlers in 1821.

-Van Der Kraaij


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