Sunday, July 30, 2017

Congratulations, Liberia!

The Republic of Liberia has just celebrated its 170th Independence Day, having become an independent nation on July 26, 1847.
The Early History of Liberia
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was established in 1816. Its purpose was to support the migration of freed slaves to the continent of Africa. There were abolitionists as well as plantation owners and other slaveholders who participated in the ACS and supported its goals.
The ACS was successful in the formation of the colony of Liberia in 1820-21 on the west coast of Africa. A settlement established in 1822 was two years later named Monrovia, after President Monroe. That settlement grew to become the largest city and the capital of the country.
From its beginning as an independent nation until 1980, the presidency of Liberia was held by Americo-Liberians, those who had formerly lived in the United States and the descendants of such people.
The first president of Liberia was Joseph Jenkins who had emigrated from Virginia to the young colony in 1829.  
Liberia's Coat of Arms
William Tolbert, Jr., of Liberia
In 1965, June and I had the opportunity to attend the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) World Congress, which met in Miami Beach, Florida. Among the other outstanding Baptist leaders we heard, and met, that week, was William R. Tolbert, Jr., the Vice-President of Liberia.
We were happy when Tolbert, who was also an ordained minister, was elected as the new BWA president – the first African to be elected to this position in that worldwide alliance of Baptists that was constituted in 1905.
Liberian President William Tubman died after 27 years in office, so in 1971, the year after his five-year term as president of the BWA ended, Tolbert became the new president of Liberia.
Because of economic problems, which among other things led to violent demonstrations known as the rice riots, Samuel Doe led a coup in 1980, murdering President Tolbert (and others) and seizing control of the country.
Tolbert continues to be highly respected in Liberia, though. New Liberian currency was issued in 2016, and Tolbert’s picture is still on the $100 bill.
Recent History of Liberia
The years from 1980 to 2003 was a dark period in the history of Liberia. Doe, who led the coup d’état was elected president in 1985, one year after his regime allowed return of political parties.
But then there was civil war in the country from 1989 to 2003. According to BBC, up to 250,000 were killed, while thousands more were mutilated and raped, often by armies of drugged child soldiers led by ruthless warlords.
Two years after the civil war ended, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the 24th president of Liberia in 2005. She was the first woman to be elected as the head of state of an African country. Her second six-year term will soon end, so elections for a new president will take place in October. 
While certainly not without lingering problems, conditions in Liberia seem to have improved greatly under President Sirleaf (b. 1938), who was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Joseph Boakai, who is a deacon in a Baptist church, is the current Vice-President. He is one of several candidates in this fall’s presidential election.
Especially since Liberia was established by ethnic Africans who had lived in the U.S., many of us USAmericans join in congratulating Liberia for its 170 years of independence and in praying for an increasingly prosperous and peaceful future.
Liberian-born Helene Cooper, who is now a Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2017), a sparkling biography of Liberian President Sirleaf.


  1. As I remember Afrikan history from an Afrikan perspective (that is reaching back a ways), Liberia was a colonial entity established by the United States in which the American colonialists dominated over the local tribes, which eventually lead to civil war and tribal tensions which still remain. History should not be undone, but we should learn that tribal and religious war are of our own making and will always be with us until the end of time. Maybe war is not a bad thing - it helps keep the balance when one group considers itself superior (but for innocent individuals it will always be hell).

    1. All of the Liberian presidents from the beginning of the country until Rev. Tolbert were Americo-Liberians. And it is true that the indigenous tribal people were not considered equals with the Americo-Liberians.

      From what I have read, though, the killing of President Tolbert and many of his closest political allies was largely due to economic unrest in the country--such as was seen in the "rice riots" of 1979.

      But it also seems that there was increasing dissatisfaction with the Americo-Liberians not treating (or accepting) the indigenous people as equals and that such discrimination was also a cause for the overthrow of the Tolbert government.

      But I disagree that war was the only solution that could have solved the problem. There surely could have been, and should have been, attempts to form a society with greater equality and more acceptance of the indigenous peoples.

      But as Joseph said below, tribalism is still a problem in Liberia as well as in a number of other African countries--and I don't think that war will ever solve the problems caused by tribalism.

  2. While attending Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY, I was blessed to come to know a Liberian student who was going home to be Baptist Men's director for the national convention. I even had the joy of being a member of his wedding party while in school together.

    In our conversations he often referred to the "real people" in Liberia. Being totally ignorant of what it might be about which he was speaking, I pointed out he needed to define who these "real" people were. He explained they were the Liberians who could count no former American slaves in their ancestry. All had been born in Africa.

    I commented it sounded a bit like there was some prejudice against those who could not prove "pure" ancestry. He said he never thought of the term in that light, but it was something he would give more thought and address when he returned home.

    Also a good friend of mine in seminary at the time went as a seminary teacher to Liberia and was one of those who would be reassigned when the civil war became too dangerous. He might have been one of the last to leave, refusing to heed the warnings of the Foreign Mission Board.

    1. Tom, thanks for sharing about your acquaintance with a student from Liberia during your days at Southern Seminary. When I was a student there I had the privilege of getting to know a student from Kenya, but there were done then (as far as I know) from Liberia.

      Yes, as I indicated in comments above, through the years there was considerable tension between the Americo-Liberians (those who traced their ancestry back to the U.S.) and the indigenous people (who your friend no doubt meant as the "real people").

      And, yes, it is hard for missionaries to leave the country to which they have felt called and in which they have served. That is the reason June and I spent our final year with the IMB, which was designated "stateside assignment," in Japan.

  3. Les Hill,
    While vice chairman of the Philippine Baptist Mission, Dr. Tolbert came through the Philippines on his way to Australia. The mission chairman was out of the country. So when the Philippine state department invited the mission to meet Dr. Tolbert, I represented the Mission as he received a VIP red carpet greeting at the airport. He arrived as Liberia's vice president and guest of president Marcos. We had opportunity to host him for some small activity and visited him in the presidendial palace. When we greeted him at the plane we shared a decoractive pen publsizing our special impending evangelistic effort. Later when we met at the palace he wore the pen and spoke appreciatively for the effort.
    At one point leaving our mission office building, I felt trapped by protocol. Of course I'd had little experinece hosting the president of the BWA as well as a nation's vice president. As we came to our car I found it parked next to a wall. My puzzle, should I insist Dr. Tolbert get in and scoot across the seat for me, or what? He solved the problem and held the door for me, got in and closed the door. One evidence of his considerate nature. I've considered it a privilege to meet him.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Joseph Ndifor from Cameroon (in central Africa) makes the following pertinent comments, which I much appreciate him sending:

    "Prof., thanks for this succinct history of Liberia. Though Sirleaf's presidency has brought some relief to Liberians, the country, like other African countries, is still mired in huge economic problems. Tribalism, the bane of what has hobbled progress in many African countries, is still rampant in this once war-torn country."