THE 35TH CONVENTION OF THE TRUE WHIG PARTY – A TIME FOR REFLECTION, REDEMPTION AND RENEWAL
A keynote Address delivered at the 35th Convention of the True Whig Party Held in Bentol City, Montserrado County at the Administrative Building and Grounds On July 6, 2015
By Tiawan S. Gongloe
Officials and members of the True Whig Party, invited guests, other distinguished ladies and gentlemen.
Before proceeding any further, may I beg your indulgence to bow with me for a moment of silence in memory of all Liberians who have died for political reasons, since the independence of this country? They are President Edward James Roye, those chiefs and tribesmen killed for resisting the extension of governance to the rural parts of Liberia, S. David Coleman and his son, D. Twe, those who were killed during the 1979 demonstration against government’s proposed increase in the price of rice, President William R. Tolbert and his cabinet ministers who were killed in 1980, members of the Peoples Redemption Council and other soldiers who were killed by the PRC regime, Jackson. F. Doe, Gabriel Kpolleh, Edward Kesselly, Samuel Doe and the over two hundred thousand Liberians who were killed during the civil war, amongst others. Thank you.
A little over a week ago, I got a phone call from my good friend Regional Goodridge, informing me of my selection by the Convention Committee of the True Whig Party to be the keynote speaker at its upcoming convention and he wanted to find out from me whether I would be willing to accept an invitation from the party for this purpose. I thought for a few seconds and answered, “Yes”. But I will be the most pretentious and certainly a traitor to my conscience to say to this audience that I was not shocked at the content of Mr. Goodridge’s phone call. I was shocked because, although, I have spoken to many groups of people in and out of Liberia, over the years, I did not expect that in my life time the True Whig Party would invite me, or anyone with my political history to speak at an important occasion of the party such as a national convention!
After Mr. Goodridge’s call I kept wondering whether members of the convention organizing committee of the True Whig Party really knew the person they were inviting. Did they know that I was an active member of the Vanguard Student Unification Party of the University of Liberia in 1970s? Did they know that I was on the editorial staff of the University of Liberia Spokesman, the official news organ of the University of Liberia Students’ Union (ULSU) that was very critical of the True Whig Party Government? Did they know that I was one the six student leaders who was detained by the True Whig Party Government on April 3, 1978, for opposing President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Liberia because the government declared the day as a holiday in Monrovia, when in fact President Carter planned visit to Liberia was for only one hour, in contrast to his three day stay in Nigeria, without that country declaring a holiday in Lagos or any part of Nigeria? Did they know that I was a member of MOJA? Did they know that I was an active member of the Sawyer for Mayor Campaign in 1979? Did they know that I participated in the 1979 demonstration led by the erstwhile Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) against the increment in the price of rice in Liberia? Did they really know me? The only answer that came to my mind was, “yes” indeed, they knew me. I felt that the action taken by the organizing committee was well-thought of and deliberately taken with the full knowledge of the person they were inviting. Unless and until I can be proven wrong, it is my view that the purpose for my selection by the organizing committee to speak on this occasion is that the Grand Old Whig Party wants to critically take an introspective look at its past with the view of redeeming its image and renewing its commitment to the building of Liberia as, truly, a land of liberty for all without distinction, and on an equal and fair basis.
I then concluded that this was an occasion that called for brutal frankness, as a way of helping the party to experience the rebirth that it so badly needs, if it must be reconsidered by the Liberian people as an alternative in the search for national leadership, given its not so favorable political history. Therefore, I have decided to speak to this convention on the topic: The 35th Convention of the True Whig Party- a time for Reflection, Redemption and Renewal.
One hundred and forty-six (146) years ago, in 1869, the True Whig Party, was formed against the background of the control of political power by the Republic Party from the time Liberia gain its independence up to that time. The Party was formed on the promise of making Liberia a land of liberty for all and opening the political space for the participation of all Liberians without distinction. The question is did the True Party keep the promise? Did every Liberian who wanted to participate in politics during the rule of the True Whig Party have an opportunity to do so? The answer is, certainly, a big, “NO”! The True Party achieved many things for Liberia; but opening the political space for all and making Liberia a true land of liberty for all, cannot be counted among its achievements. In fact, it is the systematic effort by the True Whig Party to close the political space for all, except for True Whig Partisans, that lead to the virtual creation of a one party state in Liberia, followed by violent political eruptions in resistance to such rule and the eventual failure of the Liberian state.
No one can take the credit from the True Whig Party for beginning the process of the infrastructural development of Liberia. It was under the True Whig Party that motor roads, railways, airstrips, and seaports, amongst others were built for the first time in Liberia. No one can also take from the True Whig Party the credit for the introduction of telecommunication, radio, television broadcasting, electricity and pipe borne water. These are great achievements for which the Grand Old True Whig Party must be applauded. However, the True Whig Party cannot run away from taking the blame for introducing a governing approach that stimulated violent reactions that hindered the progressive development of Liberia and the conflict that destroyed the very infrastructure built by the True Whig Party and caused the near collapse of the Liberian state.
In order to understand the point that I am making, it is important to look at the history of the party from its formation in 1869 to the fall of its rule in 1980. It was formed to challenge the Republican Party because that party had held onto power exclusively from 1847 to 1869, a period of twenty-two (22) years. The Republican Party was, largely, composed of lighter skinned Americo-Liberians and excluded other Liberians, largely darker skinned Americo-Liberians and recaptured slaves from the Congo Basin and indigenous who had become “Christianizes and civilized”. The True Whig Party at its formation was seen as a revolutionary party ready for change because it stood against the control of power by one group of people. It was expected, therefore, that the party would open the political space for all Liberians, consistent with the dream upon which Liberia was established and that dream was that Liberia would be a land of liberty for all Liberians without distinction.
The Liberian voters in 1869 believed in the True Whig Party’s promise that it would be a mass-based political party, not a party of the elite and open the political space for all to participate in the politics and governance of Liberia, on an equal basis and voted the True Whig Party to power. But in just two years, the True Whig Party lost power in a violent coup, based on the suspicion of corruption and political manipulation to stay in power longer then provided by the Constitution of Liberia at the time. The story is that on January 1, 1870, President Edward J. Roye, the first president elected on the ticket of the True Whig Party was inaugurated as President of Liberia. His tenure was due to end on January 1, 1872.
In May 1870 a special election was held. On the ballot for the special election there was a proposition for the amendment of the Constitution by extending the term of the president from two years to four years, the senate from four years to six years and the House from two years to four years. According the Constitution of Liberia at that time, it was the responsibility of the Legislature to declare election results and not the president. Yet, President Roye took the liberty, without any support in law, to issue a proclamation declaring that by the result of the special election, his term of office had been extended to four years, the senate to six (6) years and the house to four years. Subsequent to the action of President Roye, the House and the Senate issued a joint resolution declaring that the proposed constitutional amendment had not been adopted, according to the result of the special election that they received.
President Roye ignored the joint resolution issued by the House and Senate and maintained that the presidential election scheduled to be held in May 1871, could not be held because his term of office had been extended by two more years. Therefore, the presidential election of May 1871 was not held. The position taken by President Roye created a political turmoil that became violent because he had armed militia and his opponents had armed militia. In the midst of this confusion, members of the legislature, met in Monrovia and issued a manifesto on October 26, 1871, in which they declared that the President had been deposed. There was no legal basis for this action of the Legislature because the only means available to them against President Roye was impeachment. But members of the legislature argued that the process of impeachment was too long and time-consuming and that they needed to act quickly to end the political crisis that had developed, based on the arbitrary action and intransigence of President Roye. So, Roye was removed from office by a coup d’état.
In addition to the debate between President Roye and the legislature over the result of the special election, he had another problem. He had obtained a loan from Britain under circumstances that created a suspicion of corruption. The full amount of the loan was One Hundred Thousand (100,000) British Pound at the interest rate of seven percent (7%). Of this amount, President Roye reported that 30,000 pounds was retained by the bankers as discount and advanced interest and 10,000 pounds was used to purchase goods. Therefore, the balance left with him was 60,000 pounds. However, it is reported that more than half of the 60,000 pounds was mismanaged and misappropriated and that the amount that was actually received by the Liberian people was between Twenty Thousand (20,000) pounds to Twenty Seven Thousand (27,000) pounds.The people became very angry with the President for such a very bad loan. They also suspected him of being corrupt. The House of Representatives brought charges against him for impeachment but the Senate did not support the action of the House. This was happening while his two year term in office was coming to an end. The confusion that these two developments generated led to the first overthrow of a Liberian president and the first coup d état in Africa. The Roye story is detailed in the book entitled the Legislative and Political History of Liberia written by Charles H. Huberich.
For two (2) reasons, nobody expected Roye to fall from power for the two reasons that were given for his removal. First, he was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia and consequently, he was to respect the law. Besides the fact that President Roye should have allowed the legislature to declare the result of the referrandum, it should have been clear even if the term office of the President had been extended, it would have affected his tenure, but the tenure of the President in the pending presidential election. Second, Roye was a very rich businessman with a fleet of ships, therefore, nobody expected him corrupt. Also, how could he have benefitted as an incumbent? Even if the proposed amendment had been adopted it would have become effective in the subsequent election. Further, it is reported that Roye was a successful businessman owning a fleet of merchant vessels before becoming president; consequently, it was surprising that he could be involved in corruption.
The True Whig Party experienced another coup d’état ninety years later in which President William R. Tolbert, Liberia’s 19th President was overthrown. This time it was a military coup carried out by seventeen enlisted men of the Armed forces of Liberia, led by a master sergeant. President Tolbert came to power on July 23, 1971, following the natural death of President Tubman, after years of political repression under True Whig Party leadership of Liberia, accentuated during the twenty seven year rule of President Tubman. The people of Liberia, especially opposition politicians, had accrued anger that was ready to erupt like volcano, at the time of Tubman’s death.
Tolbert knowing the situation promised the Liberian people change in the political situation. And the Liberian listened. But, because he was held back by the old guards of the True Whig Party, he reneged on fully bringing about the change that he had promised on coming to power. Like the True Whig Party he betrayed his promise to the people. The result was the lack of trust in his leadership and consequently, the erosion of respect for his office and rising protests against his continuous stay in power by the disappointed masses of the people. In the emotional reaction to Tolbert’s betrayal of his promise for change of the political situation, his integrated rural development programmed that witnessed the increase in construction of schools, clinics, farm to market roads through his policy of self-help; his agricultural programs, and his reduction of school fees up to the University level meant nothing to the angry people of Liberia.
While President Tolbert was being challenged by his political opponents , there were internal dissentions within the True Whig Party, with some of its members planning to remove President Tolbert either by impeachment or by coup d’état, as was experienced by President Roye. The older members of the True Whig Party who know its oral history very well have more details on the erosion of cohesion of the party under President Tolbert. There is a common saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The True Whig Party was a divided party under President Tolbert. The wife of President Tolbert, the Late Victoria Tolbert in her book narrated that she informed her husband many times that some of the members of the True Whig Party that he considered his friends were not his friends, but traitors, who were planning to remove him. In order to ease tension, President Tolbert released opposition leaders held in detention for leading the April 14, 1979 demonstration. Tolbert also, promised to hold general and presidential elections in 1983 and to transfer power to the winner. In preparation for the promised election, President Tolbert convened a special convention of the True Whig Party in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County which he referred to as the Bassa Quadrennial Conference. Some of the people at this convention attended that conference. But by that time Tolbert had lost credibility both in the True Whig Party and outside the party. His failure to hold the 1979 promised mayoral election deepened the suspicion of the opposition that he would not hold election in 1983 as promised. Meanwhile, Tolbert’s desire to be a key player in the non-alignment movement and the Organization of African Unity (now African Union) by remaining committed to the radical decisions of these international bodies, during the height of the cold war and at the time that he had a very week political base, made his removal from power just a matter of time. Tolbert was overthrown overthrown on April 12, 1980, thereby making him the second President of Liberia that has been overthrown. In reflecting on the past, the TWP need to examine the reasons why its two leaders were overthrown.
The True Whig Party at this convention must take serious note of some aspects of its style of governance that affected the chances of other Liberians to have a role in the governance of their country. The party, for, example, cannot shy away from blame for introducing, patronage, cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, political exclusion and marginalization, and massive abuse of human rights in the governance of Liberia. The legacy of this type of governance practice transformed into a mainstream governance culture and that governance culture still remains with our country to this day.
This convention should be used by the True Whig Party to reflect on its past, not for the purpose defending it , but for the purpose of examining all of the criticisms that have been made against it over the years by Liberians, scholars and observers of Liberian politics in order to redeem its image by recommitting itself to the promise it made to the Liberian people at its formation that it would be a party for the masses of the people and not a party for the elite or a party surviving on political exclusion and marginalization.
The True Whig Party also promoted domination of one group of Liberians over all other Liberians against its promise of promoting a land of liberty for all in which every Liberian would have the right to participate in politics and governance as well as the right to benefit from every opportunity provided by the state on an equal basis. Domination has not helped Liberia in any manner or form. At one time, the lighter skinned Liberians exclusively controlled political power in Liberia for over two decades under the banner of the Republican Party. Then for most of the period beginning 1870 to 1980, the True Whig Party exclusively controlled power for more than a century as it came to power 1870, lost power in 1871 and regained power in 1878 and remained in power until 1980. From April 1980 to 1990 the indigenous Liberians controlled political power both under the military rule of the Peoples’ Redemption Council and the National Democratic Party of Liberia. Under the National Patriotic Party, governance was by a mixture of Liberians, but the politics of fear and violence introduced by the True Whig Party and improved upon by the military and the NDPL was used to drive away leading political opponents of the NPP. The politics of dominance and exclusion are parts of the legacy of the True Whig Party that it must guide against in its reflection at this convention.
The True Whig Party introduced in Liberia what could appropriately be described as black apartheid, whereby, one group of people controlled political power and had better access to the opportunities provided by the state while the rest of the people were denied the same opportunities. Under the True Whig Party access to the opportunities provided by the state for other Liberians who were not members of the ruling class was by patronage, cronyism and favoritism. Therefore, the True Whig Party developed and encouraged a political culture of opportunism and sycophancy that has become so entrenched in Liberia. If the True Whig Party wants to be accepted by the Liberian people it has to commit itself to denouncing patronage, cronyism, favoritism, opportunism and sycophancy because these are tendencies that undermine every effort to make Liberia a land of liberty for all Liberians on an equal basis. Is the True Whig Party willing to change from these old ways? This is a challenge for the True Whig Party, if it wants the Liberian people to give it a second chance to govern Liberia.
No well-meaning Liberian should be hoping for reviving a Liberia in which respect for rights and access to opportunities are based on ones last name, ethnicity, class, religion, creed, color, fraternity, sex, amongst other such types of distinctions. That type of Liberia brought us conflict and hindered the development of our country. We must all strive to prevent a return to that type of Liberia. Liberia should be for all Liberians without distinction. Therefore, we should work towards a Liberia in which when a Liberian wants political or civil service position or seeks access to any other opportunity provided by the Liberian state, he or she should be only accessed, evaluated or judged based on knowledge, character content and track record. When we build this kind of Liberia, then we can say that we are in the Liberia that was dreamed of at the time of the independence of Liberia- a land of liberty for all by God’s command. We are not there yet. We are still far from reaching the Liberia that was envisaged in 1847. There are many reasons why I hold this view. For example, I hear people saying that the time for Americo-Liberians to control power is over. I also hear some people say that Liberia is back or there is a need to get Liberia back. And the question is in whose hands is it back to or in whose hand should it get back to.
Another observation is that under the True Whig Party many people were happy to say that they were Americo-Liberians, Congo or civilized. Today, I have observed some politicians getting angry when they are referred to as Americo-Liberians or Congo. I have also observed some Liberian politicians trying hard to emphasize their tribal names that were not known before to the public, as a way of gaining greater acceptance among the electorates. I have heard some politicians who are known to be Americo-Liberians trying to speak a local language or taking the liberty to explain their genealogy to show that have native or tribal heritage. Our current President, for example spent a lot of time during the 2005 campaign to explain to the Liberian people her Gola and Kru origins and how her skin pigmentation was based on the fact that her maternal grandfather was a German, as a way of distancing herself from the Americo-Liberians or Congo people.
There are some who even hold the view that all Americo-Liberians are bad. How can this be true when, Albert Porte, for example fought against his own people for justice for all Liberians, including the indigenous people, even more than any indigenous Liberian? There are those who maintain the view that because Liberia has many ethnic groups, Liberia will experience disunity if a member one ethnic group becomes a President of Liberia. These kinds of views and actions by Liberian politicians show that we are not yet in the Liberia that was dreamed of. It also shows that Liberians are still not yet united as a nation.
Some Liberians have suggested that the way to bring about peace and progress in Liberia is to seek some form of homogeneity, either by adopting one of our indigenous languages as a national language, or by having one national religion, or by choosing our national leaders from one fraternal organization, amongst other suggested forms of homogeneity. The argument of those who are making these suggestions is that when political actors in Liberia are of the same background in terms of religion, language, fraternity, etc, then they will have an avenue for understanding, cooperation and oneness of purpose and the result will be that Liberia will experience sustainable peace, stability, unity and progress. However, history and contemporary developments have shown that homogeneity in whatever form is no guarantee for peace and progress in any nation.
Look at Somalia. Before the outbreak of civil war in Somalia in 1991, it was considered the most homogeneous nation in Africa. Except for a small percentage of Arabs and Bantus, most of the people of Somalia are of one ethnic group and speak one language called Somali. They are also all Sunni Muslims. Yet, Somalia has a conflict that the whole world has found very difficult to resolve. In Liberia, for example, history has shown that some of the victims of political conflicts were people who shared the same background as those who harmed them. Under the True Whig Party some Americo-Liberians became victims of arbitrary arrests and cruel and inhumane treatments. The story of the famous Albert Porte from Crozerville, a few blocks down the road, is instructive. Porte a pure blooded Americo-Liberian suffered under Presidents King, Barclay, Tubman and Tolbert, all of whom were Americo-Liberians, only for exercising his right to freely express himself about how Liberia was governed under those presidents. Harry Johnson and Nelson Toe, two Krahn members of the People Redemption Council (PRC) were killed by Msgt. Samuel K. Doe, along with Gen. Thomas Wehsyen, Joseph Sumo and Henry Zuo, because Doe reached a conclusion that his two kinsmen threatened his political power. The issue in Liberia has been how those who control power, over the years have perceived power. The desire to control power at any and all cost has been the problem.
Given that dominance, exclusion or homogeneity has not solved any problem in Liberia or elsewhere, nobody in Liberia should be made, by any circumstance, to deny who he or she, truly is. Some people have indigenous blood, but grew up as Americo-Liberian or Congo and some people have Americo-Liberian or Congo blood and grew up as indigenous Liberians. None of these people owe anybody an apology for who she or he is. As long as these things are happening, the struggle to build Liberia as a land of liberty for all must continue.
At this convention I advise members of the True Whig Party to take a critical look at the party’s past record. Look at the records of its internal politics, particularly the caucus system- a system whereby a few people in the True Whig Party decided on the candidates for elected posts. This is not the way to build internal democracy because the caucus system is not based on the will of the majority. The caucus system may have contributed to the internal dissention within the True Whig Party and could have been one of the factors that weakened the party. The party should find away to strengthened its internal democracy. Let me quickly note here that most Liberian political parties lack internal democracy, at least when it comes to selection of their standard bearers. Except for the 2011 primary in the Congress for Democratic Change, which recorded the defeat of George Weah, the man around whom the party was formed, by Winston Tubman, a less popular member of the CDC, most political parties in Liberia a mere campaign committees of their founders and funders. This is a bad lesson that the new political parties copied from the Grand Old True Whig Party. The party as a matter of necessity, must muster the courage to face all the facts associated with its past, in order to avoid making those mistakes that made it to fall from power twice, first in 1871 and 102 years later in 1980.
Liberia and Haiti were the first independent black republics in the world, with Haiti first in 1807 and Liberia in 1847. Both countries had the historic obligation to show to the rest of the world that black people were capable of properly governing themselves. However, both countries, have shamefully failed to be the example that they were expected to be, as a result of the nature of the politics that have been practiced by their politicians. Most of the countries that gained independence as late as the 1960s are doing better than Haiti and Liberia in terms of their commitment to upholding democratic values, such as respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights and holding credible elections. As a result, those countries are experiencing sustained peace, security and development. Liberia and Haiti, after nearly two centuries of independence, are, very unfortunately considered fragile states as demonstrated by the presence of United Nations Peacekeeping Missions in the two countries. Liberians must make a commitment to change this situation for Liberia, by the way politicians conduct themselves in their political parties and in government. The True Whig Party must begin the process of change by improving on its internal democratic process.
Finally, I advise anyone seeking to be the next president of Liberia, whether on the ticket of the True Whig Party or any other party to know that Liberians will not accept any form of domination or exclusion of Liberians, anymore. All Liberians are looking for a politician who will lead them to the promise land of freedom, equality and fairness for all Liberians. Now before I take my seat let me take the liberty to ask you the following questions, with the hope that I can get an answer from the audience: Will Liberians accept any form of domination, again? I say no! Will Liberians, again, accept any form of exclusion? Again, I say no!
Backward never, forward ever! In union strong success is sure.
I thank you.