Monrovia – A very few founders of the Liberia’s controversial progressive era have been fortunate to remain relevant amid the changing times and dynamics of Africa’s oldest republic’s political sojourn. Rudolph Nah Roberts, known to you as Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh has.
In the building of sustainable democracy to reverse any regime characterized by injustice, my relevance means my being a servant of the people, consistently and persistently doing the will of the people.
I continue to be politically relevant because I continue to be the Servant of the People, as seen in the successful campaigns to (a) raise consciousness about the people's rights to the extent that there is a multiplicity of media institutions.”
In the past few days, friends and peers have been joining one of the iconic figures of the progressive era to celebrate his turning ‘75’.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, addressing a symposium held in Dr. Tipoteh’s honour, praised him for his consistency, courage and commitment and never deterred by people’s perception about him in doing the right thing.
Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, former Interim President and a long-time friend, heralded Dr. Tipoteh’s role in the main campus of the University of Liberia today enabling young people, mainly students to engage into intellectual discussion that will help the Liberian people to learn from his wealth of experience.
Most days, visitors to a popular local hotel in the Mamba Point area can find Dr. Tipoteh in his usual spot in the corner with a guest or two, or some acquaintance, discussing everything from politics to the economy of Liberia, to what’s making news that day.
Even at age 75, Dr. Tipoteh remains revered, crediting his wonderful Wife, Fatu Kanneh Tipoteh, for taking “very good care” of him. The couple has an adopted son, who happens to be a child solder from then warlord Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
The Undefeated: Tipoteh Personality Defined
He credits his wife for his longevity and his choices in life.
“I trust God! I do not smoke! I do not drink liquor! I take mental and physical exercises regularly! After my right leg got broken in 1956 while playing football for the College of West Africa, I began picking up tennis balls for persons who played Lawn Tennis, when I got well, and I got some money to help me.
While picking up the tennis balls, I learned to play tennis and became the Tennis Champion of Liberia, 1964 to 1994, retiring undefeated over the thirty years.
His love of music is known throughout Liberia and he points to the leisure as a way of communicating.
“I love music very much because it is a highly effective way of communicating with the people and reducing tension/frustration. You should hear my song, Pahn-gahn mihn-ni na-bo-ya, written in Kpelle by me and dedicated to the Health Care Workers of Liberia.”
But it is the mystery of his name and trademark Vai-dashiki outfit that has defined Dr. Tipoteh’s personality over the years.
Today, the man who popularized the sandals that bears his name Tipoteh, a brand of footwear made out of rubber from tires, has stood the test of time and remain a vibrant figure of Liberia’s political discourse.
Tipoteh – What’s in a Name? ‘The Bearer of Message’
Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh & Dr. Les LeFevre Alumni Portrait Reunion Class of 1963 Liberia
Dr. Tipoteh explains to a visitor on a recent weekday that his name has a rich, traditional and intricate family history.
He says when his Father came from Nifu, Grand Kru County, to live in Monrovia; he lived as Houseboy with a man called Robert Manning.
Dr. Tipoteh recalls: “Some persons, upon seeing my barefooted Father for the first time would ask: Who is that boy?
The reply would be: That's Robert's boy. This is how the Roberts name stuck and became a surname. When my Father, Samuel Togba Roberts married my Mother Victoria Kai Roberts and had children, my Parents gave each of their children a Liberian name, which became their middle names, such as mine: Rudolph Nah Roberts.”
“Upon my completion of schooling, we had a family meeting at which the decision was made to have me, their oldest child, bear the Family Standard of using a full Liberian name to reflect our real heritage.
Then, Rudolph and Roberts were dropped and Togba and Tipoteh were brought in, making my name Togba-Nah Tipoteh. Togba is my Father's personal name and Nah is my personal name. Tipoteh is my Great Grand Father's name on my Father's side.
The name Tipoteh suits me well, as it means the Bearer of the Message. I am the Bearer of the Message of the People of Liberia: Let there be just be justice for all of the People, male and female!”
Dr. Tipoteh obtained his high school education from the College of West Africa (high school) and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Economics from Ohio University (Athens) and Ohio State University in Columbus, USA in June 1963 and 1964 respectively.
In 1969, he earned a doctorate degree in Economics while studying as a Harvard University/United Nations Special Fund Fellow in Economic Development at the University of Nebraska.
In the early 1970s, Dr. Tipoteh was an Associate Professor of Economics, Chair of the Economics Department and Director of the Management Research Institute at the University of Liberia (1971-1974).
Tipoteh’s relevance has prompted leaders past and present to come calling to tap into his economic wisdom. From Samuel Doe, whose band of low-ranked army officers ended more than a decade of Americo-Liberian rule on April 12, 1980, to Charles Taylor and even the current Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Following the military coup of April 12, 1980, Dr. Tipoteh became the first Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs under the regime of Samuel K. Doe which overthrew President Tolbert, but resigned after 15 months in office, citing human rights abuses by the government as his reason for leaving.
As President of the Movement for Justice in Africa(MOJA), Dr. Tipoteh is also the founding Chairman of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), an alliance of Liberian political parties; founder and Director-General of Susukuu Incorporated (1971- ), Liberia's oldest non-governmental development organization, which was credited by the West Africa Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG) as helping to disarm over 10,000 combatants and child soldiers in Liberia during the 1997 disarmament program through a school for gun program; and was former Chairman of the Interest Groups of Liberia, a consortium of 32 national organizations with a collective membership of well over o(IBRD).
Recalling Tolbert’s Mistake
A year prior to April 12, 1980, Dr. Tipoteh and his progressive pals were blamed for the now infamous rice riots. But looking back on the fateful day, Dr. Tipoteh lays some of the blame on late President William R. Tolbert.
“President William Tolbert should have agreed with the suggestion of the Venerable Albert Porte by calling a meeting between government Representatives and the Leadership of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL).”
April 14, 1979 a Massacre; Not a Riot
Dr. Tipoteh refuses to be drawn into the labeling of the events of April 14, 1979 as a rice riot. “By the way, there were no Rice Riots. What happened was the massacre of over 100 people by the government, when confronting few persons who had gathered at the PAL Head Quarters on Mechlin Street and persons who took advantage of the government shooting to loot some stores.
While PAL had announced a Demonstration against the proposed increase in the price of rice, no Demonstration was held, as the result of PAL taking the advice of MOJA not to hold any Demonstration.”
The crisis erupted after then Minister of Agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce rice as both a subsistence crop and a cash crop, instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations.
However, political opponents criticized the proposal as self-aggrandizement, pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family of the president operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.
PAL called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase. On April 14 about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion.
The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 "back street boys," causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction.
Widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses ensued with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million.
The government called in troops to reinforce police units in the capital, who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rioters. In 12 hours of violence in the city's streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 500 were injured. Hundreds more were arrested.
The riots sparked a severe wound on Tolbert who was slain a year later in a bloody coup d’etat.
Relevance a Testament of Service
He explains to a visitor recently why he continues to remain relevance and defying father time. “In the building of sustainable democracy to reverse any regime characterized by injustice, my relevance means my being a servant of the people, consistently and persistently doing the will of the people.
Explained Dr. Tipoteh: “I continue to be politically relevant because I continue to be the Servant of the People, as seen in the successful campaigns to (a) raise consciousness about the people's rights to the extent that there is a multiplicity of media institutions, such as the newspapers, the radio stations, the Hataee (Herb\tea) Centers, and the political parties, all of them exercising freedom of speech to sustainable levels, thereby reducing the propensity of the utilization of violent means to change conditions for the better; (b) the successful campaigns to end the vicious Hut Tax and to pass the Decent Work Bill, which was just passed into Law in May 2016, with my Calling the Legislature to Book, in my 2016 May Day Message, for sitting supinely on the Bill for five long years.”
That relevance has will once again be put to the test in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections when the Economist, educator and politician, makes his fourth quest for the Liberian presidency.
Running under the banner of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, Dr. Tipoteh amassed 22, 766 votes for 2.3 percent in the 2005 presidential elections but took a dip in the 2011 elections amassing only 0.6 percent of the votes and tallying only 7, 659 votes.
His subpar performances in the last three elections have not kept Dr. Tipoteh from remaining relevant.
Today, he remains actively engaged in democratic activities in promotion of human rights, liberties, constitutional rule and growth with development in Liberia and throughout Africa and remains optimistic of pulling the Buhari on his fourth try for the Liberian presidency. “My record shows that I would win the 2017 Elections if they were to be fairly conducted.”
Eyeing Transformation of NEC
He adds: “Look at the respective records of the Candidates, including me, of course, and you can proceed to answering this question. Let me hasten to add that unless the following issues are resolved within the National Elections Commission (NEC), the transformation from dependence to independence will be blocked: (a) Some NEC Commissioners are foreigners; (b) NEC allowing foreigners to run as candidates in elections; (c) NEC allowing foreigners to vote in elections; (d) NEC deliberately placing the wrong names of candidates on the ballot papers; and (e) NEC selecting its favorite Political Party in advance of the 2017 Elections. As presently constituted, NEC cannot conduct fair elections, the same as democratic elections, because if elections are not fair to the people, then they are not democratic, meaning that they do not indicate the WILL of the people.”
Dr. Tipoteh says if the elections commission is transformed into a fair Institution, then the likelihood of him winning in the 2017 Elections would be the highest.
Pressed by a visitor to name his favorite President during his time, the politician and economist refuses to be drawn into the debate.
“As I do not evaluate Liberia in terms of personalities, the question of favorite President of Liberia remains a non-starter. As the dominant societal system determines the conditions of the people, so then Liberia must be evaluated in terms of the system.”
Instead Dr. Tipoteh exclaims that it is precisely on account of his leadership in raising the consciousness of the people that has led to the widest opening of the Freedom Door being exhibited in the current regime of Liberia's governance.
He says the dominant system continues to be characterized by the production of raw materials for export, with no value addition to speak of that remains mass poverty generating.
“The sustainable opening of the Freedom Door provides evidence that we are on the way to transforming the dominant system, that makes us dependent rather than independent, to the dominant system of production of raw materials with value addition supportive of economic growth with economic development, the economic growth that improves the living conditions of the people sustainably, to the point where Liberia can become an Independent Country.”
Today much of the remnants of the progressive era can be found in some government capacity amid reports of some strains amongst them. But Dr.. Tipoteh says his relationship with the likes of Professor Dr. Amos Sawyer, Rev. Prof. Dr. Nya Kwiawon Taryor, Mrs. Lorpu Kandakai, Mrs. Elitha Manning, Prof. Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh and Prof. Dew Tuan-Wleh Mayson remains great good.
“It was Prof. Dr. Sawyer who served as Convenor of the Program Commemorating my 75th Birth Anniversary. As I have neither seen nor spoken with Mr. Sam Jackson over the past year, I cannot speak to the question of my relationship with him.”
Weighing in on the ongoing saga in the lower house of the national legislature, Dr. Tipoteh, not one to shy from hot topics chimed: “Lawmakers behaving as Lawbreakers.
As they are supposed to be representing the People of Liberia and they are not doing the People's Business, we must help them to follow the Rule of Law and then we must choose better persons to represent us the next chance we get to do so.”
It is important he says for Liberians to continue to work together to get justice for all. “Although mass poverty is still here but it is not here to stay much longer because our togetherness/unity is getting stronger.”
But even amid his extraordinary relevancy, Dr. Tipoteh and a lot of his peers from the progressive era continue to be dogged by what some regard as the stains of the April 14, 1979 rice riots, to which Dr. Tipoteh disagrees.
“You need to redefine your definition of "stain" because the struggle to build sustainable democracy in Liberia has no "stain" whatsoever!”
For Dr. Tipoteh, the progressives’ mark on Liberia remains indelible. “The irreversibility of the struggle to build sustainable democracy in Liberia” can never be taken away.