Liberia @ 173: Of Rice, Rights & the Recurring Circle of Impunity

173 YEARS OF THE SAME: How much did the riots of 1979 change Liberia? To what end did so many have to die?  Similarly, what has Liberians learned from the coup of April 12, 1980? Did the killing of Tolbert and his officials correct the flaws that have kept Liberia in the doldrums of the world for so many years? Did President Edward James Roye really have to be deposed after only one year in office? Was the civil war which lasted for more than a decade really necessary? Especially if those who committed atrocities are being rewarded and paid by taxpayers after leaving so many without fathers, mothers, friends, and loved ones?

Monrovia –  As far back as 1871, when President Edward James  Roye was forced out only after a year into his presidency, Liberians have been known for taking matters into their own hands – under the guise of change.


By Rodney D. Sieh, rodney.sieh@frontpageafricaonline.com


Exactly 173 years after it gained independence, however, recurring themes of bad governance, corruption, greed, nepotism, rights violations, patronage and sycophancy, sadly remain the order of the day – all coming in the backdrop of succeeding governance structures promising change.

Historically regarded as the first official coup d’etat, Roye’s short-lived reign continues to mesmerize historians  – and the scanty details that followed his death remains a mystery to this day.

Some historians cite Roye’s unpopular loans with Great Britain and fears from the opposition Republican Party at the time, that he was planning to cancel the upcoming presidential election, as the major cause leading to the quest to remove Roye from power.

Dr. Fred P.M. van der Kraaij, a Dutch economist with vast experience on Africa, notes that at the time when Roye sought the loan, Liberia lacked the financial means to finance the expansion into the interior and carry out economic development. So, Roye looked abroad for the necessary means. Like his predecessor, President James Spriggs Payne, Roye inherited an almost empty Treasury.

Sounds familiar?

We’ll come back to that later.

The Loan That Killed Roye

The loan in question was valued at £ 100,000 loan (approximately US $ 500,000) secured from a British bank of which the Consul-General for Liberia in Great-Britain, David Chinery, was an agent.

The negotiations were conducted by two Liberian representatives of President Roye, his Secretary of the Interior and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. President Roye was in London at the same time to settle the boundary dispute with the British over the Galinhas territory. He agreed with the severe terms of the loan, including a rate of 70% meaning a loss of 30% for the Liberian Treasury and a 15-year repayment plan and an interest rate of 7% per year.

By the time the terms of the agreement became known in Monrovia a wave of protests emerged and in October 1871, when the dispute over the loan and the dissatisfaction with Roye’s handling of the financial affairs of the country, Liberians took to the streets in droves resulting in riots and street fights between supporters of the two rival political parties, the Republican Party and the True Whig Party. Roye’s residence fell prey to shelling. Roye, according to historians, started the actual fighting by flinging hand grenades to the crowds in the streets of Monrovia. 

Roye would later be arrested and the Legislature subsequently declared him deposed. A few True Whig Party supporters were arrested on a large scale, some, including the Secretary of the Treasury, Samuel L.G. Findlay. After the arrest of President Roye the affairs of the country were taken over by a junta of three men: Reginald A. Sherman, Charles B. Dunbar, and Amos Herring.

It would take more than a century later, 109 years to be exact, for violence of a similar nature to rock Liberia.

That would come on April 12, 1980, when a band of low-ranked army officers led by Master Sargeant Samuel Kanyon Doe ended more than a century of True Whig Party rule with the overthrow of President William R. Tolbert.

In his first speech announcing the toppling of the Tolbert regime, Doe denounced “rampant corruption” and the “continued failure of the Tolbert government to handle effectively the affairs of the Liberian people.”

The Roye Curse Dogged Doe

Like Roye, more than a century before, Doe also complained of inheriting an empty treasury as he struggled to gain his footing in the comity of nations.

Ironically, the writings had been on the wall for Tolbert long before the coup. A year earlier on April 14, 1979, a rice riot orchestrated by the progressives who rejected a proposal to increase the price of the staple food, rice, brought the administration to its knees.

Dr. Florence Chenoweth, Minister of Agriculture at the time, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26, asserting 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.

In protest, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration, drawing some 2,000 activists to the streets. 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 Tolbert government never fully recovered from the rice riots of ’79 and country which for the latter part of the 1970s had a per capita income equivalent to that of Japan, saw its fortune take a dip for the worse.

So, when the coup of April 12, 1980 surfaced, it set Liberia on a somewhat irreversible course.

Doe angered donors and international stakeholders when a makeshift tribunal sentenced thirteen members of the Tolbert government to death by firing squad.

Nevertheless, the US, Liberia’s traditional stepfather pumped millions into the new government. Liberia, under Doe was the largest per capita recipient of United States aid in sub-Saharan Africa. From 1962 to 1980, Liberia had received $280 million in aid from the U.S., the greatest level of U.S. aid to any African country on a per capita basis at the time. In exchange for this aid, Liberiao ffered its land free of rent for U.S. facilities. Under Liberian president William V.S.

By 1985, as his government racked up one human rights violation after the next, it was time for retooling. Doe released all of those who had been charged with complicity following an abortive coup on Nov. 12, in the aftermath of a rigged elections that climaxed his transformation from a military ruler to a civilian president.

But Doe, like Tolbert found his problems were only just beginning, acknowledging to the annual IMF-World Bank Spring meeting in May 1986 that a “major source of Liberia’s problems” was that the government was spending more than it was earning and that “financial discipline continues to elude us.”

This was Doe’s first public acknowledgment that his government routinely had spent money without proper accounting.

The New York Times reported that year that government ministries had subsidized their profligacy by dipping into the earnings of public corporations.

All this forced Doe to once again turn to donors for aid just as President Roye did in 1871 and many succeeding president have and continue to do.

Doe pleaded with the IMF and the World Bank and the European Community to send money managers to Liberia to supervise tax collection and government spending.

In a bid to show donors that he was serious about turning the financial fortunes of Africa’s oldest republic around, he appointed Robert Tubman, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics as Finance Minister. Tubman was immediately dispatched to Washington and Europe to spread word of the new economic orthodoxy.

Like Tolbert before him, the curtain was quickly falling on Doe’s reign and by Christmas Eve 1989, when Charles Taylor and his band of rebels came calling, the beginning of Doe’s end was near.

For nearly a decade, Doe faced resistance from opposition, survived multiple coup attempts, the most lethal, the Quiwonkpa-led invasion of November 12,1985.

President Edward James Roye would later be arrested and the Legislature subsequently declared him deposed. A few True Whig Party supporters were arrested on a large scale, some, including the Secretary of the Treasury, Samuel L.G. Findlay. After the arrest of President Roye the affairs of the country were taken over by a junta of three men: Reginald A. Sherman, Charles B. Dunbar, and Amos Herring. It would take more than a century later, 109 years to be exact, for violence of a similar nature to rock Liberia.

Doe’s Critics, Successors Made Similar Missteps

Many of those ranting and raving against Doe accused him of corruption, human rights violations, nepotism and greed.

Prince Johnson, the man who supervised Doe’s brutal death has been in the Senate for more than a decade and ran for President twice.

Johnson is famously remembered for probing Doe to reveal where he had stashed his loots. Doe took the secret of his perceived wealth to his grave, as he lingered in pain, begged for his life and the  last drop of blood from his slit ears poured in the midst of giggles from Johnson and his men.

At last, the most feared monster holding Liberia back from progress had been slain – or so many thought, but the turmoil and uncertainty was only just beginning.

Johnson, who once wrote that the guns that liberate should not rule,  and many others who were critical of Doe have been in the national legislature for years overseeing more acts of corruption and failing to provide oversight to some of the very things they accused leaders of yestersyears of doing.

The most damning came in May 2013, when an audit of lucrative resource deals in Liberia found that almost all the concessions awarded by the government since 2009 have not been compliant with the law.

In a damning report commissioned by the Liberian government, international auditors found that only two out of 68 resource contracts worth $8bn (£5.1bn) were conducted properly. Concessions granted in agriculture, forestry, mining and oil – including a lucrative deal with oil company Chevron – were either wholly or partially flawed. “These are problems that we have known about for a long time – but the fact that only two of 68 concessions were fully compliant with the law is just mindblowing,” said Chloe Fussell from the international NGO Global Witness.

Although the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sanctioned the report, the audit findings spoke to the heart of Liberia’s perennial problem. Succeeding governments repeating the mistakes of predecessors and ignoring the pitfalls that led them to failure.


Sirleaf Criticized Tolbert, Repeats Mistakes

In her book, This Child Will Be Great’, Sirleaf threw pointed jabs at late President William R. Tolbert’s appointment of close family members in his government. Sirleaf wrote: “Meanwhile Doe, like Tolbert and Tubman before him, began packing the government rolls with friends and family, in this case most of the new employees being from the Krahn ethnic group.”

Those words would soon come back to haunt Sirleaf as she too faced criticism over the hiring of relatives.

Sirleaf defended the hires in her last interview with FrontPageAfrica in 2017. Asked to explain why, after pledging in 2005 to tackle corruption, her government failed to take any action against some 20 ministers accused of corruption by an independent watchdog, Sirleaf said it was “because our system is like that. If you want to really understand Liberia, you need to dig a little bit deeper. You need to understand our culture, our values, our systems and the way to tackle it. It’s not always to just make a whole lot of noise about it.”

Asked why she appointed family members, including one of her sons, to top government positions, she said it was because she needed a “specialised skill”.

Sirleaf denied accusations thatt her son Robert Sirleaf was in any way implicated in the collapse of Liberia’s National Oil Company, and said her other son, Charles Sirleaf who was arrested in March, was “illegally charged” over allegations he unlawfully printed local currency worth tens of millions of dollars. Her stop son, Fombah headed the National Security Agency for the two terms of her presidency.

Sirleaf was quite aware of the country she had inherited.

EJS: Promises Made, Unfulfilled

She, like many before her had read the history of President Roye and how he was killed for questions surrounding a US1 million loan. She served in the Tolbert government that was overthrown by Doe and knew what to say and do, at least on paper.  She worked in the Doe Government as Economic Advisor and later as the government-appointed head of the Liberia Bank for Reconstruction and Development (LBDI).

Sirleaf, as the saying goes, had her work cut out for her.

In her memoir, she wrote: “As I had come to power peacefully, I had to keep the peace. As I had campaigned against corruption, I had to lead a government that curbed corruption. As I had been elected with the massive vote of women, I had to ensure that their needs were met. I had many promises to keep.”

In fact, Sirleaf had set criteria that all those who came to work in her government “had to have competence in their field; they had to have commitment; and they had to be clear of any record of established corruption. “

Sirleaf had no shortage of the right things to say. In her inaugural speech of January 2016, she declared:

“Today, I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing or yet another attempt by another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice. In this respect, I will lead by example. I will expect and demand that everyone serving in my Administration leads by example. The first testament of how my Administration will tackle public service corruption will be that everyone appointed to high positions of public trust, such as in the Cabinet and heads of public corporations, will be required to declare their assets. I will be the first to comply, and I will call upon the Honorable Speaker and President Pro-Temps to say that they comply.”

What happened between the inaugural address and the presidency still baffles many today. Like Doe, Sirleaf admitted that she was unable to fight corruption and reconcile the country, as her two biggest regrets.

In her book, This Child Will Be Great’, Sirleaf threw pointed jabs at late President William R. Tolbert’s appointment of close family members in his government. Sirleaf wrote: “Meanwhile Doe, like Tolbert and Tubman before him, began packing the government rolls with friends and family, in this case most of the new employees being from the Krahn ethnic group.” Those words would soon come back to haunt Sirleaf as she too faced criticism over the hiring of relatives.

Corruption: Weah Singing Music of the Past

Like Sirleaf, her successor George Manneh Weah, who ran a campaign on “Change for Hope”, took office trumpeting a similar refrain in his inaugural address: “I further believe that the overwhelming mandate I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service. I promise to deliver on this mandate. As officials of Government, It is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people. Though corruption is a habit amongst our people, we must end it. We must pay civil servants a living wage, so that corruption is not an excuse for taking what is not theirs. Those who do not refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the people – the law will take its course. I say today that you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

To the contrary, the first two years of the Weah administration has been dogged by criticisms of massive construction of properties overnight and protests over bad governance and missing LD16 billions and US$25 million mop-up money.

Like Doe, Weah has allowed himself to fall prey to the sycophancy syndrome. For nearly a decade in power, Doe was graced with many titles, include Master Sergeant Doe, General Doe, Commander-in-Chief Dr. Doe, and His Excellency the President Dr. Doe, all the signs of hanger-ons and bystanders sucking up to gain favors and prove their loyalty.

Over the past few days, exactly 149 years after the buildup to Roye’s removal, murmurs  about the upcoming senatorial Midterm and the 2023 Presidential and General Elections is already stoking fears.

This week, during an appearance on the 50-50 morning show, incumbent Montserrado County Senator Abraham Darius Dillon of the opposition Liberty Party threatened that President George Weah’s tenure would end abruptly should the ruling party attempt tampering with the results of the December 8 Special Senatorial Elections. Speaking on the 50-50 Talk Show on Sky FM on Monday, Sen. Dillon said poll watchers from the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) would announce the unofficial results from the tally sheets of the National Elections Commission immediately after tallying.

“George Weah and his gang will understand that we’re not taking this for joke. When the people wake up in the morning and go to express their right for their choice, it must be respected, any attempt, it would be the immediate end of the George Weah and the CDC administration from December this year.”

Sen. Dillon further emphasized: “There are some people who’re not talking at all, they’re only waiting to speak on December 8 and you deprive them, you’ll know what kind of fire all of us can warm ourselves with.”

When contacted for clarification on his statement, Sen. Dillon told FrontPageAfrica that his comment is a call for free, fair and transparent and anything less would be totally unacceptable.

As Liberia limps toward its second-century mark, the clamor for change amid repeated missteps signal a growing sense of uneasiness and uncertainty for a nation marred by years of shifting blames, from one government to the next.

Like Roye, laying the blame on Payne, 143 years ago, President Weah, upon taking over in January 2018, expressed during his first state of the nation address that his administration was taking over a ‘broke’ economy; the statement that former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf debunked and said her administration left US$150 million in Liberia’s reserve.

Over time, the Weah Administration has complained of lacking the financial support to run the country, and supporters have attributed the menace to the alleged looting of the country by the Sirleaf Administration.

Today, corruption remains endemic at every level.Sirleaf declared it public enemy while Weah labels graft as the vampire. In 2014, former US Ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac declared that “Corruption remains a serious problem in Liberia, undermining transparency, accountability, and people’s confidence in government institutions.

Bad Governance Comes Full Circle

So, how did Liberia get here?

At the time of Tubman’s death, Dr. Van der Kraaij remembers “Liberia had the largest mercantile fleet in the world, it hosted the world’s largest rubber plantation and latex factory, it had become Africa’s main exporter of iron ore and it ranked number 3 on the world list of iron ore exporters. It had attracted more than US $ 1 billion of foreign investments including the largest Swedish investment abroad after 1945 as well as the largest German investment in Africa – at that time. Now, with that much investments brought into the country at that time (which was significant even by today’s standard for a small country like Liberia) the nation should really have been more developed than what Tubman had left it. But the sad reality is that most of the income earned by the country as the direct result of those investments were either ill-managed, squandered by government officials or both. The lesson to learn here is that while these investments may be good for the country, they may not necessarily benefit every Liberian or the country as a whole as they should like the Tubman years demonstrated.”

Today, politicians both in power and trying to get power have turned to rice as a means to a political end while capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of a poverty-stricken citizenry.

Like Doe, Weah has allowed himself to fall prey to the sycophancy syndrome. For nearly a decade in power, Doe was graced with many titles, include Master Sergeant Doe, General Doe, Commander-in-Chief Dr. Doe, and His Excellency the President Dr. Doe, all the signs of hanger-ons and bystanders sucking up to gain favors and prove their loyalty.

Not a day goes by when we don’t see politicians seeking power, baiting the poor and neglected with few cups of rice and money in hopes that they will be rewarded at the polls.

The sad reality is that the price of rice, the progressive sought to have reduced remains a gold dust, forty one years later.

How much did the riots of ’79 change Liberia? To what end did so many have to die?  Similarly, what has Liberians learned from the coup of April 12, 1980? Did the killing of Tolbert and his officials correct the flaws that have kept Liberia in the doldrums of the world for so many years? Did President Roye really have to be deposed after only one year in office? Was the civil war which lasted for more than a decade really necessary? Especially if those who committed atrocities are being rewarded and paid by taxpayers after leaving so many without fathers, mothers, friends, and loved ones?

If Liberians continue to repeat the very ills others were criticized and killed for so many years ago, the circle of impunity will never end, mimicking,  Bill Murray’s 1983 movie classic, “Groundhog Day” about a cynical TV weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again.

But unlike Murray’s character, who used his recurring predicament to find a way out and turning his despicable situation to its advantage, Liberia’s history suggest the redux play may simply not allow that to be the case.

Sadly, today, Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic has been relegated to a purgatory state in which yesterday’s critics have allowed themselves to become today’s enablers of bad governance, greed and corruption.

A nation drowning in mediocrity and sycophancy where the new normal is come, grab and go and look the other even when a friend, provider, loved one or family member is in the wrong – and it becomes a crime to expose their ills.

A nation where young girls, boys and women are being raped and sexually abused at an alarming rate on a daily basis amid a scarcity of justice for victims.

A nation where officials are often prune to turn to a mostly corrupt and contaminated judicial system to seek judgement against those exposing their ills.

A nation consumed by a culture of waste and abuse of resources and an enabling environment dominated by the haves content with seeing the have-nots linger in abject poverty and neglect.

A nation overwhelmed with an unending aura and recurring state of uncertainty.

A nation so reliant on rice that many have become content with standing by and seeing their rights stripped away under the guise of trying to survive. 

A nation where even amid the clamor for change, many are still skeptical about politicians making promises they are unlikely to keep when it is their turn to sit at the seat of power.

A nation where every official outside the presidency feels entitled to the same rights and immunities of the presidency and vice presidency.

It says something about a country when everyone in government wants to enjoy the same powers and privileges as the president. Think about it.

It also says a lot about a country ranked  the first highest worldwide by the World Health Global Status Report for Road Safety, when those elected or appointed to uphold the law, selfishly pass traffic laws to enhance their power and control to the detriment of their constituents.

According to the most available up-to-date data comparing road safety statistics from around the world, Liberia ranks first out of the 179 countries with available data, with more than four deaths per day, 1,657 deaths annually; that is 35.9 persons to every 100,000 of the population. Think About.

Prince Johnson is famously remembered for probing Doe to reveal where he had stashed his loots. Doe, took the secret of his perceived wealth to his grave, as he lingered in pain, begged for his life and the  last drop of blood from his slit ears poured in the midst of giggles from Johnson and his men. At last, the most feared monster holding Liberia back from progress had been slain – or so many thought, but the turmoil and uncertainty was only just beginning.

After 173 years, Liberia has very little to show because its people have become content with cheerleading the progress of next-door neighbors, now the new hotspot for Medical and social tourism.

Liberia is now ranked by the World Bank as among the very poorest countries in the entire world and is in urgent need of peace and stability, not only to protect human rights and make for a better life for citizens, but also to allow economic progress to take place. A decline in world prices for Liberia’s chief exports, iron ore and natural rubber, brought financial hardship to the country during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The country’s economic freedom score stands at 49.0, making its economy the 165th freest in the 2020 Index. Its overall score has decreased by 0.7 point, primarily because of a drop in the fiscal health score. Liberia is ranked 40th among 47 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, and its overall score is well below the regional and world averages. Furthermore, the Liberian economy has fallen further into the repressed category this year. GDP growth has also recorded a weak performance over the past five years.

Nearing Another Century of Uncertainty

Both the IMF and the World Bank agree that the government’s desires to reduce poverty, create new jobs, meet critical infrastructure needs, and develop the agricultural sector to increase food production are not likely to be fulfilled without significant steps to improve the business and investment climates. However, this is being compounded by the fact that the rule of law is not enforced effectively, and weak property rights and the judicial system’s lack of transparency seriously impede private-sector development. Sustained economic revitalization will depend on diversification, strengthened institutions, action to combat corruption, and political stability.

Liberia’s recurring circle of impunity appears to be lingering in an unending circle with a slim chance of finding light at the end of the tunnel.

The coup of April 1980 left Liberia with a fragile political system and profound weaknesses in its institutions, leadership, and social structure. The Rice Riots the year before set in motion the signs of things to come and more than a decade of civil war which led to the loss of the lives of thousands, was supposed to mark a turning point in the way Liberians view and see things.

“Our current constitutional order that facilitates a system of imperial presidency must first be dismantled in favor of a people’s democracy at all levels. Unfortunately the forthcoming constitutional referendum provides no opportunity for reducing the powers of the president. It provides no opportunity for building a system of local democracy. The people have long called for a referendum on these issues. But they will go to the ballot in December and meet issues that matter far less to them. The issues in the referendum only stand to sustain the current political order.”

Ibrahim Nyei, a Liberian researcher, political analyst, columnist and blogger

To the contrary, the end result for Africa’s oldest republic has been a recurring nightmare with the more things change, the more they appear to remain the same. Thus, Liberia has become more reliant on foreign aid than at any point in its history and basic economic stability largely depending on investors’ confidence in the state of play. But with so many incidents of political entanglements, fears over the credibility of upcoming elections and chaotic uproar as witnessed in the standoff between Rep. Yekeh Korlubah and the Deputy Inspector General of Police Marvin Cole, a redux of the circle appears to be in the cards. For a nation still struggling to find its footing, it appears Liberia and Liberians are content with complacency,  resigning their fate to a Groundhog Day scenario, eclipsed by excuses and blames, while the rest of the world is leaving it behind, engulfed in an endless season of political discontentment.

The million-dollar question is: Will anything change to benefits all Liberians?

For the foreseeable future, emerging scholars like Ibrahim Nyei, a Liberian researcher, political analyst, columnist and blogger, are cautiously hopeful but skeptical.

Nyei, a PhD Candidate at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, University of London and an Adam Smith Fellow in Political Economy at the George Mason University, USA, says as Liberia turns 173, Liberians must begin to think critically and begin to move in cadence with the liberal and progressive values and agendas of the 21st century that emphasize freedom, human development, and social progress. “All these are only possible through progressive national institutions enabled by law. Our current constitutional order that facilitates a system of imperial presidency must first be dismantled in favor of a people’s democracy at all levels. Unfortunately the forthcoming constitutional referendum provides no opportunity for reducing the powers of the president. It provides no opportunity for building a system of local democracy. The people have long called for a referendum on these issues. But they will go to the ballot in December and meet issues that matter far less to them. The issues in the referendum only stand to sustain the current political order.”

Happy ’26 To All!!!

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