Lingering Questions Resurfaces as Liberia Observes Birthday of First President￼
LIBERIA IS THIS WEEK observing the 213th memorial birthday of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the country’s first president and one of two former Presidents graced with a national holiday. The other, William V.S. Tubman, is remembered mostly for the fact that he ruled Liberia for 27 unbroken years, until his death in a London hospital from complications resulting from Prostate Gland surgery on July 23, 1971.
WHEN IN 1847 the Independent Republic of Liberia was created, Roberts became Liberia’s First President. He served several terms from 1848 till 1855. After the deposition of the country’s first ‘black’ president, E.J. Roye in 1871, Roberts was again elected and served another term.
ACCORDING TO PROFESSOR Fred Van Der Kraijj, it is very likely that the ‘colour conflict’ which separated the leading mulattoes from the large majority of colonists of darker complexion had much to do with the animosity between Roberts and Roye.
ROBERTS DIED on February 24, 1876, less than two months after his final term as president ended. He was buried in Palm Grove Cemetery in Monrovia.
ACCORDING TO THE MINISTRY of Foreign Affairs, the Proclamation of Roberts’ birthday as a national holiday is in consonance with an Act passed by the forty-second (42nd) legislature during its third session which declared and proclaimed March 15 of each year as the birth anniversary of the late Joseph Jenkins Roberts, First President of the Republic of Liberia, to be celebrated as a National Holiday as a mark of respect and reverence to his memory and for his untiring efforts in organizing the first Government of the Republic as well as negotiating and concluding treaties with foreign powers which gave recognition to the founding of the Liberian Nation.
THE CURRENT PRESIDENT, GEORGE MANNEH WEAH, , in his Proclamation, indicated that it is befitting that such honor accorded the memory of this distinguished statesman serves as a challenge to all Liberians to aspire to higher and noble endeavors by emulating his courage, endurance, selflessness and commitment to the principles and ideals of democracy as portrayed in his works and life as Liberia’s first President.
FOR MUCH OF the last 175 years, Liberia has seen leaders come and go with very little to show.
EVEN AT THE TIME of Tubman’s death in 1970, medical care was close to non-existent in Liberia. So bad that he had to travel all the way to the United Kingdom to get health care for his Prostate issues.
SIMILARLY, when former Interim President Charles Gyude Bryant lost his life in April 2014, medical doctors and nurses at the John F. Kennedy Hospital ignored his condition until he was pronounced dead.
BRYANT, WHO LED Liberia’s last transitional government, is credited for playing a key role in guiding the country from civil war to the election of Africa’s first female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. He had suffered a sudden, massive heart attack and by the time he was taken to the hospital, it was a little too late.
AFTER 175 YEARS, ordinary Liberians continue to suffer from high mortality and morbidity, resulting from a combination of poor living conditions and lack of quality health care. Infectious diseases are a major contributor to ill health and lost productivity: for example, one-third of Liberians suffer from malaria each year, according to the World Health Organization(WHO).
ADDITIONALLY, MALARIA remains a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Liberia. Since 2008, the Center for Disease Control(CDC) partners with USAID to lead and implement PMI to control and eliminate malaria. In 2021, CDC helped distribute insecticide treated nets, strengthen malaria surveillance activities, and strengthen workforce capacity.
ACCORDING TO THE MINISTRY OF HEALTH, Liberian healthcare delivery operates on a three-tier system: primary, secondary and tertiary, developed as part of Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and the National Health Policy (NHP) implemented in 2007 to “improve health and social welfare status. However, many of those lingering at the bottom of the economic ladder barely get by. All this in a nation where the health expenditure per capita borders around US$53 US dollars. Health expenditure per capita of Liberia increased from 13 US dollars in 2000 to 53 US dollars in 2019 growing at an average annual rate of 13.33%.
IN THE EDUCATION SECTOR, young children have been forced to become breadwinners for their families, roaming through traffic at hours when they should be in school.
TODAY, LIBERIA LAGS significantly behind most other African countries in nearly all education statistics, and has one of the world’s highest levels of out-school children, with an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of 6–14 year-olds who are not in class. All this amid lingering challenges that include poor learning outcomes, overage enrollment, huge number of out-of-school children, wasted government’s resources because of ‘ghost’ teachers and unskilled teachers, and many unqualified teachers.
VERY FEW LEADERS of the past have prioritize education and health as key to establishing a lasting legacy.
FOR ROBERTS, the emphasis during his first term was his attempt at attaining recognition from the United States, where it was opposed mainly by southern Congressmen as well as several European nations with neighboring colonies. In 1848 Roberts traveled to Europe to meet Queen Victoria and other heads of state.
THE UK WAS THE FIRST country to recognize Liberia as an independent country, followed by France in 1848 or 1852 (accounts differ). In 1849, the German cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck recognized the new nation, as did Kingdom of Portugal, Empire of Brazil, the Kingdom of Sardina and the Austrian Empire. Norway and Sweden recognized Liberia in 1849. At the time, the United States withheld recognition until February 5, 1862, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Reportedly, the government had reservations over the political and social statuses of black diplomats in Washington, D.C. Soon after the recognition of Liberia’s independence, slavery was abolished in Washington, D.C.
DURING HIS PRESIDENCY, Roberts expanded the borders of Liberia along the coast and made attempts to assimilate the indigenous people surrounding Monrovia into Americo-Liberian culture, largely through directed education and religious conversion.
HISTORIANS REMEMBERS Roberts as a talented leader with diplomatic skills. His leadership was instrumental in gaining independence and sovereignty for Liberia. Later in his career, his diplomatic skills helped him to deal effectively with the indigenous peoples and to maneuver in the complex field of international law and relations.
AT THE TIME OF ROBERTS DEATH, he willed $US10,000 and his estate to the educational system of Liberia which today remains one of Roberts defining legacies.
TODAY, THE J.J. Roberts Educational Foundation offers deserving students an opportunity to learn. The J.J. Roberts College of Education offers Bachelor’s degree in Primary and Secondary Education with emphasis in English, Mathematics, the natural sciences and Arts, a lasting legacy that continues to contribute to the development and improvement of the educational standard of Liberia.
ROBERTS LEGACY IS SOMETHING that very few of his predecessors have followed. It is something worth commending and one which todays leaders can learn from as they observe and remember the country’s first president.
EDUCATION AND HEALTH ARE two of the main issues and challenges facing Liberia. While we commend the administration of the current President George Manneh Weah, for the recent dedication of a newly renovated and expanded Trauma and Intensive Care Unit with modern medical equipment to meet the technological needs of a fully functional ICU in the Twenty first century, we hope that the legacy of Joseph Jenkins Roberts serve as a constant reminder of the current generation of leaders.
THE EMPHASIS OF country over self should not only be a thing of a leader in power but one that will stand the test of time. Roberts Foundation and his legacy is education a new generation of Liberians. Current and future leaders can do the same for the healthcare in a nation where many are still struggling and dying for curable diseases and illnesses.
TOO MANY PAST LEADERS CONTINUE to be hurt by the legacies they left behind. Andrew Johnson, for example, is remembered for being America’s first post-Civil War president and, as the first President to be impeached, almost certainly one of its worst. Donald Trump is still remembered as the first president to be impeached twice. More importantly, his lingering myth that the election was stolen, will haunt him long after he’s gone.
IN CONTRAST, Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as the first modern President of the United States.
IN LIBERIA, Tubman’s Open-Door Policy is remembered with mixed reviews. In the 1970s for example, the policy ensured that Liberia had the largest registered merchant fleet in the world as a result of a flag of convenience policy and became Africa’s first and the world’s third exporter of iron ore. And the investors, U.S. rubber industry: Firestone, Goodrich and Uniroyal, Bethlehem Steel Corporation and Republic Steel Corporation all came pouring in.
THE POLICY’S SUCCESS OR FAILURE is always debated and gauged on how those investments were used by the government of the day to promote economic development for the poor and needy.
IT IS A HEALTH QUESTION and a quality debate worth pondering, especially for the rapidly changing times Liberia now finds itself.
WHAT’S IN A LEGACY? Perhaps something that lingers for generations even yet unborn. The civil war in Liberia left a pain that is still hurting Liberia today. Is the fault of Samuel Kanyon Doe who ruled with an iron fist that led to the war? Or Charles Ghankay Taylor, whose effort to rid Liberia of Doe’s tyranny led to the deaths of scores of Liberians. It is a debate that will linger for long. In the meantime, the education and health sectors are still struggling and infrastructures are rapidly finding their way back into the fold. For leaders of today, it is important to keep the future in play when thinking about they want to be remembered, if the legacy of J.J. Roberts is anything to go by.