Tolbert’s Vision, Liberia’s Failure: When Will We Get It Right?


Jusu Gow, [email protected], Contributing Writer

Forty years ago, when a gang of greed-stricken uneducated soldiers murdered a 66-year-old senior citizen at Liberia’s Executive Mansion, they simultaneously killed visions intended to put Africa’s oldest republic on par with many self-sustained nations. The shockwaves of their ill- actions are still being felt today. 

With today (May 13th) being what would have been his 107th birthday, biographies, historic accounts and word-of-mouth are all consistent with the character of President William R Tolbert, Jr. – he was a good man with a great heart for his country! In fact, in an excerpt from her memoir “Lifted Up” First Lady Victoria Tolbert gave her husband’s reaction two weeks before his demise after he was warned to slow down with the urgency and speed he wanted his beloved Liberia to move towards development, while cautioning him of the deceptive oppositions he had especially within his inner realm of friends. The President told his wife “You know, Sugarheart, I have done my best for my country, which God knows. And I am not afraid to die. Any day, I am prepared to die for Liberia. God knows it.”(pg. 132) 

I couldn’t believe I had just read what I’d consider a convicting response from a globally respected, astutely brilliant and results-driven husband and father who happened to be the 20th President of Liberia. He was willing to give his life for the standards, principles and policies he believed would lift his country out of poverty, even in the midst of unexplained and irrational oppositions. What else could a person demonstrate to voice out his unflinching patriotism?  

President Tolbert laid out workable plans aimed at catapulting the Liberian nation at a height to eradicate ignorance, poverty and disease. For him slogans meant actions with measurable impact on Liberians lives and that is why when he coined “Mats to Mattress”, “Rally Time”, “Total Involvement for Higher Heights”, etc., the Liberian society saw a tractional movement in various developmental dimensions. Housing, healthcare, agriculture and education were some of the paramount societal interventions that boosted under President Tolbert’s.    In my opinion his slogans and their direct impact on citizen’s lives makes him the true and original architect of Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy (PRS). 

There are many questions that evolve on the failure of Liberia to follow the already laid out workable plans of President Tolbert: what has created the broken link between Tolbert’s tangible plans and the lack of actual implementations by the many successors? Why does it seem like the presidents after him have been cold-shouldered about continuing his well-thought plans for lifting Liberians out of poverty? Have those successors been uncomfortable with Liberians being well-educated and economically empowered? I am sure there could be mixed responses to these questions; however, if a 20th century leader could lay out framework that provide potential solutions in the 21st century one would think his successors would see it as a blessing and excitingly push it through instead with each passing year his plans continue to erode fast from the face of the nation and its politics. 

Why was the agriculture bank axed a few years ago? Thought we needed it more now than ever to provide subsidies to farmers and farming opportunities to make Liberia self-sufficient and secured with food?

Why we don’t hear about multilateral schools anymore? Thought our educational needs especially in these post conflict eras have presented the most challenge to our national development than any preceding times?

What happened to the development and construction of affordable housing meant to serve mainly the younger population fresh out of college who are trying to get a head start in life?

Why hasn’t the Monrovia Free Zone Authority become functional? A duty-free business initiative with mass hiring potential completely froze in concept.

The most interesting question that comes to my mind is, how could President Tolbert get all of these things (and many more) right within about nine years and nobody seems to have a clue within forty years? Can we say it is simply the lack of patriotism or just a “don’t care” attitude?

Even if you don’t like him, acknowledge that the man was a visionary who did not only understand human capital development but also demonstrated immense intellectual acuity of important social tenets. For instance, the President understood that language is a form of identity and that is why based on censual outcome he pushed that we adopt a national language, the Kpelle dialect. One would think with the takeover of the so-called natives they would have embraced such a smart move by their predecessor. [At least he did not force Liberians to learn “Congau.”]  Most Liberians admire that Ghanaians speak Twi. What do we speak? Liberians now emulate cultural practices from Nigerian movies and some are beginning to adapt their accents. I believe if the country had followed the guidance of President Tolbert citizens wouldn’t be faced with this level of confusion and identity crisis.  

What’s the way forward?

A myriad of works from scholars of diverse genres and backgrounds has already been penned to address Liberia’s poverty problems however I would like to piggy back on an unrelated work with a related concept by Dr. Ruby K. Payne. The author acknowledges in the revised edition of her book “a framework for UNDERSTANDING POVERTY: A Cognitive Approach” that one of the viable causes of generational poverty in a family is the failure of the preceding generations to lay aside resources for its succeeding generation. Also, the failure to teach the succeeding generation to manage resources can lead to poverty. 

Leaders, just like family have the responsibility to lay out clear and workable plan(s) aimed at lifting their citizens out of poverty. Liberia should consider it a bountiful blessing to have had a leader who concisely show her the way out of poverty. President Tolbert already did the hard work, therefore, instead of swinging around for ideas like a pendulum and not gaining any traction on development for forty years, Liberia, please humbly revert to the Tolbert’s play book and we will start seeing some real, tangible results.

Happy Heavenly 107th Mr. President!