Happy Birthday William R. Tolbert, Jr. The 19th President of the Republic of Liberia
William Richard Tolbert, Jr. born May 13, 1913 in Bensonville, Montserrado County, attended the Bensonville Elementary School, Crummell Hall Episcopalian High School, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Liberia in 1934.
Trained as a civil servant, you were elected to the House of Representatives in 1943 and served until being elected Vice President. A Baptist minister, in 1965 you became the first African to serve as president of the Baptist World Alliance and was also a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, you became Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Liberia. You were then the second Liberian president after President Benson to speak an indigenous language, and you promoted a program to bring more indigenous persons into the government.
Following Tubman’s death in 1971, you succeeded him as president. To the outside world, this peaceful transition seemed to signal political stability in Liberia, remarkable in Africa where political turmoil was the norm. However, Liberia was effectively a one-party state where civil liberties were limited, and the judiciary and the legislative branches were subservient to the executive branch.
Upon becoming president, you initiated some liberal reforms. After your election in 1975, there were criticisms against your government sharply for failing to address the deep economic disparities between different sectors of the population, notably the Americo-Liberians, who had dominated the country since independence, and the various indigenous ethnic groups that constituted the majority of the population.
Throughout the seventies, the world price of rubber was depressed, putting pressure on the Liberian economy. You brought a new approach to the Liberian government’s relations with foreign companies. Companies such as Firestone, which had operated for years without being audited by the government, were audited, and forced to pay millions of dollars in back taxes. Old concession agreements were renegotiated, and new concession agreements were negotiated with an emphasis on accountability in the private sector.
In May 1975, Liberia became a signatory to the treaty that established the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in order to create a common market in West Africa and promote regional economic integration and stability in 15 West African countries, with the intention that it would mirror the success of the European Common Market (now the EU).
By the late 1970s, your administration became increasingly open to overtures of economic assistance from Libya and Cuba. The Libyans were on the verge of starting work on a low-cost housing project in Monrovia the project was halted by the 1980 coup d’état.
You ruled from July 1971 to April 1980, among your government’s accomplishments were the institution of free Public Elementary and Jr. High School Education, you began the construction of the Fendell Campus of the University of Liberia to allow the accommodation of more students and in furtherance of youth education and skills advancements you inaugurated the
William VS Tubman College of Science and Technology, now Tubman University in Harper, Maryland County in 1978 and constructed and operationalized numerous vocational and technical institutions across the country.
To enhance your policy of from mat to mattress of self-reliance and sustainability, you established several agricultural projects; AGRIMECO, LPMC, LPPC, LCCC, BCADP, NCRADP, LCADP, LRDU and the Small Rice Holder. In order to stimulate the capital flow in the agricultural sector which supports 70% of the population at a subsistence levels, you established the Agricultural Cooperative and Development Bank (ACDB) to provide loans and agriculture extension services to farmers.
One of the cardinal pillars of your administration’s mat to mattress economic program is infrastructure development its implementation facilitated your government’s policies of decentralization and self-reliance. In that view, your administration carried out major infrastructure development projects which includes; the construction of housing estates, namely; West Point, New Kru, Stephen Tolbert, New Georgia, Barnesville, Matadi and Cabral.
The construction of the New and St. Paul River Bridges, the pavement of the Somali Drive, the laying out and pavement of Sinkor avenues, the construction of RIA Highway and terminal, the pavement of Monrovia-Tubman-burg and Totota-Ganta Highway corridors. Additionally, your administration expended health care facilities throughout the country making the John F. Kennedy Medical Center second to none at the time in the sub-region.
Your Predecessor, President Tubman was a feared dictator that disparaged any semblance of dissent; upon your ascendency to power you initiated some liberal reforms that led to the dissolution of the two most dreadful security agencies; the NISS and EAB in order to remove the fear factor hovering over the democratic space. You allowed the exchange and flow of competing ideas across the political spectrum. Your administration tolerated dissent from all sides of the political divide ranging from academic to press freedoms. In order to allow mass participation in the body-politic of the country you lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years old. Liberia had been a one-party state since the late 1870’s. However, you allowed the country returned to multi-party system when the Progressive People’s Party headed by Gabriel Baccus Matthews, registered as a legitimate opposition political party.
These rapid initiatives caused a good deal of chagrin among Americo-Liberians who accused you of “letting the peasants into the kitchen.” Indeed, it lacked support within your own administration. While the indigenous majority felt the change was occurring too slowly, many Americo-Liberians felt it was too rapid.
Abandoning Tubman’s strong pro-West foreign policy, you adopted a foreign policy which focused on promoting Liberia’s political independence. To this end, your administration established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and several other Eastern Bloc countries, thus adopting a more nonaligned posture.
Liberia severed ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 and spoke in favor of recognizing national rights of the Palestinian people. However, you supported the United States during the Vietnam War, as had your predecessor, William Tubman. You were chairman of the Organization of African Unity from July 1979 until you were killed in April 1980.
It has been 40 years since you were assassinated there are misery tale of accounts about your death undisputedly, you were shot dead by the end of April 12, 1980, the day of the coup d’état. There are competing stories as to the time and manner of your death. Steven Ellis, in his book Mask of Anarchy, says you were found sleeping in your office, where the soldiers killed you, while a Washington Post Newspaper April 14, 1980 Publication says the President was shot three times in the head by band of soldiers who broke into the Executive Mansion at 1a.m.
But one thing that is crystal clears those responsible for your death both domestic and their foreign conspirators are living with blemish conscience in mind. Happy Birthday Mr. President as we celebrate your 107 Birth Anniversary Posthumously.