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Liberia in 1944-1980

When William V. S. Tubman (1944-1971) succeeded to the presidency, he inherited a country which was no longer threatened with political obliteration by external powers. The value of its historic ties with the United States (including a dependent economic system) was questioned, and a somewhat tranquil relationship existed with indigenous Liberians despite the persistence of problems. The touchstones of Tubman's new approach were: an unreserved embrace of the Western countries in their East/West power conflict; advocacy, with little reservation, of an Open Door Policy for foreign economic involvement in development; and the pursuit of National Unification through accelerated assimilation of indigenous Liberians into the mainstream of an essentially repatriate-created society.
By a legislative act of 1963, a major administrative reorganization was effected, surpassing in scope and impact the establishment of the three provinces. A year later, Liberia was divided into nine counties - the original five coastal counties (including the four territories, to which were subsequently added Bomi and Gibi) - and the four new interior counties of Lofa, Bong, Nimba and Grand Gedeh. With this development, the Liberian state was undertaking a major stride toward the removal of the distinctions between the coast and interior, a process (not simply an event) leading to greater national integration among various ethnic groups.
The legacy of the past lingers, however, reflecting differences in the level and quality of formal education and the accompanying changes in lifestyle and worldview as between inhabitants of the old coast and the old interior. Even though not more than 20 percent of the national population of 2.6 million is lettered, an increasing number of Liberia's youth is clamoring for literacy and formal education. Such opportunities, once focused on the coastal areas, began making inroads into the interior in the 1960s.
Although Liberia, along with other developing nations, was the beneficiary of phenomenal economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not accompanied by adequate human development and equity. The vote was extended to women and men who were of indigenous background providing in theory for universal suffrage, but a restrictive property clause was maintained. Administrative improvements in the interior were effected, culminating in the 1964 transformation of the old hinterland provinces to county status. But it must be added that these major internal political reforms only brought representational parity between the about 30,000 repatriates and the one million indigenes. However, the historic economic ascendancy of the repatriates and the absolute political power by the presidency remained.
In July 1971, Vice President William R. Tolbert, Jr. inherited the presidency on Tubman's death (apparently of natural causes at the age of 75). Having survived 19 years as Tubman's vice president, a vantage point which exposed him to the public, his accession to power was received with mixed feelings. Yet the apparently widespread perception of Vice President Tolbert as lacking in political savvy momentarily gave way to a general disposition to cooperate with the "President by constitutional succession" as he began outlining his plans for "a new breed of Liberians" and self-reliance for the realization of a "Wholesome Functioning Society."
When Tolbert became president, he appeared to embrace economic growth with social, economic and political equity: a shift from export-oriented development activity to balanced investment in agriculture, education, health and labor-intensive projects, as well as decentralized planning to meet the needs of specific sectors and regions. Achievement of these objectives required strong and committed political and administrative support, and Tolbert sought the expertise of an emerging Liberian technocratic class (with an important indigenous component), along with the political acquiescence of the traditional ruling elite. The hope entertained was twofold: that the technocratic class (in tune with the real needs of Liberia as well as African development) would translate the strategy into policies which would spell real development, and that the traditional ruling elite would support the effort "on pragmatic grounds" (that is, if they were assured of the diversion of a tolerable degree of development funds to "special interests," and/or if they recognized the pressure from emerging populist political movements).
Tolbert's leadership style produced conflicting signals so that, initially at least, all elements vying for power counted on him for maximum support. The old politicians had hoped that his progressive pronouncements were confined to the rhetorical, and that the "imperatives" of political stability (that is, the status quo) would supersede all else. But the new politicians seemed to have accepted his populist rhetoric as sincere declarations of intent and proceeded, in many instances, to act concretely thereupon. Prominent among these were the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the Liberian National Student Union (LINSU). In this atmosphere of political tension, Tolbert displayed indecision while making common cause with "African progressives" and thus possibly alienating the United States without assurance of a compensatory international relationship. This indecisiveness rendered him a virtual political recluse at the center of a raging political storm.
Reprinted from Historical Dictionary of Liberia: 2nd Edition By D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan & Carl Patrick Burrowes. Scarecrow Press, 2001.Used by Permission
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