The rice and rights riot: social struggle and the quest for an alternative society in Liberia

By Alfred P. B. Kiadii

Flash Back: The rice riot in Monrovia 1979

40 years ago Monrovia erupted. The masses of ordinary Liberians, students, workers—people considered by the power elite as slaves—took to the streets to have their names etched in the global history of struggle and resistance. The sheer heroism, the revolutionary vigilance and the daring courage of this unfortunate mass to tear off the yoke of domination, deprivation, and dispossession didn’t pass without the utter brutality and criminal bloodletting of the alienated Liberian ruling clique against the defenceless protesters.

Like all ruling classes whose privilege, wealth and power are built on the exploitation and repression of the masses of the people, the degenerate regime responded with savage violence, brute force, and an appalling form of counter-revolutionary terror on the ordinary people whose quest was to be treated simply as human beings and wanted a dignified existence. It did not matter how many ordinary Liberians perished under its jackboot and crude bullets insofar as the regime kept its grips on power.

Like all backward regimes whose power is not derived from the consent and support of the Liberian masses, the Tolbert regime wasted and splattered the bloods of the defenceless and unarmed people who only charge for being eliminated was their call for a new politics and alternative society in which they will leapfrog from the state of prehistory and enter the era of quantum transformation where collective participation will be corralled for the construction of an inclusive society which offers decency, honesty and dignity. This was the dream which found resonance with the people, but created panic in the psyche of the ruling clique.

There are attempts by purblind revisionists of the degenerate True Whig Party (TWP) to distort the significance of this day, rehabilitee those who presided over not only the dismemberment of the society, but also the slaughtering of students and the tribal masses and tuned the vicious aggressors into historical victims. Similarly, there are strides by certain media poison-pens to paint the revolutionary upsurge of the people as a conspiracy by certain elements who brainwashed them and orchestrated the protest action. These anti-people media mercenaries have not realized that for once the tribal people understood their power that they could change their status when they act as a class for itself. They don’t realize that it is the people realizing their strength and embolden by indignity who can alter the historical trajectory and push the society into a new era.

Our duty is not to buy into the fabrication dripping from the pens of historical falsifiers who see the people as cannon fodders and don’t understand the contours to analyse the people’s movement upon the scene of history. The aim of this piece is to analyse why April 14, 1979 happened: the social context, the national oppression of the tribal masses and their relegation to the status of second-class citizens, the international context which pushed the people to act, and the provision of quotes from anti-colonial scholar-activists and radical pan-Africanist intellectuals who analysed the Liberian society and exposed the polarity of master and slaves between the settlers, and the tribal masses respectively. Also, attempts will be made to unearth the contradictions between the forces of production and social relations of production, how wealth was appropriated, as it is the base which determines the character of the superstructure in a society.  In short, the politics of that era was principally determined by the mode of production interacting with the social relations of production.

April 14, 1979 indicates the society was at the nodal point of ferment, thus revolution was placed on the order of the day.  All over the people wanted revolution, they wanted transformation, and they wanted liberation. This was loud in Monrovia, as it was deafening in the countryside, as it was implacable everywhere. Here the masses of the people were defying myths, mystifications and the old taboos that sustained the asymmetrical power relations.  The divine rights of the maximum leader was challenged and discarded as a form historical anachronism.

But the conditions that gave rise to a peak in the consciousness of the tribal majority  and led them to the ultimate social outburst can be explicitly found in the fact that the society was organized in the way where the coming in of foreign capital uprooted the masses from their villages where they were engaged in subsistence and pushed them forward in the mines and plantations to serve as serfs and slaves for the creation of surplus value for the multinationals, while the local bourgeoisie became the “veranda boys” of international capital and created a system of control  where the majority stock was denied the rights to economic equality, participation in the political process of the state in terms of voting, seeking redress, and ensuring that  persons representing them were subjected to an electoral rigour where they the ordinary masses  would vote and  participate in the daily affairs of governance.

While the masses of the people grunted and agonized about those historical injustices, spokespersons of the system treated them with derision, making it appear as though inequality and domination were natural occurrences and not a product of man’s exploitation by other man. Such viewpoint was the promotion of the Liberian variant of that racial prejudice which posits that certain races are inferior to the others and thus must be treated as animals. The True Whig Party ruling clique holds as its ideology the subservient inferiority of the tribal masses:  they were backward and suffer genetic deficiency which made them “hewers of woods and drawers of water” for the settler ruling class.

Meanwhile, it has being argued in progressive circles that it is the forces of production which determines the social relations of production, and the latter determines the economic base of society, thus the make-up of the superstructure: the dominant ideology, politics, and social institutions.  Mass uprisings such as the April 14 protest must be understood within the context of the interpenetrate relations between the base and the superstructure. On the front of the superstructure, one must pay serious attention to the dominant ideology, politics and social actors that shaped the event that led to such outcome.  On the other hand, the base digs deep into the social relations of production, the deep-rooted imbalances that created the antagonistic contradiction beneath the surface which pushed the people into action to sweep away the clique which held them in bondage.

It must be noted that regarding the rice and rights demonstration, the ideological underpinning in part underline the popular discontent against the backward ruling clique, the system of domination, deprivation and alienation. However, the basic exigency for the explosion can be found in the wholesale economic exploitation of the tribal masses upon which the state was sustained—the rampant poverty, mindless exploitation of the people—enforced by the violent pillars of the neo-colonial state: the police and the army.

The superstructural content of the struggle highlights it as the mass resistance of the tribal people in the streets against vices that weighed them down, while the base presents it as the boiled over of popular anger of the people against the running dogs of imperialism in the Liberian ruling class and its imperialist patron which used the labor of the tribal masses to produce wealth and give them pittance in return.

In the last analysis, the nature of the uprising and the social forces which participated in it can be understood from the reality that while the people produced wealth on the plantations and in the mines, it was privately appropriated and owned by a fingerful of monopolies, while repression was sustained by the paid juniors (the national bourgeoisie) on behalf of its masters to keep the tribal masses and their vanguard under repression. Therein was the root cause of the social eruption. The clear meaning of the event can also be seen in the contradiction in the relations and forces of production and the outrageous tendency of grotesque accumulation.

By asserting that the economic base is the motor force of social development in no way indicates it is the singular factor that engenders social uprisings and attendant development. Neither is it an attempt to exclusively reduce the repertoire of vices that push the masses into battle against the moribund True Whig Party  to economism. Very clearly it must be asserted that it was the sum total of complex contradictions of which the economic question became the central and principal contradictions that made the streets to burst into flame.  It would be foolhardy to discuss the era of the True Whig Party without shedding light on the character of the armed defenders of the state, the nature of the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the role of the masonic craft, the family, the church, and the propaganda that sustained the domination of the ruling clique. The base and the superstructure ought to be analysed together, while the superstructure emerges out of the base but it is the superstructure which replies to the base and reinforces it.

While the falsifiers of history and defenders of the old order would have us believe the myopic formulation that, the radicalization of the once docile tribal masses, their eventual upsurge, and  stampede into history were the orchestration of certain individuals who enmeshed themselves into ‘foreign ideology’ and brainwashed the people into taking to the streets.

This bankrupt claim is farfetched and ahistorical. On the contrary, it was the contradictions emanating from the internal character of the society which pushed the people into mass resistance. Without such contradictions the subjective actors would play no decisive role. Simply put, objective realties give rise to the subjective actors, but real revolution happen when the people engage in real life struggle to challenge their backward lot and put the quest for new society on the front burner.

The reason for their upsurge cannot be found in vulgar abstraction but rather its inevitability must be understood from the vantage point of how the society was organized, where the people lived, what was produced, and who appropriated what was produced. It must be emphasized that the event of April 14, 1979 was a product of a developing trend. Of course, subjective factors played a role not in terms of inventing the event but serving as catalyst, but the real reason why the event happened can be found within the internal, antagonistic contradictions in the society.

Less we forget, the iron law of social change in a class-divided society holds that it is the contradiction in production which leads to social explosion. It goes further to point out that in a class society besotted by antagonistic contradictions, where wealth which is socially owned is diverted as the natural preserve of a ruling minority, it is only mass resistance which alters the balance of forces and change such social dynamics and usher in a new era. It goes without saying that fundamental social change which alters the power matrix in society, the world over, in most instances, has been a battle between two contending classes of dissimilar class interests. However, where we are and how far the nation has come in light of the gains, setbacks, frustration and disappointment is a proof that society doesn’t move on a linear progression. The class struggle has one of two outcomes—‘’either in the revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruins of the contending classes.”’

Word situation and politics of linkage

By the 1950s and going forward to the late 70s, globally, imperialism was on the retreat and in decline, as from Vietnam to India, to Ghana, to Nigeria, and to China peoples of the third world  were deciding their own fate in struggling for a new era. The Soviet Union emerged and challenged US hegemony, providing a safety valve and support for the emergence of an alternative formation against the imperialist triad of Western Europe, Japan and the United States of America. The Chinese Revolution had ensued and was fast undergoing consolidation through the Cultural Revolution. The independence of India from the brutal hands of British exploitation has been achieved, and in the same era the Korean Revolution was in full force. There were the decisive defeats of the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the subsequent defeat of the US on the battlefield of Vietnam in 1975. The Bandung Conference happened in 1955, and by 1961 the Nonaligned Movement was formed  with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; Jawaharlal Nehru of India; and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia all being active voices in the decolonisation movement and thus putting the quest for an alternative order on the cards.

Similarly in Latin America, the peoples of Cuba, led in the vanguard by the 26th of July Movement came into history after a difficult struggle of revolutionary violence against the ancien regime. The campesinos were liberated from the landlords, marking the end of the misrule of the American-backed dictator in Fulgencio Batista, and setting the stage for a new era of decency, inclusion and popular participation—a people’s era. Also, between 1968- 79 Nicaragua had turned the corner, and the discredited Samosa dictatorship was crushed by the Sandinista, and the formation of a new era, new consciousness, and the era of the common masses started in earnest.

Also, as imperialism was been punctured from every corner in the global South. It countered some popular processes with ferocious violence through its local collaborators. Imperialism showed the stuff it was made of when the popular experiments in Iran and Guatemala were aborted by the US, Britain, and their local allies.  In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown simply because the state initiated a policy where foreign monopolies owning large holdings of underdeveloped land would give back to the state for redistribution to the Guatemalan peasants. In 1953, the government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown. His crime was that he moved to nationalize the Iranian oil sector with the expressed objective of using the proceeds generated from the sale of oil to change the appalling conditions of the Iranian masses.

By the late 1950s going forward to the early 80s, Africa became the hotbed of revolutionary agitations and the expression of popular energies. Years of docility and quietude were replaced by periods of struggles and resistance, while spaces of colonial domination were transformed to battlefields for anti-colonialism. The upsurge of anti-colonial struggles became the clarion call of the African masses, infecting the continent like an epidemic—you could hear the drumbeat against colonialism in the Maghreb, so was it loud in West, Central and East Africa. There were independence of Ghana in 1957, of Guinea in 1958, of Algeria in 1962, of Mozambique in 1975, and of Nigeria in 1960. The amplification of the pressure against the Apartheid regime by the popular forces in South Africa which the regime responded to with savage violence, and was most gruesomely expressed in the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960 and the subsequent hecatomb of innocent students in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. In the 1950s in Egypt, the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the subsequent nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and his promotion of radical Arab nationalism colored with Pan-Africanism as opposed to Islamic fundamentalism; the struggle of the FLN in Algeria against French Colonialism on the battlefields in the Southern Atlas Mountain, Algiers, etc.; the armed struggle of the Kenyan peasants in the Mau Mau against British plunder, land grab, and colonialism.

Being in the global South and situated in a continent where ordinary people were tearing apart decadent colonial regimes, challenging hegemonic ideas, calling for a new nationalism and an era for the flourishing of the people and the building of a cohesive society where the masses of the people will take prominence and centre stage over the clique, class and tribe, one must link the April 14 uprising of the Liberian masses to the struggles against domination and colonial exploitation in the Global South—from Sharpeville to Soweto, to New Delhi, to Havana, to Managua, to Accra, to Conakry, Lagos, to Algiers, to Luanda, and to Port of Spain. Against the background of struggles against global oppression in the Global South, Liberia, too, was part of the upsurge of revolutionary energy against oppression, domination and exploitation. The international class struggle didn’t only catalyse the Liberian toilers, but made them to interrogate their own national oppression and inspire them to take actions to alter the trajectory. It emboldened them to call for a new era of the rule of the masses of the people, putting forward a demand which didn’t resonate with the moribund clique, as it was stuck in the past and suffered from the pang of historical inertia. Those world events inspired the Liberian masses, led by their conscious vanguard, to challenge the status quo on April 14, 1979.

National Contradictions and repressions

The Hut Tax—alienated from the people the backward elites instituted something called the hut tax system, where the masses of the people in the countryside eking out the soil for survival and living on the margins of the society were compelled to pay hut tax in the amount of 20 dollars. Although it was the draconian law that each hut should pay 20 dollars, but the overzealous tax collectors and elements of the instruments of repressions shifted the goal post from each hut paying 20 dollars to each person. Natives who couldn’t afford were severally brutalized and mercilessly beaten.

This was a regressive tax regime which sustained itself over the tribal majority through repression. It can be likened to the Liberian variant of the contradiction of no taxation without representation and a case of servitude and suppression. Taxes were squeezed out of the dominated masses in exchange for nothing and nothing they got. The funds collected from them lined the pockets and supported the profligate extravagance of the ruling clique.

Fernando Po Crisis—the enslavement of the masses of tribal group on the island of Fernando Po and French Gabon to waste in plantation and do hard labor. While the people were exploited and repressed in the country, their slave-trading by elements of the ruling clique brought to light yet another egregious form of exploitation not in the homeland but overseas to work on plantations and serve the interests of the French and Spaniard in Africa. When some of the captives put up resistance, they were visited with the worst form of violence by the Liberia Frontier Force. However, to maintain this sordid enterprise, elements of the ruling clique bought certain tribal chiefs who aided and abetted them in rounding up the masses of the tribal stock for export to French Gabon and Fernando Po.

Rally time—another form of illegal taxation imposed on the people. A hoax under the cover of raising money from the wretched masses to fund development projects. According to the Tolbert government, the tax was meant to be voluntary, tax collectors pressurized the urban poor and the rural dwellers to pay the tax, at least ten dollars a person. Just as similar tactic used by the regime to collect due of the True Whig Party from civil servants and the government without their consent. The rally time tax was forced out of the people. Resistance was countered with state violence.

Fake treason trial, murder and imprisonment for time indefinite of political prisoners— in 1968, true to his grand wizardry, the reactionary William V.S. Tubman recalled Liberia’s Ambassador to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in Du Fahnbulleh. When he came home, a frivolous charge of sedition was labelled against him, among other documents put out by the government to the public was that the devoted Muslim had written three documents with the expressed objectives of wanting to overthrow the government: that he allegedly wrote a letter to the Israeli ambassador describing the Liberian government as “a feudal, fascist regime, Americo-Liberian ruled state, persecuting her aborigines to abject serfdom under  cow-dung unification policy’’; the second document was another copy of the same letter sent to the then American Ambassador in Ben Hill Brown, and that “secret memorandum, allegedly written by Mr. Fahnbulleh, outlining a plan to organize an underground movement for “educating the ‘sons of the soil’ of the exploitation being skilfully practiced against them by the Chief of State through the scheming Open Door Policy…This secret memorandum, it was claimed, provided for the introduction of at least ten Communist Chinese experts into Liberia to start the underground movement, as well as a plan for finding jobs in the country for several other foreigners of purported leftist sympathies who would promote the movement.’’

David Coleman and his son were slaughtered in cold blood in Klay. Didwho Twe was expelled from the House of Representatives for sedition simply because he agitated for the dignity and rights of the tribal majority. He contested the election against Tubman in 1952 and was forced to flee into exile prior to the election when it was established that William V. S. Tubman wanted to bump him off. S. Raymond Horace, Sr. met a terrible fate as well. Nete Sie Brownell was stripped naked and paraded on the streets in his underclothes.

Prof. Dew Mayson was kicked out of the then Cuttington College on frivolities claims simply because his method and style of critical scholarship that related theories to the social realities of the students, which made them to start interrogating their environment, irritated the establishment. In the same vein, Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh was also dismissed from the faculty of the University simply because the regime felt he was a “dangerous radical” who was teaching foreign ideology to the students.

What the TWP regime considered as foreign ideology was critical scholarship, and what they termed as brainwashing was consciousness building. But to the extent of the rot in the society, university campuses were not immune from the bestiality and repression of the government. So that university campuses were not a terrain for the exchange of ideas but an area for  packaging students who will promote and support the system of domination and exploitation.

Popular mobilization and the pressure from below

Citizens of Liberia in Defence of Albert Porte (COLIDAP)—The very venerable and luminary Albert Porte, a voice of defiance and resistance, was harassed, intimated and abused for exercising his right to speak freely against historical injustices and patent plunder of the people’s resources. He was wrongfully sued for “vicious libel” for exposing the malfeasance and duplicity of the then finance minister in Stephen A Tolbert. Against the charge of the government against the pamphleteer, the masses of the people organized themselves under the banner of COLIDAP to ensure that Porte’s rights were protected and they went a step further by raising funds to pay his legal fees.

Interestingly, it all happened when the luminary Porte penned an article called “Gobbling Business.” In it he exposed how Stephen A Tolbert, the head of the Mesurado Group of Companies and Finance Minister, used public office for private gains. The gentleman pamphleteer went a step further and gave several convincing pieces of evidence on how the minister would use very tricky ploy through tax manipulations to run companies dry in order to buy them. This irritated the establishment and they subjected the patriot to public condemnation. On top of it, while he was taken to court on a frivolous charge of “vicious libel”, elements of the judiciary were all out condemning him. In fact, Chief Justice James A.A Pierre had written a legal brief for the lawyer of his son-in-law in Stephen A. Tolbert. The whole trial was a scandalous farce and one could predict the outcome before it all ended. As it was expected, Porte was issued a guilty verdict.

While the elites condemned Porte, ordinary masses and honest Liberians rallied in his defence. A slew of popular mobilization was done to corral the support of the people and raise funds for his legal fees to be paid. When the people were called upon, ordinary marketers, peasant farmers, taxi drivers, students, progressive teachers rallied support in cash and solidarity for him. One of such popular fund raising efforts was done in Gbarnga City where market women brought their last nickel and dime. Some, in their broken English, confirmed the injustices Porte had been writing about.

There is this very appalling elitist view that the people are an illiterate mob unable to think simply because they don’t have the blessing of formal education. This view holds that because they don’t have such education it is difficult for the people to struggle against social inequality and injustice. While events in countries around the world such as the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which was essentially a peasant revolution, and even the Mau Mau uprising defeated such bankrupt narrative. The COLIDAP popular organizing placed a monkey wrench into the whole diabolical lie. Ordinary Liberians commended Porte and others for standing up to historical injustices and the criminal machinations of the Monrovia power structure. Some in tears, others in broken English, others in their languages, came out and said to Porte and others you are us and we are you. You represent us so we support you. We will spend our last dime to ensure you get a legal team to represent you. This was a novelty. It was a sign of the end, but hubris is short-sighted so the moribund regime could not see beyond.

Sawyer for Mayor (1979) (although it happened after the rice riot but it is instructive for analysing the mood in the society) — in 1979, Dr. Amos C. Sawyer decided to contest for the position of city mayor of Monrovia. Two key reasons he sought to take the challenge: to expose the farce of election as the True Whig Party had no mechanism for free and fair elections, but only a system for massive vote rigging; and secondly, it was an effort geared at popular mobilization of the mass of the masses of the people against the property clause and educating them about their rights as citizens and their obligations to the republic.

In meeting the objectives, the organizers of his campaign drew a team of progressives from broad sections of the population, including soccer stars, student leaders, progressive teachers, and workers of places like LAMCO, Yekepa, Nimba County. Sawyer had the support of the progressive groups and including the dominated masses. Some in the civil service had assured him that they would vote for him but didn’t want to come public with their support in order to not lose their jobs.

Fearing defeat and seeing mass resistance and popular support from below for Sawyer, the regime cancelled the election. In fact, even Stephen Horton, the brother of Chuchu Horton who was contesting against Sawyer, saw through the scheme and landed support to the progressive teacher.

Protest literature and liberating stanzas

As it is known, when people are oppressed, new terrains of agitation will be sought by the masses to expose their hatred for an order which dominates them—its crude policies and its lack of scruples and interests in building an inclusive polity. As university campuses became liberated zones, so did emancipatory literature and stanzas start to flourish and proliferate. While some students communicated in prose, few acted dramas, and while others took to poetry to expose their disgust. All was done in an effort to put up an intensified resistance and show total resentment for the regime and its hangers-on.

It would be instructive to point out that protest literature became a formidable trend in the global South during the heydays of the anti-colonial struggles and fight against national exploitation, and minority rule. Progressive writers in the homeland rode on the crest of that popular resistance in the global South. For instance, if it were not David Diop with his poem Freedom, Wole Soyinka came forward with his very penetrating poem “A Dance of the Forest and with his The Man Died; Camara Laye came shouting with his book The African Child; so did Chinua Achebe with Things for Apart; Sembene Ousmane came forward with God’s Bits of Wood; Peter Abraham submitted Tell Freedom; and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put forward Petals of Blood. Aimé Césaire and Leopold Sedhar Senghor formed Negritude to appreciate and promote blackness. The former produced Discourse on Colonialism while the later wrote many poems with the most prominent being Black Woman.

Under such tradition in the 1970s, the students of the University of Liberia and the then Cuttington College organized their news outlets to deal with the contradictions in the society, proffering brilliant analyses against societal menaces, and offering solutions to the complex task of national transformation. The former with the Revelation and the latter had the Cuttington Echo. This was the trend in Africa. Progressive students came out with news organs to speak against the vices of colonialism, exploitation and domination. For instance, the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) at the University of Dar es Salaam organized its new organ called Cheche (Kiswahili for the Spark), coming out with very interesting analyses about struggles and resistance. So this ferment struck a chord with students at the University of Liberia and the then Cuttington College.

In the 1970s, the University of Liberia and Cuttington College were in revolutionary and political ferment, thus becoming the citadels of revolutionary activities and energies. From sites of packaging, reproducing and spitting out hegemonic ideas, the two terrains of academia became centres of anti-hegemonic ideas. Student leaders began to question, debunk, and demystify hegemonic ideas and proffered viable alternatives. It was in this moment that students started to produce articles on very interesting subjects, categories and formations about happenings in the global South and homeland. This intellectual current emboldened the students, thus inspiring them to produce devastating polemics as well as interesting pieces.

Following this trend, the so-called slaves were prepared to explore new openings of resistance to break their chains, to defiantly fight against domination, to dismantle the system which kept them in servitude and backwardness. Songs of freedom were sung. So did yearning for an egalitarian society. The questioning of their despicable conditions were the new normal. They shouted out the pangs of pain of a brutalized people, but defiantly fighting. It was an era of revolutionary ferment for a new social order. Here the masses were expressing themselves through their representatives and among their vanguard stratum. They were rejecting the false labels and slanders. Obscurantism, mystifications and lies were debunked and discarded. Critiques, criticisms and condemnations of the status quo took centre stage.

Under this ferment Joe Wylie emerged with his combat poems and frank rebuke of the system of domination and exploitation. To paraphrase Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, the era in Liberia was not just one of dispossession, exploitation and deprivation, but a period of struggle and resistance. So Wylie was pushed forward on the historical stage by the ferment of the period. Inspired by this trend, he wrote two poems debunking Tolbert’s myth of the Liberian children being precious jewels. SO Wylie asked: I am I a precious Jewel? Tolbert and the system he represented refused to respond to him. Still not satisfied with the apparent reticence of Tolbert, Wylie came back with another query, connecting the sufferings of the Liberian masses with the oppressed Africans of South Africa under the vicious apartheid system, and with all dominated peoples in the world, drawing a nexus between Liberia and South Africa, but heralding a broad theme. He shouted to high heavens with another protest poem in Like My brothers in Soweto! Yet the system ignored him.

Under this liberating current, other students came with very fascinating prose. If it were not G. Marcus Gbobeh opening up with Black Renascence, H. Jaimwoina Stewart whispered Hard Time, Wiwi Davies Debbah blasted If We have to Struggle, and Abraham Mitchell pondered In Search of an Ideology: ‘Humanistic’ Capitalism or Socialism. So the students themselves started to question their society.

Those were expressions of defiance from a new society which was shaking itself off from the decadence of the old society. It was students engaging in the battle of ideas calling for a new national order. The students spoke, but the system didn’t listen. They condemned, but the system played indifference. They presented blueprints for the new Liberia, arrogance and pride consumed the ruling elite. As the battle of ideas precedes the battle at the barricades. So after writing and speaking without redress, April 14, 1979 occurred.



The tragedy of the rule of the Americo-Liberians is that it was expected as people who have suffered persecution, lynching, slavery and all forms of violence that human ingenuity could devise would thrust them to establish a nation and integrate their brethren they met back home in establishing a society of oneness and common purpose. Sadly, when they returned home, they initiated a rule of conquest, voracious expansion and vicious control like overlords in their private fiefdoms, while the people were the modern equivalents of serfs living in conditions of servitude, indignity, and backwardness. Like in Apartheid South Africa, five percent of the population continuously dominated, exploited, and repressed 95 percent of the population.

William R. Tolbert was a contradictory figure. He behaved as a frontline general in the Nonaligned Movement but ardently supported the CIA-backed UNITA against the legitimate MPLA in Angola. He violated the 1969 Lusaka Manifesto of the OAU, which among other things stated that before the apartheid regime reached out to other African countries for diplomatic collaboration, it must first seek dialogue with the ANC which was fighting against minority rule in South Africa. He would go from not only violating that sacred manifesto that all independent African countries acceded to, to inviting John Vorster, one of the main architects of apartheid on Liberian soil, simply because Tolbert fancied himself wining the Nobel Peace Prize if he were to initiative a phony dialogue between Vorster and the ANC. Ahmed Sekou Toure and others took aback by the dangerous game Tolbert was playing. Tolbert presided over a system of backwardness and exclusion on the home front. A system of privilege, wealth and power for the minority, but exclusion for the majority.

Equally important, it would be instructive for us to point out that the superstructural institutions that maintained and justified the hold of the True Whig Party in power were in three forms: the Masonic Craft, elitist social formations, and close-knit family relations predicated upon membership by birth or marriage into the clique. Like every indolent ruling clique, this was the way the True Whig Party governed the republic, monopolized privilege in the political, social and economic realms and at the same time promoted an artificial improvisation or the co-optation of certain sons and daughters of the tribal people to present the farce that their leadership encompassed the tribal majority. It must be noted that such move was not based on an honest effort at inclusion but was intended to churn out such delusion and provide a simulacrum of legitimacy of the regime by the dominated masses. It goes without saying this narrow individualism and co-optation of tribal chiefs in the state bureaucracy created a short-lived respite, but it was not enough to save the wretched regime from falling. The contradictions of the emphasis on the individuals to the exclusion and utter neglect of the group sapped the process of creating a nation and such antagonistic contradictions led to the uprising of April 14, 1979, which was, not by design but as a matter of historical analysis—a dress rehearsal—for the coup of April 12, 1980.

Meanwhile, April 14, 1979 was not merely about rice but rights and injustice. It was an explosion of the accumulated and antagonistic contradictions. If anything, in a more terse way, one can say it was a rupture of the masses of the people in a way to tell those upstarts and elites that they couldn’t govern in the same old way—in the way of the minority. An expression of defiance and a chance for the regime to recalibrate. No, the rot had pervaded every pore of the ancien regime, it could not help itself because historical impotence had created a senile sclerosis that could only be addressed by the regime abdicating power. This was the condition of the state when April 12, 1980 occurred. To put it more analytically, April 14, 1979 and April 12, 1980 were historical necessities that expressed themselves through accidents.  The reasons the two events happened can be found though an objective analysis of the Liberian society, the retrograde social structure, and its backward instruments of socialization. It is the internal tendencies in the phenomenon acting upon it which alters its content. The rice and rights uprising and the epochal April coup marked two critical nodal stages of change in the history of the country.

Economic inequality pervaded the republic and the tribal majority was on the receiving end of such morass. It was poverty, stagnation and paralysis for them, while wealth, power and privilege rested on the laps of the Americo-Liberians. The regime was this corrosive African national bourgeoisie which had no economic power, alienated from the people while exuded hubris. However, it formed a close-knit ties with imperialism in order to maintain its domination over the people. The economic character of the country saw the domination of American monopolies at the highest stratum, Middle Eastern business people and few Americo-Liberians were at the middle layer. Some members of the tribal majority commenced businesses, but they ran into bankruptcy because of lack of political connections. In this matrix, the state served as the guarantor of bourgeois property. Its armed defenders—the police and the Frontier Force—were the key pillars of maintaining its rule.

Here we invite the anti-colonialist fighter and one of the greatest of his era and the writer of “Pan-Africanism or Communism” in George Padmore to describe the Liberian national bourgeoisie and its link to imperialism: “The conditions of the black toilers, workers and peasants in these countries are equally as intolerable as those we have already described in the colonies of imperialism. This is especially so in Liberia, where the toiling masses are exploited not only by foreign capitalist but the native bourgeoisie, known as Americo-Liberians, have reduced the indigenous population to the status of chattel slaves in their own interests as well as of American imperialists (Firestone Company).”

  1. E. B Dubious has something to say about the conditions of servitude, backwardness and violence among the masses of the tribal people during the era of the misrule of the Americo-Liberians: “The League of Nations appointed a committee, headed by Dr. Cuthbert Christy, an Englishman. A colored American, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, appointed by President Hoover, and the grand old man, the Honourable Arthur Barclay, one of the finest products of Liberia, were the other two members. On the whole it was thorough and frank. The Commission made a careful investigation and proved that domestic slavery existed among the more primitive Liberian tribes; that there was pawning of children; and especially that laborers were recruited among the tribes and sent out of the country to the French colony of Gabon and to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po. Military force had been used, and President King, Vice-President Yancy and some other officials were involved in the accusations of profit-sharing from the proceeds of this slave trade.”

It was against such terrible conditions that the mass, revolutionary ferment of the 1970s and the later coup of April 12, 1980 against the decrepit, discredited, and ancien regime of the True Whig Party gained popular support among the masses of the people. The alienated people expressed joy at the toppling of the regime and its removal from the stage of history. For the vestiges of the old order, the masses of the people celebrated an event which destabilized the country and set it on the path of implosion. If that is not an absurd platitude from quislings of an order which wreaked havoc, national exclusion and institutionalized violence on a defenceless people , then this writer doesn’t know what is, as the people were not only celebrating the fall of the regime but also the system that reinforced and supported it. Of course, such joy was short-lived because the process of transformation was hijacked as insatiable greed, tribal strife and other vices that are fetters on progress aborted the experiment. In earnest, the fall of the degenerate regime ended the process of the dismemberment of the republic, the abolishment of a caste system-like republic, and marked the period of the expression of the people in national life.

What is to be done?

forty years ago the dominated masses of the people burst upon the scene of history to assert their rights to be heard, with unshakable courage and firm resistance to stand up to the discredited ruling elite, as the conscious vanguard called them to take to the streets in affirming their sovereign rights; 40 years after the people are faced with the same historical albatross, however, at a qualitative higher level;  confronted with the same repression, squalor and wanton poverty, the people’s fight back will be with the same resistance, resoluteness, and tenacity against the aggression of the CDC clique.

Unemployment, poverty and squalor are the implacable features of the society, while children in upcountry don rags and discarded clothes sent to them from the urban centres. Broad layers of the people are becoming victims of starvation. The pangs of inequality, inflation and economic deprivation encroach on the Liberian masses with fierce vengeance. So that these contradictions are pushing up grumbling and growing resentment among the people against the regime and its ill-fated polices that are geared at benefiting a clique as opposed to the people in their collectivity.

President Weah has become a rentier property owner from the butchery of public funds and national resources. National coffers have been emptied, the national reserve has been plundered from US$ 154 million to US $19 million. The revenue of the country has turned into a slush fund to achieve the president’s pet project and  his wet dream of political vengeance against progressive social forces who stand on the side of the people, demanding a new patriotism and commitment to a common cause for social equality and economic equity for the ruled people.

In this situation of hunger, squalor and deprivation for the masses, the economic vultures at the helm of the republic are increasing their wholesale exploitation of the masses and their resources at the same time looking for new terrains and means to exploit all in the hope of competing the sordid task of illegal accumulation. The fetishes of display, the knack for pomp and pageantry, the restless impatience for gentrification, a situation of assets stripping, the growing quest to tear apart their inferiority internalized in their collective psyche by donning gaudy costumes such as the Gucci apparel, Salvatore Ferragamo shoes and stashing their many foreign bank accounts with the people’s money are the main features of the bankrupt regime which was birthed with a negative birthmark of the rigging type.

There is a decline in national leadership so it is with the fall in national output. Exceedingly worrying is also the attempt at reversal of the gains attained by all those involved in the April 14, 1979 demonstration. Virulent assaults have been initiated against basic freedoms and organization with elementary semblance of decency in the public service. High rise in crime and the increased lawlessness in the society, with gang groups sprouting up in the communities, as the regime uses paramilitary groups to hound conscious actors.

Against these very terrible conditions, there is a growing ferment in the country. Some would say the spectre of April 14, 1979 is haunting the republic. The masses are becoming restless—their vanguard are also taking criticism of national decadence to new levels. However, while they proffer popular demands, it is a bit nebulous and lack focus in terms of the objectives. It is instructive to put out the caveat that in order for the struggle to meet the ultimate objective a revolutionary organization with a revolutionary vanguard with revolutionary tactic and strategies and with revolutionary programmes ought to lead the process with the people.

We say the people in history never change. They support a regime because they feel through it they can attain progressive development for themselves and for their children. They would withdraw their support and express indignation when they notice the regime has eaten its words and failed to live up to the commitment of building an inclusive society. Certain sections of the people who have always constituted the approximately 30 percent vote stock of the CDC are abandoning ship. This says much about the people’s support to a regime is not immutable. Due to the growing inequality, their support is fast vanishing with ferocious vengeance never before seen in our history, far from what the conscious vanguard had predicted. Weeks ago, a fingerful of them who converged on the headquarters of the party are drawing appropriate conclusions. From euphoria and vivacity before the CDC assume state power to grimaces and crestfallen faces after fourteen months of the coalition at the helm of leadership. This 360 degree turn is as a result of the misrule and many scandals that have inundated the regime, as the antagonistic contradictions keep multiplying and amplifying their illusions in Weah are withering away.

A phase of the massive displaying of revolutionary energies. Different formations, interests groups, and the students are in the forefront of political organizing, while certain lawmakers have become radical and militants and have thrown themselves into revolutionary activities against social inequality. The Council of Patriots has emerged under this revolutionary current of  mass ferment, preparing a nationwide protest for June 7, while the student, led in the vanguard by its most authentic voice of defiance in the Student Unification Party, has launched an unprecedented ‘’ Weah step down campaign.” Revolutionaries and conscious actors must study the movement of history and ensure this whirlwind of change which will sweep away the CDC clique does not end up with the emergence of another clique of counter-revolutionary rogues holding the republic hostage. Today more than ever before, now more than any other time, social revolution must be placed on the cards. Thomas Sankara knew a society gripped in decades of decadence and backwardness can only achieve social emancipation when social revolution occur: he knew so better:  “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future”

Alfred P. B. Kiadii writes from Accra, Ghana, and can be reached at

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