IN THE PANTHEON OF GREAT AFRICAN LEADERS
By RICHARD V. TOLBERT at WRT Education Endowment Fund launch, 2009.
In the Book of Ecclesiaticus, Chapter 44, also known as the Apocrypha, it is written:
45:1 Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
44:2 The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
44:3 Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
44:4 Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions
44:5 Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
44:6 Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:
44:7 All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
44:8 There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.
44:9 And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born, and their children after them.
44:10 But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
44:11 With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.
44:12 Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.
44:13 Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.
44:14 Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.
44:15 The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.”
Another writer, Conrad Aiken, said more briefly:
“How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead; the great man humbled the haughty brought to dust?”
May 13, 2009 marks what would have been the 96th birth anniversary of Liberia’s 19th President and my uncle, the late Dr. William Richard Tolbert, Jr. and I am indeed honored to be able to say a few words on this occasion in his memory.
I am proud and humbled to be called upon to say a few words in memory someone who I consider to have been not only a great Liberian Leader but also by any object historical standard a great African Leader.
But in order to truly appreciate the life of a man, one must begin from his beginning.
William Richard Tolbert, Jr., my uncle and younger brother of my father Frank Emmanuel Tolbert, was the third child born unto the union of William Richard Tolbert, Sr. and Charlotte Augusta Hoff. He was born in the rural Montserrado town then called Bensonville on May 13, 1913. (For those who are superstitious or have a belief in numerology that date is highly significant if for nothing else than the double conjunction of the number 13).
His father, William Richard Tolbert, Sr. had migrated to Liberia in 1878 from the United States as a young boy of 9 with President Tolbert’s grandfather, Daniel Frank Tolbert. Daniel Frank Tolbert was among a group of some 206 Black South Carolinians who after the American civil war decided to return to their African homeland. They formed a group called the African Exodus Association, purchased their own ship called the Azor and sailed back to Liberia from Charleston in April 1878. President Tolbert’s mother, Charlotte Augusta Hoff was a part of the Hoff family of Cape Mount.
The township of Bensonville was at the time of Willie Tolbert’s birth a small rural settlement of just a few dozen houses on the banks of the St. Paul River without even a main road to Monrovia. People travelled to Monrovia by boat or on horseback. President Tolbert’s father, Daniel Frank Tolbert, although a so-called “settler” had fully integrated himself into the local indigenous society, speaking Kpelle fluently, joining traditional organizations like the Poro Society and taking on several wives by customary marriage. He reportedly had over 50 children.
This was the world into which young Willie Tolbert or “Willie Loung” as he was called locally grew up.
Willie Tolbert was by all accounts a precocious child and according to the book “Tolbert of Liberia” written in 1975 by William Sankawolo, he could recite the 23rd Psalm by the age of 3 or 4 before he could even read.
He started life in a devout Christian household where the day started with prayers at 5:30 A.M. and ended with scripture lessons at nightfall. He walked like most children to school each day and learned the value of hard work fetching water from the creek early each morning, planting coffee and harvesting rice and palm kernels on his father’s farm.
On Sundays he attended Zion Praise Baptist Church in Bensonville with his family where his father was Chairman of the Deacon Board. At the age of 5 he started school at the Government Elementary School in Bensonville and after completing his elementary schooling he was enrolled at Crummell Hall, a boarding school in Clay Ashland, for secondary schooling. After secondary school, young William enrolled at Liberia College (now the University of Liberia) where he graduated summa cum laude at the age of 21 as valedictorian of his class.
His valedictorian speech in 1934 is a masterpiece of any age, most of all a speech by a young African boy in a country at that time without electricity, running water, radio, television or even cars. Among the most memorable quotes of his speech he said: “If Liberia is to be preserved, if she is to bask in the sunshine of national prosperity and always be able to dictate her own policies, the widening stratum of ignorance in the country must be up-rooted. A premium must be placed on education, for it alone promises national salvation.”
This emphasis on education as the core necessity for national development is a theme that would live with William Tolbert for the rest of his life and a theme which bears repeating even more so in today’s Liberia.
But this recognition of the importance of education was not the only far-sighted insight of this young 21 year old’s remarkable valedictorian speech. He quoted great philosophers from Cicero to Socrates from Francis Bacon to Robert Owen and he spoke in both prose and poetry, quoting Latin and Greek!
He even made scientific predictions which few in America or Europe at the time could have imagined, predicting advances in science such as space and time travel:
“In tracing the advancement of man, his first stage of progress was that of supine security as that found in the plants, the second was a period in which he allowed himself to be controlled by his instinct, and the third stage on which he is now acting, is that of thought and intelligence. Assurance is his now that acting well on the stage, he will realize his hopes and ambitions. He will say to space “be annililated” and to time “be no more”; and they shall obey his voice”!
He spoke of scientific developments such as the telegraph, the telephone, the steam engine, x-ray, the telephone, the steam engine, radio, air travel and record players even though few of these things existed in Liberia at that time. He spoke of great scientists such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham, Bell, H.G. Wells, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Whitney, Leuwenhoeck, Morse, Stevenson and Tycho Brache! How many of us today, graduates of some of the great universities in the world, can even say who some of those men were?
He philosophized: “Man in his ignorant state is contented to know nothing, to do nothing, to have nothing and consequently to be nothing; but the man whose faculties have been thoroughly developed yearns and longs to explore the universe”.
He said: “The greatest part to this democracy, which we are fond and proud to boast of, lies in the illiteracy of the Liberian youth”. How prescient.
He praised his teachers whose dedication he said in Latin was “Non honoribus sed laboribus”. (“Not honor but labor”).
He quoted the poet Browning who said “He who putteth his hand to the plow and turneth back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven”. And of course he quoted the Great Book, the Bible, which throughout his life would be his lodestar by saying somewhat prophetically: “He who wears the crown must first bear a cross”.
He ended with an appeal to civics that would apply throughout his life with these words: “May we stand out as beacon lights in whatever community we may reside and let the vibrations from us illuminate the dark corners of the soul of some forlorn brothers. Let us remember that along with rights there are duties, along with liberty there are responsibilities and along with privileges there are obligations”. Wow!What profound words and insights from the mouth of a 21 year old in Africa at the height of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It is little wonder that he would go on to become the great man that he became.
After graduation, it is said that the older William Tolbert’s preferred profession for his young son William somewhat presciently was the military but instead the mild mannered young Willie decided to go into Government civil service.
Thus in 1934, young William entered the Treasury Department (now called Ministry of Finance) as a clerk in the Bureau of General Supplies. His promotions came quickly due to his dedication and zeal and within just 2 years he rose to become Disbursing Officer for the Government of Liberia, a position he held without blemish until 1943 when at the age 30 he was elected member of the House of Representatives for Montserrado County. (On May 12, 1936 at the age of 23 he married Victoria David of Cape Mount to whom he remained married for 44 years until his death and by whom he had 8 accomplished children).
In 1943, the same year that William Tolbert was elected to the legislature, the hotly contested presidential contest took place to succeed President Edwin Barclay, whose third and last term of office was due to expire in January 1944.
The main candidates on the True Whig Party Ticket were Clarence L. Simpson, Sr., Secretary of State and William V.S. Tubman, Sr., the upstart Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from Maryland County. The two other principle contenders were Senator David Coleman of the Unit Whig Party and rubber magnate James Cooper of the Democratic Party.
The race was stiff and at times contentious but in the end the South- Easterner William V.S. Tubman prevailed, some say with the crucial support of William Tolbert, Sr., then Chairman of the True Whig Party and Father of William Richard Tolbert, Jr.
In the same year 1943 that William V.S. Tubman was elected to the Presidency for the first time, William Tolbert, Jr., was elected to the House of Representatives in an election that was to foretell something of his future political character.
William Tolbert’s father was Chairman of the True Whig Party and member of the House for Montserrado and at the age of 74 he was due for retirement. The position by tradition should have been filled by his eldest son, Frank Tolbert, but instead the second son Willie threw himself into the race against the wishes of his father, his older brother and the Party. Young Willie ran a modern aggressive campaign canvassing throughout the district and won the position contrary to all expectations. This was an example of the true metal that lay hidden inside young Willie Tolbert below his soft affable exterior.
In the legislature young Willie Tolbert proved to be progressive and almost radical for his day. During his first term he sponsored over 400 resolutions and pieces of legislation including a bill calling for women’s right to vote. During the 1943 Presidential convention Tubman had recommended that women be given the right to vote but this was rejected by the True Whig Party Platform. After his election, President Tubman submitted this proposal to the National legislature and it was Representative William Tolbert, Jr., who sponsored the bill. The National Executive of the True Whig party met to consider censuring the new administration for violating a decision of the Convention but with the active support of young Willie Tolbert the Women Suffrage Bill was passed in 1947, giving women the right to vote for the first time in Liberia’s history exactly 100 years after the founding of the Republic.
Perhaps this was the beginning of the unlikely political bond between the garrulous Tubman and the self-effacing Tolbert. In any event in 1945 President Tubman sent the young representative William Tolbert as his personal representative to the Inauguration of the new American President Harry S. Truman. And in 1945 Representative Tolbert was sent as a special Advisor to the Liberian Delegation to the newly created United nations General Assembly.
At the end of Tubman’s first 8 year term in 1952, his Vice-President C.L. Simpson, Sr. stepped down and President Tubman selected a popular young man from Careysburg named Benjamin G. Freeman to be his running mate. However, before inauguration day B.G. Freeman died suddenly and in his place President William Tubman selected as his new running mate the young 39 year old dynamic Representative from Careysburg District, William Richard Tolbert Jr.
(There are some who say to this day that this was a political payback for the older Tolbert backing Tubman at a crucial moment during the hotly contested True Whig party Convention of 1943 when the Old Man as Chairman of the Party brought down the gavel on Tubman’s nomination before any other challengers could be nominated!)
It is also said that Tubman originally wanted to pick Chairman Tolbert’s older son Frank as his running mate but was persuaded to select the mild mannered Willie as a second in command over the more temperamental Frank Tolbert. Who knows how history might have turned out had he made the other choice …..
Thus was began a remarkable political marriage between the Tolberts and Tubman that was to last for 19 unbroken years until President Tubman’s death in 1971. A marriage not only in figurative political terms but in real blood terms as President Tubman’s eldest son Shad Tubman was to later marry Vice President Tolbert’s beautiful daughter Wokie.
Despite what some say was a friction between Vice-President Tolbert and President Tubman during those 19 long years, one of the finest tributes to Dr.Tolbert was made by President Tubman who said of his able Lieutenant:
“It is a fitting tribute to him to say that throughout all these years, I have had no single occasion to become restless, restive, anxious, apprehensive or uncertain about his course or conduct. He has always been a man with a singleness of purpose, a deep conviction for justice and fair play, and a man of guarded ambition. Just as he has served the church with profound dedication and with a high sense of moral responsibility to his duty conceived in the best tradition of his Master, the Christ, so has he served the State unselfishly and has sought constantly not his own interest but the welfare of the State and its people”.
During President Tubman’s first term in office from 1944-1952, he had built his administration around two principle themes: An Open Door to foreign investment and National Unification of all the peoples of Liberia. These were fairly progressive policies in their day and Representative Tolbert strongly supported President Tubman on these critical policies which some within the old-guard establishment of Liberian society regarded as somewhat radical.
During President Tubman’s second term in office from 1952 – 1960 he gave his Vice-President William Tolbert increasing power and scope, particularly in representing him in international fora especially since Tubman disliked air travel. Vice President Tolbert represented President Tubman at the historic coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second in 1952 and at the State funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1962 and it was at many of these prestigious gatherings that Tolbert developed the international contacts that would later serve him well when he rose to the highest office in his country.
In 1957, Vice President Tolbert was host in Liberia to his American counter-part Richard M. Nixon thus starting a relationship that would last until Nixon became President of the United States.
His perseverance and patience for 19 sometimes trying years as No. 2 to such a daunting personality as President William V.S. Tubman was again testament to William Tolbert’s political will and sagacity.During those years, Vice President Tolbert also proved his Statesmanship on the international scene when in 1965 he was elected Spiritual Head of the 30 million Baptists around the world as President of the World Baptist Alliance. This was no mean feat for a black man at that time, let alone a man who was also Vice President of his country, a major farmer, active businessman and practicing pastor of his home Church, Zion Praise Baptist Church in Bentol.
President Tolbert believed in leadership by example and his vast agricultural holdings included 800 acres of rubber farm in Gbalatua, Bong County as well as 600 acres of coffee, 500 acres of cocoa, 1000 acres of oil palm and 500 acres of bananas and oranges in Todee and Bensonville. (He believed in leadership by example putting into personal action his agricultural and entrepreneurial policies and setting the example by “Deeds not Words”).
He invested heavily also in real estate also, owning some 100 pieces of property at the time of his death in 1980. But one of his best investments was perhaps the $5,000 loan he gave to his younger brother Stephen Tolbert to start the Mesurado Fishing Company in 1955. Twenty-five years later with Steve’s financial genius and “midas touch” that $5,000 investment had grown into a $50 million business empire, Liberia’s largest indigenous owned enterprise still to this day, employing over 6,000 persons and spanning several countries.
The Tolbert family had always prided itself on its credo of self-reliance and William Tolbert’s desire for financial independence was ingrained in him from his earliest days by his Father, William Richard Tolbert, Sr., who was a wealthy self-made man long before his son William ascended into polities.
(A 1921 article on the Kpelle tribe of Liberia by Westerman speaks of a “noble, prosperous Kpelle speaking businessman named Willie Tolbert who had businesses (and wives) from Bensonville to Bopolu”).
When President William V.S. Tubman died at the age of 75 in a London clinic on July 23, 1971 Vice President William Richard Tolbert, Jr., was suddenly thrust into the Presidency. His ascension however was not without intrigue as some within the True Whig oligarchy sought to use the momentary vacuum created by Tubman’s death to grab the Presidency unconstitutionally. Nevertheless, saner heads prevailed and Vice President Tolbert was sworn into office as Liberia’s 19th President in the same short-sleeve casual safari suit he had been wearing that day on his way to his farm at Bellefanai.
That small but significant sartorial change in attire from the customary “Top Hat and Tail Coat” of the Tubman years to the more casual but practical “Swear-in-Suit” of the Tolbert years was to symbolically characterize many of the changes that President Tolbert would try to usher in. He earned the nickname “Speedy” for the impatient manner in which he wanted changes and policies implemented without delay. He developed new concepts for poverty alleviation captured in simple slogans such as “Mats to Mattress”, “Total Involvement for Higher Heights”, “Rally Time” and a “Wholesome Functioning Society”.
When Tolbert assumed the highest office in the land in 1971 he hit the ground running, fully prepared for the mantle of leadership with a vision formed by almost 2 decades of watching and waiting, interacting with some of the greatest political leaders in the world from Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy to Emperor Haile Selassie, Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikwe, Sekou Toure, Siaka Stevens, Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, Kenneth Kaunda, Jomo Kenyetta and the list goes on and on.
One of his first actions that greatly pleased many in the populace was to dissolve the notorious PRO or Public Relations Officer system which had even members of the same family reporting each other to the security services for the slightest perceived disloyalty to the Tubman regime. Due to this and other abuses which he witnessed and personally experienced at the hands of the security apparatus during his years as Vice President, President Tolbert would always remain somewhat skeptical about the value of security services, perhaps to his detriment, up to the time of the coup of 1980.
He re-activated the Civil Service Bureau which had been in limbo and introduced a merit system as opposed to the patronage system as a basis for hiring and promotion in government service.
He tackled head on the country’s educational system which had been the target of his valedictorian speech at Liberia College in 1934 by first waving tuition fees in all public schools up to the secondary level, then making government responsible for 50% of the cost of college tuition and subsidies for text books at Cuttington and LU.
He began the construction of a new campus for the University of Liberia moving it from Monrovia to Fendall so as to allow a greater number of students from all strata of society to enter university rather than just the elite 250 or so to which LU permitted entrance at the time.
Recognizing the critical role of youth in national development whom he affectionately called his “Precious Jewels”, President Tolbert lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.He summed up his vision for the nation in the goal of creating a Wholesome Functioning Society which he defined as a “Society where merit, not favoritism, productivity not influence and connection; selflessness, not selfish individualism form the criteria for real distinction” i.e. the kind of meritocracy as opposed to where there was equal opportunity for all, that has produced the great gains in societies such as America.
Most of all, President Tolbert sought to address the constant ” sycophancy and dependency syndrome” that had dogged Liberia for decades, a pernicious debilitating system wherein everyone felt they could get “something for nothing” simply by begging for a handout instead of hard work and personal sacrifice.
This attempt to wean Liberians off the dependency syndrome of the Tubman years which was built on Tolbert’s own personal credo of hard work and self reliance would not go down well with most Liberians who had been spoiled by the Tubmanic system of patronage and free-handouts. Of course, these hand-outs were not in reality free: they were merely a generous leader personally doling out what belonged to the people. Nevertheless this emphasis on “teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish” earned Tolbert an undeserved reputation for “stinginess” as opposed to Tubman’s beloved “free-handedness”. But essentially Tolbert’s self-help philosophy was also an attempt to impose transparency in public fiscal management as there was no accountability in a system where a leader could put his hand into the public Treasury at will and take out what he pleased to supposedly “give” to the people.
On the local scene President Tolbert created a whole new Government Agency, the Ministry of Action for Development and Progress in order to implement critically needed infrastructure projects throughout the countries.
He proposed the establishment of a General Services Agency to replace the Special commission for Government Operation, Institute of Public Administration and Bureau of General supplies, all of whom were doing essentially the same thing.
He also replaced the system of having Paramount and Clan Chiefs extort money from their people by putting all Paramount and Clan Chiefs on Government payroll for the first time.
And in the all important Agricultural sector, beside the personal example he set as a successful farmer, he created an annual award of $10,000 (probably more like $50,000 in today’s terms) for the best rice farmer in the country.
Of course it was this emphasis on self-sufficiency particularly in our staple food rice production, that would later be the spark that lit the fuse of fire that led to the downfall of the Tolbert administration. But more about that another day.
Like his Father before him, Tolbert was fluent in traditional African dialect and in his first inaugural address, in January 1972 he addressed the Liberian people in Kpelle, the first Liberian leader to do so in the nation’s 125 year history.
One of his first acts to acquaint himself with the real living conditions of the people upon assuming the Presidency was to go and spend a night in the slum of West Point. Out of that experience, he got a first hand appreciation of the need for decent and affordable houses for the Liberian people.
Recognizing the critical need for affordable housing for the masses to reduce the gap between the “haves and have nots”, President Tolbert constructed thousands of low cost housing units in Gardnersville, Barnersville, Matadi, Cabral Estates, New Georgia and Stephen Tolbert Estates.
Understanding the importance of a vibrant capital market, Tolbert and the Horton family had in 1955 started the first indigenous Liberian owned Bank, the Bank of Liberia, which would later become one of the top 3 banks in Liberia with Chemical Bank of the USA as a partner.
In order to stimulate capital flow into the Agricultural, Housing and priority development sectors in general he established essential Development Finance Institutions such as the National Housing Bank, Agricultural Bank and Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI).
On the international stage President Tolbert showed himself no less proficient in the art of masterful diplomacy. With his many travels prior to assuming the Presidency (Sankawolo says he visited over 30 countries and travelled over 200,000 miles away from home as President of the Baptist World Alliance alone) he soon established an enviable record of achievements on the world stage to match his domestic accomplishments.
But announcing a new, unprecedented and perhaps ultimately costly direction of independence in Liberia’s foreign policy he said in his first Inaugural Speech upon assuming office in 1972: “In Liberia, we waltz to no foreign rhythm of flirtations expediency”.
He became a champion of the non-Aligned Movement after addressing the Non-Aligned Conference in Algiers in 1973, a radical and perhaps controversial shift in Liberia’s foreign policy given Liberia’s historical leaning towards the West in the cold war East-West struggle.
Also in 1973 President Tolbert severed diplomatic Relations with Israel over Israel’s non-compliance with UN Resolution 242 calling for Israel’s withdrawal from all Arab territories following the Israeli/Arab war. This one decision may have been of his most costly foreign policy decisions, given Israel’s enormous financial and lobbying power especially in the United States.
On the regional level, Presidents Tolbert and Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone signed the Mano River Accord in October 1973 creating the Mano River Union which was later to be joined by Guinea. He was also instrumental in personally bringing together Presidents Sekou Toure of Guinea and Houphet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, both of whom were close personal friends of President Tolbert but who had been bitter rivals for years.
In 1974, as the world was shaken by an oil embargo imposed by the Arab Oil Producing states and the price of petroleum shot up on the world market, President Tolbert went on a tour of Arab countries to assure supplies for Liberia starting with Algeria, then going on to Saudi Arabia and ending in Libya where he established a new $12 million Joint Holding Company with the Libyan Government in which Liberia had a 50% equity stake.
Going on to the United Nations for a Special Session the UN had called on the oil crisis, President Tolbert delivered one of the most fiery speeches of his administration in which predicted that “unless the great disparity between the haves and the have nots was alleviated mankind would never be able to enjoy the benefits of international peace”. He also rejected the philosophy of Social Darwinism or the survival of the fittest which was at the core of the capitalist system and proposed his own economic philosophy in a book entitled “Capitalistic Humanism”. And he called the wealth of the seas the “common heritage of mankind” rather than the exclusive property of the first nation or company to discover it.
These ideas and many of his policies, although mild by today’s standards were seen in some quarters as almost heresy, especially for a leader of Liberia which had always traditionally towed the Western and especially American line in all matters of international relations.
Perhaps even more controversially, President Tolbert established diplomatic relations with many countries of the Eastern Bloc including Rumania, China and Russia long before America did at a time when even courting socialist countries was seen as a dangerous direct betrayal to Western interests.
And on the subcontinent, President Tolbert carried his Pan-Africanist beliefs into practical reality by providing sanctuary and financial support to a number of revolutionary liberation and anti apartheid leaders from Nelson Mandela’s ANC in South Africa to Robert Mugabe’s ZANU in Zimbabwe and Sam Njoma’s SWAPO of South West Africa. So much for the mild mannered Baptist Preacher from up-river!
Although many of these new initiatives did not go down well with some of Liberia’s traditional “friends” they resonated well with others on the international scene who saw in this Liberian leader a real African Statesman.
Thus in 1974, Dr. Tolbert was awarded the prestigious Family of Man Award, the first African or Third World leader ever to be awarded this award which had in previous year been given to 4 American presidents, John D. Rockefeller, and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In his acceptance speech, (prefaced by me in Christine Norman’s anthology of her Father’s speeches called “It is Time for Change), Dr. Tolbert’s emphasis as always was on improving the conditions of the bottom half of mankind.
He even talked about redistribution of the world’s wealth through a “New World Economic Order”, truly revolutionary talk in the cold war era from a Third World leader, especially one from a country traditionally beholden to the status quo.
And in a profound recognition of the commonality and universality of all mankind and their aspirations he said:
“We believe in the testimony of the soul: Man is one name belonging to every nation upon the earth, that in them all is one soul though many tongues and different colors, that (while) every country has its own language, yet the subjects of which the untutored souls speak are the same everywhere”.
There indeed was the societal ideal of the Philosopher King and he was one of our own – a Liberian.
In 1976 President Tolbert was one of the few African Leaders invited to attend America’s Bicentennial celebrations and in 1979 President Jimmy Carter a close friend and fellow Baptist Preacher made a state visit to Liberia, only the second American President ever to set foot on Liberian soil.
In a dramatic speech to the Cabinet in 1976 he declared: “I have discerned enemies infiltrating through the length and breadth of our country and if something is not done to subdue them, our very existence as a nation will be impaired and undermined. Accordingly I find myself in a position in which I have no alternative but to declare war on those enemies …. The enemies of this country to whom I refer are: Ignorance, disease and Poverty!”
His outstanding contributions to Africa in general and Liberia in particular were recognized in 1978 when he was unanimously elected Chairman of the Organization of African Union. And in 1979 Liberia hosted the Annual Meeting of the OAU at the specially constructed OAU Village in lower Virginia.
He extended his progressive beliefs not only beyond the shores of Liberia where it might have been relatively safe to project radical views but brought his democratic beliefs home to Liberia with consequences that some might say led to his own demise.
As the revolutionary spirit of the sixties transferred over to the 1970’s Liberians saw the formation of political movements such as the so-called Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), so-called Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and so-called Progressive People’s Party (PPP) which called for dramatic changes in the socio-political fabric of our nation. Some were formed off-shore in America and some internally but in either event rather than take the hard line approach of squashing these movements as advocated by some within the ruling elite and most of his brother African leaders, Tolbert decided that Reform was preferable to revolution.
He therefore allowed the formation of opposition political parties for the first time in decades in Liberia, protected freedom of the Press and encouraged his young critics such as Gabriel Bachus Matthews and Charles Macarther Taylor to come home and see for themselves what the realities of his development agenda were all about.
In 1974 he proposed a Referendum limiting the Presidential term to 8 years and in his nationwide address prior to the General Elections of 1975 he declared that whether the Referendum passed or note, he would not seek reelection after his 8 year term expired in 1983.
Many within his own ruling class saw these progressive reformist actions as signs of weakness rather than progress and thus began to weaken the system from within at the same time as enemies from without were attacking it.
There are some who say that the death of president Tolbert’s brilliant and rich younger brother Stephen Tolbert in a plane crash in May 1975 was the beginning of the unraveling of Tolbert’s strong grip over the reins of power.
I do not necessarily believe so. Perhaps as another brave brother of his, Senate Pro Temp Frank E. Tolbert said in the face of his own death: “Such were the times and such were the conditions”.
Of course as we all know from history, these dreams and good intentions clashed with harsh political realities when on April 14, 1979 his opponents organized a rally in protest against the sound policy recommendation by the Agriculture Minister for an increase in the price of rice which would have encouraged more local rice production. This demonstration got out of hand leading to the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators as the army which was sent to control the demonstration went out of control and led the nation in its first ever orgy of looting.
Almost 12 months later to the day on April 12, 1980 the same army realizing perhaps that the civilian government was a paper tiger without claws staged the first military coup in Liberia’s 150 year history and assassinated the President at the door to his bedroom. The rest, as we all know, is history which is yet perhaps too fresh for some of us to delve into.
But I cannot let today pass without making one final comment.
April 12, 2010 will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of this Great Patriot of Liberia and yea Africa. And where lays his remains? Unmarked, unrecognized in a common mass grave somewhere on Center Street in Monrovia. Is this the African Tradition? Is this the Christian way? Can Liberia be at peace as long as this final injustice is unresolved? I leave it to your conscience.
Incidentally, I must give credit to the Bryant Administration which in 2005 on the 25th Anniversary of the coup and the April 22 executions extended an official apology to the family of Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. and families of the 13 Tolbert government officials executed on April 22, 1980. This was a truly courageous right step in the direction of national healing and reconciliation.
Having said all of the good things that I have said about the late President, it would not be fair if I did not hasten to add that Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. was by no means a saint. He was a mere mortal like all of us, imperfect in many ways not the least of which was perhaps like many of us in matters of the flesh and his weakness for the “softer sex”.
Nevertheless, having studied and observed this man up close it is my strong personal conviction (which others are free to dispute) that he was on balance a great human being and visionary Liberian Leader who did far more good in his life for this country and the betterment of mankind than his unceremonious death and burial merit.
In the words of President Olusengun Obasanjo of Nigeria: “Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. ranks in the same category as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia in the pantheon of great African leaders”.
As a politician he had his failings, particularly some might say his soft-heartedness and indecisiveness in the face of direct threat this was perhaps due to the clash of his religious and political principles. Another weakness was perhaps an under appreciation of the machinations of international politics, particularly in the cold war era which led to the possible involvement of international hands in his overthrow and death.
Yet with all these short comings, perhaps his greatest spiritual and political achievement in my opinion was that he never knowingly shed human blood for his own personal political survival, even when he knew his own life was in panic. (The coup was no surprise to Willie Tolbert anymore that it was to any of us).
Rather I believe he had such a strong belief in Destiny that he was prepared to go down in history as a sacrificial Lamb. He certainly did not fear death for as a Great Man of Faith he believed unquestionably as it is written in Second Corinthians, Chapter 5, verse 8: “To be absent from the Body is to be present with the Lord”. What he never in his wildest dreams suspected though was that with the death of the Lamb, there would also come the slaughter of almost his entire family, class and eventually a large number of the people.
May His Soul Rest In Peace.
I cannot close without giving thanks to James King and the organizers of the William R. Tolbert Intellectual Discourse and Education Endowment Fund who on their own decided to organize this Program. Well done.
Dr. Richard V. Tolbert
National Investment Commission of Liberia
May 26, 2009 – firstname.lastname@example.org, www.nic.gov.lr