African governance, Americo - Liberians, Bongo family Gabon, CSIS Africa Note, J. Gus Liebenow, Liberia 1985 election, Liberia civil war, Liberia PRC, Mauritania, military rule in Africa, Monrovia, Samuel Doe, Togo dictatorship
In my last review of a CSIS monthly Africa note (a fascinating historical trove of newsletters), I commended the author of a 1983 piece on Zimbabwe for presciently identifying many of the issues that continue to dominate Zimbabwe’s political landscape. I cannot say that the author of a piece on Liberia’s prospects for a return to civilian rule in the same year exhibited as much foresight.
I have never been particularly fond of the author of the piece, J. Gus Liebenow. His work, Liberia: The Evolution of Privilege, is a seminal academic text on Liberia. However, I feel that his critical take on the Liberian ruling class, a group descended from black Americans, completely ignores the institutional racism that they faced for well over a century of independence (I expound on this here).
My distaste for his positions continue with this article. Obviously pleased with the overthrow of Liberia’s traditional ruling class, Liebenow celebrates the early years of President Samuel Doe’s administration in this CSIS piece. He says that the violence of the coup “cannot be condoned, it can be explained.” Doe, who was widely criticized for his complete intellectual and political ineptitude, is praised by Liebenow, who relays the attributions of unnamed observers “who are impressed with the manner in which he has literally frown with the job” (perhaps they mean his weight?).
He also praises Doe’s transitional PRC government for its ongoing work to transform Liberia’s symbols of nationhood, including discarding the national motto, ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’ (which only applies to Americo – Liberians). As I wrote following a trip to Monrovia, it does not appear to me that any of this work came to fruition and the motto still stands.
Most annoyingly, Liebenow waffles on the main question at hand – Liberia’s prospects for a return to civilian rule. He commends Liberia’s military rulers for “moving to honor [their] pledge to restore civilian rule.” He adds that it is reasonable to think that the military will return to the barracks following the 1985 general election (which was held). Yet Liebenow also relays evidence indicating that it would not be surprising if Doe declared his candidacy for the Presidency (presumably wearing a nominally civilian hat).
As most readers will know, Doe won the 1985 elections (widely seen as being rigged) and enjoyed almost 5 more years of increasingly autocratic rule, the last 9 months of which were dominated by a brutal civil war before he was captured and slaughtered by an adversary who is know a Liberian senator.
If the international community had been more willing to stand up to Doe in 1985, perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. I would have liked for Liebenow to have set that tone in this piece. Unfortunately, things have not progressed much in three decades. In Mauritania, a senior general overthrew the head of state in 2008 and after winning an election, is now considered a democratically elected leader. In Gabon and Togo, the sons of longstanding presidents subverted the constitutional process (in 2005 and 2009 respectively) and continue their family’s legacies as the incumbent heads of state. The two families have ruled their countries for a combined 100+ years.