Integration and National Unification

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 15

Liberia technically began as a colony of the American Colonisation Society (ACS) in 1822. Created with the assistance of the United States government, Liberia became the home of ‘free’ Afro-Americans willing to flee the oppression of slavery and racism, and Africans who had been rescued from slave ships following the abolition of slavery in several western nations - these Africans are generally referred to as ‘Recaptives’.

Between 1822 and 1906, thousands of ‘New World Africans’, mostly aided by the ACS, settled in Liberia on land obtained by the ACS or the Liberian government from local African chiefs.

With the volume of people emigrating to Liberia, more land was needed for farming, trade and infrastructure. Faced with competition from the colonial exploits of the British and French, the Americo-Liberians greatly expanded Liberia’s territory.

This expanded territory encompassed Americo-Liberian and Recaptive settlements, as well as the territories of indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Vai, Dei, Bassa, Kru and Grebo by the coast; and the Gola, Kissi, Bandi, Kpele, Loma and Mandingo further inland.

Americo-Liberians practised a principally western culture in their lifestyle, use of the English language, political institutions, private acquisition of land, and their adherence to Christianity.

The indigenous Africans were Traditionalists or Muslims, spoke their own languages, and held land communally. Their villages were governed by chiefs and elders assisted by socio-political organisations like the poro (for men) and sande (for women).

Although the value of western education was appreciated, some elders opposed the propagation of Christianity and other forms of interference with their laws and customs.

The Americo-Liberian political system was modelled after the United States with a Congress, House of Representatives, a Senate, and a President and Vice-President who were elected every other year by the people. This political system was also similar to its United States counterpart in its alienation of certain sects of society, in this case, the indigenous Africans who were largely left out of the political discourse.

The main indigenous African representation in the Americo-Liberian government from 1875 consisted of African chiefs who were designated as ‘delegates’ once their chiefdoms had paid an annual ‘delegates fee’ of $100 (the equivalent of approximately $2500 today). The government maintained tight political control over Liberia by restricting the political participation of indigenous Africans, even those who were western educated.

Delegates, often through an interpreter, were permitted only to speak up on so-called ethnic matters. Delegates were also not allowed to vote, and as such, had very little influence on government policy.

In addition to limiting political influence, the Americo-Liberian government also imposed restrictions on trade. In 1839, the government restricted foreign merchants to trade at only six Americo-Liberian ports of entry. This arrangement created deep resentment among indigenous Africans who had formerly controlled the external trade and levied the duties.

At various times during the nineteenth century, the Vai, Kru and Grebo of the Liberian coast took up armed resistance against the Americo-Liberian impositions on their trade.

It was only during the presidency of William V. S. Tubman (1944-1971) that reforms were introduced to give the wider indigenous African population something resembling equal rights with the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous African elites who had assimilated to the western way of life.

President Tubman pursued a policy of integration and national unification, with the primary objective of eliminating the centuries-old enmity between the Americo-Liberian oligarchy and the indigenous mass of people.

In his own words:

“We must destroy all ideologies that tend to divide us. Americo-Liberianism must be forgotten and all of us must register a new era of justice, equality, fair dealing and equal opportunity for every one from every part of the country, regardless of tribe, clan, element, creed or economic status.”