Friday, November 15, 2013

Duke Ellington's Liberian Suite: The Real Liberia

Never forget that Ellington was commissioned to write The Liberian Suite by the government of Liberia in commemoration of the 100th anniversary celebration of Liberian independence, and he (as described in the above liner notes) obviously visualized Liberia through the lens of its ruling minority.  But there is a very strong argument to be made that most of the men and women living in Liberia at that time, though deprived of the ballot in Liberian elections, would have painted a very different picture of their nation from the one that the elites who commissioned Ellington's composition conveyed to the maestro. Here, then, is the rest of the story, courtesy Martin Meredith in his comprehensive treatise on the last fifty years of African post-colonial history, The Fate Of Africa:

“In his book Journey Without Maps, an account of his travels in Liberia in the 1930s, the English writer Graham Greene recorded that 'Liberian politics were like a crap game played with loaded dice'. It was a game that Liberia's ruling elite – the descendants of some 300 black settler families from the United States who set up an independent republic in 1847 – played among themselves with considerable relish. For more than 100 years – from 1877 to 1980 – Liberia was governed under a one-party system in which the same party, the True Whig Party, controlled by the same elite group, held office continuously, dispensing patronage, deciding on public appointments and retaining a monopoly on power – a record equalled by no other political party anywhere in the world. Elections were nevertheless taken seriously, if only to determine which family – the Barclays, the Kings, the Tubmans – emerged on top. 'The curious thing about a Liberian election campaign,' wrote Greene, 'is that, although the result is always a foregone conclusion, everyone behaves as if the votes and the speeches and the pamphlets matter.' However, he added, the system was more complicated than it seemed. 'It may be all a question of cash and printing presses and armed police, but things have to be done with an air. Crudity as far as possible is avoided.'1

“As members of a ruling aristocracy, the Americo-Liberians, as they called themselves, were immensely proud of their American heritage. They developed a lifestyle reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and masonic lodges. They built houses with pillared porches, gabled roofs and dormer windows resembling the nineteenth-century architectural styles of Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas. They chose as a national flag a replica of the American Stars and Stripes, with a single star, and used the American dollar as legal tender.

“Just like white settlers in Africa, the Americo-Liberians constructed a colonial system subjugating the indigenous population to rigid control2 and concentrating wealth and privilege in their own hands. Despite their origins as descendants of slaves from the Deep South, they regarded black Liberians as an inferior race, fit only for exploitation. The nadir of Americo-Liberian rule came in 1931 when an international commission found senior government officials guilty of involvement in organised slavery.

“When other West African states shed colonial rule in the 1960s, the Liberian system stayed much the same. Liberian law stipulated that only property owners were entitled to the vote, so the vast majority of indigenous Africans were effectively left without one. Small numbers were assimilated into the ranks of the ruling elite: 'country boys' adopted by coastal3 families; girls selected as wives or concubines, ambitious 'hinterlanders' climbing the ladder. During the 1970s a few were co-opted into government. Local administration in the 'hinterland' was largely run by indigenous officials.4 But essentially Liberia remained an oligarchy where 1 per cent of the population controlled the rest – some 2 million people.5

“The last in the line of Americo-Liberian presidents was William Tolbert, the grandson of freed South Carolina slaves who had served as vice-president for twenty years. A Baptist minister, he attempted a series of cautious reforms, abandoning the top hat and tail-coat traditions favoured by his predecessor, William Tubman, selling the presidential yacht and abolishing a compulsory 'tithe' of 10 per cent of every government employee's salary that went to the True Whig Party. But much of Tolbert's efforts were also devoted to amassing a personal fortune and promoting the interests of family members in the traditional manner. One brother was appointed minister of finance; another was chosen as president of the senate; a son-in-law served as minister of defence; other relatives filled posts as ministers, ambassadors and presidential aides. The crap game of Liberian politics was as highly profitable in the 1970s as in the 1930s.

. . .

“Liberia's economic advances . . . served only to highlight the growing disparity between the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich elite and the overwhelming majority of impoverished tribal Africans. In 1979 – the same year that Tolbert spent an amount equivalent to half the national budget while acting as host to an [Organization for African Unity] heads of state conference – demonstrators took to the streets in protest against a 50 per cent increase in the price of rice, the staple food of most Liberians. The price increase had been authorised by Tolbert in the hope of encouraging local production. But since one of the chief beneficiaries was the president's cousin, Daniel Tolbert, who owned the country's largest rice-importing firm, it was seen as another move to enrich the elite. On Tolbert's orders armed police and troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens of them.

“In the following months Tolbert struggled to contain a rising tide of discontent, colliding not just with the poor but with a new generation of the educated elite. He allowed the formation of an opposition party, but when opposition politicians called for a general strike, he had them arrested on charges of treason and sedition and banned the party.6

“On the night of 12 April 1980 a group of seventeen dissident soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe, scaled the iron gate of the president's seven-storey Executive Mansion, over-powered the guards and found Tolbert in his pyjamas in an upstairs bedroom. They fired three bullets into his head, gouged out his right eye and disembowelled him. His body was dumped in a mass grave along with twenty-seven others who died defending the palace. Ministers and officials were rounded up, taken before a military tribunal and sentenced to death.

“Amid much jubilation, watched by a crowd of thousands laughing and jeering and filmed by camera crews, thirteen high-ranking officials were tied to telephone poles on a beach in Monrovia and executed by a squad of drunken soldiers, firing volley after volley at them. A great shout arose from the mob. 'Freedom! We got our freedom at last!' The soldiers rushed forward to kick and pummel the corpses.

“Thus the old order ended.”

(Martin Meredith, The Fate Of Africa 545-48).

It bears noting that Samuel Doe would in short order go on to establish a military junta run by his own minority (a native tribe called the Krahn), rule as dictator for several years, and then be butchered on videotape by another guerrilla leader, Charles Taylor, in 1990.

Today, Monrovia and the rest of Liberia is rebuilding from twenty-three years of almost non-stop civil war. Virtually all of the Americo-Liberians (the descendants of the freed American slaves who established Liberia in the early nineteenth century) have fled to America. Their architecture, government, society, and culture has been scoured from the earth.

Liberia was begun with a noble purpose. Slaveowners such as Captain Isaac Ross of Mississippi, who granted his 250+ slaves freedom and funds with which to settle in Liberia in his last will and testament, defied the common custom of Southern slavery. The American Colonization Society, a group of wealthy white Americans who supported Liberian colonization both to give freed slaves a life better than they would have gotten even in free American states and to spread Christianity to the uncivilized native African population, fulfilled a benevolent role, even if their reasons for encouraging Liberian settlement were not quite so pure as the driven snow. But the society established by the freed slaves was essentially a mirror image of the antebellum American South that they had left behind—only with themselves as the masters and the native African tribes as the subjugated underclass. (See generally Alan Huffman, Mississippi In Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today).

Ellington was commissioned to write a piece by the Americo-Liberian government. It is almost inconceivable that he then or at any other time ever came into contact with native African Liberian tribesmen, who might have conveyed a completely different view of the nation whose high-minded but stunningly ironic motto was “The love of liberty brought us here.”

1Bear in mind that this was the exact system in place when Ellington set about writing The Liberian Suite. Presumably, he had been given a somewhat different impression by the Liberian officials who commissioned the work!

2And thus, one sees how laughable Ellington's image of a “tribal chieftan” celebrating any kind of “merriment” in a city like the capital, Monrovia—where any actual tribal chieftan would have been as much of a second-class citizen to the Americo-Liberian elite as black Americans were second-class citizens to the white American elite in the days of Jim Crow Southern segregation!

3The term “coastal” refers to the Liberian coast, where all of the major shipping ports, airports, universities, commercial centers, government centers, and even the capital Monrovia, were located. In other words, the Americo-Liberians landed on the coast and, once having established, defended, and modified the boundaries of their colonies (Mississippi-In-Africa, Kentucky-In-Africa, Maryland-In-Africa, etc., all later subsumed into the nation of Liberia), pretty much stayed put. The interior remained largely the uncivilized hinterland.

4This was, ironically, virtually identical to the way in which the white British pioneers of Rhodesia, while firmly controlling the national Rhodesian government for themselves, left the government of the Tribal Trust Reserves in the hands of indigenous Shona and Ndebele tribal chiefs. (See generally Peter Godwin, Mukiwa: A White Boy In Africa).

5Again, this is virtually identical to the white British government of Rhodesia, which as late as 1965-1979 fought a brutal guerilla war to withhold universal suffrage from African natives, the vast majority of whom they (correctly or incorrectly) viewed as insufficiently educated and insufficiently prepared for the vote. (See generally Ian Douglas Smith, The Great Betrayal).

6Ironically, the same sort of reaction by Zimbabwean (the former Rhodesia) liberation leader President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party to a general strike in Harare, Rhodesia called by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party circa 2002. (See generally Peter Godwin, When A Crocodile Eats The Sun).

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