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Indirect Rule in the Hinterland

In 1869 the cabinet-level Department of the Interior was created in Monrovia to administer native African affairs in the area beyond the organized counties that was designated the Hinterland. Anderson had already begun the process of securing the nominal submission of chiefs in part of the region lay treaty, but lack of manpower and shortage of funds deterred any attempt at establishing effective control. Even in the organized areas on the coast, the Liberian government had difficulty enforcing its sovereignty over tribal groups that refused to accept its authority.

In the 1870s many of the Grebo chiefdoms, encouraged by foreign traders, had united in forming a "kingdom" in part of Maryland County that declared its independence from Liberia and resumed trading freely with passing foreign ships. War followed, and the Grebo overran several settlements before an American naval expeditionary force arrived to quell the uprising and expel the foreign traders. In concluding a peace treaty with the Grebo chiefs, the American commander promised to use his influence to obtain for them a grant of citizenship that would enable then as Liberians to conduct trade on their own behalf without intermediaries. Liberian authorities expressed gratitude for American aid in suppressing the Grebo rebellion but ignored the naval officer's advice on indigenous African affairs.

Movement to upgrade the status of native Africans provoked a constitutional crisis in 1900, when President William David Coleman resigned near the end of his term after the legislature rejected his plan for extending citizenship to the peoples on the Saint Paul River. Coleman had argued that the action was necessary if the government was to obtain recognition of its authority in at the area. But Americo-Liberians were intransigent on the subject of admitting native Africans to greater participation in Liberian political life, fearing that they would be overwhelmed by their numbers and that the character of the country would be changed. The vice president elected with Coleman in 1895 had died, and the next in line of succession, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was acknowledged to be incompetent. The legislature therefore repealed the 1873 presidential succession law to allow Secretary of State Garretson Wilmot Gibson to be named president.

The first move to organize the Hinterland was made in 1907, when President Arthur Barclay introduced "indirect rule" in the region as a means of establishing effective control. The purpose of the system, which had been employed by the British in various parts of Africa, was to govern areas through familiar traditional rulers who had been co-opted into government service. In practice, however, Monrovia disregarded hereditary rulers, replacing then first with elected chiefs and then with chiefs appointed directly by the government.

Under indirect rule, 16 tribal clusters were designated, and each was put tinder the supervision of a paramount chief. This was an artificial arrangement that separated many related clans and created cleavages where none had existed before, but it was intended to prevent the formation of alliances that might challenge the government. Monrovia's ability to impose indirect rule and command the obedience of the chiefs demonstrated the weakness of the fragmented tribes and their traditional rulers at that time more than it did the strength of the government's military and administrative resources.

To coincide with the introduction of indirect rule, the Hinterland was divided into five administrative districts under the overall supervision of a commissioner general, who was responsible to the secretary of the interior. A district commissioner was placed in charge of each district to oversee the chiefs and to look after government interests. This officer advised the paramount chiefs, represented the government before the customary court, and decided cases where customary usage and Liberian law were in conflict. His primary tasks, however, were to collect taxes, ensure the supply of contract labor from his district, and keep out foreigners. Only a small percentage of the but taxes collected in the Hinterland ever found its way to Monrovia but nonetheless accounted for nearly one-third of government revenues. Taxes covered administrative costs, but the government did not provide services or schools in the region.

Chiefs were expected to govern according to local customs, which were recognized as long as they were not contrary to Liberian statute law or the public interest. For instance, slavery, which in various forms had been an accepted institution among indigenous peoples, was prohibited. In 1912 a separate uniform legal code, the Hinterland Regulations, was applied to tribal Africans in the five districts as well as to those living in the counties on the coast. Under this law Monrovia recognized the indigenous political units -- most of them petty chiefdoms consisting of a few villages -- as legal entities. Called clans by the Liberian government, the recognized entities did not always correspond to the traditional local political grouping. In a number of cases the clans -- each under a chief -- were combined under larger units called chiefdoms and headed by a paramount chief. Clans and chiefdoms were in turn perceived as parts of a limited number of recognized tribes (see Ethnicity and Language, ch. 2). Indigenous Africans were regarded as corporate members of their respective groups rather than as individual citizens of Liberia. Clan land was owned communally and could be alienated only with the agreement of the chiefs, who spoke for their subjects. Several chiefs were elected to represent the interests of the tribal groups in the Liberian legislature. But indirect rule became an instrument for depriving tribal Africans of full citizenship. It was only by renouncing his tribal affiliation and assimilating that a native African could participate in the political life of the country. As it was practiced, the system thereby widened the cleavage between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples.

The theory of indirect rule notwithstanding, the tendency in Monrovia was to extend direct control by the central government wherever possible. Many laws were passed by the legislature restricting the chiefs and bringing their chieftaincies under closer supervision by the Department of the Interior. Important provisions of this legislation were at times challenged and declared unconstitutional by the Liberian Supreme Court on the grounds that "aborigines" were subject to the full protection of the constitution. But few of these rulings were ever implemented by the government, and in the 1920s the treatment of native Africans became a source of considerable embarrassment for Liberia in its relations with interested foreign governments and with the League of Nations.

The organization of the Hinterland and the effort to establish effective control there through indirect rule had come as a direct response to British and French intervention in the region. Another product of Liberia's territorial disputes with the two colonial powers was the formation of the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) in 1908. The mission of the 500-man force was to patrol the border in the Hinterland but, more important, it was organized to prevent the sort of disorders that invited intervention. The LFF was placed under the command of a British officer, who recruited most of his troops in Sierra Leone. The French initially regarded the LFF as a "British army of occupation," but their demand that French officers and colonial soldiers be assigned to it as well was disregarded.

The record of the LFF was checkered. Although the LFF was effective in putting down disturbances in the border areas, its conduct was so undisciplined and its tactics were so ruthless that they engendered unrest. Unpaid and poorly supplied, soldiers lived on their own from what they could steal and extort. Annual hut taxes were collected several times a year, depending on the requirements of troops in a given area. Corrupt district commissioners used the LFF to raid and pillage village and steal livestock. Troops under their authority were employed in rounding up men for forced labor on roads and government farms and for porterage. Reports of abduction of women by soldiers were common. In 1910 the Grebo clans rebelled and appealed to the British governor of Sierra Leone to proclaim a protectorate over them, citing specifically the depredations committed by "this execrable force." (The Liberian government took precautions at this time against the possibility of a pro-British coup by its opponents in Monrovia.)

In 1908 a mission had been sent to Washington to request American advice in Liberia's dealings with Britain and France and to ask the United States government to use its influence with the colonial powers to maintain Liberia's territorial integrity and protect its independence. The following year, United States president William Howard Taft appointed a commission to investigate the effect of treaties made by Liberia with Britain and France on American interests there. The commission reported that European colonialism was not so much a threat to Liberia as were its own chaotic economy and inadequate public administration. According to the report, nearly everything, including food, was imported, while trade, industry, and agriculture languished. The commission recommended American investment in agriculture and development of the Hinterland and assistance in providing facilities for technical education. These recommendations were not implemented, however, nor was the Liberian government enthusiastic about inviting foreign involvement in the Hinterland, but the United States did agree to consider taking responsibility for a new loan.

Another outcome of the commission's report was an undertaking by the United States to sell arms to Liberia and to reorganize the LFF. In 1912 a black officer in the United States Army was assigned to train and comrnand the reequipped LFF; several other black American soldiers were attached to offer their "moral comradeship." Few Americo-Liberians served in the LFF, and units were recruited on a tribal basis for assignment to garrisons outside their own areas. The LFF showed its mettle under American command in crushing the Kru revolt of 1915 in which rebel forces were decimated and ringleaders captured and hanged. A United States naval officer assigned to investigate the incident in which American personnel had taken part reported that the revolt by the Kru had been provoked by heavy taxation and the petty tyranny of Liberian authorities and appointed clan chiefs. His report was also critical of the Liberian government's failure to carry out promised reforms in native African affairs.

In 1919, however, it was possible for Charles Dunbar Burgess King, the True Whig standard-bearer, to run for the presidency with Henry Too Wesley, a Grebo, as his vice-presidential running mate. Wesley became the first native African in the country to be elected to high office. The King administration was also the first to offer in its platform a vision of Liberia as a nation rather than a settler community, but once in office King took few steps to improve conditions in the Hinterland.

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