Political and Economic Developments in the 1950s and 1960s
Tubman achieved a degree of popularity and stature in the public imagination that was unequaled by any other Liberian in history, even Roberts. He strictly adhered to the formalities of his office and was a skilled political manipulator in party councils. He was also ruthless in dealing with opponents who had stretched his tolerance too far. But to the masses of the Liberian people, to who rn he gave a sense of dignity and equality unknown before him, Tubman's image was that of the avuncular head of an ex tended family, and he was known popularly?and affectionately as "Uncle Shad."
One of Tubman's most popular innovations in office was to throw open the Executive Mansion to petitioners. Citizens could and did arrive at his door, ask for an appointment, and be admit ted. The redress of grievances by the president was in theory a vailable and was frequently used by the president to his political advantage. On the basis of Tubinan's personal standing, the con stitutional provision restricting a president to two terms in office was repealed, and an unlimited number of four?year terms was permitted after the first eight?year term.
In the preconvention bargaining sessions before the 1951 election, Simpson was dropped from the ticket as vice president and replaced by William R. Tolbert. Simpson, who was regarded as heir apparent to the presidency in some party circles, had become the focus of opposition to Tubman's policies within the party. His departure from the ticket was evidence that Tubman had definitely gained the ascendancy in party councils over conservatives attached to former president Edwin Barclay. Simpson, in stepping down, was named Liberian ambassador to Washington (and later to London), remaining out of the country for the next 10 years.
Tubman's opponent in the 1951 election was Didhwo Twe, a Kru who criticized the slow pace of unification and pointed out foot?dragging by the Americo-Liberian elite. Twe, the candidate of the Reformation Party, was forced to flee the country before the voting took place, although he posed no threat to the True Whigs. In 1955 a splinter group broke from the party, forming the Independent True Whig Party, which, together with the Reformation Party, nominated Barclay to challenge Tubman. Barclay argued that the third term compromised Liberia's democratic traditions, but the crux of his campaign was a protest against large?scale foreign investment and what he denounced as foreign influence on the Tubman government. Although clearly the loser at the polls, Barclay claimed fraud on the grounds that the number of votes counted?245,000 for Tubman against 1,200 for himselfexceeded the number of registered voters. Before the inauguration an attempt was made against Tubman's life by a supporter of Barclay, who, as the runner?up in the election, would have become acting president in accordance with the constitution in the event of the president?elect's dennise. The opposition was discredited as a result of the assassination attempt, and the Independent True Whig Party was banned.
William Bright, an independent candidate, challenged Tubman in the 1959 election in order "to make it sporting" and received, according to official count, 55 votes out of more than 500,000 cast. Tubman ran unopposed in 1963 for a fifth term, which had been extended to eight years. He was likewise the only candidate in the 1971 election.
Liberia conducted its first official census in 1962, accounting for a population of just over 1 million. The findings of the census were only slightly lower than a United Nations (UN) estimate of the previous year but were half the figure of 2 million inhabitants that had usually been cited by Liberian government sources. The census also highlighted the sharp disparity that still existed in income and in representation between the coastal counties and the Hinterland districts, where the population was almost entirely of tribal background. In 1964 the inferior political status of the Hinterland was ended. The area's three provinces were divided into four counties, each entitled to two senators plus representatives apportioned according to population. The imbalance between Hinterland and coastal seats in the legislature was gradually rectified, but in practice the tribal Africans remained grossly underrepresented in relation to Americo?Liberians, a group that composed no more than 5 percent of the population (including assimilated Africans).
Despite the positive image created abroad by the Tubman administration and its popular appeal at home, criticism of the government (if it was widely publicized) and opposition to the True Whig oligarchy (if it became too overt) was firmly suppressed and in individual cases harshly punished. Nor did Tubman tolerate expressions of the new nationalism that sought to incorporate pan?Africanist sentiment with tribal consciousness in Liberia. The government was particularly embarrassed in the 1960s by signs of unrest among workers in the foreign concessions. Another source of antigovernment, anti-foreign agitation was the campus of the University of Liberia, which the government identified as the seedbed of radical dissent. Discontent also surfaced in Liberia's armed forces (formerly the LFF), whose ranks were composed largely of soldiers from tribal backgrounds. Meanwhile, elements of the party's old guard, whose attitudes on some issues, such as the pace of economic development and the extent of foreign involvement in it, were similar to those of the radicals, prodded the government to take stronger action against dissident activities.
In 1961 strikers from the rubber plantations marched on the Executive Mansion to demand government action against alleged discrimination in pay and promotions. On that occasion Tubman had consented to meet with representatives of the strikers, serving them refreshments and calling in the police band to entertain them. The president promised to look into complaints that better jobs had been denied to qualified black employees but turned aside another demand that foreign concessions be phased out. Tubman cautioned the plantation workers that if the foreign companies left Liberia, the jobs they had created would go with them. The demonstrators disbanded, apparently both chastened and appeased. The government subsequently alleged that the rubber?workers' strike had been communist inspired.
A more immediate threat to Tubman came from elements in the armed forces. In 1963 and again in 1966, 1969, and 1970, highranking officers were implicated in plots to kill the president and overthrow the government. Concern had focused during that period on the shadowy Aborigines Liberation Movement, which, in its slogans, had attempted to link tribal consciousness and leftwing ideology with a base of support in the armed forces. All of those involved in the attempts against Tubman's life were of tribal background, but their actions were interpreted as representing discontent among small cliques of officers rather than an indication of their affiliation with a larger ethnic or political movement.
Where it existed, opposition to the regime in the 1960s had been poorly organized and was uncoordinated. Claims of conspiracies and subversive plotting among ethnic groups, the military, labor, and students were made by the government. In most cases its evidence was vague; the purpose seemed to be to discourage incipient dissident activity. In 1968, however, a distinguished diplomat, Henry B. Fahnbulleh, was arrested on his return to Liberia from four years as ambassador in Nairobi and was charged with leading a tribal movement aimed at overthrowing Americo?Liberian rule. Contacts with communist embassies in Kenya and Guinea were alleged. The evidence against him was contrived, and some observers saw Fahnbulleh, an assimilated Vai, as a scapegoat offered to those in the old guard who were expressing alarm at the growing political influence of the tribal elements. Many were jealous of Fahnbulleh's rise in the government hierarchy under Tubman's patronage, and testimony against him emphasized that he had betrayed his benefactors in the Americo-Liberian establishment. In a well?publicized trial, Fahnbulleh was convicted of treason, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, and his property confiscated. The trial placed all assimilated indigenous Africans in high positions under a cloud of suspicion, and in the months that followed, a number of local officials of tribal background were removed from their positions.
By the mid?1960s Liberia had achieved a modest prosperity based on iron ore and rubber production, which accounted for about 90 percent of exports. Another important source of revenue was derived from the Liberian merchant fleet, whose "flag of convenience" carriers in 1965 surpassed ships of American and British registry in total deadweight tonnage (see Maritime Shipping, ch. 3). Liberia profited from good commodity prices during the period and enjoyed a favorable balance of trade as a result, but the surplus was sufficient only to keep up with payments on a mounting public and foreign debt, the latter attributable in part to large food imports. Increased agricultural production was therefore deemed essential for easing the debt burden and improving living standards. Accordingly, agriculture was given priority in economic planning.
Operation Production was launched by Tubman in 1963 as a corollary to the Open Door Policy and was the core of the five year plan for economic development introduced that year. The program focused on making the country self?sufficient in rice production. In addition to its aim of growing as much rice as the country consumed, the government's promotional campaign also stressed reliance on private initiative and the efficacy of self?help and hard work. Operation Production underscored the econony's commitment to free enterprise. Tubman hammered away at these themes for some time in appearances across the country.
Operation Production also sought to stimulate Liberian owned business that produced the sort of indigenous commercial middle class that had earlier been discouraged by the True Whigs. This change in direction was in part the result of animosity toward the Lebanese commercial community in Liberia that had been voiced even by government spokesmen. At the time of the 1964 inauguration, when Tubman had been feted in a series of receptions given by the Lebanese community, the president ex pressed admiration for their energy and ability but indicated that he expected them to ease their way out of their near monopoly of middle-level commercial activity. "I want the Lebanese to train the Liberians how to trade," he told the merchants.
The government had expected steady progress to be made as a result of projects included in the five?year plan. The debt problem worsened in the late 1960s, however, taking the bloom off prospects for rapid development. Falling commodity prices reduced the amount of revenue that was available to service the debt and also made it difficult to fund social programs that had been introduced at a time when economic conditions were better. Government expeditures were cut, and periodically, salaries in the public sector went unpaid. Anticipated growth in food production and in the Liberian-owned private sector was disappointing as well. Incentives offered to investors attracted little new industry because of the small size of the domestic market for manufactured goods, and at the end of the decade it was still necessary to import 25 percent of the country's rice requirements.
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