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The Tolbert Presidency

On July 23, 1971, Tubman died of postoperative complications in a London hospital, where he had been admitted for treatment three weeks earlier. His death at age 74 after 27 years as president marked the end of an era in Liberian history. The nation went into mourning for the man who had been called the "Maker of Modern Liberia."

Tolbert's accession to the presidency after 20 years as Tubman's vice president was quiet and orderly. He served a sixmonth interim term as "provisional president" and in January 1972 was sworn in as president after enactment of special legislation that enabled him to begin a four?year term in his own right instead of completing the unexpired term to which Tubman had only recently been elected.

The son of a former slave from South Carolina who had become a well?to?do coffee planter in Liberia, Tolbert had served in the Senate for eight years before being chosen as Tubman's running mate in 1951. Trained for the ministry, he had continued to function as a Baptist clergyman while in office and for five years (1965?70) had been president of the Baptist World Alliance. At age 57 Tolbert was still an unknown quantity, having filled the office of vice president in relative obscurity under Tubman's expansive shadow. He clearly did not possess his predecessor's exceptional forcefulness or charismatic personality, and he seemed to lack the old leader's common touch with the people; but the new president was an amiable and resourceful politician who over the years had built his own patronage network in the government and the party. Without any real enemies in the ruling circles of the True Whig Party, he could count on the support of leading figures and their factions at the outset of his administration. Pledged to continue Tubman's policies and to respect the prerogatives of the True Whig oligarchy, he nonetheless brought a new style to the presidency and soon embarked on a course that put his own stamp on the government and, in the process, alienated some of those in the old guard who had regarded him passively when he took office.

Abandoning the formal attire in office favored by Tubman for open?collar shirts and traditional African garb, Tolbert attempted to create a more modern, streamlined, and distinctive African image for his administration and for Liberia. Presidential power was centralized through the creation of the National Security Council, which put cabinet officers more directly under the president's personal supervision. Several ministers identified with the old guard were dropped from the cabinet. Younger and better qualified individuals were given key government positions. Reforms were undertaken in the civil service, and Tolbert pledged that he would act vigorously against corruption.

The practice of public employees remitting a portion of their salaries to the' True Whig Party was ended. Although property qualifications were retained for voting, a constitutional amendment was approved lowering the voting age to 18. Tolbert encouraged women to become involved in politics and appointed the first women to the national cabinet. Fahnbulleh was released from prison and "rehabilitated," and the cult of personality that 'had surrounded Tubman was de?emphasized. In directing the lowering of the price of rice set by the government, Tolbert also abolished the monopoly for distributing rice that had been controlled by the former president's son (and his own son?in?law), William "Shad" Tubman.

Yet Liberia remained essentially the province of a tightly knit oligarchy. For all the attempted liberalization of the previous two decades, the upper levels of government and the economy were still controlled by about a dozen interrelated Americo?Liberian families. These and other influential families and their retainers in turn dominated the inner councils of the True Whig Party. Tolbert's own extended family illustrated how political and economic preferment were related to a family network. His brother, brother?in?law, and son?in?law were senators, and each was a prominent businessman. The brother, Stephen Tolbert, was also minister of finance in the cabinet and the president's closest adviser. Other relatives, in?laws, and longtime family friends held posts in the civil and foreign services, positions in the party, and directorships in foreign companies secured through political influence. By questionable methods, family members obtained monopolies in the fishing, transportation, and food catering industries and on the sale of charcoal used by the urban poor for cooking and heating. In addition to unbridled nepotism, the Tolbert administration failed to bring corruption under control. High officials committed fraud in the letting of government contracts, involved themselves in questionable real estate acquisitions, charged personal expenses to government accounts, used government property for private use, evaded taxes and customs fees, and engaged in other illegal practices. Historical Setting

Tolbert's leadership of the True Whig Party was never as secure as Tubman's had been. Ultimately, it was necessary for him to bargain with the old guard, which was led by Speaker of the House of Representatives Richard Henries. Reportedly, Henries, whose approval was needed for any measure to be carried in the lower chamber, kept a book on government officials and resorted to blackmail when it served his purposes. The death of Stephen Tolbert in an air crash in 1974 was a political as well as a personal loss to the president that deprived him of support in his dealings with the old guard.

Criticism of the administration was tolerated within the context of the party, but elsewhere free expression was curbed. The police employed a large ring of informers to report on suspected dissidents. Outspoken opponents lost jobs or suffered from public defamation and, if they persisted, were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. The first serious challenge to the regime, however, came in 1973 from within the government when the assistant defense minister, Prince Brown, attempted to stage a coup d'etat in collaboration with army officers. The effort failed, and Brown arid his co?conspirators were tried for treason and hanged.

Tolbert was reelected without opposition to an eight?year term in October 1975. In an atmosphere that was troubled by the economic recession and social unrest, he set the tone for the administration in his inaugural address, demanding "strict discipline. and sacrifice" from the country. The vice president, James E. Green, died in 1977 and was replaced by Methodist bishop Bennie Warner after a special election.

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