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AFRICAN POLITICS SEMESTER Paper

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Introduction

Against the background of the hypothesis of post-colonial history rooted on a few of the major political and socio-economic challenges and upheavals that have occurred since the country obtained its independence in Liberia, this paper analyses the post-colonial history of Liberia’s political history, evaluations on the processes of state formation, social and economic development. Tracing the development of formal and informal institutions of sovereign, central authority and investigates the drivers of the geographical extension and the institutional growth towards the country’s independence. Against dominant position in the debate on African state building involving hypothesis that the formation of the Liberian state was strongly driven by conventional old world mechanisms. While different initial conditions, different configurations of social forces and a different world economy indeed entail divergence in local forms of the state, secular political trends have similar effects in different places during Liberia’s eight years into a two-decade process. Further examining the economic impacts of colonialism in Africa, the experience of Liberia which remained independent through much of the twentieth century is often overlooked. Liberia was declared an independent republic in 1847.

Liberia and Sierra Leone share similar origins – both were founded on the coast of West Africa as settlements for freed slaves around the turn of the nineteenth century. They also share similar geography and resources (Clapham 1976: 6-16). Exports from both were dominated by agricultural produce before World War II, and by minerals in the post-war period. Sierra Leone is the smaller of the two, with a land area of around 28,000 square miles compared with Liberia’s 43,000. However, its population in 1972 was 2.6 million compared with an estimated 1.5 million in Liberia (International Monetary Fund 1975). Mining and cash crop production have dominated both economies through most of the twentieth century. The key difference between them was their political status from the nineteenth century until the 1960s. Sierra Leone became a British colony in 1808, while Liberia declared its independence in 1847 (Abasiattai 1992: 107). Despite the similarities in their background these two countries are complicated by extreme differences in the level of surviving documentation, particularly for the period before 1964. Sierra Leone belonged to what Jasanoff (2011: 293) has described as ‘an empire obsessed with record-keeping’. Liberia did not belong to such an empire, and thus the stock of historical documents available for Liberia was always likely to have been less than for Sierra Leone. Brown (1941: 323-6) bemoans ‘the absence of accurate and creditable records of national wealth, business surveys, investment values and production statistics, agricultural, industrial employment and population census is a

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serious handicap.’ the London School of Economics dissertation on which the 1941 book was based thanks the Liberian president for use of the presidential yacht – suggesting that the limited documentation at his disposal was not due to lack of access. Brown’s difficulties have been compounded by environmental damage due to improper storage of documents (Foley 1968) and the looting of the Liberian National Archives in the 1990s during the Liberian civil war (Osborne 2009).

Liberia did not become a colony of its founder. The U.S. government hesitated to declare a clear policy on Liberia, until pressed by the British government to do so when British traders asked for official support in refusing to pay Liberian customs duties. In 1843, the US government declared that it would not make Liberia a colony (Van Sickle 2011). After this point, both financial and military support waned, and Liberia declared independence in 1847. (Clapham 1976: 7) Liberia’s declaration of independence was a clear point of divergence in the history of the freed slave territories. It, began to expand its territorial claims into the interior, claiming what Clapham (1976: 8) calls ‘a “manifest destiny” to control and civilize the people’s of the interior. Liberia quickly achieved international recognition from several European states. Its challenge was to prove that an independent state governed by Africans could survive. Joseph J. Roberts, Liberia’s first president, proclaimed in his inaugural addressed that ‘we are gravely accused, fellow citizens, of acting prematurely and without due reflecting, in this whole matter, with regard to the probably consequences of taking into our own hands the whole work of self-government’ (Guannu 1980: 1-9). American sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1989, p. 85), writing after visiting Liberia as part of a League of Nations delegation in the 1930s, described the position as follows: ‘There is something fantastic about the spectacle of 12,000 to 15,000 American Liberians, concentrated in six small towns on the coast, presuming to control an area of 43,000 square miles and an unknown native population of about 1.5 million’. Johnson contrasted the position of Liberia with that of neighboring colonies, noting that ‘British and French colonists have found themselves similarly disproportionate, but behind them always has been the inflexible arm of a determined and secure mother country’. This inflexibility included financial support during periods of unrest, during which military expenditures could increase rapidly (Gardner 2012). The large increase in military aid during the Hut Tax War of 1898 and the subsequent years of extending the colonial administration through the Protectorate provides one illustration. The Liberian government obtained no such support after the 1860s, when U.S. interest in West Africa waned, and therefore it had to fund the conquest of the interior from its own slender resources. It did this largely by printing paper money from the 1860s through the remainder of the nineteenth century (Gardner 2013).

Liberia was founded during a period of immense change in West Africa’s economic history. Demand from industrializing countries for raw materials and improvements in shipping technology combined during this period ‘to utterly transform the nature of the intercontinental trading system’ (Findlay and O’Rourke 2007: 378). The response of Africans to global economic change during this period remains a central topic in African economic history (eg Austin 2012). In Liberia, increasing trade was a top priority for the state and for repatriate communities. A substantial number of settlers in both countries had turned to trade for their livelihoods. Some – like, for example, Liberian President Roberts – had brought skills and capital with them. Roberts had operated several trading vessels on the James and Appomattox Rivers before migrating to Liberia from Virginia in 1829, and once in Monrovia had established a prosperous trading business (Henries 1964) Revenue was than derived largely from trade taxes, a common feature throughout West Africa (Gardner 2012). The country adopted a different approach to expanding trade opportunities in the second half of the nineteenth century with commercial policies aimed to protect Liberian traders (Brown 1941: 26). The success of these policies in increasing trade depended largely on overcoming the constraints of geography. Liberia during the nineteenth century in building trade with the interior. Nevertheless, transport costs limited export production to a narrow band along the coast. Reducing high transport costs required costly investments in infrastructure, which in most African countries could only be undertaken by the state. Outside the mining areas of Southern Africa, private investors took little interest in the continent (Cain and Hopkins 2001: 566). However, Ferguson and Schularick (2006: 284) do identify what they refer to as an ‘empire effect’, and argue that it ‘reflected the confidence of investors that British governed countries would maintain sound fiscal, monetary, and trade policies’, and that British rule ‘may have reduced the endemic contract enforcement problems associated with cross-border lending’. Reconciling these conflicting results. Accomminotti et al (2011) find a smaller ‘empire effect’, which they attribute not to the expected behavior of local managers but to the fact that colonial status effectively removed default risk because investors assumed that the British government would step in to ensure obligations were met.

Liberia sheds light on the workings of the so-called ‘empire effect’ at a micro level. In 1871 the country sought a loan on the London capital market. Liberia raised a loan of ?100,000. Accominotti et al (2011) note that the removal of the default effect risked colonies borrowing excessively. London of President Roye, who had negotiated Liberia’s loan, he issued a proclamation extending his term of office by two years. While the principle of extending the president’s term was supported by many Americo-Liberians, Roye’s unilateral declaration was not, and by the end of the year he had become of the victim of Liberia’s first coup d’etat (Dunn 2009: 13). Contemporary accounts of subsequent events vary, but most agree that Roye escaped imprisonment with a substantial share of the remaining proceeds. According to some reports, he drowned attempting to escape and the funds he was carrying disappeared (Johnston 1906: 261-3). Mismanagement of loan funds was not the only reason Liberia’s first foreign loans failed to translate into improvements in infrastructure. The loans were also expected to help the Liberian government redeem debts incurred at earlier periods, either through cash advances from merchants or through the issue of paper currency which needed to be redeemed (Gardner 2013). The small share of the loan which reached the Treasury was insufficient to do even that, leaving nothing for the improvement of public works. After it defaulted on the 1871 loan, the Liberian government was unable to access the international capital market for the rest of the century. In 1899, it renegotiated the terms of the 1871 loan with its creditors in London (Corporation of Foreign Bondholders 1899). However, it did not raise another loan until 1906, when a further loan of ?100,000 was raised to repay domestic debt and fund an expansion of public works (Brown 1941: 164). In the meantime, the government was restricted to borrowing small amounts at high (25 to 30 per cent) rates of interest through cash advances from foreign merchants (Johnson 1989: 102). the ‘empire effect’ had several layers. At the level of sovereign debt markets, the assumption of an imperial guarantee reduced the risk perceived by investors, and lowered the cost of borrowing for colonies. At the individual country level, the ‘agencies of restraint’ imposed by the imperial government on colonial government finances meant the funds could be used for the purpose intended rather than dissipated on the settling of domestic debt or through financial mismanagement, Cox-George (1961: 25).

Liberia was in some ways were early leaders in the area of African education. Sierra Leone was called the ‘Athens of West Africa’ during the nineteenth century owing the quality of its schools. It was home to the first tertiary institution in sub-Saharan Africa, Fourah Bay College, founded by the Church Missionary Society in 1827 (Livingston 1976: 252). During the nineteenth century, the coastal Colony achieved impressively high primary school enrolment rates of 60 to 80 per cent during the second half of the nineteenth century (Frankema 2012: 340). The second tertiary institution in sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia College, was established in Monrovia in 1862 (Livingston 1976: 250). Liberian leaders also took a progressive view towards the provision of education. In 1860, future president James Spriggs Payne proposed that Liberia should establish night schools, reading rooms and encourage the circulation of periodicals as a means of generating ‘intelligence’ among the population (Payne 1860: 52-3). By the twentieth century, however, neither fared particularly well in the provision of education. In 1938, Liberia’s primary school enrolment rate was six per cent (Frankema 2012: supplementary table A2). These were not the lowest enrolment rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Some Portuguese colonies such as Angola, and independent Ethiopia, had enrolment rates of just one per cent. However, they were close to the bottom – nearer the average for French colonies of 5.4 per cent than the British average of 18.2 per cent. Mission schools were also important in Liberia, but state schools were a larger share of the total. Of the 127 schools operating in Liberia in 1929, 64 were government schools and 63 were mission schools. Mission schools enrolled 5,360 students as compared with 3552 in government schools (Statesman’s Yearbook 1929) and in Liberia. Liberia College was a purely coastal affair, which had limited impact outside the Americo-Liberian community (Livingston 1976). Such inequality in the provision of education is not unusual in colonial Africa. It was particularly characteristic of settler colonies. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001) argue that settler colonies generally have better institutions, because settlers imported institutions from more developed European economies. However, their argument fits awkwardly with the settler colonies of the tropics, where settlers were in the minority. Bowden, Chiripanhura and Mosley (2008) argue that such settler colonies were, in fact, more ‘extractive’, in that colonial administrations in settler colonies used tax revenue paid largely by Africans to fund services which largely benefited settlers. Mosley (1983: 7) lists as possible contenders only those colonies where white settlers were present (eg Kenya, Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, Northern Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and the Belgian Congo). Livingston (1976: 259) argues with reference to the settlers in Liberia that ‘the color of their skins made it all the more important for them to stress the social distance between themselves and the local Africans; that they were not obviously physically different accentuated the fear, shared by other colonial communities, of being submerged in what was to them a barbarous and heathen society.’ In Liberia, the coastal settlements sent Senators and Representatives to the Legislature in Monrovia, while interior provinces were governed directly by commissioners appointed by Monrovia. The interior was not fully integrated into the Liberian political system until after the second World War (Clapham 1976: 8-9). It is therefore not surprising that both territories – colonial or not – should exhibit some of the same tendencies as settler colonies elsewhere in the allocation of public resources.

This allocation became particularly important during the turmoil of the inter-war period. Hopkins (1973) observes that during this period, the terms of trade moved against West African economies, with severe consequences for both producers and states. This was equally true for independent countries like Liberia. Liberia’s trade also declined, though its more limited growth up to 1914 made the collapse less dramatic. However, Liberia began to recover and its trade expanded faster. Colonial rule had a range of effects during the inter-war period, both good and bad. Obstfeld and Taylor (2003: 264) claim that colonial territories had an advantage in borrowing costs during the inter-war period, although they find no ‘empire effect’ before 1914. It may be argued that during the ‘deglobalization’ of the 1920s and 1930s, access to imperial markets more generally may have provided a source of stability and continued demand for colonial producers, thus easing the effects of the crisis. On the other hand, it is argued that policies undertaken by imperial governments during the period ostensibly intended to aid colonial development actually served metropolitan interests. The passage of the 1929 Colonial Development Act, for example, provided funds for colonial development projects but required that such funds be spent on manufactures from the UK in an effort to boost British exports (Constantine 1984). Britain’s gradual shift towards imperial preference had a profound impact on Liberia. The British embargo of rubber exports during World War I had prompted American tyre manufacturers to seek alternative supplies of rubber. Harvey Firestone, of the Firestone Rubber Company, viewed the Stevenson Act as ‘a threat to the industry’s supply of rubber’, and took steps to secure alternative supplies from Liberia (Chalk 1967: 14-16). Following the trade depression of World War, I, during which Liberia’s finances had reached dire straights, Liberia was in search of funds from overseas. By the 1930s, rubber had become Liberia’s most important export. In 1932, Liberia was able to do what colonial governments could not – suspend payments on its foreign debt. As a result, Liberia enjoyed a budget surplus in 1933, contrasting sharply with the deficits of previous years which had reached nearly half of total revenue (U.S. Department of State 1932: 790-1). In 1960, Liberia’ s per capita GDP was $1,230 (1990 international dollars), Contemporaries attributed Liberia’s post-war growth to a combination of the ‘open door’ policy introduced by President Tubman from 1944, and American investment during and after the war (Marinelli 1964). Liberia’s adoption of the U.S. dollar in 1943 also shielded it from the implications of post-war devaluations of sterling. The open door policy in many ways represented a reversal of Liberia’s earlier policies, which aimed to protect Liberian traders and limit the influence of foreign investors. Miller and Carter (1972: 113) describe the Liberian economy of the 1970s as a ‘modern dual economy’, one which Liberia ‘solicited and got’.

The ‘empire effect’ may have facilitated the expansion of trade during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the expansion of trade did not necessarily provide the foundations for sustained development. Additionally, colonial rule provided little or no cushion against the blows of the inter-war period. Further, political independence offered options not available to colonies, such as the suspension of debt payments or the earlier shift towards the U.S, from which Liberia gained. Independent countries like Liberia, for instance provides a rare opportunity to assess the opportunities and constraints facing African economies in the absence of colonial rule before the 1960s, these constraints changed over time, and the impacts of colonial rule were different in the inter-war and post-war periods than they were before World War I. Further, it highlights that the shades of grey between colonial rule and independence – referred to as ‘informal empire’, were also important in shaping development patterns.

About the author

This paper is written by Sebastian He is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA; his major is Business. All the content of this paper is his perspective on AFRICAN POLITICS SEMESTER and should be used only as a possible source of ideas.

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