Newsweek, August 2, 1971
Among the leaders of Contemporary Africa, William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, President of the West African republic of Liberia, was a bizarre anachronism. A bespectacled, cocoa-colored man, Tubman often appeared in the blazing sun of his capital of Monrovia turned out in a gleaming top hat and cutaway. With a glass of Scotch in one hand and big Havana cigar in the other, he ran Liberia for 27 years as if the country were his private plantation. And when he died last week in a London hospital after surgery for a prostate gland ailment, his passing left a vacuum that would not be easy to fill. Said one Liberian sadly: “We’ve never known any other President than “Uncle Shad.” He took care of us.”
That kind of talk, reminiscent of the Scarlett O’Hara days of the American South, came naturally in Tubman’s Liberia. The country was founded in 1822 by freed American slaves on land purchased by the white-organized American Colonialization Society from local African chiefs. In 1847 it became an independent republic with a constitution patterned after that of the U.S. Unsullied by European colonialism, Liberia emerged as a distorted mirror-image of the U.S., complete with pidgin English, greenback dollars, and cops with hip-swinging revolvers and New York City style police uniforms. Ruling this roost were the Americo-Liberians, descendants of the few thousand original black colonizers, who remained aloof from the 2 million natives inhabiting the surrounding hinterland.
Into these movie-set surroundings, Tubman fitted with perfection. A descendant of blacks who left Georgia in 1834, he survived a scandal involving a slavery racket to become President in 1944. After that, it was impossible to dislodge Tubman from the $12 million Presidential Palace. Like the leaders of most of Liberia’s aristocratic families, ranging from Ambassador Charles T.O. King in Paris to onetime Army Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. George T. Washington, Tubman amassed a large personal fortune. But while the President and the rest of the black Yankee upper crust lived in style, the huge majority of Liberian people-despite Tubman’s development programs-subsisted in squalor.
Father: for all the opulence of its stately mansions, moreover, Tubman’s Monrovia remained a ramshackle city where cabdrivers pointed out to visitors the numerous sons and daughters of their virile President. When Kingsley Martin, the British socialist, once jokingly described Tubman as more deserving of the title of “father of his people” than any other President he knew, a local Monrovian newspaper proudly quoted the remark under the headline: “Father of his people.”
Despite his free-wheeling style, however, Tubman was in many ways more enlightened than most of his fellow African leaders. By throwing open Liberia to foreign investment, he helped give the country one of the fastest growth rates in the underdeveloped world and an annual per capita income of $220-double the average for the continent. He introduced schools into the bush and above all sought to reduce class differences between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous people. Over-all, Tubman ran a stable government and indulged in much less brutality than some of his left-wing African critics.
In the atmosphere of present-day Black Africa, however, more and more young, educated Liberians came to resent Tubman’s one-man rule. They were infuriated by Liberia’s elections, in which Tubman regularly won more than 99 percent of the vote. Bitterly, too, they charged that one of the most corrupt figures in a government rife with corruption was President Tubman himself.
Suicide: Shrewdly, Tubman foresaw all this when, a few years ago, he dispatched a group of students to the U.S. for university training. “I’m committing political suicide,” he observed thoughtfully. “These boys will come back experts, and I know nothing but the Bible.”
And, for all his shortcomings, Tubman was a beguiling man who was genuinely liked by most of his people. Courteous and open, he had the reputation of being available to the humblest of his countrymen. And when it came right down to it, Liberians also liked the show he put on-his party-giving, his drum-playing, the quadrilles he sometimes danced with his daughter Coocoo. “In a sense, he was legitimately a man of the people,” said a Western diplomat last week. “The trouble was that President Tubman, like Liberia, was so touchingly out of date.”
*From Nyanseor’s Achieves of Liberian & African History