Tuesday, December 23

Will Guinea be next?
After the death of President Lansana Conte

Today the death was announced of President Lansana Conte of Guinea-Conakry. President Conte, 74, died on Monday night after a protracted illness. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984.
The news of his death came as no surprise. When I heard it this morning, my first reaction was: ‘Finally’. President Conte was known to be seriously ill and the last five years it was often rumoured that he had died. His declining health led to numerous speculations as to who in fact was in charge in the country. With his death, one of black Africa’s last dinosaur-presidents disappeared. Now only El Hadj Omar Bongo of the tiny republic of Gabon in Central Africa remains – who has the dubious honor to be the world’s longest serving president (since 1967).

Very soon after my initial reaction a second, more important thought came to my mind: ‘What is going to happen next in this country?’

I had to think of another country in the sub-region, Ivory Coast. Its president for over 30 years, President Houphouët-Boigny, died in 1993. Like Conte, he had monopolized power and kept possible successors, hence competitors at a distance. Soon after Houphouët-Boigny’s death the country entered a period of political turmoil, ultimately leading to a civil war (2002-2007/08). Nowadays, Ivory Coast may have left the civil war behind, but the country is de facto still divided in two regions, the North and the South, with 8,000 UN peacekeepers to ensure that presidential elections can be held (postponed till early 2009).

Two other countries in the sub-region, Sierra Leone and Liberia, have also had their share of political strife and violence. Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war ended in 2002, the UN peacekeepers departed in December 2005 after a five-year mission to restore order. Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended with the exile of warlord-president Charles Taylor in 2003. But the peace is very fragile, in both countries, with over 15,000 UN peacekeepers in Liberia (UNMIL).
If the death of President Lansana Conte would spark a civil war in Guinea, it is certain to have a spill-over effect in the region. Guinea is politically very divided – along ethnic lines – and the major tribes all have ‘brothers and sisters’ in neighbouring countries. The two most important ethnic groups are the Mandingo and the Fula. In Liberia, former Mandingo warlord Alhadji Kromah is known to have strong ties in Guinea, where he owns a house in Conakry. Mandingo and Fula people live in virtually each country of the sub-region, in Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Mali. In the latter country, the actual president, Amadou Toumani Toure ('ATT'), has a Fula origin (Peulh in French), whereas one of his main contenders, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ('IBK') has a Malinke (Mandingo) background.

A few hours after Aboubacar Somaré, the impopular President of the National Assembly of the Republic of Guinea announced the death of president Lansana Conte and asked to be sworn in as the new president, in conformity with the country’s constitution, a statement was read on state radio and televison, announcing a military coup d’état.

The statement was read by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, on behalf of a group called the National Council for Development and Democracy. The government and the institutions of the Republic had been dissolved, the constitution suspended, all political activity forbidden. According to Captain Camara, the coup was necessary due to Guinea's rampant poverty and corruption, and because the existing institutions were incapable of resolving the crises which have been confronting the country.
When hearing this, I remembered April 12, 1980. Then Master-Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe used almost exactly the same words when announcing Liberia's first military coup d'état.
Captain Camara said that someone from the military would become President, while a civilian would be appointed as Prime Minister as the head of a new government that would be ethnically balanced. However, a few hours after the announcement of the military coup d’état Prime Minister Ahmed Soumare declared that his government was still in power.

Chaos and confusion seem to be the next scenario for Guinea. A violent struggle for power in Guinea risks to have serious repercussions in the other countries of the sub-region, including Liberia.

To be continued.


Monday, December 15

Liberia: A Visit Through Books

Two weeks ago I wrote about Matilda Newport - myth or reality, facts and fiction - and another previous post was on three Liberian women, Elma Shaw, Helene Cooper and Diana Taylor, who wrote three remarkable books on Africa’s oldest republic (see my October 20 post). I have yet another great story to present. It is about Izetta R. Cooper and Kyra E. Hicks, who recently wrote a very interesting book, 'Liberia: A Visit Through Books'. I thank Kyra for drawing my attention to their work.

Izetta Cooper and Kyra Hicks met in the Washington DC area early 2008. Their passion for Liberia led to a series of meetings during which Izetta told Kyra about Liberia, her life and love for books. The two women decided that Izetta’s story of her life and her knowledge of historical books on Liberia deserved a wider audience, especially for Liberian students and Liberia-interested readers given the destruction of so many documents and books during the 14-year civil war.

The now nearly 80-years old Izetta Cooper was a librarian who worked in the University of Liberia library and also served as Library Consultant for the Presidential Library of the Executive Mansion for President William Tubman (1944 – 1971). Her master’s thesis was on historical books about Liberia and contains a bibliography of more than 230 books. While in Liberia she also hosted and produced a TV show called The World of Books.

The just published book (96 pages) is part biography and part bibliography. ‘Liberia: A Visit Through Books’ also contains an extensive timeline from 1900 – 2008 with historical events, literary publications, blogs, and films about Liberia. 'Liberia: A Visit Through Books' is published via lulu.com. This site has more publications on Liberia.

Kyra E. Hicks is an artist, author and prolific blogger. She taught herself to quilt after visiting a museum exhibit of African American story quilts in 1991. Her quilts have been shown in such prestigious venues as the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Kyra's story quilts have been featured in several books. Kyra E. Hicks also published The Liberian Flag Story & Love of Liberty Quilt, an Amazon Short.

Izetta Cooper and Kyra Hicks have made an important contribution to the preservation of Liberian history and I hope that their laudable initiative will inspire many others. Readers interested in related information are referred to this site of the Indiana University.


Monday, December 1

Matilda Newport (1822) and the civil war

Today, December 1, I had to think of Matilda Newport, a Liberian heroine. Generations of Liberians of all walks of life and every possible background have grown up with ‘Matilda Newport’. For over a century, December 1 was celebrated as a national holiday throughout the country. Liberian school children paraded in the streets of Monrovia and other cities, honoring this courageous woman. Matilda Newport, as the story goes, was a settler-woman, who in 1822 helped to repel an attack on the first struggling settlement by local tribesmen, known as the battle of Crown Hill. Reportedly, she fired a cannon using a coal from her pipe and killed virtually all native people, chasing the survivors. She thus saved the colony.

Nowadays, the younger generation may hardly know who she was. Matilda Newport Day, as December 1 was known, was abolished some 30 years ago. It is typical for Liberia’s unfinished written history that sources differ as to who abolished this controversial holiday. According to some sources the leaders of the 1980 coup, Samuel Doe and his comrades, abolished the holiday which they hated because it symbolized the political and social divide of Africa’s first republic. Other sources state that the Matilda Newport holiday was discontinued by President William R. Tolbert, in his desire to demonstrate that he sought to further cement the unification of the country.

Who was Matilda Newport? Did she really exist or was she an invention of the Americo-Liberian ruling elite, to portray their superiority and to re-affirm the inferiority and cowardice of the aborigines who lived on the land they claimed?

Many Liberian historians and authors of history books have devoted many pages to Matilda Newport, such as Ernest J. Yancy, Richard A. Henries and A. Doris Banks Henries, C. Abayomi Cassell and Nathaniel R. Richardson. The accounts of the Matilda Newport story vary from author to author but have in common that most references to the ‘natives’ were negative: 'savage, primitive, belligerent people' (A. Doris Banks Henries).

Foreign scholars have also researched the Matilda Newport story, like Jane J. Martin and Rodney Carlisle, who conducted a study ‘The Search for Matilda Newport’, published in the Liberian Studies Journal in 1975. Also Svend Holsoe threw more light on Liberia’s heroine in a paper presented at the Liberian Studies Conference, Indiana University, in 2007, ‘Matilda Newport: The Power of a Liberian Invented Tradition’. Particularly I would like to recommend, however, the excellent writings of Siahyonkron Nyanseor. He conducted extensive research on Matilda Newport alleged deeds. His (unpublished) research paper is entitled: ‘Matilda Newport’s Deed, Myth or Reality’. In 2004 he published the essay ‘Putting to Rest the Matilda Newport Myth’ (see Part I and Part II). The following quotation is from this source:

“Based on available sources, Matilda Newport was a real person who resided in Liberia during this period. She came to Africa on the “Elizabeth,” March 9, 1820 at the age of 25 as Matilda Spencer, the spouse of the 32 years old, Thomas Spencer. According to records, she could not read nor write (illiterate). During the Battles of Fort Hill, Matilda Spencer was 27 years old. Had she performed the deed she is credited with, she would have been known as Matilda Spencer, and not Matilda Newport. Probably, her husband, Thomas Spencer was killed in one of the conflicts. According to the Emigrant List, he died as a casualty in 1822. Matilda Spencer married to Ralph Newport sometime after 1822. Her story borne of the need to pass on the so-called victory of the Settlers over the natives, and it was nurtured through myth of larger-than-life proportions (....)”.

Matilda Newport and the civil war

On September 3, 2008 a Liberian historian, Professor Augustine Konneh, testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) that the system of authoritarianism, established by the American Colonization Society (ASC) and sustained and expanded by the various Liberian governments, from Joseph J. Roberts to Samuel K. Doe, laid the foundation of the civil war.

He said Liberians must also recognize and reconsider some of the nation’s myths, saying that myths exist in every society and Liberia is no exception. One of these myths, he said, is the Matilda Newport story, which he contended is an account of heroism on the part of Americo-Liberians and cowardice on the part of native Liberians. He said this false sense of heroism and cowardice have been the main source of conflict amongst generations of Liberians on either side of the political and social divide and thus undermine true patriotism and nationalism in Liberia.

I have a feeling (large) parts of Liberia’s history may have to be re-written.