Sunday, July 22, 2012

Liberian History On Currency

A lot can be learned about Liberia's past (and present) by observing what is printed on her currency; the Liberian Dollar (LRD).  Even before the LRD, Liberia has had a very respectable reputation in world numismatics due to its unique contribution: the Kissi Penny.  The Republic has gone through several major transitions with its currency especially during the social unrest of the past 30 years.  For example, when we lived there in the 80's Samuel Doe minted so many $5 coins (app. 6 million in 82 & 85 for a poverty stricken population of 2.5 million) that he created inflation problems and the coins became known as "Doe Nickels".   During the Civil Wars there were certain militarized zones where "J.J.'s" were used (so-called because they bore the image of the 1st Liberian president J.J. Roberts (see below; $10 LRD)) and other areas of Liberia where "Liberties" were used (so-called because they replaced J.J's image with Liberia's coat of arms).

Today the US Dollar (USD) is used in Liberia alongside the LRD with a few interesting side notes: 1) For whatever reason if your bill has a tear on it it will not be accepted by many vendors, so only bring crisp bills. (we had great difficulty getting someone to take an otherwise fine $20 bill with a slight tear on the corner).  2) Again for some strange reason the $1 USD bills are not considered to be at the exchange rate (currently $75 LRD = $1 USD).  They are not accepted the same way as other US currency, which means you can't buy as much with 5 (five) $1 bills as you can with 1 (one) $5 bill.  This is difficult to explain but in short: unload the $1 bills you do get in change for tipping and bring bills larger than $1 USD for spending.  Perhaps the reason for this downgrade on the USD $1 bill is because the Liberian currency does not have a $1 bill, but rather starts at $5 LRD.   Let's start by taking a look at this bill that is used today in Liberia and hopefully learn a bit about Liberian history from Liberian currency...


Front of the Liberian $5 bill

President Edward James Roye (1815 - 1872) is on the front of Liberia's $5 bill.  He became the 5th president of Liberia in 1870 and was also Liberia's 4th Chief Justice before taking the role of President.  With him began the dominance of the True Whig Party over Liberian politics that did not end until Tolbert (see below) who was assassinated in 1980.  Only one other president (James Spriggs Payne) was voted into office from another party during that time frame and he only served from 1876 - 1878.  Of interest to US citizens was that Mr. Roye was actually born in Ohio and was a graduate of Ohio University!  In 1846 he heard about the ACS initiative to send free people of color back to Africa and he saw an opportunity and immigrated to Liberia.  When he was elected as president, the fledgling Republic of Liberia faced an economic crisis.  Roye tried to fix this by obtaining a loan from Great Britain which ended up actually making matters worse.  He was deposed as president and jailed shortly after and died a mysterious death in early 1872 (either drowned, shot or beaten to death depending on the report).  One bit of lore is that he was beaten to death and his nude corpse was paraded through the streets of Monrovia, an act that would be replicated with future presidents of Liberia (see Tolbert & Doe below).

Front of Liberian $10 bill

Joseph Jenkins Robert (1809 - 1876), commonly known as J. J.,  is one of the more famous Liberians presidents and one you should know about if you plan on visiting Liberia.  He was both Liberia's 1st President (1848 - 1856) and 7th President (1872 - 1876) and between presidencies he served as a Major General in Liberia's army, a diplomat in France and England, and helped found Liberia College (later to become the University of Liberia).  Like President Roye he was also born in the US; in Norfolk, VA.   He actually had mostly European ancestry and some historians refer to him as an 'octoroon' (1/8th black).  He supposedly immigrated to modern day Liberia in 1829 with hopes of evangelizing the indigenous peoples with Christianity.  Before becoming president he served as Liberia's first black Governor (following the white Liberian Governor Thomas Buchanan; a relative of US President James Buchanan).  Later, as Liberia's first head of state, he traveled extensively introducing the new Republic to such dignitaries as Queen Victoria.  Liberia was officially recognized by Britain in 1848 followed by many of the other world powers with the conspicuous lone hold out of the United States.  It wasn't until the days of President Abraham Lincoln that the US would recognize Liberia as a nation during her own Civil War in 1862.  One wonders if this was simply a political move by Lincoln, although Lincoln was a long time proponent of sending African American Freedmen to their own colony (he preferred Central and South America).  During Jenkin's presidencies Liberia's land was expanded to include the territory of the Republic of Maryland (named after the US state of Maryland) and the infant nation garnered international recognition.  Today, Liberia's main airport (Roberts International Airport) is named after him along with the town of Robertsport and Robert's Street in the capital city of Monrovia. His birthday (March 15th) is celebrated as a national holiday to this day.    

Front of Liberian $20 bill
William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman (1895 - 1971) was Liberia's 19th and possibly most influential president.  He held the position of president for an amazingly long time (1944 - 1971) and oversaw many changes in Liberia through his Open Door Policy.  While his parents were immigrants from the US and thus part of the ruling Americo-Liberian elite, he himself was born in Liberia and attempted to bridge the deep divide between the indigenous peoples and the Americo-Liberians by casting himself in the role of defender of the rights of the people of Liberia's "Hinterland" (interior forested regions).  He called himself "The Convivial Cannibal from the Downcoast Hinterlands" which I suppose would somehow identify him with the Liberian assumption that those in power have engaged in ritualistic cannibalism to secure their positions.  I hate to use the pun, but perhaps he was only being tongue in cheek?  I don't know, but whatever the case he ruled over Liberia as some sort of father figure verging on being an object of worship.  Everyone's paycheck and livelihood seemed to have come from him in some way and he effectively ruled over executive, legislative and judiciary branches with his system of cronyism.  During his presidency Liberia prospered beyond belief for such a tiny nation, although only a relative few would benefit from the gushing funds flowing in, particularly Tubman himself.  Some believe that when Tubman died in 1971 he was the richest man in all of Africa.  Under Tubman Liberia had the world's largest mercantile fleet, the world's largest rubber industry, and was the 3rd largest exporter of iron ore.  However, the people mostly remained in poverty and the infrastructure of the country did not benefit from this economic growth.  The rich kept the wealth to themselves and the suffering of the people reached the boiling point of the 1980 coup and then all out uncivil war in 1990 - 2003.  Tubman gave Liberia prestige and showed the world her true potential.  Too bad, he kept most of it for himself.  

Front of Liberian $50 bill
(equal to less than $1 US)
Samuel Kanyon Doe (1951 - 1990) helped lead the overthrow of the True Whig Party in 1980 when then president Tolbert was assassinated by a group of 17 Liberian soldiers that included then Master Sergeant Doe.   He was the first president of Liberia not to be descended from US slaves (Americo-Liberians) having come from various lineages in what is called the Krahn tribe (see The People Groups of Liberia).  At first the Liberian people rejoiced at this "Country" man who had overthrown the "Congo" man. ('Country' is slang for indigenous and 'Congo' for Americo-Liberian)  Their joy did not last long.  I lived in Liberia when he was "elected" in 1985 after numerous opposing candidates "disappeared" and Doe's handpicked ballot counters took the ballots to a secret location to determine the outcome.  The feeling on the street was that his opponent Jackson Doe (no relation) was the actual winner.  People were furious and the next month, Thomas Quiwonkpa (who was one of the 17 that had originally helped Doe in the overthrow of Tolbert), staged a coup attempt against Doe.  (Quiwonkpa was the founder of the NPFL which was later led by the now infamous Charles Taylor.)  I remember the day of this coup attempt clearly as our home was invaded by Doe's soldiers in order to confiscate my dad's ham radio.  There was widespread suspicion that the US was aiding in this overthrow attempt just as Doe was supposedly aided by the CIA in his overthrow of Tolbert.  (The fact that CIA West African HQ's were in Monrovia, Liberia probably helped advance this theory.)  I remember listening to the radio and hearing Quiwonkpa announce from the recently captured radio station that he was now the Commander in Chief and he was firmly in control.  Problem was that he only had control of the radio station and there was still gunfire to be heard in the background! However, many people ran out into the streets shouting and dancing for joy that Doe was gone.  Doe quickly put down the coup attempt and supposedly ritualistically cannibalized Quiwonkpa.  His nude corpse was displayed in Monrovia and some civilians who had been identified by others as having danced at the news of Doe's defeat were executed.  Doe went hard after Quiwonkpa's ethnic Gio tribe and many were massacred (this helped Charles Taylor gain many Gio and Mano soldiers in his later coup attempt against Doe).  The mood in the nation went dark in 1985 and there were curfews announced on the radio with Doe himself saying that anyone seen outside after dark would be "shot on the spot!".  Checkpoints went up all along the roads and we were often stopped by underpaid or unpaid soldiers armed with Uzi's asking for identification (among other things).  Doe was uneducated but he had enough wits about him to receive millions of dollars in US aide for his support of the US in the Cold War.  He was able to hold onto power until Charles Taylor invaded in 1989, sparking the darkest period of Liberian history.  He was tortured and murdered and supposedly ritualistically cannibalized by Prince Johnson (one of Charles Taylor's rouge generals and current Liberian Senator for Nimba County).  This event was actually recorded by a Palestinian reporter who was covering the coup attempt and can be seen below (warning: graphic).  Today Doe is honored as one who brought down the stranglehold of the Americo-Liberians upon the indigenous people of Liberia.  Samuel K. Doe stadium near Monrovia is named in honor of him.

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Front of the Liberian $100 bill
(roughly equal to $1.33 USD)
William Richard Tolbert (1913 - 1980) was the 20th president of Liberia and the last President from the True Whig Party.  He was president when I lived in Liberia as a small child, but I don't remember much from those days except eating bug a bugs and playing in the rain and on the beach.  He followed after Tubman's amazing economic growth (see above), but also inherited a structure in which the country was not developed for the good of all.  He was an extremely intelligent man and seemed to desire greater equity for the people of Liberia, the problem was that there were too many people in power benefiting from the status quo and he upset too many people.  It seems to me that he lost protection from the system by trying to change it and became a target because he tried to think outside of the box.  Some have even speculated that his favorable relations with countries hostile to US foreign policy during the Cold War era even made him an enemy of the US.  There have been speculations and testimonies that his assassination in 1980 was masterminded by the CIA.  This doesn't seem to make much sense to me and whatever the case, there was not much of a master plan behind this chaotic coup that wasn't even organized enough to elect another president for another 5 years (Doe; see above).  He is most infamously remembered for instigating the Rice Riots of 1979 in which his cabinet raised subsidized rice prices apparently for his benefit under the guise of controlling overpopulation in the city by giving people incentive to stay on the farm and grow rice.  Seeing as Tolbert was known for being sympathetic to socialist schemes (i.e. subsidizing and population control) that guise might have been true, however he owned large rice farms in Liberia so the fact that he would benefit was also true.  Just one year after these Rice Riots Tolbert was assassinated and his cabinet executed on a beach in Monrovia.  Tolbert was an original leader with a sharp intellect although not as widely honored throughout Liberia as Roberts and Tubman.  His reign is still remembered by the older generation.

In the next post I will turn these bills over so that you can get a "What's What" of Liberian culture as depicted on the back of Liberian currency.

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