Like a blazing wildfire on a sunny afternoon, the news is out that Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf should be inaugurated as the 24th president of Liberia and not as the 23rd president of Liberia as originally intended. The torchbearers of this new theory of Liberian presidential ranking are a political science professor, Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, and a history professor, Dr. William E. Allen. Both men rearranged the historical record of the terms of office of Liberian presidents from Joseph Jenkins Roberts in 1847 to Moses Z. Blah in 2003 by inserting Vice President James S. Smith as the sixth president of Liberia following the death in office of President E. J. Roye in 1871. The duo argued that “In the past, some scholars have not counted Smith because they were unsure whether he actually succeeded President Roye. This explains, in part, why Mr. William V. S. Tubman is ranked as the18th president of Liberia. We now have what we believe is irrefutable historical proof by eyewitnesses that Vice President Smith succeeded President Roye… one eyewitness account is the Fifty-Fifth Annual Report of the American Colonization Society,” (Dunn and Allen, FrontpageAfrica 2005).
In pursuit of their theory of Liberian presidential ranking, Dunn and Allen omitted any references to persons who served as interim president, head of state, or head of government in Liberia between 1980 and 2005, including Samuel K. Doe who served as head of state of Liberia from 1980 to 1985; Dr. Amos C. Sawyer who served as interim president of Liberia from 1990 to 1994, and Charles G. Bryant who served as head of government of Liberia from 2003 to 2006. The duo said Sawyer and others could not be included in the ranking of Liberian presidents because “Each is an interregnum, a departure from the process of succession as provided by the constitution” (8).
First, I think Dunn and Allen deserve credit for attempting to set straight the historical record of presidential ranking in Liberia. I think such an effort is long overdue, considering that President E. J. Roye was one of the founders and first presidential candidate of the True Whig Party, the political party that ruled Liberia for most of the period between 1870 and 1980. Therefore, it is a shame that throughout its 100-year-plus rule of Liberia the True Whig Party could not correct the historical record involving its founding vice president and second president, if Dunn and Allen are right. However, the enormity of correcting such historical record does not rest with the freelance efforts of Dr. Dunn and Dr. Allen, especially on the eve of a presidential inauguration. I think before Vice President Smith can be counted as the sixth president of Liberia, the Liberian government must set up a commission of historical experts (historians, sociologists, politicians) to comb through the historical records of Liberia and establish criteria for changing the current presidential ranking in Liberia.
Second, while I think Dunn and Allen mean well, it would be a great insult to the Liberian nation and people, and a complete indifference to the constitutionality of the official functions of all the presidents of Liberia since 1871, if the theory of the duo were to be accepted at face value and applied beginning with the inauguration of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf. I think all the modern presidents of Liberia—Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, and Blah—acted in their respective capacities as the 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd president of Liberia, which means that all executive orders, presidential pardons, contractual agreements, local and foreign policy documents and similar actions undertaken by these presidents reflected their ranks in office. Consequently, these official presidential actions cannot be undone by unceremoniously elevating the ranks of these presidents to the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd president, respectively, as recommended by Dunn and Allen.
In this context, my counter recommendation to the freelance efforts by Dunn and Allen is for Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be inaugurated as the 23rd president of Liberia until such time that the Liberian government can officially set the record straight regarding presidential ranking in Liberia. My fear is that if we begin to tolerate freelance efforts of the kind undertaken by Dunn and Allen without due respect to Liberian law, we might run the risk of setting a bad precedence of changing historical records in Liberia on the fly. And we don’t want that kind of precedence because sooner rather than later we would have changed every historical record with which we are displeased without any accountability for our actions. I think we have had several incidents of “incumbent laws” (laws pushed down the throats of Liberians by sitting presidents and their cronies) in Liberia that have not served our interest well as a nation and people in terms of our unity, cohesiveness, and national development goals and aspirations. Never again should we tolerate national undertakings of the magnitude of changing our historical records outside established guidelines that involved a broad spectrum of the Liberian people.
I think it is noteworthy that Dunn and Allen want to correct the historical record regarding any perceived injustice done to vice president Smith, but the inauguration of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is neither the time nor place for such historical correction. As a matter of constitutional succession in presidential rank, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, in her current capacity as president-elect of Liberia, will come after Moses Blah, the 22nd president of Liberia, and not Moses Blah the 23rd president of Liberia, so she cannot legally be sworn in as the 24th president of Liberia outside a binding resolution by the Liberian national legislature. And so far, Dunn and Allen have presented no legal basis nor overwhelming evidence to substantiate their claim that Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would become the 24th president of Liberia during inauguration on January 16, 2005.
The whole Dunn-Allen theory of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf becoming the 24th president of Liberia is based on the inclusion of Vice President Smith on the list of Liberian presidential ranking as the sixth president of Liberia. But Dunn and Allen have failed to present sufficient evidence to warrant the inclusion of Smith on the list. First, as academicians, Dunn and Allen should know that evidentiary collaboration is the key to validating the relevancy and accuracy of any historical document. Yet Dunn and Allen failed to present any evidence beyond the 55th Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (ACS), even where they admitted that “In the past, some scholars have not counted Smith because they were unsure whether he actually succeeded President Roye.”(Par.2).
By their own admission, Dunn and Allen cannot rely on a single historical source to counter or undo the long-held views of historical scholars on Liberia. If Dunn and Allen believe that the early scholars on Liberian presidential history were wrong about Vice President Smith not succeeding President Roye in office, then the burden of proof rests on their shoulders to present overwhelming and convincing evidence that Smith actually succeeded President Roye in office, which a passing reference in a single annual report won’t do. A minimum of five to ten historical records will have to be examined to confirm that Smith was, in deed, the sixth president of Liberia. After all, if Smith were the sixth president of Liberia as Dunn and Allen claimed, his recognition and activities as president of Liberia should not be limited to an annual report. To be valid in their claims, Dunn and Allen must provide documentary evidence that speaks to the official actions of the proverbial “President Smith.” Otherwise, the claims by Dunn and Allen must be dismissed without prejudice, and Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf must be inaugurated as the 23rd president of Liberia, and not as the 24th president of Liberia.
I think for too long we have taken many things for granted in Liberia, so it becomes imperative for us to guide against repeating this kind of behavior in the new Liberia if we wish to progress as a nation and people. For example, if any Liberian comes forward with a new idea purported at improving Liberia, we must congratulate the person on the new idea but we should not fail to scrutinize the idea for its relevance to the development goals and aspirations of the Liberian nation and people. Accordingly, Dunn and Allen must be congratulated for attempting to set straight the historical record of Liberia in regard to presidential ranking, but I think their effort requires more work before it can be relevant to correcting the political history of Liberia.
Dunn and Allen did not only present insufficient historical evidence to backup their claims that Vice President Smith ever became a president of Liberia, but they also failed to explain why an interim president, head of government, or head of state of Liberia cannot be legally counted as a president of Liberia. Certainly, the claim of interregnum (or the period of suspension of normal government) in Liberia may not be sufficient justification if we considered that the 1997 elections were held on the basis of prepositional representation and the 2005 elections on the basis of a run-off election, which mean that both electioneering methods are not provided for under the Liberian constitution. Hence, the issue of “interregnum” cannot be decided by two freelance academicians but by a duly constituted national historical commission in Liberia. Such a commission should be broad base and it should have clearly defined goals and terms of reference aimed at correcting the historical records of Liberia, from presidential ranking to the roles of the various Liberian demographic groups in the development of Liberia, along with other national policy issues of a historical nature.
In the new democratic Liberia we are striving to build, accountability, rule of law, and respect for individual talent or expertise must become the order of the day. But we must also take care to do ourselves the favor of not basing our judgments and national policy goals on hasty generalization and unfounded theories of historical correctness. We must put historical accuracy above political correctness, and we must seek to place peace, unity, national reconciliation, economic security, and meaningful national development above political expediency, power play, or class domination.