William R. Tolbert has been the paternalistic father figure president of Liberia since the death of the aloof, formal and severe William V.S. Tubman nine years ago.

Under Tubman, Tolbert quietly pursued what have become extensive family business interests. But now those interests have become a source of considerable criticism against him.

The ironies that swirl around Tolbert are many:

He has brought more indigenous Liberians (distinct from the descendants of "settler" Liberians who were repatriated form the United States as ex-slaves in the early 19th century) into his government. Now the indigenous majority is organizing with the aim of unseating the ruling "old guard" of Tolbert's True Whig party.

Tolbert wants to make college education free, yet university students have been leading critics of his government since civil disturbances in April

Tolbert has steadily weakened the power of the old oligarchy of interlinked families that formerly guaranteed success for it members in the economic and political arenas. Nevertheless, his critics accuse him of f nepotism for appointing his daughter a deputy minister of education.

Tolbert advocated an unprecedented constitutional amendment limiting presidents to one eight-year term and has liberalized Libera's political milieu. But his critics on the left argue the system has not been opened up enough and party hard-liners accuse him of giving in to radicals.

"Tolbert is an ordained Baptist minister, a father figure in this country, but he is also very complex and has felt that people are not giving him the proper respect," one long-time Western observer here said about the president. p

The April riots were a major crisis for Tolbert, according to Liberians and foreign observers. His family's businesses were singled out by looters and arsonists for attacks they added.

"He was personally hurt," said one Liberian official. "He felt he has done so much to bring Liberia along, increase development -- and this was how he was being repaid."

Shortly afterward, a commission appointed by Tolbert raised critical questions about "conflict of interest" issues that struck directly at Tolbert's role as president and businessman.

Dew Tuan-Wleh Mayson, spokesman for the leftist Movement for Justice in Africa, said the economic issues revolve around the unequal distribution of income in Liberia.

"You know 3.4 percent of the people here take 60 percent of the wealth," he said, with Tolbert being identified as among the richest.

Three years ago, Tolbert issued his economic theory called "humanistic capitalism." It calls for rich Liberians to distribute their income to poor Liberians through the traditional African extended family system. His Liberian critics said, however, there are not enough wealthy Liberians with family connections to make a dent in the problems of the poor.

But critics and supporter alike agreed that until Tolbert steps down from the presidency in 1983 he is likely to balance delicately on a taut tightrope between the competing forces he has unleashed.