"We the people of the Republic of Liberia were originally, the inhabitants of the United States of North America." -- From Liberia's suspended 1847 constitution
The privileged position of the descendants of the black American immigrants who drafted Liberia's constitution was brought to an abrupt and bloody end last April in a coup by a small band of soldiers after 13 decades of the political suppression of the indigenous majority.
Nevertheless, the 17 noncommissioned officers and privates who toppled the oligarchy formed by expatriated American slaves have done little to alter the system they took over from the "Americo-Liberians," as the descendants of the American immigrants are known.
Today, the formerly disenfranchised, indigenous majority of Liberia's 1.8 million residents has replaced the wealthy, ruling elite minority of 45,000. The majority has not, however, made any deep changes in Liberia's economic structure or social and political system beyond daily hailing a "revolution" that some argue has not yet come.
Unlike the profound transformation that Iran has undergone in its revolution, life here seems to remain much the same exceptt for a pervasive fear of the gun-toting soldiers and anxiety about the country's economic future. Camouflage uniforms and African names have also, for the most part, replaced conservative suits and Western names.
The toppled government of president William Tolbert, a second-generation descendant of a merchant immigrant from Maryland, and its decades-old conservative and paternalistic traditions today remain virtually unaltered. Despite the fact that for the first time in Liberia's history, members of the African majority -- "sons of the soil" -- are in total control of the government, eight months after the coup it remains unclear in what direction they will take Liberia if they did not just follow a well-worn path.
"They are calling the coup "the revolution,'" said one disgruntled, high-level, civilian member of the new military government and former coup supporter. "I don't see a revolution, and I wish they would make up their minds if they want to move toward the left or move toward the right."
The ruling soldiers "are afraid to make a decision," he added.
Liberia's new head of state, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe, visited Ethiopia, one of the first African countries to announce its support of the Redemption Council, to look at its Marxist revolution that followed the "red terror" in which thousands of Ethiopians died. Doe has also been close to West Africa's leading leftistt revolutionary, Guinea's Ahmed Sekou Toure', who became much like a foster father to the government when it was treated as a pariah by its other West African neighbors.
The People's Redemption Council "has rejected the Ethiopian model of revolution as not for Liberia," a well-informed civilian adviser to the council said.
It is unclear why they rejected the Ethiopian model, however, aside from the fact that Liberian society is generally conservative and, as with many military coups, the new leaders have established few goals beyond getting rid of a corrupt system. The 27-member Redemption Council consists mostly of Liberians with a secondary education or below, most of whom have limitted ideas about private property, foreign investment or foreign relations as ideology.
In the first meetings between Doe and Sekou Toure, the aging revolutionary "told Doe to keep the capitalist system that Liberia has as it was, an old system that people were used to and apparently the best for the country," the official continued. "Toure also said that he might have done a number of things differently" with Guinea's socialist development efforts "now that he had the benefit of hindsight."
Liberian Foreign Minister Gabriel Matthews, 32, who was appointed by the new government, said he believes that what has happened in Liberia is already a true revolution. Matthews was the leader of a fledging socialist party, the Progressive People's Party, which was the only legal opposition under Tolbert.
Matthews, along with dozens of supporters, was jailed on charges of treason just before the coup for calling for Tolbert's overthrow. The soldiers released Matthews and the imprisoned Progressive Party's members from jail immediately after they assassinated Tolbert.
Matthews said the ruling military council had not radicalized "the revolution" to avoid further destabilizing effects from the coup.
"There are people here who would like to see a greater degree of violence and more accountability for people who have committed public wrong," said Matthews, alluding to the gruesome executions of former officials at the beginning of the new government. "But I think that would create an atmosphere generating remorse with which Liberians would have to live . . . for too long a time."
Some obvious examples of the paternalism popularized by Liberia's president William Tubman until his death in 1971 persist.
Tubman presided over Liberia's greatest economic growth and rural development and was known for his personal touch with the residents and gifts to his friends. The desirre for material wealth that began under Tubman accelerated under his successor, Tolbert, according to a former official.
"The appetite was greater and although rural development began under Tubman, Tolbert talked more about it" but could not deliver as rapidly as it was required, former secretary of state Rudolph Grimes said. "It got beyond him."
"The people [still] expect government to provide everything for them from the day they leave their mothers' wombs until they go to their tombs," said Deputy Minister of Commerce Samuel Jackson. "We lack the imagination and the willpower for a national restructuring."
Personal property of those considered traitors is still being confiscated, as it was under Tubman, although this time it is done "in the name of the revolution." Property confiscation has long been used in Liberia as a punitive political measure, said Matthews, and the practice will not be ended soon. It has most recently been aimed at the estimated 3,000 members of the elite who fled Liberia after the coup.
Doe, following many of the traditions established by his predecessors, continues to dole out cash to schools, individuals and even Tolbert's widow, Victoria. This month he personally handed diplomas to several hundred of Liberia's college graduates following a practice begun by Tolbert.
"Change must be carried out in an atmosphere in which the broad masses of people can identify," Matthews said. The "man in the street is concerned about food, clothes and shelter," not necessarily what direction the new government heads in, he added.
"To radicalize the circumstances here would [also] alienate those who have been our traditional" foreign aid donors such as the United States, Matthews explained. "It would open us to exploitation from those who would be considered our new friends," such as Libya.
Liberia's revolution "is not a radical revolution," Matthews concluded. And if it were, "You would have greater instability."
Liberia's revolution is "conservative like the country and is moving slowly," echoed one political observer. "I'm not so sure it should be any other way for Liberia."