Pro-Poor Policy of a government usually targets directly poor people’s economic plight, which is due to the poverty they experienced in society. The goal of this policy is to improve their living standard. However, the Hut Tax re-introduced by the traditional Chiefs and Elders in Liberia resembles a reversed ‘Robin Hood’ – intended to TAKE (Steal) from the POOR. Whereas, the Robin Hood and his Merry Men of Sherwood Forest took from the abusive and corrupt leaders what they stole from the poor and had it returned.
My article titled “CDC Pro-Poor Government Hut Tax’s Historical Amnesia” intents to prove that the reintroduction of the notorious and abusive hut tax system of yesteryear was proposed either out of ignorance of history by the traditional Chiefs and Elders, or out of pure self-interest.
According to the Daily Observer’s Nimba County Correspondent, Ishmael Menkor, the “…15 chiefs representing the Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia have agreed to the reintroduction of HUT TAX to support the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) led Government’s “Pro-poor Agenda. …The elders maintained that the hut tax will enhance their participation in the promotion of government’s agenda and development initiatives. They accordingly argued that government cannot be dependent forever, ‘relying on donor support or begging all around the world for help, so, in their view, it is good to bring back the collection of hut tax to back up the economy.”
My question to these Chiefs and Elders is – how will the reintroduction of the hut tax benefit most of the poor people in rural areas; especially when most of them live on US$1.50 a day? Or is their “…time to eat” as Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor espoused? Perhaps, the “This is our time to eat” comment is directed at CDiCians to get ready to receive their share of the BIG ELEPHANT MEAT as Ellen’s Unity Party government, her family and associates had their share.
Let’s review the history and enforcement of the notorious Hut Tax that Chief Zanzan Kawor and Elders of the Liberian Council of Chiefs failed to acknowledge; either out of ignorance or were seeking favor from President Weah and his CDC Pro-Poor government.
The Hut Tax was first instituted following the administrative reform of 1904 both as a means, on part of the central government, of imposing its writ over “hinterlanders” and “coastal indigenes,” and also as an important revenue source to sustain the newly established auxiliary interior bureaucracy. Initial, it appears, there was a tax of $1.00 per annum on each indigene domicile (hut). In the 1980’s the tax had reached $6.00 per annum per the district commissioner. Each chief received a percentage of the tax collected as his commission. The hut tax is widely viewed as one of the areas of repressive government during the first republic, for the manner in which agents of the state went about collecting constitutes flagrant violations of people’s rights. Tax collectors often accompanied by soldier of the LFF moved into villages, at times terrorizing the inhabitants in order to secure not only the taxes but to requisition food and other local products. Several months following the 1980 coup, the hut tax was abolished by the PRC, but then reportedly reinstituted the following year in modified form. [See TAX MISSION, 1970: 89; Handbook, 325]/ [African Historical Dictionaries, p. 91]
In addition, based on the Area Handbook for Liberia, “Direct money taxes known as a hut, health and development taxes are collected annually from the tribal people. Levied on households on the basis of a hut rather than a head count, the taxes totaled $5 per household in the early 1960’s. Tribal communities are also officially required by the government to make annual contributions of rice that may amount to a higher value than money taxes. Informal requisitions of food by agents of the central government and members of the armed forces are common occurrences in some areas of the interior and constitute an indirect form of taxation impossible to measure.” (Area Handbook, p. 325)
I was told of similar practices by my parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. It was a common practice for District Commissioners (DC) and members of the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) to engage in when they traveled in the hinterland (now counties) to collect taxes and recruit laborers for government projects; such displayed brute behaviors were not unusual.
Initially, the Armed Forces, known then as the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) collected Hut taxes, and enforced labor policies against the “native” (indigenous) masses. On many occasions, these natives (African Liberians) were forced to carry loads for government officials for days, while their farms were left unattended and their livestock used to feed the soldiers; their wives and female daughters used as sex objects for the pleasure of these officials and soldiers.
The novel, Red Dust on the Green Leaves by John Gay, epitomizes this reality:
“The soldiers had come again every year to get taxes and men to work at Firestone. Flumo (Flomo) still was not sure what Firestone was, even though he knew that men who went there had to clear the ground and plant rubber trees. He also knew that when Saki went to Firestone, he did not make farm but would come back after six months or a year with little other than new clothes and gifts from the coast”.
President Arthur Barclay too alluded to this culture of impunity in his Inaugural Address of 1904:
“…The militia, largely lower-class Americo-Liberians and tribal people drawn from areas other than those in which they were serving were ‘tending to become a greater danger to the loyal citizens, and his property, which it ought to protect”.
This repressive and humiliating treatment was abolished after the coup of 1980 when the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) repealed the Hut Tax Law. This was one benefit of the PRC that the poor indigenous people considered an achievement at the time. However, the reintroduction of the Hut Tax by the chiefs and elders raised more questions than answers.
October 15, 2016, I wrote an article which was published in The Perspective. The title of the article is: “Home, Sweet Home and The Significance of the Red Cap”. In the article, I narrated a story about a Kpelle Paramount Chief called Zamgba. He was very wicked to his own people. This paramount chief was a very powerful dictator. With the support of the Government, he exercised brute power over his people. Those of you who were around in the late 50s into the early 60s might have heard the popular Santa Clause song regarding his abusive behavior towards the Kpelle people. The chorus of the song goes like this: “Zamgba die, Kpelle people put on shoes; Zamgba die, Kpelle people, put on shoes.” Legend has it that because he wore shoes, he did not allow his people to do the same.
Paramount Chief Zamgba had a partner who possessed similar characters like him. This partner of his was commonly referred to by officials of the Government as Chief Buzzy. Buzzy was chief of the Lorma tribe from Lofa Country. Chief Buzzy joined with the Liberian Government to ‘put down the rebellion and resistance from the coastal tribes’. He too was powerful and dictatorial. These two chiefs joined forces with the Government to collect Hut Tax by whatever means they deemed necessary, including fighting alongside government forces to put down the so-called rebellious natives - the Klaos (Krus), Grebos and Bassas along the Atlantic Coast. Find below their method of enforcement.
Compulsory Voluntary Recruitment Practice
In 1926, the Government ‘picked palava’ with the hinterland tribes; specifically the Kpelles and the Lormas. Thispalava was not only exploitative; it was abusive to the tribal people. During this year, Industrialist Harvey Firestone of Ohio, USA, established the Firestone Plantation in Liberia. The Firestone Plantation needed workers, Paramount Chief Zamgba and Chief Buzzy were identified by the Government as the source that could be used to provide the needed laborers to plant and tap the rubber trees. Both Chiefs and the LFF got involved in what is known in Liberian history as “compulsory voluntary recruitment practice.” The Kpelles and Lormas were forcibly recruited, sometimes at gunpoint and with threats to work on the Firestone Plantations. This heartless procedure of recruiting these people to work on the Firestone Plantations provided no meaningful compensation to the people who left their own farms’ work unattended to. They were made to abandon their livelihood – their farms, to work like slaves for below minimum wages; living under poor and unacceptable working conditions.
Due to the brute power that Chief Buzzy exercised over his people, the Government authorities inaccurately referred to the Lorma Tribe as “Buzzy people”. In fact, an area in Monrovia is named as “Buzzy Quarter” in honor of Chief Buzzy. This area is located at the intersection of Camp Johnson Road, not far from Bassa Community and Capitol Hill. Today, the Lorma people resent being called Buzzy people; a vivid reminder of Chief Buzzy’s treatment of them.
These LFF soldiers wore a Red Cap that was introduced by the British Colonial authorities in Africa. The Igbo tribe of Nigeria adopted it as a symbol of authority. Also, the Red Cap is worn by the Eze (king) or Igwe and his council members and Titled Men. However, in Liberia, the Red Cap was part of the official uniform of the LFF and Constables also organized by the British. It was a sign of power and authority. The LFF served as the military of the Liberian Government.
They collected hut and head taxes from the poor native people in the interior who hardly benefited from their resources and labor. Also, they pay head tax - for having heads on their shoulders. What a dehumanizing way to treat one’s fellow human beings!
In the book: The Mask Of Anarchy written by Stephen Ellis, he provides an example of the historical, political and cultural factors of Liberia’s brutal unlawful practices against the native people. According to him:
“In the many parts of the country, throughout its history, the Liberian system of indirect rule bore the stamp of military means used to establish it in the early twentieth century. It was first established in the Liberian Army, which had a reputation of brutality and for looting, since troops largely lived off the land. In 1910 some chiefs (King Gyude and other Grebo chiefs), in the south-east of the country complained of the activities of the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF), which they termed 'this execrable force', and was 'entirely mobilized' and wherever they had been sent throughout the country - whether to Rivercess or in the hinterland - their custom has been to plunder the towns through which they pass and rape the women."
Liberian authorities and their Western enablers should use cautionary measures and be aware of the fact that politics does not “always” reward the best and brightest, it has the tendency to elevate the most dishonest of men who will lie and cheat without compunction; excellent example of it was found during the Tubman Administration, which was referred to as “Growth Without Development”.
Sanford J. Ungar, made reference to this underdevelopment in the book titled: Africa, The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent. It reads:
“…[William V.S. Tubman] established an ‘Open door policy,’ attracting foreign capital to Liberia under unusually favorable conditions. Investors could obtain eighty-year leases for tracts of undeveloped land, and the flow of profits and dividends out of the country was not restricted. Machinery imported for industrial use was exempt from customs duty, and other taxes were low. This did little for the improvement of agriculture, and while the policy did have some beneficial effects in the countryside, overall it intensified the contrast between the industrialized coast and the backward Hinterland. In the long run, the open door policy produced what outside analysts (Robert W. Clower et al, Growth Without Development: An Economic Survey, 1966) called ‘growth without development’”.
Current events in Liberia suggests that we are heading in the wrong direction once more; a direction in which citizens do not have the right to question or challenge their elected officials to behave in accordance to the laws of the land. Groups are found everywhere, especially on ‘FaceBook’ who do not have any knowledge of Liberia’s UGLY PAST, and are resuscitating the UGLY days gone by – when RESOLUTIONS to show support for the President and elected officials was the order of the day; and an accused person was considered guilty before his/her case made it to court. Are our memories failing us? If not, why we do not speak against these existing evils? Instead, we are falling back into the practice that almost brought about our demise. Why can’t we learn from our recent history?
“The truth shall set you free” has been proven by history over and over, and no matter what the power that be attempt to do in restricting telling the truth – truth being a universal principle will remain the same today and tomorrow. Yet, there are always individuals who by choice or influence will tamper with the truth to advance their own individual interests or for those they are loyal to. They need to be told that there is nothing abstract about the truth; in the end, truth withstands the test of time.
To be frank, Liberia does not require us to be perfect; rather it requires us to be honest with ourselves. As imperfect humans living in these perilous times, we are not immune to the wind of adversity; we have the ability to reverse the course of the wind. To do so, we must acknowledge that there is something morally wrong with us as a people. Having admitted our general fault, we are able to set-up the means by which our fault can be addressed and have our solutions become the way of life to which we are committed and never to be compromised for political favors or government positions.
This challenge has to be met with our collective efforts in order to bring to an end the practice that has prevented our development with what we have in common as Liberians regardless of class, religion, and ethnicity. This is the place to start! Seeking Truth seems to be our best option, though Truth also has consequences. For example, King Darius of Babylon enacted a new law stipulating "Whoever makes a petition to any god or man for thirty days except (the) king should be thrown to the lions' pit" (Daniel 6:7-9). The law was intended to eliminate the King's real or perceived enemies, notably Daniel. Daniel did not compromise his belief; as a result, he was thrown into the lion's den for not obeying the new law. But Daniel’s God set him free.
While we cannot compare ourselves to Daniel in wisdom and statute, we certainly can pursue Truth no matter how corrupt elites and their supporters might fight against our efforts; Truth, being a universal principle, will sustain us to the end. More important, we should bear in mind the fact that there will always be individuals who by choice or influence will tamper with the Truth to advance their own individual interests or the interests of those they are loyal to, not realizing that there is nothing abstract about the Truth and that those who subscribed to corrupt practices will certainly be caught up with time.
In addition, I am reminded of the statement by the famous English Dictionary publisher, Dr. Samuel Johnson that reads, "There is no crime more infamous than the violation of truth. It is apparent that men can be social beings no longer than they believe each other. When speech is employed only as the vehicle of falsehood, every man must disunite himself from others." It means those who engage in deceit and telling lies to please their supporters are operating from what former Senator Joe Lieberman described as "value vacuum." A place "...where traditional ideas of right and wrong have been gradually worn away."
In fact, this phenomenon has redefined what was once held to be universal Truth. Today, Truth is now widely viewed on the basis of an individual's point of view (or talking points) - even if the facts are overwhelming, like embezzlement, human rights abuse, the denial of free speech, violation of civil and constitutional rights, kangaroo court system, excessive use of force, framed-up charges and incarceration of unarmed civilians by the governments, including Liberia.
The popular phrase: “If one does not stand for something, he/she will fall for everything”; here lays the dilemma facing many of our people. What Liberia lacks in short supply are principled individuals. In other words, many Liberians are not firm believers in the "principle of right and justice". They are forever ready to sell their souls for positions or for mere crumbs.
Finally, as a firm believer in the fact that there is nothing wrong with Liberians, that cannot be cured with what is right; I believe, we have an essential role to play in deciding our present as well as our future. The fact that we have a choice shows that God has given us a measure of control over our lives. The coward who makes excuses for not taking a position come Judgment Day will have some explaining to do. As Liberians, if we earnestly want genuine peace and democracy, we will have to earn it the old fashion way, work for it. It means we will have to take positions that are not always popular.
And for what it's worth, let’s take the advice by General Colin Powell; it reads: "Where discrimination still exists or where the scars of past discrimination still contaminate and disfigure the present, we must not close our eyes to it, declare a level playing field, and hope it will go away by itself. It did not in the past. It will not in the future."
In closing, let me share with you the poem titled: “I Will Not Tote That Hammock Anymore!”
I am not going to tote that hammock anymore!
If my great grandparents and relatives did it
That doesn’t mean I should do the same
So you better find someone else
To do your plotor work ‘cause this time for sure
I am not going to tote you in that hammock!
Big hellova man like you if you can’t walk by yourself
Then that’s your own kinja you will have to bear
You don’t expect me to tote you on my shoulder
Instead of toting you, I could be attending
To my rice farm, cassava farm and doing small, small thing
So let me tell you Joe Blow, this time
I am not going to tote you in that hammock!
Although, I was a small pekin when
The District Commissioner came to our town
He humiliated my grandparents and relatives
In front of their wives and children
I can still feel pains and sufferings they endured
Toting Government officials from village to village
And through thick and thin
So, let me tell you once and for all, that job is not for me
You cannot force me this time, I know my rights
So, you better take your hot sun trouble from here!
My friend, this time you really juke-o!
You will kill me dead
Even then, I will still refuse to tote the hammock.
You see, I made up my mind long, long time ago
Not to tote anybody’s hammock, even the President, self
‘Cause the same way God gave you hands, head and feet
That’s the same way He gave me mine
And since there’s nothing wrong with yours
I don’t see why I or my people should be the
One to do your toting for you.
So, Mr. Big Shot or whatever your name is
You're really juked this time
You better try hard!
Carry your trouble someplace else!
Because if you make me vex, it will be HELL
To tell the Captain
‘Cause I’ll not tote Big Hellova man like you ANYMORE!
(TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut, from the book of poems by Siahyonkron Nyanseor, published 2014)
About The Author: Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor, Sr. is a life-long activist (*troublemaker) in researching the true history of Africa, the people of African origin in the Diaspora. He had dedicated his teaching of African culture; spent over 45 years advocating for human, civil and constitutional rights of all people, especially, the Liberian masses. He is a Griot, poet, journalist and an ordained Minister of the Gospel. Mr. Nyanseor is the Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of theperspective.orgonline newsmagazine that was established in June 1996. In 2012, he Co-authored Djogbachiachuwa: The Liberian Literature Anthology; his current book of poems: TIPOSAH: Message from the Palava Hut is on the market. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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