this site's owner, Fred van der Kraaij:
Prof Dunn's article was initially published in two leading
Frontpage Africa, and the
Daily Observer, in mid-September 2017, on the eve of the
legislative and presidential elections of October 10, 2017.
I am very grateful to Prof Elwood Dunn who gracefully granted
permission to reproduce this valuable historical overview on
PRESIDENTIAL POWER TRANSFER IN LIBERIAN
HISTORY, JOSEPH JENKINS ROBERTS TO ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF
By D. Elwood Dunn
Emeritus Professor of Political Science
In the midst of the current 2017 elections season I have read
many flippant remarks about the imminent peaceful transfer of
presidential power as a first in Liberian history. No
doubt the memory of the bulk of the present “youth bulge”
generation is conveniently limited to the recent past. But then
I read an interview by the celebrated author Helene Cooper that
went like this:
Interviewer: “Sirleaf is stepping down this year. How does it
feel to see her presidency ending?”
Cooper’s reply: “What is weird is this has never happened
before – we’ve never had a post-president in Liberia, somebody
who voluntarily left at the end of their term.” (1)
I thought it appropriate not only to attempt to correct the
error but to use the opportunity as a teachable moment
especially for the benefit of our youth.
Often correctly cited, as the last time Liberia experienced a
peaceful transfer of power is the Edwin Barclay to William V.S.
Tubman transfer in January 1944. Tubman who served for 27 years
died in office in July 1971 and was succeeded by his vice
president, William R. Tolbert, Jr. After some nine years in
office the deluge happened with his assassination and the bloody
overthrow of Tolbert and with him the perennial True Whig Party
hegemony. While President Samuel Doe and President Charles
Taylor were each “democratically elected”, the 1980 political
violence placed Liberia on a path of instability and war that
effectively ended only with the 2005 election which brought to
power President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
But Tubman’s excessively long tenure of 27 years may have been
the spark that lit the flame of political turmoil. This point
has been made well in at least two books, Tuan Wreh’s behind the
scenes account, THE LOVE OF LIBERTY…THE RULE OF PRESIDENT
WILLIAM V.S. TUBMAN IN LIBERIA, (1976) and David Chieh Sr’s
NEEDLES, BULLETS AND KNIVES, THE ASSASSINATION OF THREE LIBERIAN
PRESIDENTS --MEMOIRS OF A PUBLIC SERVANT (2011), another behind
the scenes eye witness account.(2)
The men -- and they were all men, -- who ruled Liberia from 1847
State independence to 1944 exercised power, almost all of them
with restraint and a sense of proportion. Presidents were seldom
perceived as all-powerful, and as I narrate later some felt the
pressure to resign the presidency, some were defeated in their
quests and most left office in accordance with constitutional
Roberts to Benson Succession
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president was elected in 1847
and inaugurated the following year. His vice president was
Nathaniel Brander. The pair served a first two-year term when
Brander was replaced in the second term by A.D. Williams as vice
president. During his last term Roberts again changed his vice
president, replacing Williams with Stephen Allen Benson.
Roberts’ Republican or True Liberian Party government did not
seek re-election after four two-year terms in office. It is
remarkable that the peaceful transfer of power from Roberts to
Benson was marked, at the inaugural ceremonies by a
“valedictory” address by outgoing President Roberts, an address
that preceded President Benson’s inaugural address.
Benson to Warner Succession
Vice President Benson won the presidency in the elections of
1855 with Benjamin Yates as his vice president. In his third
term in 1860 Benson dropped Vice President Yates, replacing him
with Daniel B. Warner. A Whig Party had emerged but did not then
threaten the ruling Republicans.
Warner to Payne Succession
The Republicans nominated Vice President Warner as president at
their convention in 1862. James Priest was his vice president.
Benson transferred power to Warner at the latter’s inauguration
in 1864. The Warner-Priest team was re-elected in 1865 in a
hotly contested election, which saw a growing strength of the
Whig Party. James S. Payne defeated Warner in the election of
1867. Payne’s vice president was Joseph T. Gibson. The
nomination and election of the pair incurred such political
bitterness that it led to a weakening and eventual defeat of the
Republican Party. The defeated Warner transferred power to Payne
at the latter’s inauguration in 1868.
Payne to Roye Succession
The Republicans re-nominated Payne and Gibson in 1869. Meanwhile
the former Old Whigs had re-organized as the True Whig Party in
Clay-Ashland under the leadership of John Good. Edward James
Roye and James S. Smith were the presidential and vice
presidential candidates for the TWP. A bitter campaign ensued in
part reportedly over the question of skin tone (mullato vs.
ebony black), though some have suggested that President Benson
was not mullato. Former President Warner joined forces with the
Whigs having rankled over his party’s failure to give him a
third term as they had done for Roberts and Benson. The True
Whig Party candidates were elected in May 1869. Though Roye and
Smith were inaugurated in January 1870, some suggest the
Republican bitterness over their defeat engendered what is know
as the Roye Episode in Liberian history which involved two
issues instigated by his Republican opponents: the loan of
1870/71, and extension of presidential tenure from two to four
years. Charged with misuse of loan funds and with
unconstitutional action regarding extension of the presidential
term, Roye was forcibly removed from office and assassinated.
The atmosphere that prevailed in the aftermath of Roye’s
overthrow was almost identical to what obtained in the aftermath
of Tolbert’s overthrow 109 years later.
Roye to Smith Succession
This was not a smooth transfer of power. President Roye was
violently removed from office as result of the Republican Party
revolt against his regime. The Republicans established a
committee to exercise executive power until the vice president
could be brought to the Capital from his Grand Bassa County
home. It took fully three months before Vice President Smith was
by the Legislature sworn into office as president. As President
James Smith completed Roye’s unexpired term in December 1871 the
Legislature by a “Joint Convention” elected former President
Joseph Jenkins Roberts as president.
Smith to Roberts Succession
Roberts thus came to office a second time with his induction in
January 1872. A year later he was re-elected by the Republicans
(TWP not even contesting in aftermath of the Roye overthrow. The
second overthrow suffered by the TWP came 109 years later with
the overthrow of President Tolbert in 1980) with Anthony W.
Gardiner as his vice president. The pair was installed in office
Roberts to Payne Succession
The now old and feeble Roberts apparently did not seek another
term, and so the Republicans turned to former President Payne,
who along with running mate Charles Harmon won the elections of
1875. The Payne-Harmon ticket was inaugurated in January 1876.
Former President Roberts died February 24, 1876.
Payne to Gardiner Succession
The Republicans re-nominated Payne for another term. The TWP
having sufficiently recovered from the events of 1871 fielded
Gardiner and Alfred F. Russell. Gardiner won the election and
together with his vice president was inaugurated in January
1878. Gardiner was re-elected in 1881, no Republican contesting.
After serving only a year in his second term Gardiner resigned
because of the humiliating loss of the Gallinas territory to the
British coupled with his ill health, and Vice President Russell
Russell to Johnson Succession
Early in 1883 the TWP decided to pass over President Russell
because of his association with Gardiner in loss of the western
territory, and nominate H.R.W. Johnson and James Thompson as
candidates respectively for the presidency and the vice
presidency. Curiously the Republican Party also nominated the
pair. At his inauguration in 1884, Johnson apparently had to
choose a party and he opted for the TWP. This first president
born on Liberian soil inaugurated effectively the beginning of
TWP hegemony, which was not broken before the 1980 coup, some 96
Johnson to Cheeseman Succession
Johnson went on to serve four terms (1884 through 1892). He
stepped down gracefully and Joseph J. Cheeseman was nominated to
replace him with William D. Coleman as vice president. A new
Republican Party nominated former Vice President Anthony D.
Williams as its candidate. Cheeseman and Coleman won the
election and were inaugurated January 1892. The TWP nominated
again the Cheeseman-Coleman ticket. A.D. Williams contested once
again in opposition. President Cheeseman and his vice president
served three terms, the last of which began in January 1896. On
November 15, 1896 President Cheeseman suddenly died in office.
Cheeseman to Coleman Succession
Cheeseman’s vice president succeeded him. The TWP re-nominated
President Coleman in 1899 with J.J. Ross as vice president. A
new opposition party, the National Union Party nominated A.D.
Williams for the presidency. Ross was also endorsed by the NUP.
The TWP ticket won. Vice President Ross died October 1899.
Coleman to Gibson Succession
President Coleman was inaugurated January 1900 with no vice
president. On December 11, 1900 Coleman resigned the presidency
because of his inability to contain infighting among
Gola-Liberians as he attempted extension of the State’s writ.
The office of vice president being vacant, Secretary of State
G.W. Gibson, then next in the constitutional line of succession,
was sworn in as president.(4)
Gibson to Arthur Barclay
In the ensuing election of 1901, Gibson and running mate, Joseph
D. Summerville, were nominated by the TWP. A new opposition
party, the People’s Party nominated former President Coleman and
James H. Dennis as his vice president. The victorious Gibson was
inaugurated January 1902, standing down after a single term.
Arthur Barclay to Howard
In the 1902 election Arthur Barclay and J.D. Summerville
constituted the TWP ticket. There was no opposition. In the
election that followed a new party, the Old Whig emerged. Former
President Coleman with John Hilary Tubman as his running mate
was the candidate of the Old Whig. The incumbent Barclay and
Summerville of TWP won, and Barclay was first inaugurated
January 1904. Barclay went on to serve three terms despite
opposition from “The Other Whig Party” which fielded a ticket in
1905. Vice President Summerville died in July 1905, and was
succeeded by J.J. Dossen at the 1907 convention of the TWP. At
the 1907 convention a constitutional amendment increasing the
presidential term from two to four years was approved and
successfully submitted to referendum. Barclay thus began his
third term in January 1908, serving to January 1912. Arthur
Barclay transferred power to the elected TWP candidates Daniel
E. Howard, the president-elect and S.G. Harmon, his running
mate. The pair was inaugurated January 1912. President Howard
served two four-year terms.
Howard to King Succession
At the TWP convention in 1919 C.D.B. King and former Vice
President Dossen contested. King and his running mate, Samuel A
Ross won, and Howard transferred power to King on inauguration
day, January 5, 1920. The People’s Party led by former President
Howard in 1922 contested the election in 1923. The opposition
candidates were former Vice President S.G. Harmon for president
and T.J.R. Faulkner his running mate. King won, though he
dropped his vice president and carried perhaps the first
indigenous/Grebo-Liberian vice president, Henry Too Wesley as
his running mate. The King-Too Wesley team won.
Four years later, King again contested under the banner of the
TWP and won, though he dropped Vice President Too Wesley and
replaced him with Allen N. Yancy reportedly because Too Wesley
was sympathetic to the opposition’s opposition to a third term.
Though the opposing People’s Party led by Faulkner strenuously
campaigned against a third term, invoking even then the
gathering storm of the “Fernando Po forced labor crisis,” King
won his third term and was inaugurated with Vice President Yancy
on January 2, 1928. This was to be his last inauguration for he
did not complete his term. He was forced to resign his office on
March 3, 1930, his vice president having preceded him in
resigning his own office a day earlier.
King to Edwin Barclay Succession
As in 1900 when Secretary of State Garretson Gibson succeeded to
the presidency upon the resignation of President Coleman and
with a vacant vice presidency, Secretary of State Edwin Barclay
was sworn in as president.(5) By then the forced labor crisis
was raging. Barclay contested the 1931 election in his own right
and won. He was inaugurated in 1932 and served his first
four-year term during which the constitution was amended to
provide for a single eight-year term. Amidst mounting internal
opposition and external disdain Barclay won his single
eight-year term, which ended when his successor, William V.S.
Tubman was inaugurated in January 1944.
Edwin Barclay to Tubman
And now to the succession many Liberians seemingly can recall,
Edwin Barclay to Tubman. In January 1944 another peaceful
transfer of power from Edwin Barclay to Tubman occurred, the
latter having won the nomination of the TWP against opposition
from James Francis Cooper’s Democratic Party.
Tubman served his first eight-year term and then maneuvered a
constitutional amendment for an indefinite succession of
four-year terms. That way he remained as president until he died
in office in July 1971 not completing his fifth term though
elected to the sixth.
Presidential Successions Going Forward
Peaceful transfers of presidential power ended with Vice
President Tolbert constitutionally succeeding the deceased
President Tubman. Tolbert would himself be overthrown in a
bloody coup d’état in April 1980 after completing his
predecessor’s four-year term (1972-1975) and five years into his
own eight-year term, the latter made possible through another
constitutional amendment. Following a military interregnum, 1980
to 1986, Samuel K. Doe was inaugurated the 21st president of
Liberia. He was assassinated on September 9, 1990, two years shy
of his first six-year term of office. Liberia descended into
civil war, which raged on until 1997 when Charles Taylor won an
election and was inaugurated president. He too was soon forced
to resign and in August 2003 he went into forced exile. His vice
president, Moses Blah succeeded constitutionally but voluntarily
relinquished his mandate to an interim leader, Charles Gyude
Bryant, in facilitation of a peace agreement. Bryant assured the
interim until elections were held in 2005, which brought to
power President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her running mate Vice
President Joseph N. Boakai. The pair is completing its second
and constitutional last term. It is this development that
explains the current political campaign, which will determine
who succeeds President Sirleaf and be inaugurated the 25th
President of Liberia in January 2018.(6)
This brief account of presidential power transfer points to a
rarity in the transfer of power from an incumbent political
party to an opposition party. The 1870 transfer of incumbent
Republican Payne to opposition TWP Roye was the only clear such
transfer. Less clear was the transfer from Republican Russell to
H.R.W. Johnson who had the luxury of not declaring party
affiliation (both parties supporting him) until after the
election when he declared for the TWP. It will be of some
interest to see whether the impending October 2017 elections
will witness power transfer within the ruling party or from the
ruling Unity Party to one of the scores of contesting opposition
(1) Lucy Feldman, “What American Women Can Learn from Liberia’s
Female President”, an online interview, Time Magazine, April 14,
(2) Tuan Wreh, The Love of Liberty… The Rule of President
William V.S. Tubman, 1944-1971, C. Hurst & Company, London,
1976, 138pp. & David Dueh Chieh, Sr. Needles, Bullets, and
Knives: The Assassinations of Three Liberian Presidents, Memoirs
of a Public Servant. Printed in the USA by Lulu.com, 2011,
It may be useful to add that rumblings for serious political
reform and change began in the aftermath of African independence
in the 1960s. Such rumblings found expression in the 1968 trial
for treason of Ambassador Henry B. Fahnbulleh, Sr., a trial that
Jeune Afrique dobbed “Liberia on Trial” (“Le Liberia fait son
process”). Momentum for change in the 1970s was set in motion in
many ways by President Tolbert himself, but when the forces for
change (both within and outside the government) and those of the
status quo were joined, national leadership was wanting and so
the political melee degenerated in political violence first with
the Demonstrations of April 14, 1979, and then the coup d’état a
year later which led to the calamity of civil war.
(3) Unpublished Manuscript, C. Abayomi Cassell, “Liberia:
History of the First African Republic”, volume II, pp191-198
(4) The question arises as to why the constitutional succession
by Speaker Robert H. Marshall was overruled by the Legislature
in favor of the next in line of succession, namely, Secretary of
State Gibson. First the 1847 Constitution then extant says in
Art.III Sec. 2: The legislature may by law provide for the cases
of removal, death, resignation, or inability of both the
president and vice president, declaring what officer shall then
act as president and such officer shall act accordingly until
the disability be removed, or a president shall be elected. The
enabling Act of the legislature was: In the event of the death,
resignation, or other disability of both the president and vice
president, the speaker of the house shall act as president until
the disability be removed.
According to Dr. Jallah Barbu (whom I consulted), the
Legislature apparently determined that the speaker was not well
suited for the job. The Legislature therefore repealed the act
and instead brought in Secretary of State Gibson. Barbu’s
opinion is that “the speaker was not contemplated by the framers
to succeed since in fact the speaker would only be acting and
would therefore revert to his position when election of the
president took place; this means then that giving the speaker
the right to act as done in the act of the legislature would be
a gross violation of the separation of powers. So, the decision
to move the secretary of state in to office was for the [good of
the] rule of law and sanctity of the separation of powers
(5) Here was a case where both the president and vice president
had resigned. Some historical accounts have it that Speaker J.N.
Lewis was distant in Sinoe County as the events unfolded in
Monrovia and so the Legislature had Secretary of State Barclay
sworn in as president. Apparently, the Legislature used
primarily the same reasoning as in the case of the Gibson
succession in Dec. 1900. Barbu opines: “Clearly the repeal at
the time of Speaker Marshall had not been reinstated or any act
taken otherwise (that I know of) nor had the constitution been
amended to state otherwise. So, I can say arguably that the law
was that the secretary of state assumed office in such cases.”
One might conclude that the same reasoning that led the
Legislature to act in 1900 was operational thirty years later in
the King to Barclay succession.
Our current Constitution of 1986 is explicit on the matter of
lines of succession, reserving to the Speaker the right of
succession in case of death or disability of both president and
(6) Presidents who defeated incumbents are Payne (defeated
Warner in 1867), and Roye (defeated Payne in 1869).
Assassination was the fate of Roye (1871), Tolbert (1980) and
Doe (1990). Cheeseman and Tubman died in office. Gardiner,
Coleman, King, and Taylor resigned the presidency.
It may be useful to recall here the presidential eight-year term
phenomenon. Barclay was the first to cause a constitutional
amendment instituting an eight-year term after he completed
King’s unexpired term in 1931 and served his own four-year term.
Tubman served first his eight-year term as inherited, but then
proceeded to amend the constitution for an indefinite succession
of four-year terms. Upon completing Tubman’s unexpired term as
well as servicing the full four-year term to which Tubman had
been elected, Tolbert borrowed a page from Barclay and caused
another constitutional amendment for the reinstitution of a
single eight-year term which he then began serving in January
|Dr. D. Elwood Dunn is one of Liberia’s most
distinguished historians and educators and a prolific author. He is
an Emeritus Professor of Political Science.
D. Elwood Dunn was born in Lower Buchanan, Grand Bassa County,
Liberia. He graduated from Cuttington College (Suakoko, Liberia) in
1964 with a B.A. in Political Science. He studied for two years in
France and earned a Certificate in Political Science from the
Institute d’Etudes Politiques of the University of Lyon. In 1969 he
obtained a M.A. in International Relations of the American
University’s (Washington DC) School of International Service. In
1972 he received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the same
discipline. His doctoral dissertation which he began in 1969 and
concluded in early 1972 resulted in a major publication, ‘The
Foreign Policy of Liberia during the Tubman Era 1944-1971’ (see
Working experience - in Liberia
Elwood Dunn taught at the University of Liberia and also served in
the government. In 1979-1980 he was Minister of State for
Presidential Affairs in the Tolbert Administration. He was lucky to
be abroad when a group of soldiers, led by master-sergeant Samuel
Doe, staged a bloody coup and assassinated President Tolbert. He was
one of four of Tolbert’s ministers who escaped death by public
execution, shortly after the April 12, 1980 coup of the PRC
(People’s Redemption Council).
Working experience - in the US
In 1981 Elwood Dunn joined the Sewanee faculty of the University of
the South, in Tennessee (USA) where he was Professor of Political
Science until his retirement in June 2012. He taught courses in
international relations and comparative politics. His research
interests were focused on the political and societies of West
Africa, notably in his home-country Liberia.
He appeared on TV and in radio programs on PBS, NPR, MSNBC and the
BBC and gave presentations on Liberia at US Congressional hearings
and at the State Department during the civil war years (1989-1997;
2012 Independence Orator
President Sirleaf selected him as the 2012 National Orator at the
country’s 165th Independence Anniversary in Monrovia, on July 26,
2012. Dr. Dunn’s Independence Oration, entitled ‘Renewing Our
National Promise’, was a reflection on Liberia’s past. He reminded
his audience of the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the Liberian
exeperience since the early 1820s. He also presented his views on
the role of values in the reconstruction of the nation-state after
the devastating civil wars (1989-2003). In particular, he invited
the audience to reflect on the appropriateness of the country's
national symbols (seal, motto, flag a.s.o.), notably nowadays, in
the 21st century.
Professor D. Elwood Dunn is a prolific writer and has authored
and co-authored many books. Below are some of his publications
(articles, speeches a.s.o. excluded):
‘The Foreign Policy of Liberia during the Tubman Era, 1944-1971’ (D.
Elwood Dunn; Hutchinson Benham, London/Great Britain, 1979).
‘Historical Dictionary of LIBERIA’ (D. Elwood Dunn and Sven Holsoe;
The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J. & London, 1985).
‘Liberia: A National Polity in Transition’ (D. Elwood Dunn, S. Byron
Tarr; The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J. & London, 1988).
‘A History of the Episcopal Church in Liberia, 1821 - 1980’ (D.
Elwood Dunn; The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J. & London,
‘Liberia’ (World Bibliographical Series (D. Elwood Dunn: Clio
‘Historical Dictionary of Liberia’, 2nd Edition (D. Elwood Dunn,
Amos J. Beyan, Carl Patrick Burrowes; The Scarecrow Press, Inc.,
Metuchen, N.J. & London, 2000).
‘Hawaii and Liberia – Hawaii und Liberia’ (Robert Stauffer, D.
Elwood Dunn, editors; Germany, 2008).
‘Liberia and the United States during the Cold War: Limits of
Reciprocity’ (D. Elwood Dunn; Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke/UK,
‘The Annual Messages of the Presidents of Liberia, 1848-2010: State
of the Nation Addresses to the National Legislature’ (D. Elwood
Dunn; The Gruyter Saur, München/Germany, 2011).
‘Liberia and Independent Africa, 1940s to 2012: A Brief Political
Profile’ (D. Elwood Dunn; Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers,
Cherry Hill, N.J./USA, 2012).
In addition to the foregoing, and among other functions, Dr. Dunn
was editor of the Liberian Studies Journal from 1985 until 1995.