‘The Lone Star Forever’
As the Republic of Liberia, Africa’s oldest politically independent nation celebrates July 26 its 165th anniversary as a nation, we must recognize that much has been gained over the years in one of the oldest African republics in the world.
Liberia made history by electing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first woman president on the African continent. But one thing remains the same: the national flag of this African republic still resembles that of the United States of America.
It was on Oct. 24, 1915, if my history serves me correctly, that Daniel E. Howard, president of the Republic of Liberia (1912-1920), signed into law proclaiming that Aug. 24 be observed each year as a public holiday to mark “Flag Day” in Liberia. This proclamation also gave the Americo-Liberians (freed American slaves who settled there) a flag that was a symbol of pride and dignity, but a flag that did not recognize or have significance for those peoples that made the “Grain Coast” their home long before the Americo-Liberians arrived.
In grade school, we were told to wear our Sunday best on “Flag Day” and celebrate by marching around our villages, towns and cities to be proud of this flag that did not represent any indigenous pride or contain any meaningful native image — something you will notice on many African flags — a spear, machete, grain, hoe or shield. If all Liberians are told to celebrate Flag Day in style each year to show their pride, or told to fly the flag on buildings, then I am baffled as to why nothing in the flag of Liberia represents or resembles our being as a people who are the majority of the population.
Forgive me, for I am not a flag historian, but this I do know and believe: a flag of any country is that country’s symbol of pride and unity. But when the freed American slaves implanted America to West Africa following the establishment of the American Colonization Society in 1816, they brought with them a piece of America’s pride and unity and implanted it into Liberia — the flag of the United States with all of its colors and stripes — and called it the flag of the Republic of Liberia.
These are the words of the Lone Star Forever, written by Liberia’s 18th president, Edwin J. Barclay (1930-1944), and often sung as Liberia’s second national anthem.
When freedom raised her glowing form
On Montserrado’s verdant heights
She set within the dome of night
Midst low’ring skies and thunderstorm —
The star of liberty.
Then forward sons of freedom march
Defend our sacred heritage
A nation’s call from age to age
A nation’s loud triumphant song
The song of liberty!
The Lone Star forever, the Lone Star forever
Oh, long may it flow over land and o’er sea
Desert it, no never!
Uphold it, forever!
Oh, shout for the Lone Starr’d banner, all hail
One may say the flag is a piece of cloth, and the words “then forward sons of freedom march,” could be interpreted as the flight of freed American slaves from America. But that piece of cloth when called a flag of any country, as in the case of Liberia, is then a symbol of disunity rather than unity, since it excludes the natives in all of its “glowing form.” To me, the flag of any country should be and is a symbol of pride and unity for every citizen in that country and not just a handful of people. But in the case of Liberia, I believe from 1847 until now, the red, white and blue in the Liberian flag still represents disunity for these colors have misrepresented Liberians instead of uniting all people of Liberia.
The Liberian flag is not only divisive, it is an insult to African Liberian culture, devalues the heritage and challenges the sense of national pride and inclusion. Liberia is the only country in Africa with a replica of the American flag as its national symbol. What does this say to us? It is the lack of national pride and creativity to copy a flag that does not represent the Liberian reality. Instead it only captures the past experience of less than a fifth of its population.
If you are a Liberian or have ever lived in Liberia, you will agree with me that the Liberian flag has been or continues to be used as an instrument of oppression.
For example, I knew an American friend who was a member of the U.S. Peace Corps. He was flabbergasted to be facing the threats of jail. His only “crime” was that he walked or did not stand at attention when the flag was being lowered. I reluctantly paid his fine. Not that he could not pay, but it was better to be on the safe side than being sent to jail or detained. My grade school teacher was clear that “one must be beyond 50 feet of the raising or lowering flag in order to walk and not be arrested.” The fines ranged anywhere from money to livestock and were often paid to militia men or members of the Armed Forces of Liberia on hand when the flag was being raised or lowered. No receipt.
When I was a school teacher, I was one of many native Liberians who were critical of the lack of representation of the indigenous people in the flag of Liberia and all its symbols. The voices of the people reached the political establishment in Monrovia, and during the William R. Tolbert administration, the government reluctantly agreed to appoint a flag review committee. Their aim was to come up with an alternative that would make the flag inclusive. One of the members on this flag review committee was a representative from my home county, Maryland (At that time Maryland County extended as far as today’s River Gee County.) Like in everything in Liberia, and although this group was composed of both native and Americo-Liberians, their assessment fell on deaf ears.
Today, the Liberian flag is also used for commercial purposes — a source of generating revenue. If you ever traveled or visited any seaport around the world, you will notice that many of the merchant vessels fly the Liberian flag. It is a sad comedy, but the flag of Liberia ironically is also known as “A Flag of Convenience.” Since 1948, when the Liberian registry was created, owners of ships have taken advantage of the open registry to crew their ships without being subject to the labor and wage regulations of their home countries; and in most cases, these ship owners escape taxation.
There are more than 3,000 foreign vessels flying the Liberian flag, with German companies leading the registry with 510 vessels and 95 ships belonging to the United States companies, according to information posted on the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs Web site. These vessels sail a total of more than $14 million into the Liberian budget, records show. Yet, there is no postal system or electrical grid. One would think that with this revenue, the country would be well connected by paved roads and bridges. The majority of the population has no sanitation and struggle to find clear and clean drinking water and garbage management. The lack of these services for all but a few Liberians clearly shows that even in this way the flag that is supposed to symbolize “their” country continues to generate evidence of their lack of acknowledgement in Monrovia, the source of rules, taxes and fines, but little else.
David C. Butty, a native of Liberia, West Africa, is executive dean for International Programs at Wayne County Community College District. This column appears monthly in the Michigan Citizen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org