The Uncontrollable Force: A Brief History of the Liberian Frontier Force, 1908-1944*

Article excerpt


About ten miles northeast of Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, next to the deserted Hotel Africa, stands the monolithic Unity Conference Center. This huge venue, built by President Tolbert to house the 1979 conference of the OAU, like the former luxury hotel adjacent, is now vacant.1 Yet, the discerning visitor can still make out, above the entrance to the grand auditorium, a gigantic mural depicting relevant scenes from Liberian History.2 This huge painting literally frames the events and personages that shaped the history of the republic as official discourse. William R. Tolbert (1971-1980), the president who commissioned the mural, is depicted standing proudly in the lower left comer and is just one of the several influential Liberian presidents who figure prominently. Centrally located in the painting, situated next to the face of President Daniel Howard (1912-1920), are the enlisted men of the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF). These soldiers, dressed in their khaki uniforms, sport red tarbush style hats, and bedrolls strapped to their backs. The scene shows them on a mission engaged in a firefight. They lie on their stomachs on the ground firing their rifles over a hillock at an invisible adversary. The central placement of the LFF within the mural is important for several reasons. First, it serves as an official tribute to the indigenous men who formed the bulk of the Frontier Force during the "pacification of the hinterland"; a process largely completed by the end of the Howard presidency in 1920. Second, it tacitly acknowledges that without the formation of the Frontier Force in 1908 much more of Liberia's claimed territory might have been seized by neighboring colonial powers England and France. The Frontier Force not only brought territories and chiefdoms into the political custodianship of the Liberian government, but also acted as a bulwark against European encroachment and a defender of the Liberian state. The centrality of this scene within this official depiction of the Liberian state's past recognizes and validates the Frontier Force's dual role.3 However, one must also recognize that this official history represents a self-congratulatory narrative, one that depicts the linear progress of the Liberian nation-state as a unique experiment of black self-rule in Africa. Liberia, the continents' first independent republic, was established as a type of "Black Zion" for settlers from the African diaspora of the Americas (overwhelmingly from the United States and to a lesser extent from the Caribbean).4 This narrative omits how the indigenous African practices of warfare diverged and transformed the Liberian Army (the LFF) from its theoretical American model.

Central Contention

Rather than being simple undisciplined and incurable rabble-rousers, the African troops incorporated into the LFF instead applied time honored indigenous methods of warfare.5 They operated under a set of assumptions unfamiliar to the officers under whom they served. From its inception, two seemingly competing but actually compatible cultural ideologies and modes of warfare were at work in the Force. The officer corps, which included the Americo-Liberian officers along with their American advisors, operated under military codes influenced by the practices of European colonial forces operating in tropical Africa. The goal of the LFF was to establish authority and collect taxes; to brutally impose a "Pax Liberica" on the "savage" and unruly hinterlands. The enlisted troops waged warfare based upon African codes and traditions of the first indigenous groups to be inducted: the Lorma (Lorna), Mende, and Mano (Mah), among others. These groups generally conceptualized warfare as a raiding system that aimed to collect booty, to exact revenge, or to liberate pawns from servitude.

At first blush these indigenous practices and understandings contradicted the official ideology of the "civilized" Liberian government whose goal was to bring the hinterland population under the sovereign and political jurisdiction of Monrovia and open it to internal trade. …