More than 30 years after her father was slain in a bloody coup, the daughter of former Liberia President William Tolbert has been sworn in as the new mayor of Bentol, her family’s base and a town that has played an outsized role in the West African nation’s political history.
At an inauguration event over the weekend, 70-year-old Christine Tolbert Norman promised “speedy development” modeled on the work of her father.
“My dad had a vision to raise this country from mat to mattress,” she said, evoking one of Tolbert’s famous slogans. “That man gave the people economic empowerment so they would not sleep on the floor, but would instead sleep on mattresses.”
While Norman’s family ties evoke memories of a more stable period – before autocratic rule in the 1980s and then 14 years of civil conflict that killed more than 250,000 people – some said her election provided further evidence of Liberia’s continued dependence on the same families who have dominated the country’s politics for decades.
Bentol, a small town located not far from Liberia’s capital, takes its name from two presidents: Stephen Allen Benson, who ran a farm there and was in office in the mid-1800s, and Tolbert, who was born there and took power in 1971.
Norman worked for her father as an assistant education minister. She still speaks admiringly of Tolbert’s efforts to develop the country, and to bridge the divide between Americo-Liberians, who descended from freed American slaves, and the country’s indigenous population.
Those efforts were cut short, however, on April 12, 1980, when a 28-year-old military officer name Samuel Doe staged a coup that involved killing Tolbert in the Executive Mansion. The exact circumstances of Tolbert’s death have never been confirmed. Some reports indicate he was shot, while another version holds that he was disemboweled in his bed.
Less than two weeks after the coup, Doe’s People’s Redemption Council ordered that 13 leading officials in Tolbert’s government be stripped down to their undergarments, tied to poles and executed on the beach by firing squad. One of the few high-ranking Tolbert officials to survive the purge was current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Norman escaped the violence, spending eight months under house arrest before fleeing to the United States and then moving to Ivory Coast, where she lived for 18 years. She returned not long before Sirleaf took office in 2006 as the first elected postwar president.
Sirleaf, who won re-election 2011, has vowed to cultivate a new generation of political leaders.
Doris Myers, who runs a program that encourages Liberian youth to pursue careers in science and technology, criticized Sirleaf’s decision to appoint Norman.
“They are not creating a generation of young leaders,” she said. “If you appoint a 70-year-old person to such a position, where do you leave the young ones who are the future leaders?”
Norman, who since returning to Liberia has devoted her time to education projects including a popular private school in Monrovia’s Paynesville district, dismissed criticism about her age and said she was focused on the wellbeing of Bentol.
She said she would start a project to restore the town’s buildings, many that remain damaged from wartime looting.
One of the few surviving structures in the town is the Zion Praise Church, where her father served as pastor until his death. Norman said that with time, religion had helped her to forgive her father’s killers.
“Forgiveness is not an option. It is essential for an individual,” she said. “Our family has generally forgiven the people who took my dad’s life because it is a command of God.”