This week, U.S. President George Bush embarked on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa. His five-day itinerary included Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. Ironically, media attention has largely focused on another African country this week: Liberia.
On the eve of Bush’s African tour, the mainstream media was abuzz with speculation on a possible U.S. military intervention in the West African nation. Bush, the United Nations and others are demanding the resignation of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s president since 1997.
Although the U.S. media has only recently covered the situation in Liberia, the civil war there has raged on and off for nearly 14 years. The humanitarian crisis is immense. An estimated 700,000 Liberians have been killed and about one million are now refugees throughout the world.
The Liberian crisis has also destabilized much of the West African region. War refugees have flooded not only neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), but also Ghana, Nigeria and countries as far away as Egypt. President Taylor by all accounts supported the bloody coup in neighboring Sierra Leone in 1999 and has aided murderous rebels in Côte d’Ivoire.
The media would have us believe that thousands of Liberians are demanding a U.S. intervention to throw off an unjust dictator. The reality, of course, is much more complex.
Liberia: Land of Liberty?
The deep crisis in Liberia and the possible U.S. military mission there comes after a 180-year relationship between the U.S. and this small country of 3 million inhabitants.
In 1822 freed slaves from the U.S. founded Liberia, which eventually became the continent’s first republic in 1847. Monrovia, the country’s capital, was named after U.S. president James Monroe, who along with other white industrialists and politicians helped found the American Colonization Society in order to repatriate Blacks back to Africa. Some 15,000 freed slaves and freeborn Blacks from the U.S. eventually migrated to Liberia.
But Liberia was rarely the land of liberty its name purported it to be. The Americo-Liberians, as the descendents of the freed slaves are known, soon formed an economic and political oligarchy in the country in which they were a small minority. Never constituting more than 5 percent of the population, Americo-Liberians held every top office and controlled much of the nation’s resources, which include iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold, rubber, coffee and cocoa.
The Americo-Liberians built Liberia in the image of the U.S., imitating its political institutions and even its flag. But Liberia also copied the inequality and class stratification of its brother across the sea. While Liberia remains one of only two African nations never to be openly colonized, it was largely a U.S. protectorate under the domination of U.S. imperialism.
Americo-Liberians had mutually profitable ties with foreign corporations in the U.S. and Europe, and grew rich off the mineral extraction and the rubber and cocoa industries. Rubber was king in Liberia for nearly 100 years, and U.S. tire companies like Firestone had huge holdings in the country.
After World War II, Liberia also became an important country in the international shipping industry by offering the Liberian flag as a “flag of convenience.” Ships from all over the world fly the Liberian flag because of their low fees and lax labor regulations.
Later, Liberia became strategically important because of the U.S. Navy’s Omega radio station based there. The eight Omega stations worldwide were a necessary part of the U.S. naval navigation system until 1997, when the Global Positioning System superseded it. For most of the 1980s and ’90s, Liberia served as the broadcast point for Voice of America on the continent, and Human Rights Watch once stated that “much of United States intelligence for West Africa passes through the Monrovia embassy.”
During the 1960s, Liberian President William V.S. Tubman was an important figure in the Pan-African movement that rose up to end colonial rule in Africa. Monrovia joined Conakry, Accra and Freetown as centers of anticolonial struggle and Pan-Africanism. But the inequalities between the indigenous Liberians and the Americo-Liberians chafed at the country’s ideals.
Doe comes to power
In 1980, a then-unknown military master sergeant named Samuel Kanyon Doe took advantage of food riots to lead a military coup overthrowing the presidency of William R. Tolbert. Doe and his cronies declared the coup a “revolution” on behalf of indigenous Africans against Americo-Liberian oppression. The president, his family and the entire cabinet were brutally slaughtered in a public display of violence that became a signature of the Doe regime.
Instead of condemning the coup against one of their allies, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan embraced Doe and in 1982 invited him to the White House, where Reagan made his famous blunder of calling Doe “Chairman Moe.” Reagan also heralded the long-term ties between the two countries and pledged to support Liberia in its goal of a “return to democratic institutions and economic stabilization.”
Doe’s sudden rise to power, access to Washington, and his right-wing foreign policies led some African commentators to question whether the U.S. had a role in the 1980 coup. Liberia became a primary U.S. partner in the region, supporting U.S. policy in Palestine and to a lesser degree in South Africa. Doe was elected in a massively fraudulent election in 1985 after a “return to civilian rule,” and was known for his corruption, cronyism and his preferential treatment of his own Krahn tribe.
There were several coups attempts in the 1980s against Doe and a popular resistance to the regime’s brutality. Opposition groups were broken up and their leaders jailed and killed, and many more fled as political and economic refugees. One of these exiles was Charles Taylor, a former Doe aide who studied for many years in the U.S. He fled to the U.S. after falling out with Doe, was arrested and faced extradition back to Liberia where he would almost certainly be executed.
Mysteriously, Taylor escaped from prison and made his way to Côte d’Ivoire to begin an invasion of Liberia in 1989 by his National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Many believed that Taylor was handpicked by the U.S. to oust Doe, who was increasingly a liability. A number of other rebel groups sprouted up in this period and rebel leader Prince Johnson assassinated Doe in 1990.
Doe’s death didn’t bring peace to Liberia. Various rebel factions partitioned the country with Johnson and Taylor both claiming the presidency. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in a peacekeeping force that briefly established a transitional government. Despite cease-fires and a peace accord in 1995 brokered by Nigeria, fighting continued in Liberia.
The entire economic infrastructure of the country had collapsed by the mid-1990s. Much of the country’s railway system, established by mining interests, has been ripped up and sold for scrap metal. Roads and buildings have fallen apart and public services are almost nonexistent.
The fighting continued until 1997 when a cease-fire and then multiparty presidential elections occurred. Taylor received an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote for president in a somewhat contested but generally accepted election.
Taylor, diamond wars and regional conflict
But Taylor’s presidency did not bring prosperity and peace to Liberia or the region. Quite the opposite. The country was plagued by economic crisis, and Taylor soon began destabilizing Sierra Leone and militarily supported the bloody coup there. The mass extraction of diamonds in Sierra Leone financed the Taylor regime. In 2000, the UN banned the sale or exchange of diamonds from Sierra Leone because of its direct link to the fratricidal violence in the region. Then Taylor-supported rebels began seizing territory in Côte d’Ivoire. Both Guinea and Cote D’voire soon launched their own rebel campaigns into Liberia. Today, both rebel factions are at the gates of Monrovia.
The new attention that Liberia is receiving in the world media is a little late. Ghana, Nigeria and other members of ECOWAS had already hosted a number of peace negotiations by the time Bush was contemplating his move. Taylor had reportedly already agreed to leave the country at the Accra peace summit held last month, weeks before Bush demanded that Taylor resign. And what had a been a call for a UN-led peacekeeping mission in the country became a call for a U.S. military mission.
Ghanaian President John Kufuor and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo have both criticized efforts by the European Union, the UN and the U.S. to nab Taylor in the middle of the peace negotiations. Earlier this year the International Criminal Court secretly indicted Taylor for war crimes in the Sierra Leone war. The indictment was revealed only when Taylor went to the Accra summit and the UN demanded that Ghana arrest him. Ghana refused, saying that doing so would threaten the existing peace process. It was upon Taylor’s return to Liberia late last month that talk of a U.S. intervention surfaced.
A decision on U.S. involvement in Liberia was expected before Bush’s trip to Africa, but instead, a team of military advisors, civil engineers and marines were sent to the U.S. embassy compound in Monrovia to assess the potential threat to a peace-keeping mission. Bush wants to avoid another Somalia debacle, but would love a clean and simple “humanitarian mission” to draw attention from the increasingly sticky situation in Iraq. Liberia may not have the economic, diplomatic and strategic importance it once had, but Liberia could be a big embarrassment if Bush doesn’t act, and a potential boon to Bush’s coming election campaign.
But few things are simple in Liberia and any U.S. military involvement is likely to stir up, not solve, the long-standing ethnic and political strife in the country. Only an international peacekeeping effort led by the ECOWAS nations themselves is likely to help Liberia rebuild and turn onto the road to peace.
Liberia and Bush’s African policy
The U.S. government was a staunch supporter of Doe during his dictatorship in Liberia and turned a blind eye to the astronomical bloodletting in the past 14 years. Human rights, peace and democracy in Liberia would seem unimportant to U.S. “national security interests.” So why is the Bush administrations so concerned now about the Taylor regime, just as it is about to be overthrown?
During his election campaign, Bush questioned the role of the U.S. as “nation-builder,” and put Africa at the bottom of the list of U.S. trade and security priorities. Bush now says action in Liberia is mandated because “we hate to see people suffering.”
Why is Africa now front and center today? Why is little Liberia now in the crosshairs?
The daily newspaper the Post of Zambia perhaps summed it up best, writing, “Bush’s visit to Africa is not about promoting democracy, peace and economic well-being of the peoples of this continent. Instead, we know that his visit is aimed at laying the basis for thoroughgoing and enduring United States military and economic hegemony all over the world.”
Libero Della Piana is the national co-coordinator of the Young Communist League, USA. He studied in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1987 during the Doe regime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org