Liberia: rewriting history By William Bowles

27 July 2003

“Another day, another atrocity in Liberia’s blood-soaked capital Monrovia” is how the Independent tells it to us (26/07/03). And of course, the predictable pleas for ‘intervention’ by the “world’s superpower” from liberal commentators. The entire history of how Liberia got to be where it is today, and especially the role of the US, the IMF and the World Bank in creating the current situation, has been erased from our consciousness by the corporate media.

Either the current chaos is presented as being ‘typical’ for an African country or, as one in need of ‘humanitarian’ assistance from the West. The current situation being the result of foreign intervention and manipulation is rarely touched upon by the mass media. In an article by Fergal Keane also in the Independent, the best Keane could come up with is to advocate the recolonisation of the country, when he says that:

“Only by turning Liberia into an international protectorate, à la Bosnia, can the country be saved.”

There’s not much likelihood of this happening, given the lack of strategic or economic significance of a country, which since the beginning of the 1980s has been pretty well destroyed as a result primarily of US policies. Challenging the economic and political policies of the West as being at the root of Liberia’s dilemma is not raised. Instead, Keane and his ilk retreat into an apolitical world, determined by some kind of vague ‘moralistic’ position where the West, no longer having any interest in the region, has better things to do.

US interest in ‘saving’ the country can be best summed up by this comment from Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said he hasn’t been convinced of the need for troops.

“”I think it’s premature, and I would think a strong case would have to be made that this is necessary to protect America’s vital interests,” he said.””

Vital interests? How many times have I heard this phrase? So much for US and UK mouthings about their desire for freedom and democracy around the world.

A nation founded by freed slaves?
Much of the ‘liberal’ press commentary that urges US intervention in Liberia is based upon the entirely false claim that Liberia was “founded by freed US slaves” (eg Washington Post, 01/07/03). It backs up this entirely false claim by citing the opinions of individuals in Liberia. But of course desperate people resort to desperate measures.

Yet even a brief analysis of the history of Liberia reveals the reactionary and racist role of the US in its creation and US economic and political interests vested in the country from its foundation in 1822 to the present-day as being the cause of the current situation.

“The doctrines of [the American Colonization] Society … should be regarded by every man of color in these United States, as an evil for magnitude, unexcelled, and whose doctrines aim at the entire extinction of the free colored population and the riviting of Slavery.”

Thus spoke the Philadelphia Convention of the Free People of Colour in 1832 about the activities of the American Colonization Society, an organisation formed mainly by rich Southern slave owners (Thomas Jefferson was also a member) that created the country we know today as Liberia.

‘Repatriation’, a word the West knows well
In 1822, the society established, on the West Coast of Africa a colony that in 1847 became the ‘independent’ nation of Liberia. Repatriation it was proposed, was the best way to avoid emancipation of African-Americans in the United States and thus avoid integration and the recognition of African-Americans as equal citizens. But the idea of ‘repatriating’ several million African-Americans, many of whom were already second or third generation descendants, was in any case, unrealistic. By 1867 the society had sent no more than 13,000 emigrants, and it was to send no more. In its early days, white administrators from the American Colonization Society ran the Liberian colony.

English-speaking Liberians, descendants of the former American slaves, make up only 5% of the population, but have historically dominated the intellectual and ruling class. Liberia’s indigenous population is primarily composed of Mande, Kwa, and Mel peoples. Liberia’s constitution denied the indigenous Liberians equal rights with the immigrants from America and their descendants, and under their US-created constitution of 1847, didn’t even the achieve the right to vote until 1951.

“Supported by US Navy firepower, the newcomers settled on the coast and occupied the best lands. For a long time, they refused to mix with the “junglemals”, whom they considered “savages”. Even today only 15 per cent of the population speak English and practice Christianity.

In 1841, the US Government approved a constitution for the African territory. It was written by Harvard academics, which called the country Liberia. Washington also appointed Liberia’s first African governor: Joseph J Roberts. In July 1847, a Liberian Congress representing only the repatriates from the US proclaimed independence. Roberts was appointed President and the Harvard-made constitution was kept, along with a flag which resembled that of the United States.

The emblem on the Liberian coat of arms reads: “Love of liberty brought us here”. However, independence brought little freedom for the original population. For a long time, only landowners were able to vote. Today, the 45,000 descendants of the former US slaves form the core of the local ruling class and are closely linked with transnational capital. Firestone and Goodrich control one of the principal exports, rubber, under 99-year concessions granted in 1926. The same is true of oil, iron ore and diamonds. Resistance to this situation has been suppressed on several occasions by US Marine interventions to “defend democracy””.

So much for the fiction that Liberia was “founded by freed US slaves.”

From Tubman to Taylor
The history of Liberia over the past fifty years is little different from that of the preceding one hundred. With its economy totally under the control of US capital, it has been ruled by a series of oligarchies of one kind or another. Oligarchies which have been only too willing to comply with schemes initiated by the US during the Cold War period and of course, to maintain a system conducive to the continued exploitation of the country’s resources by US corporations.

Dictators, first William V.S. Tubman and then William R. Tolbert, Jr. of the True Whig Party (both of whom had been backed by the US) suppressed all political opposition. But under Tolbert in the 1970s, the country moved to strengthen ties with the Soviet Union. In 1980, the army (backed by the CIA) engineered a coup d’etat that brought Master Sergeant Samuel Doe to power. With Tolbert executed, Doe suspended the constitution and consolidated his power.

Doe, trained by the US Green Berets, not surprisingly, signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, on the condition of cuts in public spending and the privatisation of state owned companies. The result? Falling exports, increasing unemployment, the reduction of salaries in both public and private sectors, and spiraling foreign debt, drove the country to the verge of bankruptcy.

By 1987, virtually all Government financing came directly from the US, a fact not unrelated to the vast North American business interests in Liberia which included $450 million in direct investments, military bases, a regional Voice of America station, and a communications center for all US diplomatic missions in Africa which included CIA and NSA listening stations.

The Reagan years
From 1981, under the Reagan government, Liberia became a centre for US covert actions against Libya, Chad and Angola. Doe started by closing the Libyan mission in Monrovia, as Reagan had done in Washington and ordered reductions in the size of the Soviet embassy staff. Doe also granted staging rights on 24-hour notice at Liberia’s sea and airports for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force. In 1982 the CIA, under the direction of William J. Casey, initiated a large-scale covert operation against Libya with Liberia as its centre of operations. Next was a covert operation in support of Chadian leader Hissene Habre, who had successfully ousted his Libyan-backed rival, Goukouni Oueddei in June.

Reagan’s support for the dictatorship of Samuel Doe increased throughout the 1980s. In 1984, Doe changed the laws to make himself eligible for election, closed down newspapers, banned opposition parties and got himself elected in what was acknowledged to be a rigged election. But this didn’t stop the US from continuing to back Doe. “This performance established a beginning, however imperfect,” Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker told Congress two months later. After the election results were announced, the House and Senate each passed nonbinding resolutions calling for an end to U.S. assistance, but the Reagan administration continued to supply aid to Doe.

Doe’s regime also played a significant role in supplying weapons to UNITA after the repeal of of the Clark Amendment in 1985, which banned covert assistance to Jonas Savimbi’s Apartheid government supported war against the MPLA in Angola. This was the period of ‘Low Intensity Warfare’ first tested in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas.

CIA activity in Liberia increased. “We were prepared to use every lever against Tripoli, and Monrovia had an important part,” said a US intelligence official with field experience in West Africa.

But by 1989, it seemed that Doe’s time was up and a rebel force, the NPFL, led by Charles Taylor marched on the capital, Monrovia. The US was reluctant to let go of its ‘asset’, after all, millions of dollars had been invested in the Doe dictatorship in creating an anti-Qaddafi, anti-MPLA base in West Africa. And in any case, Taylor was an unknown quantity.

Things fall apart
By July 1990 the situation was deteriorating rapidly with the emergence of yet another ‘pretender to the throne,’ led by ‘Prince’ Johnson whose Independent Patriotic Front (INPFL), a splinter of the NPFL, in September captured and executed Samuel Doe.

US dithering contributed directly to the resulting chaos and mayhem. But aside from sending ships to evacuate US citizens and although the US negotiated a cease-fire with Taylor (which the US later renéged on), as with the current situation, the US clearly preferred to sacrifice African lives instead of its own in the cause of ‘democracy’.

The US did a deal with the Nigerians and the ECOWAS force entered Liberia and forestalled a complete takeover of the country by Taylor’s NPFL, but the damage had already been done: 150,000 dead and the almost complete dismemberment of the country. It’s estimated that the ECOWAS occupation cost West African countries $500 million toward which the US contributed nothing except words.

But by now, the Cold War was over and the region no longer had the same strategic significance. US African policy could now better be described as one of benign neglect.

From this point on, the situation deteriorated even further, with at least two other factions entering the fray and the civil war spilled over into neighbouring Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone rebel army, the RUF, entered the war in Liberia, allegedly on the side of Taylor’s NPFL with the Sierra Leone government accusing Taylor of aiding the RUF.

Elections were held in July 1997 under the auspices of the UN that Charles Taylor won convincingly, but by now the machinery of the state was in tatters. With no effective mechanisms in place, under the circumstances it was inevitable that the situation would spiral out of control, and although Taylor formed a government, it was never able to consolidate its power and reconstitute an effective central state. Further meddling from the West only complicated the situation, resulting in Taylor being indicted for war crimes, a situation which made it impossible for Taylor rule with any kind of mandate regardless of his ability to do so. It was only a question time before Taylor’s rule was challenged.

Revising history
The current revisionist history peddled by the West is that ‘aid’ has led to the current list of ‘failed’ states in Africa, encouraged corruption and created a situation of ‘dependency’ on the West. In addition, the West claims that because there is no ‘tradition’ of democracy in African countries, they are prey to ‘tribal’ divisions. Implicit in this claim is the idea that somehow Africans are ‘different’ than people in the West. But at the root of the problem is the West’s policy of Structural Adjustment which has impoverished the continent. And the West conveniently forgets that many, if not all of the continent’s dictators have been propped up for decades by the West, of which Liberia is a textbook example.

And whilst I don’t defend the actions of the Taylors and Tubmans, it’s important to recognise that it is the lack of developed economies, which in turn forms the basis for the creation of viable civil societies, that is the root cause of the current chaos in Africa. The crocodile tears currently being shed in the West over the plight of much of Africa is yet again, a case of ‘blaming the victim.’

It’s all very well Western countries calling for democratic accountability and fiscal responsibility, but the majority of sub-Saharan countries have seen their economies increasingly impoverished by the economic policies imposed on them by the developed world since the 1970s.

Unable to compete on an equal footing, with mounting debts and forced to cut back on health, education, housing and job creation in order to pay them: their economies distorted by the need to export to Western markets in order to earn dollars to buy imports for products they are no longer able to produce for themselves: they are caught in a vicious spiral that invariably ends in total collapse.

It is the height of hypocrisy (not to mention the inherent racism) to read in the Western media, tales of terror that paint a picture of barbarism in Africa, as if it’s the product of the ‘African mentality,’ without recognising the role and responsibility of the West in the creation of ‘failed’ states.

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