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International Spotlight: Africa
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Liberia Facts
Liberia: America's impoverished orphan in Africa
'We stood by America; we will always stand by America'
The people of Liberia extend the hand of friendship and partnership to the people of America.
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OPINION: Why, Washington?
American values & democracy in Liberia
Liberia: America's impoverished orphan in Africa

Speak to almost anyone in Liberia, from the president to a man on the street, and you will hear words to the effect that all Liberians love America and that none can understand why America is so reluctant to be Liberia's friend and supporter.

There are so many arguments for close bilateral ties that Washington's aloofness at a time when it sorely needs true friends abroad is a puzzle indeed.

Here are some of the arguments Liberians typically make for a special relationship between Washington and Monrovia.

  • Shared history: Liberia was established by Americans for Americans. The American Colonization Society, established by an act of Congress in 1816, was empowered to facilitate a program of sending freed slaves back to Africa. There were several reasons for this. Most important was the fear of some leading White Americans that Americans of African decent would become too numerous. This fear was given impetus by the so–called Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 in Virginia, in which 65 Whites were massacred by Blacks.

A second impetus for the return to Africa movement came from churches which saw this as a good way to evangelize Africa.

It is estimated that something less than 100,000 Americans went to Liberia, the colonization movement declining in support as the abolitionist movement gained ground.

It was the American immigrants to Africa and their sponsors who secured territory from the natives and established Liberia. In 1847, inspired by American independence from Britain, the Liberian colony declared its independence, the first African nation to do so.

  • Shared democratic ideals: From its birth, Liberia has sought to be an American nation in Africa. Although until 1980 it was dominated by the True Whig Party, the government is modeled on the US system, with a similar division of powers among government branches. And Liberia's flag differs from its American parent by having only one star instead of 50.
  • Shared economic interests: The US dollar and Liberian dollar are both legal tender in Liberia. The government is bent on getting American investors to develop for world markets rich reserves of oil and gas (offshore), gold, diamonds, iron ore, timber and rubber.
  • Shared political interests: Despite the turmoil of recent years, the Liberian leadership and people want to work with Washington to bring peace and stability to their country and the region. Again and again President Charles Taylor and government ministers reiterated in recent interviews that they want to do whatever it takes to restore close ties with America.

Liberia sees America as its protector and partner for development and security, much as former English colonies look to Britain and French colonies to France.

"Many of us feel Liberia could have been a shining example of American strength and democracy in Africa," says Information Minister Reginald Goodridge, echoing a common sentiment.

But, so far at least, Washington has shown no inclination to play the role of protector or partner, even though Taylor's government says it wishes to meet all Washington's demands for reform.

Over half the government ministers come from opposition parties and the president has repeatedly said he is willing to meet halfway opposition elements fighting a guerrilla war against the government under the umbrella of LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

The recently–arrived American ambassador to Liberia, John W. Blaney, was warmly welcomed by the government and people of Liberia alike, and his arrival clearly raised Liberia's hopes of a new era in US–Liberian relations.

In an interview on October 17, Blaney voiced American concern for the suffering of Liberians, but stressed Washington's expectations for improvement in government before it is willing to contemplate closer ties.

The laundry list of improvements Washington wants to see includes greater protection of human rights, including for journalists; more transparent public finances; better protection of the environment, especially regarding the logging industry; and greater discipline of security forces, which Blaney says have been predatory towards their own people.

Liberia's support for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas in Sierra Leone is what triggered UN sanctions in 2001. The RUF has in fact demobilized and participated in elections, but Blaney says the UN Experts Committee which reports to the Security Council on this and the related issue of Liberia allegedly exchanging arms for diamonds with the RUF, has recently said Monrovia's links to the RUF have not ended.

The government makes no bones about its ties to the RUF. But it says it has maintained those links because the RUF prevented former combatants in the Liberian civil war, especially those that after the 1997 elections in Liberia signed up with LURD, from making Sierra Leone their base for operations in Liberia.

Instead, LURD uses Guinea as a base, where it receives religious, political and military support from the Muslim–dominated government. LURD has a pronounced Muslim element, and has received arms from unlikely quarters, such as the United Arab Emirates.

In fact, Liberia is the only West African country with a plurality of Christians.

Monrovia says it is a victim of sensationalist journalism which has blamed it for trading arms for "blood diamonds," the reason the UN keeps it under sanctions. Indeed, there is little need for Liberia to engage in such trade, when there are strong indications from exploration and existing production that it has more diamonds than Sierra Leone.

President Taylor says that he believes a solution to the war that has afflicted his country since 1997 is a negotiated settlement with LURD (see the full interview with Taylor elsewhere in this report).

But so long as Washington does not clearly state its recognition of the Taylor government as legitimate and its unequivocal opposition to the LURD insurgency, LURD is encouraged to fight on.

The ambassador does not question the legitimacy of the 1997 elections in Liberia, but suggests that intimidation was used by Taylor to get the huge majority he won. Over 75 percent voted for him in an election that former president Jimmy Carter and other international observers certified as free and fair.

The Liberian government as well as many in the opposition, who cannot understand why Washington is so eager to find fault with Taylor and his administration, reject this American suspicion.

One of the sharpest critics of US policy towards Liberia is Fred Bass, the owner of the most popular TV and radio stations in Liberia, and a founding member of Liberia's first opposition party, the United Peoples Party, one of 13 which contested the 1997 elections.

"They do not know how to live with us," he says of Americans, referring to the fortress–like American Embassy, where American staff live and work.

He compares this situation to Abidjan, where thousands of Frenchmen have shops and businesses in the city and are part of society and the economy. These close bonds translate into direct French intervention in times of crises in Ivory Coast, as has been seen recently.

"Americans speak at us, not to us," Bass says.

Ambassador Blaney says Washington is giving $30 million in indirect aid to Liberia in 2002, through the United Nations and other organizations. For example, it is paying a quarter of the costs for a WHO immunization program to eliminate polio by 2004.

It wasn't always that way.

After World War I, when Liberia supported the allies, America took an active interest in the country and Firestone leased a million acres on which it developed the largest rubber plantation in the world.

When Liberia went with the Allies in World War II, declaring war on Germany, The United States built Roberts International Airport and Monrovia Free Port as key logistics bases, which were especially important once Malaysia fell to the Japanese and Firestone's rubber plantation in Liberia became the main supplier for Allied armies.

In the 1980s, Liberia was once more of interest to Washington's strategic planners, as the regime of Samuel Doe was seen as a key balwalk against socialist and Marxist regimes in Africa. The Voice of America had its main relay station near Monrovia, the huge Omega navigation tower was located there too, and the main CIA station in Africa was based in the huge US Embassy compound in Monrovia.

Doe received some $500 million in US aid, by Liberian count, or some $1.3 billion according to Ambassador Blaney. But he came to power through a bloody coup that left President William Tolbert and nine of his ministers shot dead, and his tribal–based regime went on to perpetrate horrific crimes of genocide, leading to a civil war and Doe's eventual capture and murder at the hands of rebel leader Prince Johnson, an erstwhile ally of Charles Taylor and of Doe.

Undoubtedly, Washington's backing of Doe was misguided, and reluctance to back Taylor now is in part the result of that bad experience, even though Taylor clearly has wide popular support in Liberia and has formed an inclusive, rather than exclusive government.

But more than aid, or even trade and investment, Liberia seeks a clear, unequivocal commitment of Washington to its national integrity and security. Liberians are crying out for America to re–adopt it as a country that is of special interest to it in Africa.

So far, however, Washington is proving most unwilling to give that support.

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