Blame America for Conflict in Liberia, Too
I once drove across West Africa from Sierra Leone to Nigeria, where I was living as director of the CUSO-Nigeria program. Even at the time, it was an extraordinarily reckless venture. Today, the very idea of such a journey is ludicrous. Sierra Leone? Liberia? Ivory Coast? Guinea? All are in turmoil. That's why there's such pressure on President George W. Bush to intervene against Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is responsible for much of the conflict in all four countries. What is less known is that the U.S. is substantially responsible for Charles Taylor.
Tyrants don't materialize out of the blue. They're a product of their circumstances, just as ordinary men and young boys don't turn into sadistic killers unless they've been brutalized. Liberia has been cursed with almost a century and a half of appalling governments that have been actively supported by the U.S. for all but the last decade. That's how a Charles Taylor became possible.
Liberia was created in 1821 by Americans who wanted to rid the U.S. of some of its black slave population. About 20,000 ex-slaves were repatriated to a continent they had never known, where they proceeded to grab the best land for themselves and treat the local Africans as savages. Clearly, even as slaves, they had been Americanized with remarkable success.
Formally, Liberia was one of the rare African states that didn't become a European colony. In a country of perhaps two million souls, the elite descendants of the Americo-Liberian settlers numbered between 20,000 and 40,000 people. Their role was to support whatever American interests wanted. In 1926, in return for generous considerations, they bestowed on the Firestone and Goodrich companies a 99-year lease for the world's largest rubber estate, which was duly protected by the might of the U.S. Navy.
The Cold War gave a renewed lease of life to Liberia's venal and oppressive elite. Even while Firestone methodically looted the country's natural resources and forced labor became the preferred form of industrial relations, American paranoia about Africa falling prey to Soviet blandishments knew few bounds.
The consequences for the entire continent were devastating. For 40 years the U.S. embraced and bolstered a series of vicious dictatorships and nihilistic rebels. In Liberia, America's apparent strategic interest meant a new deal with its Americo-Liberian friends. In return for U.S. generosity, the Americo-Liberians allowed the Americans to turn their little country into a key Cold War outpost in Africa. While the ruling clique thrived in Monrovia, the seedy old capital, the country stagnated and the vast majority of rural Liberians simmered with resentment. Against the ethnic exclusivism of the Americo-Liberians, other Liberians turned in solidarity to their own ethnic groups or, as Westerners prefer saying, their tribes.
In 1980, a little-known, barely educated sergeant named Samuel Doe, who had been trained by the American Green Berets, stormed the president's mansion, disemboweled the corrupt old head of state, turned the country into the preserve of his own small ethnic group, and was promptly embraced by the United States. Samuel Doe was dumb as a door, yet savvy enough to protect American interests as his predecessors had done.
A grateful America responded. Between 1980 and 1985, this brutal, tyrannical, destructive regime received more than $5-billion from the U.S. -- more per capita than any other country in Africa. Mr. Doe's successor, Mr. Taylor, indicted for crimes against humanity, is another benchmark. He is one of many American chickens coming home to roost in Africa.
The Bush administration now believes it needs Africa to combat terrorism, as a giant market for American products, and for its abundance of high-quality oil. It needs Liberia to be stable. But after a century of American-backed regimes and corporations, the Liberian people also need to become a nation again -- an enormously difficult and expensive project.
Mr. Bush should intervene not out of great humanitarian motives, but out of basic accountability. For damages knowingly incurred, his country owes Liberians compensation in full.
© 2003 Gerald Caplan