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Tumult and Transition in "Little America"

Americans created Liberia as a homeland for freed slaves. But a quarter century of civil war over festering ethnic animosities has renewed questions about the U.S. role in the African nation

“Unfortunately, once Taylor found power he began to think like Doe,” Dunn says. While most Liberians suffered under extreme poverty—the average annual income has been estimated to be less than $200, and national unemployment has hovered above 70 percent, the world’s highest rate—Taylor grew wealthy exploiting Liberia’s gold, diamonds and timber. He also bought arms, some of which he used to foment rebellions in neighboring countries. In 2003, a U.N. tribunal indicted Taylor for alleged war crimes committed in support of rebel forces in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, most Liberians had neither running water nor electricity. Most schools were closed. There was no garbage pickup and no sewage system. Those who had jobs were seldom paid. Hundreds of thousands of Liberians sought refuge in Ghana and other West African nations.

One of Taylor’s rivals was a rebel group calling itself Movement for Democracy in Liberia. In the summer of 2003, it succeeded in ousting government forces from the city of Buchanan, in southeastern Liberia. But it was another rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, that seized the capital and drove Taylor from the country.

“The general consensus is that this is a failed state,” Jacques Paul Klein, the top U.N. representative in Liberia, told the Washington Post in September. “Now we have to rebuild the state,” he went on, adding, the “situation will get worse before it gets better.”AU.N. mission of up to 15,000 peacekeepers was scheduled to reach Liberia in October. In early October, U.S. Marines stationed in Monrovia pulled out, while some troops remained in Senegal on emergency standby, said a Department of Defense spokesman, Navy Lt. Daniel Hetlage. He added that the U.S. military expects to send an as-yet-undecided number of troops to Liberia to support the U.N.’s peace mission. At the same time, the U.S. State Department projects that $125 million to $165 million in aid will be sent to the U.N.’s Liberia mission over the next year, says agency spokesman Steve Pike. Meanwhile, thousands of Liberians are reportedly hiding in the bush, with scant food, water, shelter and medicine.

Singler, the NYU linguist, takes the long view, and says if Liberia is viewed as a failure, as the U.N.’s Klein suggested, the United States bears some responsibility, because it “basically dumped people there without the tools they needed, so how could they succeed?”

Maurice Pelham, who had stormed out of the museum in Liberia at the mere sight of a warlord’s boot, says that despite the past two decades of strife, Liberians have shown that they can prevail against historical odds. “Sometimes we get sick of being here ourselves,” he told me over lunch at a Monrovia café two years ago. “But we feel we have an obligation. A responsibility.”

His family, he said, “left America as slaves, [believing] we needed to do something with ourselves in Africa. They had to do something on their own. We still consider ourselves Liberians, but we know where we come from.”

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