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

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Singler, a critic of the company’s activities in Liberia, says, “Over the years, Firestone developed a tradition of taking from Liberia, but virtually no tradition of giving to the country, least of all to the thousands of [rubber] tappers whose labor it used.” An attorney who once represented Firestone in Liberia, Gerald Padmore, a Liberian and a former deputy finance minister under Tolbert, disputes that the nation got nothing out of the relationship. “The initial deal in 1926 was highly favorable to Firestone, but the Firestone investment was useful for both Liberia and the United States,” he says. In any event, rubber became the nation’s main cash crop, and Liberia became one of the world’s leading suppliers of the material.

In 1942, the U.S. military built RobertsInternationalAirport in Monrovia to serve the Allies’ North Africa campaign and, in 1944, began constructing a shipping center, Freeport, also in Monrovia. Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to Liberia in 1943 confirmed, for many Liberians, the nation’s close ties to the United States. About 5,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Liberia during World War II.

After the war, Liberia’s rubber industry boomed, thanks in part to new agreements with Firestone and investment by the United States, which gave millions to agricultural development and construction of roads, hospitals and municipal buildings. By the early 1970s, Liberia was also the world’s 11th largest producer of iron ore. Liberia, says Newman Ham, was trying to make itself “into a modern nation, able to compete on some level with the world economy.”

But the source of revenue for which Liberia is perhaps best known today is registering foreign ships, a practice that began after World War II. Flying a Liberian “flag of convenience” assures shippers low fees and taxes and minimal regulation. Liberia claims the world’s second largest commercial fleet, behind Panama, with some 2,000 registered ships generating $18 million annually. But the program has prompted controversy. In 2000, the U.N. accused Taylor of using registry revenue to facilitate the flow of illegal arms to guerrillas in Sierra Leone. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has called upon shippers to register fleets elsewhere.

Liberia would endure its own version of African nationalism. While other African nations sought to extricate themselves from colonial rulers, ethnic Liberians sought greater control of their affairs. In 1944, President William Tubman, who is generally considered to have been progressive, opened the legislature to tribal representatives for the first time. In 1951, women—though only Americo women— voted in their first presidential election. Tubman’s Unification Policy, claims Padmore, “was a genuine effort to open the country up so that the leadership of the country reflected the diversity of the people.” William Tolbert, a Baptist minister who assumed the presidency upon Tubman’s death in 1971, went further and included tribal leaders in local and national governments. But indigenous people still didn’t have a full say. Tolbert’s liberalization was opposed by the settler-run True Whig Party, then Liberia’s only political party, which had ruled virtually unchallenged since 1869. Most party leaders still viewed the indigenous population as untutored masses to be brought gradually into line. “Even though things were opening up, they were still far from reconciliation,” says Newman Ham.

The conflict exploded into the open in April 1979, after Tolbert’s administration proposed an increase in the price of rice. When protesters demonstrated, Tolbert called out the army and the police, who killed 41 people and injured about 400. Rioting and anarchy ensued in Monrovia, part of what Newman Ham describes as an outbreak of “rebellion and overthrow.” In April 1980, a master sergeant in the Liberian Army, Samuel K. Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, led a small band into the executive mansion and killed Tolbert in his bed. They rounded up 13 top Americo leaders and executed them on a Monrovia beach. Doe, not yet 30, thus ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination. In October 1985, he emerged the winner of a special election for president, which many considered fraudulent.

Dunn, who had functioned in Tolbert’s cabinet and had been out of the country at the time of the coup, returned to Liberia hoping the new government would bring about reforms. “It became clear in a few months that this wasn’t going to happen,” Dunn recalls. Instead, Doe turned into a ruthless dictator. “Far from seeking to right the wrongs, it quickly turned into a revolution of entitlement,” says Joseph Saye Guannu, a historian at the University of Liberia and a former ambassador to the United States. “Power was there to be personally enjoyed. Soldiers began to run around in Mercedes Benz cars.” Thousands of Americos, including Dunn, fled the country, with many ending up in the United States.

To the bewilderment of the settler community, the U.S. government provided some $500 million to the Doe administration from 1981 to 1985. Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Reagan, says today that the aid had been promised by the Carter administration and that Reagan officials simply tried to make the best of a bad situation. “The United States had an obligation to Liberia,” Crocker says. “It had vested intelligence and commercial interests and an infrastructure there, and cutting off aid could lead to regional destabilization and increasing Soviet and Libyan involvement.”

Dunn, too, suggests that the aid was part of a larger U.S. effort to prevent Soviet influence, recalling that the USSR had an embassy in Monrovia, and Liberia had made overtures to Castro’s Cuba. “This was in the midst of the cold war,” Dunn adds. “The United States was concerned that if it didn’t support this fledgling government, the country could veer to the left.” But Doe’s well-financed military could not staunch growing public dissatisfaction with his regime. In 1985, a former ally, Thomas Quiwonkpa, mounted an unsuccessful coup and was subsequently killed. Then, on December 24, 1989, Charles Taylor, Doe’s former procurement chief and the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, launched an assault from Côte d’Ivoire.

Within six months, Taylor had gained control of much of the country, except Monrovia, where the Economic Community of West African States intervened and prevented the capture of the city. In September 1990, Doe was executed by guerrilla forces loyal to warlord Prince Johnson, who had split with Taylor. West African peacekeeping forces established an interim government in Monrovia, but Taylor’s rebellion devolved into ethnic conflicts among tribal factions. (Intertribal strife, in fact, would play an increasingly large role in destabilizing the nation.) Over the next six years, an estimated 200,000 Liberians, most of them descendants of indigenous groups, died of malnutrition, diseases, injuries or wounds stemming from the civil war. Hundreds of peacekeepers lost their lives. Dozens of conferences were held in an effort to impose peace. In 1997, there were national elections, monitored by a group representing West African nations and other observers. By then, Liberians, weary of the fighting, feared that Taylor would make the country ungovernable if he lost. He won in a landslide.

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