US Undermines Democracy and Stability in Fragile Postwar Liberia
Monrovia – The United States of America has supported Liberia for nearly 200 years, but that support has unwittingly led to the creation of a political class that misruled the country. For 133 years from 1847, the political class was mostly of repatriated American slaves and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, but since 1980 with the overthrow of the Americo Liberian oligarchy by a group of enlisted soldiers under Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, the reemergence of the political elite is no longer based upon tribe or ethnicity, yet the consequences are the same with a small band of greedy bureaucrats bleeding a desperately poor country, the fourth poorest on the planet.
Unfortunately, with the US seemingly supporting the political configuration in Liberia, it makes a weakened opposition even weaker and timid thus undermining the creation of a vibrant democratic society that can checkmate the excesses of the country’s ruling elite, now led by Africa’s first freely elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard educated bureaucrat who has run the country for nearly 11 years since 2006.
In 1819, the US Congress passed an Act to support the repatriation of freed people of color to Africa, authorized US naval patrol of the African Coast to liberate slaves and also donated 100,000 dollars to the American Colonization Society (ACS) in order to support their activities on the Continent. Liberia was eventually chosen as the ideal place to settle the repatriated slaves. The other suitable place was Sierra Leone, on Shebro Island in that country and parts nearby. By the late 1830’s a few states such as Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Mississippi had each established settlements on the coast of Liberia. Before the American civil war, it is estimated that more than 12,000 freed men and women of color were repatriated to Liberia.
Liberia became an independent republic, the first in Africa in 1847 and has barely survived nationhood, even at one time being put under a Panel of eight countries of the League of Nation to run the country’s affairs in the 1930s as a result of the political elite, mostly descendants of slaves sending aboriginal Liberians as forced laborers to the Spanish Island of Fernando Po, now Equatorial Guinea. The recommendations came out of a Commission lead by Cuthbert Christy, a British Jurist, and included former Liberian president Arthur Barclay and Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University in Tennessee. The Commission members spent several months in Liberia observing conditions and conducting interviews. In its report, published in 1930, the Christy Commission accused high ranking Liberian government officials of complicity in procuring involuntary labor by guile and of other practices that are illegal under international law.
Surprisingly, many of the circumstances in Liberia mentioned in the Cuthbert Christy Commission of the League of Nations report in 1931, mostly exist today. The Commission said the country was a nation of “12,000 citizens and 1,000,000 subjects”. It lamented the non-existence of health care except within the confines of the Firestone Plantations Company, the high incidence of preventable diseases, primitive sanitation conditions and the fact that the government had failed to improve the conditions of indigenous Liberians. Moreover, the country’s finances were called tragic and its monetary situation confusing. Liberia has not progressed much beyond that Christy Report. Although citizens are no longer subjected to forced labor, yet the plantation style of agriculture development still persists with large companies such as Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum paying slave wages to Liberian workers under deplorable conditions, and added to the forceful ejection of citizens from ancestral land, provide fertile opportunities for recurring land conflicts.
Over the 200 years of US engagement with Liberia, much of its support seemed well-intentioned and in fact has been the umbilical cord sustaining the nation-hood of my country. But that support has also been characterized by bias towards the country’s ruling class and political elite, unintentionally expanded economic inequality and solidified social chasms, which inevitably led to the country’s 14 years of brutal conflict that began in 1989 and ended in 2003. Two centuries after America began its support to Liberia, the country’s political economy is still characterized by patronage, cronyism and opportunism, all designed to enrich a few at the expense of the hapless majority.
As a result, my country is one of the poorest countries on the planet today, with more than 80 percent of the population struggling to survive on 1.25 US dollars a day, according to the UN Human Development Report of 2015.
The US supported Samuel K. Doe during most of his regime by providing financial and military support to the country with more than 500 million dollars over a period of eight years, and that support may have embolden Doe’s military to engage in a war of attrition with rebel forces, led by Charles Taylor and partly financed by Mrs. Sirleaf and members of the old Americo-Liberian oligarchy, resulting in the decimation of the country, making lasting peace problematic and creating more wars even after Doe’s death, which prolonged the conflict for 14 years, and saw the complete breakdown of Liberia, its institutions and infrastructure.
Charles Taylor was not a favorite of the United States for good reasons, including his failure to follow international norms and more excruciatingly, his obsession with Sierra Leonean diamonds and failure to make peace with Liberia’s neighbors, thus making his administration dead upon arrival, and thus US and British clandestine support to rebel forces, who ran him out of power in 2003. Taylor got no multilateral support and he broke the rules of international civility thus pushing Liberia into pariah status over the six years of his reign.
US financial and material aid to Liberia is today personified in its support to Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the darling of the international community, whose Unity Party has run the country for nearly 11 years. The US support goes beyond just giving aid to Liberia, but also includes its seemingly moral and undisguised support to an administration that is mired in graft and corruption, and considered the most corrupt country by perception surveys, according to Afrabarometer. For the first six years of the Johnson Sirleaf Administration, official development Assistance to Liberia was more than 5 billion dollars, with 500 million dollars in annual support to UNMIL.
The United States and multilateral agencies have gone far beyond just nursing a failed state back to the comity of nations. They have decided their state building strategic efforts would be undergirded by support to Mrs. Sirleaf and that support has gone to the point of making the opposition totally meaningless and ineffectual in the country’s democratic dispensation. Similarly, civil society organizations are mere appendages to the ruling party as the result of the implicit support of the Johnson Sirleaf political administration in Liberia despite its failings. Liberia has been provided exceptional support by the international community, including support for Liberia’s Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MRDI) and the country was supported to complete the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC) in record time, just over two years, with debt forgiveness of 4.5 billion dollars.
In November of 2007, Mrs. Sirleaf was awarded the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, the highest honor that can be awarded to a civilian by an American president. This was fewer than two years into the Johnson Sirleaf presidency, and before her administration was found to be mired in corruption and lack of economic probity by granting concession agreements (64 out of 66) that did not conform to the country’s laws, according to a report by the internationally reputable Moore Stephens organization.
In 2011, just four days before the general elections, the Nobel Committee announced that Liberia’s president had won the Peace Prize, despite the fact that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), funded by the international community had named her as a supporter to the country’s war efforts by sustained funding to former warlord and president Charles Taylor and banned her from politics for 30 years. Despite the controversial nature of the elections in 2011 with the second place finisher, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by former UN bureaucrat Winston Tubman and former world’s best footballer, George Weah, boycotting the second round of voting, yet the international community continued its massive support to the administration not only financially and materially but without demanding any form of accountability and treating the country’s political process and its success dependent upon the continuation in power of Mrs. Sirleaf.
The US and its allies need a credible example of their state building efforts. With Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen unable to deliver results and value for money, Liberia is seen as the poster child of successful postwar economic development, despite more than 80 percent of its citizens living in abject poverty and its social institutions highly vulnerable and lacking resilience. Ebola showed the lack of resilience in the country’s health care sector, with just a dozen cases, it caved in.
Liberia’s opposition is coy, afraid to push hard unless it crosses America and its allies by an aggressive pursuit of the excesses of the Johnson Sirleaf administration. There is no written record that the US is opposed to the opposition demanding equity, but the seemingly deepened relationship between Mrs. Sirleaf and the powers that be in Washington necessarily scares an opposition that too is part of the systemic corruption in Liberia. When symbolic overtures such as the visit of FLOTUS to Liberia in support girls’ education is part of a three country international tour, it puts additional fears in the hearts of Liberian politicians and they seem to get the message that indeed America supports the current administration, warts and all.
This is dangerous for sustained peace and stability in Liberia. America’s support to Liberia should be directed to institutions rather than seeming to favor a ruling elite, whose tenure in power has not significantly altered the fate of the hapless millions of Liberians who live in abject poverty and have the impression that indeed America is supporting those who continuously ignore their needs. America’s support to Liberia must be based on sustaining peace and stability and not maintaining political elites in power. State building efforts cannot be successful without a foundation based upon equity and fairness and with a strong civil society that can serve as a checkmate to errant politicians. And so it goes.
Samuel P. Jackson, [email protected]