My attention has been drawn to a report in the January 23, 2024, edition of the Daily Observer/Liberian Observer newspaper, titled, “Liberia: Boakai Raises Questions Over U.S.-Liberia Relationship.” According to the Observer, in his inaugural address immediately upon taking the oath of office, President Joseph N. Boakai “questioned Liberia’s 160-year-old relationship with the U.S., which remains its biggest traditional partner and wields significant shadow political influences.”
By Gabriel I.H. Willliams, [email protected], Contributing Writer
At a special historical event attended by hundreds of Liberians and high-profiled delegations from around the world on January 22, 2024, Mr. Boakai was inaugurated as the 26th President of Liberia on the grounds of the Capitol Building in Monrovia.
Among the host of international guests who witnessed the peaceful transfer of power from outgoing President George M. Weah to incoming President Boakai was Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, who graciously sent a contingent of Ghanaian police motorcycle escorts to add pomp and pageantry to the motorcade of the incoming Liberian President during the inaugural events. Other foreign dignitaries in attendance included President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, which is experiencing political turmoil due to allegations that Bio’s government rigged the June 2023 general elections to remain in power. Also, in Liberia to witness the historic “peaceful transfer of power” were the Vice Premier of China, which has been a strong development partner in post-war Liberia’s reconstruction, and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who headed a high-profile delegation representing President Joe Biden.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, who is former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, is well-known across Liberia for her country’s critical role in helping to stabilize the war-torn country and restoring basic services to the population during her tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. And she remains a strong advocate for Liberia in the current U.S. administration, while she also appears to be a good friend of President Boakai, judging from their interactions during the recent inaugural occasion.
More importantly, Boakai was the Vice President to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during the 12 years of her administration, which was probably one of the best periods in U.S.-Liberia relations. Then Vice President Boakai paid numerous visits to the U.S. on behalf of the Sirleaf government. And judging from his recent visit to the U.S. as President-elect, there appears to be an abundance of goodwill towards him and Liberia.
This is why eyebrows were raised when President Boakai seemingly questioned U.S. relationship with Liberia during his inauguration.
In his inaugural address, President Boakai said: “Liberia’s relationship with the United States of America is spoken about in glorious terms. But on the eve of our 177th anniversary, we are yet to show how we have made this traditional relationship work for us in ways that have helped the transformation this country craves.”
President Boakai also said, “This is not to suggest, however, that we are not aware of the debate over the dynamics of two centuries of a relationship nurtured across the Atlantic. But given this long relationship, it is a bit discomforting to be found debating about how we as a country are still struggling to come to terms with the extent to which we think the relationship might benefit us.”
The newly inaugurated Liberian President also noted, “We believe we deserve more but we would be remiss if we did not mention that we cannot ask the United States to do for us that we can do for ourselves, including leveraging the relationship for the good of our country.”
Indeed, there is no question that the United States is part of Liberia’s unresolved past, through policies and activities, especially during the Cold War era when the U.S.-led Western World was engaged in a fierce rivalry for global dominance with the Communist East led by the then Soviet Union.
For example, following Liberia’s military coup, led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, during which President William R. Tolbert was assassinated, the U.S. quickly recognized and strongly backed the new military regime.
President Tolbert, who was the sitting Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – renamed African Union (AU) – at the time of his demise, was light on the traditional “special relationship” between the U.S. and Liberia. He adopted pro-African, Afro-Arab, global south policies and established diplomatic relations with Eastern-bloc countries in an era of a very contentious and dangerous world order. Despite his shortcomings, Tolbert was regarded across Africa as a transformative leader.
Even though the U.S. had reduced aid to Tolbert’s civilian government before the coup, U.S. assistance to the new military junta increased significantly because of its pro-American foreign policy. U.S. aid to Doe’s regime amounted to more than all American assistance to previous Liberian governments combined, since the founding of the country by people from the U.S. in the early 1800s.
However, the U.S. withheld assistance to Doe’s regime after he reneged on a promise to return Liberia to democratic civilian rule. Amid growing economic hardship, Doe clung on to power, engaging in widespread human rights abuses, politically motivated killings, and rampant corruption. An attempt to remove Doe by force of arms, plunged Liberia into the barbaric civil war, which lasted for 14 years, caused the death of more than a quarter million people, and left the country almost destroyed. From the start of the civil war in December 1989, the U.S. resisted calls for humanitarian intervention, maintaining that Liberians should resolve their own conflict. The U.S. did not get directly involved until 2003 when the administration of President George W. Bush instituted a robust U.S. intervention through the United Nations to end the bloodshed and destruction.
The argument has also been made that the U.S. intervention to end Liberia’s civil war was mostly based on U.S. self-interest. following the attacks on American soil by Islamic terrorists led by Osama on September 11, 2001.
Since then, the U.S. has demonstrated a strong commitment to Liberia’s reconstruction.
Accordingly, I respectfully submit that the United States has championed the cause for the rebuilding of Liberia and the institution of democratic governance since the end of the civil war. The U.S. has invested significant number of resources to rebuild Liberia’s infrastructure, institutions, and manpower, among others.
Before delving further to provide a few examples of U.S. support to Liberia, may I ask my fellow Liberians the following questions: For once, when are we, as a people, going to take full responsibility for ourselves or for the welfare of our country without looking up to others? Where is our share of responsibility for our own country? Why should we continue to mismanage the affairs of our country, plunder its resources, and expect others to do for us what we supposed to do for the upliftment of Liberia? Why do we keep failing our country when given the opportunity to serve, as reflected by the very poor and disastrous way President Boakai’s inauguration program was conducted, becoming a national embarrassment amid allegations of financial impropriety?
I am no mouthpiece for America. However, I am a journalist simply interested in placing the facts where they belong. I also served for several years as a diplomat at the Liberian Embassy in the U.S., during which time I had the opportunity to participate in numerous functions at the White House, State Department, Capitol Hill, Pentagon, the World Bank, among others, especially during the visits of then President Sirleaf and then Vice President Boakai. At the time, Liberia enjoyed strong bipartisan American support on Capitol Hill. Accordingly, here are a few facts to demonstrate that the United States has been very supportive of Liberia since the end of its civil war in 2003:
- The call to then Liberian President Charles Taylor to leave power for the sake of his country accelerated the fall of the rebel leader-turned President from power and forced into exile, thus ending the brutal civil war. This was followed by the deployment of what became the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world in October 2003, and most of the cost to maintain the UN operations in Liberis was shouldered by the U.S.
- In February 2004, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) organized an international donors’ conference for Liberia cosponsored by the U.S. Then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan co-presided over the donors’ conference, during which $500 million was pledged for Liberia’s reconstruction. Secretary Powell announced that the U.S. had appropriated additional $200 million in humanitarian and reconstruction aid and another $245 million for UN peacekeeping operations.
- In 2010, the U.S. led the way for the forgiveness of nearly $5 billion Liberia’s international debt, for which the country had been blacklisted for years.
- In the wake of the 2014 Ebola Virus epidemic in West Africa that cost over 11,300 deaths, then U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the full capabilities of the U.S. military into action to fight the disease as a global threat. Liberia, which was worst affected with over 4,800 deaths due to its broken health system, was the command center for one of the world’s largest military medical operations. As a result, Liberia became the first country in West Africa to be Ebola free, also thanks to strong Liberian leadership.
- As a manifestation of U.S. support for post-war Liberia, then President George W. Bush paid an official visit to Liberia, which signified that Liberia was re-emerging as a respectable nation.
- And last but not the least, the U.S. worked very closely with the UN and other international partners in helping to restructure and capacitate various public entities or institutions of the Liberian government, as the immediate post-war governments struggled to reestablish civil authority across the country. For example, the rebuilding of health and educational facilities, roads and other infrastructure, training of teachers and medical staff, reorganization of the Armed Forces of Liberia and the Liberia National Police, among others.
It has also been argued that U.S. intervention in Liberia to end the civil war was more in its self-interest. Following the devastating attack on the U.S. mainland by Islamic terrorists led by Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001, President Bush vowed to pursue the terrorists and their supporters anywhere in the World. Mr. Charles Taylor, a rebel leader-turned President of Liberia was found to be in diamond and other business engagements with terrorism-associated individuals and groups. Taylor was eventually removed from power, prosecuted, and convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierras Leone, and he is serving a 50-year jail sentence in the United Kingdom. A similar argument has been made regarding President Obama’s intervention to contain the Ebola Virus Disease, which was that it was in America’s interest to contain the disease that was fast spreading and causing terror, as there were a few Ebola cases in the U.S. before Obama acted.
During the tenure of the Weah government, U.S. officials openly criticized the government regularly for corruption, human rights abuses, among others. The U.S. went further to impose sanction on nearly a dozen senior officials of the U.S. went further to impose sanctions on nearly a dozen senior officials of the government, including close associates of President Weah. With their ill-gotten wealth, some of the sanctioned alleged criminals won legislative seats during the recent general elections. The new President Pro-tempore of the Liberian Senate, Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence, who is also dogged by a bribery scandal emanating from her election to the post, has appointed sanctioned senators to chair very important senate committees.
Finally, my take: Whatever the concerns are of the incoming President regarding U.S.-Liberia relations, the interest of his government and the country would be better-served by first raising these matters in private diplomatic meetings with US officials. For example, the President’s concerns could have been conveyed through his meetings with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield instead of the pronouncements that have raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles.
The inauguration was a moment of pride and celebration not just for Liberians but also for our fellow Africans, especially within West Africa, who sacrificed the blood of their compatriots and resources of their countries to restore peace to Liberia. It was also a proud moment for the UN and our international partners who have invested in post-war Liberia’s recovery.
It was certainly a moment of pride also for the U.S., Liberia’s closest traditional partner, for staying the course with the Liberian people during our period of national recovery. Without strong U.S. engagement, the recent Liberian presidential election could have been rigged by the ruling establishment, as was the case in 1985 when Doe got away with a stolen election because the U.S. turned a blind eye. The U.S. then said the election were fine as Doe claimed slightly over 50 percent of the votes when most African presidents win elections by 99 percent of the votes. Therefore, the United States should have been applauded for helping to support a peaceful transfer of power in Liberia, which has enabled President Boakai to be inaugurated as the 26th President of Liberia.
With the national embarrassment called inauguration now behind us, President Boakai should avoid another fiasco by appointing people with proven qualifications and integrity to serve the public good. We warn against appointments based on tribalism and nepotism, which appears to be creeping in the new political dispensation. President Boakai is called upon to withdraw the nomination of Mr. Cooper Kruah as Minister of Justice. According to an editorial in the January 28, 2024, edition of FrontPage Africa, “Cllr Kruah, according to scores of court records, is an unethical lawyer who is not fit to be in charge of the joint security of any government due to his unethical and criminal records.” Frontpage Africa has reported that Cllr. Kruah, whose nomination to the post was pushed by warlord turned senator Prince Johnson and Vice President Jeremiah Koung, has a serious criminal background well known to the President and the Vice President. And just a note of caution to Vice President Koung: If this is about undermining the national interest to push narrow tribal interest and to protect ex-warlord Prince Johnson from prosecution, you are heading on the wrong side of history. International sanctions may well await those who would attempt to stall the establishment of the war and economic crimes court for Liberia.
We know that some practices are engrained and die hard in our dysfunctional political culture. This is why the setting up of the war and economic crimes court must be considered among the immediate priorities of the Boakai government to help end the culture of impunity.
About the author: Gabriel I.H. Willliams has served as Deputy Minister of Information and as a diplomat at the Liberian Embassy to the Unted States. A career journalist, he is author of Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia (2018), and Liberia, The Heart of Darkness: Accounts of Liberia’s Civil War and its Destabilizing Effects in West Africa (2002), both found online. He can be reached at [email protected].