FIRESTONE AND AFL: A Rebirth For Better or For Worse?


By James Thomas-Queh



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 22, 2005

Firestone and the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) - are two entities that have marked the social, economic and political history of Liberia, and also the Liberian -US relationship. Therefore their very synchronised and publicised reactivation is not a coincidence. What is more, it is our generation that brought both entities to the political spotlight from the 1970s. And like today, both entities were established at the beginning of the 20th century when Liberia was on her knees; though, they also perished with her at the end of the same century. Thus their coming into being again in this manner and fashion do merit a re-examination of our conscience- in silence.
1) How different will the Firestone of 1926, 1950s and 1976 be from that of 2005?, and
2) How different would the AFL of 1908, 1912, 1950s, 1970s and 1980s be from that of 2005?
Amb. John Blaney
Photo © IRIN
The Firestone concession agreement was signed on January 28, 2005, in the Cabinet Room at the Executive Mansion (see -Jan. 31, 2005). The Ministers of Finance and Agriculture along with the chairman of the National Investment Commission, signed for the Government of Liberia, while the Minister of Justice attested the agreement. And at the end, naturally, Chairman Bryant approved it. Among others in attendance at this grand official ceremony (that history will recall) were Speaker George Dweh, US Ambassador John Blaney, Marie Parker, chair of the Contracts and Monopolies Commission and Harry Greaves, Economic Advisor to the Chairman. And the document goes to the Legislature; and when approved, this agreement would replace that of 1976, signed between the Tolbert government and Firestone.

Why all this rush by concessions and “investors” to sign agreements by a government and Legislature not mandated by the people, and expected to be out of office in the next few months? What are their terms or contents for or against the national interest of Liberia? Or, if Firestone was established in the 1930s, with a 99 -year concession agreement, what has changed in the successive ratified copies up to 2005? Or, why was there at all a cause for ratification of the agreement? Transparency - in other terms - and this is the word the Americans, Europeans, IMF, World Bank, UN, and others ask of the African governments.

Then no sooner had that official signing ceremony ended at the Executive Mansion, the US Embassy convened its own press meeting to announce the United States Security Sector Reform (SSR) for Liberia. The amount of $200 million will be spent over a period of three years to restructure the kind of army the US government envisages for Liberia and rehabilitate other social and economic infrastructures (see - Feb. 3 & 4, 2005).

Questions: What are the exact figures stipulated in this package to recreate the AFL, and rehabilitate basic social and economic infrastructures? From the emphasis at the presentation of the project, we conclude the rehabilitation of basic social and economic infrastructure is secondary. And second, why wasn’t it chairman Bryant, in person, and in the presence of the US Ambassador, religious and civil society leaders, legislatures, etc. - to unveil such a crucial national security plan (and thanks to the generous support of the US government) to restructure the AFL; and in the process appeal to the Liberian people to give their fullest support though the project (at $200m) is extremely costly for a country lacking every basic infra-structure and necessity for survival? A country in which half of the population is almost dead; the other half lingering in refugee camps, and those left to live cannot even afford to buy a cup of rice.

Let us now revisit and explore the first of our two fundamental questions. What difference does the Firestone agreements of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s, make to that of 2005?

That our forefathers were totally insane to have signed a 99-year concession agreement for one million acres of land; that before the arrival of Firestone, Liberia was self-sufficient in rice and food production; that Firestone brought or encouraged the forced labour practices to Liberia; that Firestone had established a state within a state; that Firestone helped to support and maintain a corrupt and autocratic dictator in power for 27 years; that every US dollar Firestone took out of the country, only $0.01 was left in Liberia; that Firestone, instead of exporting all the raw latex, should have established manufacturing plants to produce finished products such as tyres and other natural rubber accessories, etc.; that because of the Firestone’s “pussawa rice”, Liberians have a disdain for their own locally produced rice, rich in nutrition and healthier; and the revelations could continue indefinitely.

Now, is there any guarantee in the current agreement to redress these grievances that continue to haunt our society and nation. Looking back, President Edwin Barclay (1930-1944) was the first to revolt by declaring a moratorium in 1931, on the imposed Firestone Loan (1926) of $5 million. For this action, the US government refused for five years to recognise the Barclay government (see Dunn, Tarr: Liberia: A National Polity in Transition (1988), The Scarecrow Press, Inc. - p. 171). Then almost half a century later, President Tolbert (1971-1980) stood firm as Barclay, and renegotiated this same Firestone agreement in favour of Liberia’s national interest. And for his action, the Americans, among other punitive measures, cancelled the PL 480 rice import program. We all know what followed thereafter. As for what Firestone might have done under Doe or Taylor - it is anyone’s guess. What is certain, once the usefulness of both men was over - they were dumped at the wolves.

In clear, history and experience have caught up with us again; so we would admit that Firestone is not an humanitarian organisation; it is just another very good success history of our capitalist business entities whose unique moral responsibility is to make a maximum profit wherever and whenever possible. We now know that were Firestone given the chance, what it did in Liberia, it would do the same in the United or Europe without any remorse or conscience. Because why Firestone was already manipulating the situation in Liberia in 1926, it also had influence on the decision of the President of United States because it contributed generously to his election (see Dunn, Tarr -p. 171). Of course, since then it is no more a taboo that multinationals make and influence the most powerful world leaders.

Thus as far as Firestone is concern, if a Liberian president and his small clique are manipulated by greed to sign, and lease 1 million acres of their rich farm land for $10.00 per year, that is their problem; if they allow their citizens to be paid 2 cents per hour, that is their problem; if they cannot promote, encourage or establish manufacturing plants and sub-contractual enterprises around their private rubber production from the rent, that is their problem; if they sign an agreement that does not allow them the right to look at the account books of the company, that is their problem; if they allow Firestone duty-free privileges while their deprived citizenry pay 100% duty, that is their problem; if they cannot mobilise their people to produce their staple - rice - but to rely on Firestone imported “pussawa”, that is their problem; and the examples are in exhaustive.

In short, globalisation, which people pretend began today, has long since been a dangerous epidemic since man began to exploit the weak, poor and innocent beyond his own horizons.

But let us refer back on the Firestone/rice connection. We have already learned that it was the cancellation of the PL 480 rice import program (precisely during the Firestone negotiations of 1974/75) that would help to undermine the Tolbert administration. It is possible that this same PL 480 will be reactivated once again (in other words, the same blackmail against Tolbert) and the contract to import rice could be given to Harry Greaves, Bryant & Associate. Because as we can recall, it was Mr. Greaves who refuted the rational for self-sufficiency in rice production; and had the audacity to compare the situation of Liberia to Japan - great consumer of beef (not a staple), but which does not herd its own cattle. Thus since the Japanese have the economic capacity to satisfy their needs from the competitive international market, Liberians would also be much better off by planting what is called “cash-crops” - cocoa, coffee, rubber, etc. - and then take that money to import rice. And this how he sums up the strategy to purchase a beg of pussawa less than US $10.00, probably, as in 1970s:

“We are now in a global economy in which the easy accessibility and relatively low cost of information has made trade amongst peoples over vast expanses of geography a snap. As a consumer, I can log on to the Internet from my perch in Monrovia, and in a instant get quotations from rice producers as far as Thailand, Vietnam and Louisiana to enable me to make an informed decision as to whether I would be better off to buy my rice from a farmer in Tappita or from one of foreign competitors. We are in an era in which the consumer is king and producers who want to play the game will be forced to compete for his business by offering their wares on the best terms the consumer is willing to accept. Those countries that understand this basic truth will be the ones most likely to succeed in this new global economy” (see - July 25, 2000).

The reality, Mr. Greaves is now a member of the government, and is also sitting on the Rice Commission to bring the price of rice from US $35.00 to at least US $20.00 (or else the Bryant government would perish with the people); and the Advisor has yet to log on to the Internet from his very comfortable perch at the Executive Mansion. No. The truth is that Mr. Greaves felt short in his economic paradigms; rice is a cash crop or else Thailand, Vietnam and Louisiana would not be exporting it. Rice is among the rare commodities on earth that is eaten, one way or the other, by the world’s more than six billion inhabitants. Thus it is an important political tool to blackmail a government and nation as Firestone did to Tolbert (and most likely the same to the Bryant government). This is why a country as China makes sure that it’s self-sufficient in rice production to feed its people; thus preserving both its vital national security interest and rural cultural tradition. Liberia has the same potential to become self-sufficient, not only to preserve her vital national security and rural cultural tradition, but also become a major exporter.

But we realise this dream would be impossible if one takes into account the production plans revealed by Firestone’s president and CEO, Mr. Daniel J. Adomities. In his words, his company “would immediately begin planting in its own production area, reaching a level of 5,000 acres per year in four years. In order to revive the Liberian rubber industry which is in danger of dying out, Firestone will provide up to 600,000 free rubber stumps per year to local farmers for replanting old and damaged rubber trees “(see - Jan. 31, 2005). If there aren’t new modern techniques in rubber planting, this ambitious four-year plan would require a huge amount of labour force. Thus left to the Bryant Team alone, instead of repatriating our poor peasant farmers to their villages to plant their rice, cassava, eddoes, yam and pepper - they should be deported straight to Harbel to begin their wage labour at Firestone. From all indications, LAC has already begun the process.

The army - how different would the AFL of the 1908, 1912, 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, be from that of 2005?

The first and most significant difference is that a private US security company -DynaCorp International - hired by the US government will train the new AFL. This company, we are told, is the same hired to train the new police forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and also Liberia (see - Feb. 15, 2005). We already know how effective are the Afghan security forces against Bin Laden and his Al- Qaeda; and the Iraqis forces against their insurgents. Whatever the case, Liberia is now among the developing countries where the new theory of privatisation of the army is being tested. Thus if private enterprise such as Firestone cannot be controlled, how do we expect to control a privatised army? Can such an army ever be trained with an embedded patriotism and nationalism or be in the interest of the nation and people? Can the cost of such an army ever be controlled? These are questions that need some sober national reflection.

The second difference, if at all there is any, could be found in these excerpts from the statement of the US officials presenting the military project, “they expect the new army to be of high quality, apolitical, and religiously and ethnically balanced capable of defending the borders of Liberia” ( - Feb. 4, 2005). One could interpret this to mean that an army that has been re-invented over and again by the US military since 1912, was never indoctrinated these high virtues of a good soldier; and now expect a hired private security firm to achieve that goal on its behalf. On the other hand, our army has always had some ethnic dominance, but never religious; this is something new and very dangerous. Apolitical? There is no army apolitical. And this is where it becomes hypocritical to make us believe that a military institution (whose very existence, well-being and fate of its members depend on political decision) is apolitical.

How else could men and women be sent thousands of miles from their national borders to die in defence or to spread freedom and democracy when they must keep their mouths shut on politics? Period. If armies in the Western democracies have not taken power directly, it is not because they are apolitical; it is because apart from the countless privileges and advantages they enjoy (early retirement, veteran this and that, ascension to high state function as retirees, etc.), they are also part and parcel of a larger and very profitable defence industry. So, it not because the Americans say that the AFL will be apolitical, respect human right, the rule of law, and the Constitution and laws of Liberia - then it will be; it is the social, economic and political situation of the people that determines the political direction of the army. Look, we are now too old and experience-ridden to accept just anything we are told, please.

Jacques P. Klein
The third difference may be in the numbers and purely economic. Immediately after taken office in Liberia, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Liberia, Jacques Klein, suggested that Liberia should abolish its army altogether, saying “armies sit around playing cards and plotting coups” (see - Feb. 15, 2005). This well experienced former US air force general (ah, here is another retired general) declared then that Liberia could make do with a decent police force 18/02/05and a well-trained border security force of 600 to 700 men. But now the new AFL is expected to have a strength of up to 4 000 men. Who is right, general Jacques Klein or the US government policy makers? Certainly, Liberians were not given the chance to have their say, unfortunately.

And this brings to bear the economic implications. We have the impression that the transformation of our army since the beginning of the 20th century (perhaps an exception from the 1980s) had been in consonance with our economic realities; meaning, the army was as poor as the majority of the population. On the contrary, this current army begins already with a price tag of US $200 million, while 99% of the population are destitute and jobless; nation’s institutions of learning have no funding; no electricity; no running water, etc. And not telling us clearly how this first US $200 will be repaid, its expenditure transparency or terms of loan, etc., the US military experts remind us nicely that “The recreated AFL will have ground, air and maritime components and will be funded by the Liberian National Defence budget.” What is the projected budgetary cost after the first or second year? How are we to avoid the experience of the Military Junta’s (PRC) first year, 1980-81 - where the “Public Order and Safety” (now termed as “Security Sector Reform” -SSR), increased from US $17.8 million in 1979 to $44.6 million? During this same period government spending on education and health fell from 30% to 23.6%? (See Dunn, Tarr - p. 96). And at the end, Prince Johnson butchered Doe -trained by the US Green Berets -; and Liberia went into pieces, while our nation had an inheritance of $3 billion debt.

First, just the mere fact that the restructuring project was announced from the US Embassy, would have an undesirable psychological effect. Because deep down in the hearts of Liberians, they do not disassociate the defunct AFL (though they may have called it Doe’s Krahn Army, and every failure in Africa is African’s) from the United States which has always funded and trained it since 1912. Thus to reassure Liberians, the US military attaché went out of his way to explain: “This is a Liberian program. We want Liberians to own, integrate it and to accept it so that everything we do will be communicated in a timely way and we will be accountable for the result of Liberia we are here to save… Everything will be done in consultation with the Interim government” (see - Feb. 4, 2005).

If this was true, the process should have been the other way around; it should have been the Interim government to announce the restructuring of the AFL, but in consultation with the United States government (our historical friends, partners and provider of the fund and loans). We should have been made accountable to the government of the United States; be allowed to take our national responsibility. This, at least, would have given Liberians the impression that they were in charge of their proper destiny (but with the most powerful partner behind the scene, guiding them through right path). This would increase positive motivation in the people who are to be helped, and thus reinforce the influence of the donor. The contrary, apart from its psychological effect, would produce de-motivation and a don’t-care attitude or the business-as-usual phenomenon. This Interim administration or the incoming “elected” government, somewhere in their psyche, already know that they will not have control over the army nor the military expenditure that would supersede social spending. Unfortunately, and in our view, this is a 1000 watts booby-trap for any well-meaningful and visionary national leader. A President who does not have control of his national security apparatus or its expenditure, is doomed to pressure that may not always be in his national interest. He or she would be obliged to engage secret loans under the table to keep the AFL afloat at a more professional and decent standard. And at the end of the day neither the army nor the people would be satisfied. And rumours of “rampant corruption” would soon loom to tarnish the image of that leadership.

The risk - if tomorrow Liberians are given the impression that they have elected a national leader who cannot deliver, they would certainly get out onto the street to exercise their democratic rights against low wages at Firestone, the forced delocalisation of villagers by LAC and others, unemployment, insufficient university funding, autocratic tendencies, high cost of living, and the rest. This time round, we suspect, the army and security forces could be sent out to crush them not as the faded “socialists, communists and progressives”, but as “terrorists and religious fanatics.” And believe me you, this is not what we desire for our country; though, at least, we would not be afraid to say: it is kind of army the US government had envisaged and restructured for Liberia; and it is not the making of the people of Liberia.

CONCLUSION: The advantage for some of us having these dual-entitlements - Liberian-American, Franco-Liberian, and others, - is not only the fact that our children are serving in these nations’ armies and other institutions, but we are also taxpayers. Thus, at least, we have the freedom to make our voices heard where we think the cooperation between our two nations are heading into the wrong direction. It is incumbent upon us -more than anyone else - to advise and ascertain that our money spent must serve to motivate and empower the people to self-autonomy; and that it must also serve the genuine interest of our two countries and peoples. We cannot therefore be construed as anti-anybody or for that matter, the military. We appreciate all the assistance, and that is precisely why we must be concerned how it is put to a proper use.

We were among the first to have raised the issue of the army for a post-war Liberia. We said then that “If we decide to keep a national army, it would have to start from scratch: training, well paid, equipped and maintained durably (see - Oct. 15, 2003). And this reflection was valid for all our social, economic and political institutions to which the military is an integral part. Because experience has taught us that if we do not develop our institutions at the same pace or in their totality - then we are set for a quick social friction. If the army is well paid, provided housing, retirement, etc.,- advantages not accessible to the bulk of the society - then it would soon be isolated from the people; and thus be portrayed as a privileged class. And to be capable and efficient: the army must be the people, and the people must be their army.

In short, we stand witness to the rebirth our two most historical entities - Firestone and AFL. It is what we now do with them; knowing that it is for better or for worst.