Clinton in Liberia: US-Liberia Relations Must Evolve Beyond Paternalism

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 5, 2009


US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon be in Monrovia to meet with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to hold bilateral talks on advancing US - Liberia relations, taking them to a new level. The two women know each other and have been talking long before any of them occupied the high level jobs they are currently holding. In 2005, before starting her run for the presidency, Mrs. Sirleaf paid a courtesy visit to Senator Clinton at her office on Capitol Hill. After winning the Liberian presidential elections in 2005, President Sirleaf got an even closer relationship with Mrs. Clinton and her husband former US President William Jefferson Clinton and attended charity functions organized by the former President. It was during one of those functions, that the Liberian President met Robert l. Johnson. Johnson is an American entrepreneur who is now playing an important role in Liberia’s attempt to woo US investors and capital to Liberia. The two women leaders met recently when President Sirleaf toured the US to launch her book. Hillary and Ellen know each other, one can say.

US and Liberia relations have gone through many stages over the years and Liberians, for good or bad, feel a closeness to the US that is not unfortunately shared on the other side of the Atlantic. As Liberia plunged into chaos and destruction during the 1980s and the 1990s, the US mostly watched from the sideline, doing the very minimal. Some in Washington claimed that Liberia no longer held any strategic interest and US policy makers allowed Liberia to self-destruct, limiting its role to distributing humanitarian aid. It took the intervention of President George W. W. Bush in 2003 to make a shift from that policy of non-engagement.

Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in Accra in 2003 that led to the current peace, the US policy towards Liberia has greatly evolved and moved towards significant public engagement. The US spent close to 500 million dollars in restructuring the security sector and helped to rebuild the nation’s badly needed infrastructure: schools, court houses, roads, and strengthening civil society organization. The US also played a crucial role in getting the UN peace keeping force in Liberia and funding it.

Next week meeting between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must go well beyond the pageantry of two stateswomen and friends meeting to discuss past successes and recollections of old gifts. It must not be limited to a recital of how US supported the peace process or its engagement in the various programs in Liberia recovery, be it in the military, civil society or the reconstruction of dilapidated roads.

There is a need for a new paradigm in US – Liberian relations. Liberia has always taken and accepted whatever comes from Washington, DC as a gift. In turn, the US has always taken for granted Liberia’s strategic availability for the cause of US African policies. The Firestone rubber plantation, the Roberts International Airport, the Freeport of Monrovia, the Omega and the VOA were all built to suit US interests in the world. Liberia’s democratic process failed to take roots in 1985 when the US Cold War policy prompted the Reagan Administration to allow the regime of Samuel Doe to maintain its grips on Liberia and destroy the country in the long run.

In 2006, during a visit to the US, President Sirleaf said that she was looking to start a new type of relationship with the US that goes beyond the old paternalistic ties. She said she was looking at partnership between the two countries, where the US would listen to Liberia and Liberia would have a say in how the two countries collaborate. In April 2009 at Berkeley in California, she said the “donor countries” must sometimes allow receiving countries to determine their own priorities. In essence, after so many decades of one-sided receivership, it may be time to sit down as partners and design a program of exchange that would benefit both countries.

Currently, Liberia stands in need of many things. The country faces so many difficulties that it would welcome anything the US have to offer. But this might also be the only time, where and when Liberia and US could devise a new type of partnership, where century-old relationships are not lost in the cacophony of “globalization of US leadership.” The US can always count on Britain in Europe, it can always count on Israel in the Middle East and it can always rely on South Korea in Asia and in Africa, notwithstanding its new friends, Liberia remain the longest and most reliable ally on the continent. The relationship has however always been one-sided, where, one side decides to give or take without any due regard for the real needs of the other. That is not partnership. It is paternalism.

Part of the fault could be from Liberians, who, generations after generations have been contented to play the role of the “step child”, claiming a special relationship without working to lay solid foundations to sustain their claims.

The visit of Mrs. Clinton must not be reduced to a nice tea party between two friends. This stop over must yield something more concrete beyond the celebration of 160 years of “friendship” that has so far functioned in one direction. It must not be limited to hand-outs, not matter how large the amounts, but rather to setting the basis for a real partnership. Such a partnership will develop long term policies that take into account US strategic interests in Liberia and on the continent as well as serve the long term needs of Liberia, both at home and in the US.

For such partnership to build up, Liberia must grow out of its step-child and dependency mentality and talk to the US as a sovereign nation, conscious of its national interests and the US must stop thinking that it can have a more reliable partner anywhere on the continent than Liberia. With Barrack Obama in the White House, Hillary Clinton at State and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the Executive Mansion, there is no better time to take US-Liberia relations to the historic level they deserve.

The current US Ambassador to Liberia, Mrs. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who carry out her PhD research in Lofa County and worked with assiduity to get Liberia into the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) program two years ago, is well equipped to lead such a renewal and guide towards a more mature cooperation that could serve as a model for the future.

The Clinton Administration in the 1990s invented the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that sought to revolutionize trade relations between US and Africa; the Bush Administration brought the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that sought to reward good governance through grants; the Obama Administration can be expected to set a new paradigm in cooperation and partnership with Africa, beginning with Liberia.

© 2009 by The Perspective

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