The Congressional Black Cousins
By Tarty Teh

July 12, 2000

If conspiracy appears to be the theme in the discussion of recent developments in Liberia and Sierra Leone, then perhaps it was the president of the government of Liberia, Charles Taylor, that set the tone by its announcement of having uncovered an ''international conspiracy'' against it. Some of us have since spotted what could credibly be described as a conspiracy by the Taylor government - the conspiracy to make us think that there is a conspiracy in which Taylor is not involved.

Yet, even at our most paranoid, we cannot spread the conspiracy theory so liberally to include deliberations between blood relatives regarding what they see as threat to their joint survival. And if you never thought that the Americans who settled Liberia - known as Americo-Liberians - were ever threatened to a point that their survival would become an issue, then all I can say is that you are not paranoid, and that you - most likely - are not an Americo either.

But whereas the level and frequency of the worries of which paranoia is made have always been a fact of life for Africans under the rule of the settlers, similar worries have only recently become an Americo preoccupation. This calls for understanding. But Americos have natural allies - their Congressional Black Cousins, and the cousins' other civilian organizations such as Rev. Jesse Jackson's P.U.S.H.

This may appear to be a barrier for us African Liberians in explaining what we often see as a problem in our attempt to co-exist with the Americos. To be understood, let alone solved, this problem must be communicated with those the Americos value the most - the American Congress, which exercises influence over succession of American administrations. In such endeavor, what we see as a barrier is in fact a cushion for the Americos. After all, we outnumber them by better than 25 to 1, but we have not outsmarted them yet. But national existence calls for cooperation, not competition that threatens the existence of one group or another.

Until we get the word out about what our intentions are, the Congressional Black Cousins remain, for us, a chasm over which we will have to shout to be heard by the American government and people. Patience is called for, but I do not expect that we African Liberians will be more patient than black Americans were when their own freedom was still pending.

Liberia remains a failed experiment in the hands of the freed blacks who first went to Africa about 180 years ago to sow democracy. But it is not all their fault that the thing failed. We Africans delayed challenging them for political power for so long that they lost any urgency to share democracy with us. Yet for all those years, we Africans operated under the assumption that the suitable forum for lodging complaints against the ex-slaves was the United States Congress and particularly the Democratic Party. But the U.S. Congress suffers from the guilt of enslaving black Americans, and may not be so willing to be seen censuring the survivors of slavery.

Our confusion was compounded when the American government determined soon after Liberia was founded that Liberia was of strategic value to the United States. But what the American government called strategic, we Liberians called familial and ''special relationship.'' It was only after the United States' strategic need for us ceased to exist that our claim of being ''special'' was put to the test. It failed.

Did we know that our claims of being ''special'' did not hold up? It depends on whom you ask. On the whole, we still don't get it. When nations speak to one another, they use the language of diplomacy. You say terrible things in very nice ways while still hoping that the other guy understands exactly what you mean. Well, America tried being diplomatic with us. It didn't work. We still thought they loved us. So they tried this: ''The Cold War is over; we therefore have no need to shore up your governments as a hedge or edge against communism.''

I think we African Liberians understood this message the first time it was sent to us. But it's not because we are smarter, it's because we are used to be discriminated against. That's what the Americos did to us. And so when we said, ''They said they don't need us,'' the Americos still stood around thinking, ''They are not talking about us, they are talking about the Africans. We are cousins, see?''

Being blunt with people who don't take a diplomatic no for an answer doesn't make the endeavor any easier. And the U.S. State Department has been at it with Liberia for a while. In July 1996, a State Department functionary delivered a speech at a Liberian Independence Day gathering in Washington, D.C. The speech turned the otherwise hot chamber into a cold storage when the American bluntly told Liberians gathered there that ''Liberia is of no strategic importance to the United States.'' I did not attend the gathering. A white American friend of mine who was present told me how the State Department officer's speech lowered the room temperature more toward the IQ of those who still believe America owes us.

So what we are seeing now is a US policy which has separated the issue of Liberia from the main body of the United States government. Liberia is now a pet project of the Congressional Black Cousins. The administration of President Bill Clinton has therefore put Rev. Jesse Jackson between itself and Liberia in the name of Africa. But it seems as if the Black Congressional Cousins are determined to make the Liberian experiment succeed, and by success they mean that their Liberian cousins remain in charge.

This could explain why we can never shine the spotlight on President Charles Taylor enough for his Congressional Black Cousins to join the world in condemning him. But with Taylor's growth in power and corrupt influence in all of West Africa, Congressional condemnation has come in the form of the voice of a Republican Senator named Judd Gregg. Who would have thought? That's perhaps the opening we need to make our case before the American people, that though the Americos have Congressional Black Cousins in the Hill, they are in fact our African brothers by way of Mother Africa. Even so, we the older African siblings have now determined that freedom is good for all.

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