The Last Journey of the Liberian Maritime Program
By Tarty Teh
In the mid 1970s, I worked as an intern of sorts with the Liberian Services, Inc., the purposely inconspicuous name for the host company for the overseas branch of Liberias Bureau of Maritime Affairs in the United States. I actually sought a permanent job with that Liberian ship registering company, which was then located on Park Avenue, a block south of the Grand Central Station in New York City. I was waiting for school to open in New York or for my job with the Liberian Information Center in Washington, D.C., to be confirmed.
Somehow I thought that being a Liberian would give me a leg up in getting a job with this office, which was running the Liberian Maritime program. But when I returned to school with the hope that if I were hired I might just remain in New York, I realized that the subjects of my interest also became the concerns of some Maritime higher-ups in the New York office.
I was working directly under a Mr. J.C. Montgomery, who was, I believe, Deputy Commissioner of Maritime Affairs for the Ministry of Finance. He worked in the New York office of the Liberian Services, Inc. I never really understood how the program was structured. But I learned that there were seven companies involved with the program. In addition to the ITC Bank and the Bureau of Maritime Affairs in Monrovia, there were five American-owned companies between New York City and Reston, Virginia, for a total of seven entities running the operation.
A microwave or satellite link with the Reston offices of the contrived consortium allowed the offices in Reston to be reached from New York as a matter of extension to the New York office telephone system. In pursuit of my desire to work for the New York Maritime office, I approached some of the white folks in the office because by then I was persuaded that Mr. Montgomery would not soon rule either way. But when a copy of an editorial I had written as a school assignment was circulated around the office along with a segment of my "Running Journal," I realized that there were even more unusual things about my relationship with the office.
The New York branch of the Maritime office made sure that there was no record of my having worked there. My paycheck for each pay period was sent to Washington to Mr. TeMynors Kla-Williams, who was Press and Cultural Counselor for the overseas press wing of the Ministry of Information. Mr. Kla-Williams would counter sign each paycheck and mail it back to me before I could take it to the Bank of Commerce, which I understood also had a tie with the Maritime program. It appeared that a senior partner in the Liberian Services, Inc., had a stake in the bank. Involving Mr. Kla-Williams with how I got paid was justified on the ground that I had re-entered the United States as a prospective employee of the Liberian Information Center in Washington, D.C.
I had not yet figured out completely why I was being shunned at the Liberian Services until a Liberian named Joseph Keller arrived from London with a Gerald Cooper who was the Liberian Maritime Commissioner based in Monrovia. Another Cooper, George Cooper, who worked out of London as Liberias Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), was with Keller and Gerald Cooper at the latter Coopers hotel when Keller brought up the question of my views as expressed in writing. George Cooper was a Lorma man and the other two gentlemen were Americos. I say this to say that it now appears to me that the Marine program was being run like a family business then as now.
I had a "Running Journal" since the 10th grade back in Liberia, and though the journal entries were generally incidents I observed or was involved in, there were a few feature articles in it expanding on particularly noteworthy occurrences. In some of my writing that was secretly circulated in the New York office must have been a subject that touched on the Americos. I have never felt that an Americo should be required to explain his being Americo, and so I had no qualm with using the expression with reference to the people who settled Liberia. But without saying exactly what I had said with respect to whether it was true or not Keller spent a good deal of time scolding me generally without saying particularly what I had done or said.
Victimhood is usually a temporary state. And though I did not know exactly what to do or say at a time when my prospect for earning an honest living was in the balance, I did take note of what was happening to me. Without a clear plan, I could not stand up to those who would deny me any opportunities while I had not yet acquired the means to defend my rights fully. But you never can say that you have no plan in dealing with those who slighted you. And the plan need not be conspiratorial as long as you have an opportunity for some respectful attention later. But the adverse actions in which my abusers may not have put much thought have now become the basis for their fear about what I may say or do next.
From that moment I realized that working for the New York office as a permanent employee was no longer a possibility. I therefore prepared myself to return to Washington in late 1976 to work with the Liberian Information Center under Mr. TeMynors Kla-Williams. But reflecting back on the situation, I do not believe that the editorial I wrote as a class assignment was the main source of any controversy I generated at Liberian Services, Inc. Rather it was my willingness to share my views with some people high up in the suspiciously complex structure that alarmed them and provided the opening that Mr. Keller needed to lecture me about my general posture on Liberian politics.
Among some of the strange things that happened while I was at Liberian Services, Inc., was the fact that I never laid eyes on a man named Fred T. Lininger, an American citizen who had the title of Senior Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs. But Liningers office was in a building on the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue diagonally across the street from the US White House in Washington, D.C.
What was intriguing about Lininger was the fact that he was reported as having visited the New York office frequently yet I did not see him. But, somehow, I was expected to see him without looking for him. At times he was reported as having visited the ship-licensing floor which worked much like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And then when his name came up, I would learn that he had been on the floor moments before. But I wondered, without saying, why it was so important that Lininger had been there or that I did not seen him.
The person I saw was a Frank Griswall who was the lead lawyer for the whole Maritime program and the assortment of companies that fed from its earnings. Griswall would not have seemed so imposing to me if I had not known that he was second to Mr. Lininger. I believe he was referred to as Dr. Griswall. He did not dress like a typical Park Avenue notable. He wore cuffed breeches and a vest with some chain looping from one upper pocket and anchored by a medallion in a lower pocket of the vest when I saw him. Other than that, the awe of it all largely escaped me. But I did wonder what it meant, to these white people, to be a Liberian working in an outfit bearing the name of Liberia and not have much of a say in how it was run. Perhaps in my particular case there was perceived risk to the interests of those who actually ran the show in having me around.
I would not have known where Liningers office was, if another of the Liberian registered tankers had not had an accident. The Liberian registered Argo Merchant spilled all of its 7.7 million gallons of fuel oil into the sea near the Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts on December 15, 1976. By then I was back in Washington and employed with the Liberian Information Center. The accident was the subject of a network television docudrama "The Last Journey of the Argo Merchant," tracing the route of the ill-fated Liberian vessel that broke apart near the Massachusetts coastline, almost at the point where Herman Melvilles epic nautical novel "Moby Dick" was conceived. It was the narrator in "The Last Journey of the Argo Merchant" who noted that Liningers office had a commanding view the American Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C.
The Liberian Maritime program, like the argosy it registered in the name of Liberia, sailed without much of a purposeful and redeeming Liberian involvement in steering it. But for an activity that did not tax any Liberians for forced labor, the $24m a year the Maritime program generated was not a bad deal, even in return for the abuse that Liberia took for being perceived as a scandalous fleet registry that had no concerns about the seaworthiness of the craft it commissioned to plow international waters.
The Maritime money has been easy picking for anyone who ran Liberia since the creation of the Maritime program in the mid 1940s. The program is protected, rather jealously, by a battery of mostly foreign lawyers in Washington and New York, keeping away any Liberian with a capacity to ask a question.
The Maritime program was the United States gift to Liberia in 1945 as if it were a parting token of affection to an unwanted stepchild. For the money the program makes, it is worth protecting as our national asset. But now the Maritime programs future is in jeopardy because President Charles Taylors pirates have boarded the fleet. We must therefore fight even harder to keep the fleet afloat by insisting that earnings from the Maritime program be placed in an escrow account and away from Charles Taylor who is using the Maritime money as his offshore petty cash account.
We must also appeal to the American government to help us deny Charles Taylor access to the Maritime money in the same fashion that the US has championed the cause of exposing Taylors control of the vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone. That would serve more of a national purpose than cheering for the sinking of the fleet as the only means of preventing Taylor from using its earnings.
Denying Taylor the Maritime money should contribute significantly to the international war on the growing global terrorism which Taylor is documented to be a part of. Even if our efforts are limited to removing a local terrorist like Charles Taylor, whose adventures in West Africa now have a global reach and connections to the international terrorist group that have struck at the United States, we can still count ourselves among the fighters against global terrorism.