The Liberian Crisis: Liberian Expectation versus the American Reality

William E. Allen, Ph.D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 30, 2003

A Group of Liberians calls for US intervention, displays dead bodies outside US Embassy in Monrovia
The grisly image of a pile of corpses that had been purposely dumped before the United States Embassy in Liberia last week and the picture of protesting Liberians in the background demanding that the US should intervene to end the war, is perhaps the most graphic indication of desperation by Liberians. In the past, Liberians have prayed, petitioned and cajoled the Americans to dispatch just a small portion of their tremendous "shock and awe" power to rid them of their disgraced and unconscionable president, Charles Taylor. Some demonstrators reportedly chanted, "We Have Oil," hoping to entice US President George Bush; Mr. Bush probably figured out that the protestors were "pulling his leg" about the oil. In fact, the Boston Globe reported on June 28, 2003 that the United States Government will not send troops to stop the carnage that is unfolding before its doorstep. (At the time of this writing, none of the major American television networks has mentioned the heap of dead bodies that was left before the embassy, although the story can be found in a number of international media - e.g., the British Broadcasting Company).

Liberians' expectation about the role of the United States in halting the war is not unparalleled in history. For all practical purposes, the founders of the Liberian state were American citizens who became alienated from their nation, and voluntarily emigrated to establish an American colony on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This type of reaction was commonplace in that era. For example, when a section of the English population became estranged from their king in the 1600s, they huddled in a boat, voyaged across the Atlantic and established the foundation for what would become the United States of America. Prior to the declaration of independence from Britain in 1776, the English colonists naturally expected the "mother country" to protect them from the Indians, French and other competitors. Usually the British Government responded by sending its army to protect the fledgling English colonies. The British Government offered similar protection to its citizens in Australia, East Africa and South Africa in the nineteenth century; and so did the Spanish Crown for its colonists in Latin America.

Likewise, the American emigrants (Americo-Liberians), who exploited and suppressed the indigenous majority for more than a century, would instinctively turn to the United States in good times and perilous times. The preference of the Americo-Liberian elite for American material culture was often ludicrous; e.g., top hats and fork coats in the steamy African temperature and imported pork instead of fresh local meat. Even after the Americo-Liberian oligarchy was deposed in 1980, the new leader (President Samuel Doe) a "native Liberian" proceeded to look to the United States. Not only did the bulk of the financial assistance continue to come from the United States, but the new leader, along with his cronies, was just as enthralled with American culture as the Americo-Liberians they had dethroned. For instance, President Doe returned to Liberia after a visit to the US with a completely altered image: He replaced the military garb and the occasional African gown with pin-stripped business suits; a huge Afro hairdo sat where his once natural kinky and knotty hair had been.

But this lure for American culture has never been limited to the political leadership. Every Liberian (from the educated to the illiterate) seems enchanted with the Yankee culture. As students at the University of Liberia, we were more inclined to visit the American Cultural Center for the "world news" even though the literature at embassies of Eastern-bloc nations (e.g., the Soviet Union) usually covered a greater portion of the world. Perhaps the greatest analogy of the fascination with things American I have ever witnessed was in my hometown of Palala, a small town (population of about 1,000) situated about 26 miles east of Gbarnga. As far as I can remember, it was the tradition for students of the only elementary school in Palala to march on National Holidays (e.g., Independence Day and Flag Day) throughout the town. The highlight of the drill was the "PassIn-Review" carried out at the heart of Palala's "financial district" which consisted of about a quarter of a mile with probably three or four stores. Here the officers would carry out the exercise in the presence of the predominantly illiterate townspeople and the Lebanese merchants who owned the stores. Quite often, the Lebanese donated money and rice for the "Country Cook" that followed. It now appears that the arrival of the first US Peace Corps Volunteers in Palala in the 1960s saw a change in this school tradition. The climax of the March was still at the financial district, but the Pass-In-Review was now conducted before the residence of the Peace Corps Volunteers at the eastern end of the street. We would march on the narrow motor road to the Lebanese stores, slowed down to the cheers of our parents and the Lebanese and then under the stern direction of our teacher, we headed to the residence of the Americans for the Pass-In-Review. Without doubt, the change was influenced by the corn meal, doughnuts, and milk that had become available at school during recess, which everyone knew came from the United States. One could dismiss this anecdote and Liberians' fascination with things American as the result of a very successful crusade of American cultural imperialism. There is some truth here. However, the fact that the Kpelle (and probably other ethnic groups) were able to distinguish between the Lebanese and Americans is telling. The approximate translation from Kpelle for both groups is "Whiteman." As I now recall, the townspeople referred to the American Peace Corps Volunteers slightly different. To the townspeople, the Americans were the "Whiteman from across the Ocean." In addition, the people (and we the students) began to associate what we believed was good with the Americans

Many Liberians can proudly remember the generosity of Americans (e.g., personal assistance, the invaluable role of Peace Corps Volunteers in their formative years, the study-abroad fellowship and the student-exchange program). Still, when Liberians as a nation look back, they are very likely to reach a different conclusion: They will note that at their greatest hour of need, the lowest and saddest time, the "Whitemen from across the Ocean" tend to desert them. They will also observe that those conspicuous times that the Americans offered help, it was usually predicated upon what they wanted and not the other way around. For example, for more than a century, the US Government nurtured the corrupt and undemocratic regime of the Americo-Liberians. Then through the 1980s, it sustained the autocratic leadership of Samuel Doe, even as the dictator flagrantly stifled the democratic aspirations of the people under the guise of rooting out "communists and socialists." No wonder the demonstrators dropped the dead bodies at the American Embassy, blaming the US Government for its complicity in the deaths. Here are few other illustrations of how Liberians will interpret their relationship with the United States. During World War One (1914-1918), Liberia did the unthinkable and "declared war" on Germany right after the US had done so in 1917. That show of solidarity had severe consequences. Liberian-German economic ties, which grossed more than half of the nation's annual revenue, were lost as the numerous German business houses packed up and left. The most immediate danger, however, was the German bombardment of Monrovia shortly after the declaration of war. Efforts by Liberian officials during the frantic hours of bombing to get US military help was turned down as the Americans claimed that all their gunboats were engaged elsewhere. It was the chance arrival of a British navy ship that prevented further disaster; about five Liberians were killed and several buildings on Front Street were demolished. In the immediate post-war period when the Liberian Government appealed for a loan to bolster the slumping economy, the US Government instead pressured Liberia to lease American businessman Harvey Firestone 1m acres to grow rubber. The significance of the Firestone agreement to the American economy, particularly the infant Ford Motor Company, was critical. Firestone, a colleague of Henry Ford, had failed to lease land in Mexico and the Philippines to open rubber plantation so as to end the US dependency on the British rubber monopoly from its Southeast Asian colonies. The Firestone agreement of 1926 ensured a regular supply of rubber to the young Ford Motor Company and the expanding American industrial economy. Finally, the most heart-stricken disappointment Liberians experienced was in the early months of the civil war of 1989-1996. After months of pleading for US military muscle to prevent what was certainly a bloodbath, Liberians watched in disbelief as the "Whiteman from across the Ocean" evacuated his citizens, shut his embassy doors, and turned away. The death toll from that seven-year war that is quoted by different international agencies runs between 200,000 to 500,000. The ongoing killing (including the pile of corpses) is part of the "unfinished business" of the civil war.

Due to this continued US insensitivity at the time when other Western nations (e.g., France and Britain) are urging it to intervene, I foresee increased anti-American protest in the coming years in Liberia. Liberians are at a loss to understand the US insistence in imposing democracy in Iraq, where resistance appears to be growing as an average of one American soldier has died daily since Mr. Bush declared the war over, while Liberians are literally groveling for that opportunity. Liberians are now concluding, like others around the world (e.g., Nelson Mandela) had done earlier, that the Iraqi invasion was propelled more by oil and geopolitical calculations than democracy and the search for weapons of mass destruction. There are indications that the United States (along with the anti-democratic forces on the African continent) is surreptitiously crafting a plan that could only spell more problems. The Americans and their discredited African collaborators are calling this scheme an "African solution." I do know of an African solution that has always work in these circumstances. For nearly a decade when African Head of States turned a blind eye to the atrocities of the heartless Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79), one African leader offered the only African solution consistent with African culture. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, that stalwart son of Africa, stood up to the monster when his colleagues were cowering. He joined forces with Ugandan rebels and kicked Amin out of Africa. Nyerere's reaction was in line with the African culture: The enemy of the people is always banished from the village, not rewarded.

About the author: Dr. William E. Allen teaches United States and World History at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.