Like many expatriate Liberians, I have been tying up phone lines trying to reach relatives in Monrovia. The reports of violence in the mainstream press have deeper meaning for me; I worry about the fate of my sister and my mother, who was discharged from the hospital only two weeks ago. My sister told me that rocket-propelled grenades have landed both on her and my mother’s houses. Mercifully, they survived, but as soon as the explosion destroyed the houses, both homes were thoroughly looted. My sister and mother are now among the million internally displaced Liberians. They were able to seek refuge at the Faith Healing Temple in Logan Town about four kilometres from their own homes. As I spoke to them, I could hear the taut voices of others, and of crying babies, in the background.
Liberians have become the new boat people fleeing their country in search of refuge. We have been running for the last thirteen years, with the arrival of Charles Taylor. But we started running in 1980, when Samuel Doe took over the country after a violent coup d’état in which Liberia’s nineteenth President and then-Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) William R. Tolbert was killed. The 1980 coup undermined and ultimately derailed the growing political reform and democracy movement which had emerged in the late 1970s to challenge Tolbert’s True Whig Party dictatorship. It also signaled the country’s descent into political violence and criminality, which has continued unabated.
Master/Sergeant Doe’s seizing of the reins of power in Liberia was welcomed by the United States. The U.S. viewed him as a line of defence during the Cold War, and they rewarded him appropriately. The Liberian government between 1980 and 1985 was the largest recipient of US aid in Sub-Saharan Africa, during which the Liberian government received five hundred million dollars. But what did Doe do with the dough? The cash was certainly not spent on schools or hospitals; he did not construct new roads nor maintain the country’s infrastructure. He did, however, with U.S. encouragement, improve and expand the Liberian military. The troops were better paid, they got better housing and they became more mobile, all the while raining terror and mayhem on their people. Thus were Liberian politics militarised. President Ronald Reagan called Doe his good friend and entertained him at the White House. Meanwhile, Doe became the most repressive Liberian leader in its history.
Under Doe, Liberia had a "strategic relation" with the United States. The country was home to a broadcasting relay facility owned by the Voice of America, which beamed U.S. propaganda to continental Africa and the Middle East; it hosted an Omega Navigation Station, a naval intelligence gathering entity for the south Atlantic; and the United
States and Liberian governments had an agreement that allowed the U.S. military access to Liberian sea and airport facilities, as long as the U.S. promised to give an hour’s notice
to the Liberian government. Private sector ties blossomed too -- the U.S.-based Firestone Corporation had the worlds largest private rubber plantation located in Liberia.
Doe rigged the Liberian election in 1985. And he wasn’t terribly subtle about it. For instance, after polling stations were closed, the ballot boxes assembled and counting began, Doe dismissed the Elections Commission and named a new team of fifty persons to count the ballots, who duly declared Doe the winner. The opposition cried foul but they were dismissed. The then U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz sagely said that given the high illiteracy rate in the country, it came as no surprise that Doe had won the elections, and the U.S. Government therefore duly recognized him.
In November 1985, one of the masterminds of the 12 April 1980 coup, Thomas Quiwonkpa, tried unsuccessfully to violently remove the Doe regime. He surrendered to Government soldiers after a brief battle, was summarily executed, and his body was paraded around parts of Monrovia as a warning to those who dared to challenge the military dictatorship. Just to be sure, Doe proceeded to lay waste to Nimba County region, from where the alleged perpetrators allegedly hailed.
Against this background, Charles Taylor entered the fray. The majority of Taylor’s fighters were from Nimba County. He launched his war on 24 December 1989 and Liberia continues to reel from its effects. More than two hundred thousand have died, a million have been displaced and several hundreds of thousands are refugees in the region and elsewhere.
Despite the television pictures, the Liberian war has never just been about Monrovia. It spilled first into Sierra Leone, where the chopping off of limbs shocked the international community, then Guinea -- where it was contained and where the US has been giving military assistance -- and more recently into Côte d’Ivoire. West Africa, where no war for
independence had ever been fought, has now become a theatre of armed conflict. And Liberia has become an eyesore in Africa.
It is easy for commentators to suggest that the most important reason the U.S. should get involve in Liberia is because the country was settled by free people of color from the US. Another reason that trips off the tongue for U.S. involvement is a sort of argument by example: the British are in Sierra Leone, and the French are in Côte d’Ivoire, so the U.S. should be in Liberia. For, of course, one wonders why the Belgians are not in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi, or the Portuguese in Angola. Nonetheless, the main reason for U.S. involvement is always left unstated -- the U.S. is morally responsible for its policy failures in Liberia. Without U.S. support, Doe probably would not have had the means to brutalize his citizenry, which ultimately led to the civil war.
As if this weren’t enough, the current Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, is a fugitive from U.S. justice, such as it is. He broke jail in Plymouth, Massachusetts, while awaiting an extradition ruling, before embarking on the creation of his National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the largest of three main guerrilla groups that fought in the country in the early 1990s. In other words, Mr. Taylor escaped jail in the United States, fled to Liberia and
destroyed the country. Surely, there is some U.S. responsibility here. So, when Liberians are seen on international television crying out for US involvement, it is not for pity’s sake, but for the sake of justice.
Yet as pressure, rightly, mounts for US military intervention and if the U.S. obliges, a number of positive developments could occur. Certainly, the U.S. role would be to provide adequate capabilities and capacities to the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) forces. The United Nations would be further emboldened, and rightly so, to play a more active role in a transitional process. It would add more
pressure on President Taylor to leave. As well, it would call the bluff of the two rebel groups: Liberia United for Reconciliation (LURD) and Democracy and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). Neither group is an alternative to the current regime. Like Taylor’s forces, they have committed egregious human rights violations. A final bonus of U.S. intervention would be to stop Guinea’s support for LURD and Côte d’Ivoire’s funding of MODEL.
The transitional government, called for in the 17 June peace agreement signed in Akosombo, Ghana would, with international recognition and financial support, be able to conduct its work speedily.
So what of the future? It is true that, right now, it’s not possible to renege on the promise of dropping war crimes charges against Charles Taylor. But consider the following scenarios. It has been reported that Nigeria has offered Mr Taylor asylum and that he has accepted. Given that war crimes don’t have statutes of limitation, he can be pursued once the country has returned to some normalcy and a legitimate government is in place. No doubt, regardless of whether the government of the day takes action, Liberian human rights campaigners, will make it their singular duty to make sure Mr. Taylor answers for his crimes not only against the people of Sierra Leone but against the Liberian people as well.
Liberia is an idea, and it’s a very good idea: descendants of Africans taken from
Africa and sold into slavery returning to reclaim their birthright. How did this idea get so corrupted and deadly? Therein lies the problem. This is a moral challenge of our time. Liberia is workable; it is not a failed state, it is criminalized and the criminals,
including Mr. Taylor, and perhaps one day the U.S. government, have to answer for their crimes. For the Liberian people richly deserve peace.