In 1821 a group of freed American slaves retraced the steps of their forebears to West Africa to start a new country. At first the Africans didn’t want to turn over a huge hunk of land to the American blacks, but when a U.S. naval officer accompanying the group ordered the Africans at gunpoint to knock it off, they agreed to give it up for baubles and biscuits worth $300. The country of Liberia was founded.
The emigrating blacks proceeded to organize a society around the only social structure they had experienced, that of the antebellum South. So just like the Southern whites, they set up plantations, adopted the formal dress of Southern gentry, joined the Masons, sipped bourbon on the verandas, and sent their kids abroad to school. Liberia’s main city, Monrovia, is named after President Monroe. As for the Africans who worked the plantations, the transplanted former American slaves called them “aborigines.”
This is an admittedly thumbnail sketch of what President Bush last week referred to as Liberia’s “unique history,” which he said had created “a certain sense of expectations” about the U.S. getting involved in trying to stabilize it. During the 2000 election Bush came out against so-called nation building, but last week his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said the president thinks the stability of West Africa is “important” to our interests. Last week Rice told reporters Bush felt it necessary to “bring about reconciliation” between Africa and America due to their odd ties, i.e., slavery, which she has termed America’s “birth defect.”
For more than a century, the bizarre experiment of Liberia, described in animated detail by David Lamb in his book The Africans, was held up as a model of stability—a republic where elected officials could actually live out their lives peacefully and die natural deaths. Through the cloned American class structure, Liberia’s natural resources, such as timber and diamonds, were thoroughly exploited, and it became home to the largest rubber plantation in the world, owned by Firestone. During the Cold War, Liberia became a sort of Fire Base Charlie for the U.S. in Africa, an HQ for communications and home to squads of CIA agents. President William Tubman lived out his life and died peacefully in July 1971. He was succeeded by William Tolbert, who ran a more or less OK government. But all good things sooner or later come to an end, and one night in April 1980, as Tolbert slept in his presidential bed, one of the “aborigines,” a young army sergeant called Samuel Doe, crept onto the presidential grounds, climbed the wall, and entering the president’s bedroom, gouged out one of his eyes, and hacked him to death. Soon Doe’s followers were rounding up the aristocratic heirs of Liberia’s founders, subjecting them to humiliating show trials, and finally carting them down to the beach, where, in a festive atmosphere, they were all shot. Doe was subsequently murdered in 1990 by his opponents. The army that stormed Doe’s palace wore shower caps, to protect them from the rain, and recently looted wedding dresses, while a rival faction wore hairpieces taken from women’s wig stores. What was going on here is unclear.
During the ’70s, a Liberian named Charles Taylor attended Bentley College in Massachusetts, and became active in a Liberian-American association. After college, he returned home and took a job in Doe’s government. In that capacity he reportedly exposed wrongdoings by Doe but also discovered that Doe was out to get him and returned to the U.S. Here, Taylor was arrested on the basis of Doe’s claim that he had embezzled funds. At the time, Taylor’s attorney was New York activist Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general. Clark told the Voice Monday that to the best of his recollection, Doe’s embezzlement charges didn’t amount to anything. Clark’s defense focused not on the merits of the charges but on fighting extradition, arguing that Taylor would be killed if he were turned over to Doe. Amid all this, Taylor escaped from the Plymouth County House of Corrections in Massachusetts. “It’s not clear what happened,” Clark said. “It seemed like it wasn’t something Taylor organized. Some people were going to try to get out, and he went with them.”
Taylor disappeared into Western Europe and then turned up in Africa, becoming a powerful warlord in Liberia, helping to overthrow Doe and ultimately capturing most of the country before winning the presidency in 1997. Under his rule, Liberia has been even more anarchic and violent.
An exhaustive UN probe, which in 2000 produced UN Panel of Experts Report on Diamonds and Arms in Sierra Leone, spells out how Taylor became a player in the violent civil war in Liberia’s neighbor. He arranged financing and military training for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel movement in Sierra Leone, thereby making himself a key cog in the world diamond business.
Packets of Sierra Leone diamonds passed directly to Taylor, according to the UN report, and Liberia became the brokerage where millions of dollars’ worth of what became known as “blood diamonds” were traded for military hardware, mostly light weapons, to supply the RUF.
At press time, Taylor had agreed, under pressure from the U.S. and others, to leave Liberia, but the U.S.’s policy objectives require a more stable government in Liberia anyway. In the first place, with the war on terror replacing the Cold War, Liberia could serve as a listening post and operations center for combating Al Qaeda and other militant groups in Africa.
This is important because West Africa might well emerge as a major supplier to the U.S. of oil—and especially natural gas. An increased supply of natural gas is a cardinal part of Bush’s energy program. That in turn would mean carrying frozen natural gas across the ocean on special liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers and building ports and processing stations. This is a highly controversial venture because an LNG explosion, either accidental or deliberate, would be devastating.
Any sort of regular LNG tanker operations across the Atlantic from West Africa to the East Coast inevitably would be accompanied by vastly increased military operations in the sea and air to protect the fuel from terrorists’ attacks.
Finally, Bush’s foray into Africa carries meaning for his re-election campaign. The religious right is taking credit for getting the president into Africa. Moreover, for 20 years the GOP right wing has drooled over the idea of breaking the Democratic Party’s grip on the black vote. Despite all his talk, Clinton did little for Africa, and indeed had to apologize for not acting in the Rwanda disaster. Should Bush actually get seriously involved in combating AIDS and poverty, and if he succeeds in stabilizing West Africa, he may at long last begin the process of pulling black votes from the Democrats.
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine