This week, former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, who faces prosecution for war crimes related to Sierra Leone's civil war, tried to flee to Cameroon from Nigeria, where he had taken refuge since 2003. He was captured at the Cameroon border and handed into Liberian custody. Though many are gratified that Taylor can now be brought to justice, others fear that his return to Liberia will threaten the country's fragile stability, plunging it back into turmoil.
This is only the latest development in what has been a troubled and bloody history, and one in which the United States has been inextricably involved. Though Liberia was never a colony in the European sense of the word, it was settled by freed American slaves at the instigation of American slaveholders, and there has long been significant debate about what level of U.S. involvement in Liberian affairs is appropriate. What, indeed, is the United States' legacy in Liberia? And what, if anything, do Americans now owe Liberians? These questions are not new. Atlantic contributors have struggled with America's obligation to Liberia for three quarters of a century.
In 1822, the American Colonization Society—a group of politicians, religious leaders, and slaveholders—established Liberia as an African homeland for freed American slaves. The Society's motives were not entirely benign. The slaveholders in particular were worried about the "corrupting influence" that free African-Americans might have on American slaves, and they saw the creation of an African colony as a solution. In 1847, after resettling fewer than 20,000 African-Americans in Liberia, the ACS ceded control of the territory and the Republic of Liberia declared its independence.
But America never completely severed its ties with Liberia. In the wake of World War I, when the United States emerged as a great power, Atlantic contributor Evan Lewin examined the nation's new relationship with Africa and claimed that the United States was becoming the colonial ruler of Liberia. "By obtaining a commercial foothold in Africa, the American people has entered upon the first step that leads to direct economic, if not political, control," he wrote in Liberia and Negro Rule (1922). Lewin argued for a new, altruistic kind of colonialism. "The economic imperialism which recognizes only the duty of paying dividends to shareholders is almost a thing of the past," he wrote. He allowed that the United States could seek financial gain in Liberia, but claimed it should have a higher purpose than European colonialism, which was "modifying, and occasionally destroying, the established customs and habits of the native races; changing the age-long political dependence upon native chieftains into dependence upon European administrators; [and] sometimes forging the bonds of economic servitude upon races who hitherto have been more or less free within their own peculiar spheres." Lewin had an alternative vision:
Administration, to be effective, must seek to preserve instead of to destroy. In its modifying and civilizing mission it must keep all that is good in native life and customs; it must support the independence of the chieftains and aid them in the work of governing their own peoples; it must preserve the economic freedom of the races under its charge, and not allow them to be exploited for the sole benefit of European traders, settlers, or planters; and, above all, it must safeguard the rights of the natives in their own lands; train them in agricultural work, so that they can develop their own farms and plantations; and, by realizing that the true prosperity of a tropical country is founded upon agricultural development, foster by every means the latent ability of the natives to sow and reap their own crops. In other words, one of the main functions of administration must be to prevent native races from becoming mere wage-earners working for others, instead of being primary producers on their own behalf.
But Lewin's vision was not to be. In 1926, when Liberia was struggling under British debt, the Firestone Tire and Rubber company extended a $5 million loan in exchange for a ninety-nine-year lease on a million acres of land it hoped to use for rubber plantations. Firestone's influence quickly altered the country's trajectory. In a 1973 report, Atlantic correspondent Stanley Meisler wrote that Firestone "became such a dominant factor in the Liberian economy and so great a source of public services such as roads and schools that cynics enjoyed joking for years that, while most of Africa was colonized by Britain or France, Liberia was colonized by Firestone." Firestone did not share Lewin's vision of "enlightened" economic imperialism.
On the contrary, Firestone supported—and perhaps aggravated—a simmering Liberian social problem: the division between resettled African-Americans and their descendants, known as Americo-Liberians, and native Africans, whom the Americo-Liberians relentlessly exploited and derisively called "aborigines." As Meisler explained,
The importance of the Firestone loan became evident in the early 1930s. Citing the charges of near slavery in Liberia and reports that Liberian soldiers, under command of an American black, had massacred Kru tribesmen in Liberia, Britain demanded that the League of Nations take over Liberia as a mandate. That would have meant the end of Liberian independence. As a British or even an American colony, Liberia surely would have come to independence in the 1960s with power in the hands of representatives of the tribal masses, not a settler elite. It probably was only the presence of Firestone and the commitment of the U.S. government that enabled the Americo-Liberians to resist the pressures of the British and the League and keep Liberia independent.
While Liberia remained in the hands of the Americo-Liberians, the exploitation of the native Africans continued. Although Meisler wrote that there was "little evidence of overt friction between the Americo-Liberians and the tribal people," the tension simmered just below the surface. Although outsiders saw promise in the 1971 transfer of power from President William V. S. Tubman to Vice President William Tolbert, a more reform-minded ruler, neither man did much to improve the situation of native Africans. In 1980, the simmering tension exploded. As Sanford J. Ungar recounted in his 1981 Atlantic article A Revolution, or Just Another Coup?, an "angry band of soldiers," led by native African Samuel Doe, "broke into the executive mansion, rushed upstairs, and surprised Tolbert in his luxurious quarters. They shot and killed the President, disemboweled him, stuck a bayonet through his head, and tossed his body into a mass grave." That was only the beginning of Doe's rampage. Soon after, "the army took thirteen of the wealthy Americo-Liberian officials who had been arrested... marched them nearly naked through the streets of Monrovia, to ensure that they lost their dignity, tied them to seaside post at the Barclay Training Centre, and executed them at point-blank range."