Our Liberian Legacy

Articles spanning the twentieth century take up the question of what the U.S. owes Liberia.

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."

Doe's sudden and brutal rise to power surprised Americans. "Few outsiders—especially those in the U.S.—thought it was possible for this sophisticated African political dynasty, so schooled in the ways of the West, to be overthrown," Ungar wrote. "Liberia had a reputation as an outpost of stability in a continent of chaos." But "in retrospect," Ungar argued, "rarely has an explosion anywhere in the world been so inevitable." As Ungar put it,

[T]he fact is that for 133 years, a settler elite—a black-settler elite—which made up no more than 4 percent of Liberia's population, had monopolized all political power and controlled access to the country's resources. Its methods and its attitudes made those of the later-arriving white-settler elite in Rhodesia seem mild by comparison.

At least initially, Doe's regime seemed as if it might improve Liberian society. Atlantic contributor Bill Berkeley explained Doe's potential—and his ultimate failure—in the 1992 article Between Repression and Slaughter:

Casting himself as the liberator of Liberia's indigenous masses, [Doe] promised to put an end to the corrupt and oppressive domination by the Americo-Liberian elite and to establish a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth. He pledged to return the country to civilian rule. But he soon proved to be a lawless and brutal tyrant. In October of 1985 he brazenly stole the election that was to have ushered in civilian rule. A month later he put down a widely applauded and nearly successful coup attempt with horrific violence, killing hundreds—mostly members of the Gio and Mano tribes, from the remote border region of Nimba County.

But as Berkeley explained, Doe suffered few consequences for his brutality:

[T]he United States contributed half a billion dollars in economic and military aid in the first five years of Doe's regime—a third of Liberia's operating budget. President Ronald Reagan invited Doe to the White House... There was concern that the young soldier and his populist backers might tilt toward Libya or even Moscow. There was also an "implicit bargain," as one American diplomat told me at the time, "that the military would let go if its needs were looked after."
But when the military failed to let go, the Reagan Administration did not challenge the results of the rigged election... On the contrary, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, the Administration's chief spokesman on African affairs, issued a series of unforgettable statements during that critical period, about "positive aspects" of the election and about the standards of "a part of the world where the norm is single-party rule," which Liberians to this day regard as plainly racist.

In the end, Doe's regime did little more than transfer control of the Americo-Liberian power structure to members of Doe's own Krahn tribe. At the same time, however, Doe became an increasingly valuable Cold War ally who allowed American broadcasting and navigation equipment to be stationed in his country. In exchange, the United States continued to ignore his abuses. But Doe's decision to "ethnicize the armed forces of Liberia [by] stacking the officer corps and key units with Krahn" had disastrous results, Berkeley explained. When Charles Taylor launched a war against Doe in 1989, his "method was to exploit the genocidal rage of the Gio and the Mano," the two tribes that had suffered the most under Doe's Krahn tribe. "No one has the slightest idea how many people died in the ensuing bloodbath," Berkeley wrote. "Conservative estimates put the number of casualties at 20,000 to 25,000. That would be about one percent of Liberia's population of 2.5 million. But a visitor soon realizes that virtually everyone lost a relative."

Taylor was eventually elected president in a 1997 election that international observers deemed fair. But he never abandoned the brutal violence of his past. In 2003, a U.N. war crimes tribunal indicted him on charges of arming Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front—a group that has killed and tortured thousands of civilians in its campaign to control the nation's diamond mines. It is justice at the hands of this tribunal that Taylor recently sought to flee.

The question of what the United States owes Liberia—brought to the surface once again by civil war—is so complicated that it may be unanswerable. But Liberians certainly feel that Americans bear some responsibility for their country's decades of conflict. "They built up expectations and then abandoned the forces for democracy," a Liberian official told Berkeley in 1992. "Always in the crunch they are not there. Then it becomes a Liberian problem."