A TROUBLED HISTORY
On August 11th, 2003, the president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was forced by the United States government to step down from power. He relinquished the position reluctantly, and ultimately only after it became clear he would either have to step down from power or die violently like his two predecessors. This historic milestone for the very young republic of Liberia was just another chapter in the still ongoing story of a nation whose history reads like a political fable.
The history of Liberia provides an unsettling negative of the history of the United States: it is a country that was forced to confront its crimes face-to-face in the form of violent retaliatory revolution – an alternative reality the US has yet to experience.
Liberia’s story begins in the early 1800’s when US slavery was still in full swing. As more black Americans became free men, however, they began to fall into an awkward integration with white European-American culture. Black Americans had been integrating into white American culture all along, but all the same, most Americans, pro-slavery or otherwise, agreed that blacks would never be able to assimilate with whites. The reality of the situation is that white America was not so much skeptical that blacks could assimilate, as they were afraid that blacks might gain political power, and thus the ability to retaliate, and stage a violent and historically devastating revolution: in essence, exactly what was to happen a century and a half later in Liberia.
By 1820 plans were already well under way to send free blacks back to Africa – a spot in West Africa bordering Sierra Leone they named Liberia – “land of freedom”. By the late-1820’s the plan was in motion. The first settlers in Liberia found the conditions devastating. Yellow fever and malaria killed off a lot of the early Western settlers, black and white, before much work could be completed. On top of that, the indigenous peoples were understandably upset about being forced into a Western society, where, as I’m sure they must have realized from the start, they would be treated like second-class citizens in their own land. There was initial resistance, but they were unable to keep it up in the face of Western technology. White officials from America gave Liberia the jumpstart it needed in government, drafting a constitution, holding office and appointing council members, and by the late 1840’s not only had a full-fledged government been established in Liberia, the country had also declared sovereignty and was being run by elected black president Joseph Jenkins Roberts.
Unfortunately, Liberia’s social structure was just another version of America’s, where people were either part of the 1 percent or part of the 99 percent. The Americo-Liberians, or Liberians who were either from America, or descended from American blacks, enjoyed the highest social status in the country, being in complete control of the government and the economy. Below them were the indigenous peoples of Liberia, and then below them, black slaves, who were recaptured from the slave ships. It is fair to say that much of Liberia’s history has been spurred on by the tensions that have arisen because of this unfair social dynamic.
Liberia was also a country plagued by financial hardships. Liberia’s export goods were primarily agricultural, and the money it cost to maintain the country’s imports was far more than the amount of money that came in from exports. Thus, the government always had difficulty keeping the indigenous populations under control, and it lacked both the ability and the desire to make the indigenous populations feel like a part of the Western community that had overrun their homeland. Nevertheless, for over a hundred years Liberia managed to maintain what seemed, on the surface, a relatively peaceful and apparently untroubled history.
In 1944 William Tubman was elected into office. His presidency is both contradictory and controversial. On the one hand, Tubman did a lot for the indigenous population of Liberia. It wasn’t until his presidency that the indigenous population of Liberia had the right to vote. He built schools, hospitals and roads along the coast where large parts of the indigenous population lived. He attempted to integrate them into the political and economic life of the country. At the same time Tubman was also a puppet for the United States government, and an authoritarian leader of his own people. He set up networks of spies to suppress political uprisings; he changed the constitution to keep himself in power for seven terms running, and he controlled the media. With this kind of leader in office, and given the history of Liberia, the gap only widened between the Liberians and the Americo-Liberians. Tubman died in 1971, and was replaced by William Tolbert, a forward-looking optimist, who took office at a time when tensions were extremely high. Tolbert may have been forward-looking, but he had no credibility. He was removed enough from the indigenous people to have every move he made second-guessed and often misinterpreted by the general population.
The end result was disastrous. In 1980, Samuel K. Doe, an indigenous sergeant in the army, formed a coup d’etat, stormed the presidential manner, and shot Tolbert to death. In the aftermath he had thirteen other top officials executed as well. Doe took power of the country under a new government, the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) and began to run an outlaw state in a country that had been brought up in the shadow of the United States’ guilty conscience. Doe’s presidency was marked by paranoia, authoritarian pressure on opposition, and complete inexperience with the complicated bureaucracy involved with running a nation. At first support for Doe had been strong among the Liberians, but as he became more corrupt and tyrannical, his popularity began to wane. Tribes within the indigenous peoples of Liberia that had always lived peacefully together began to fight amongst themselves. Doe placed favoritism on his own tribe, the Krahns, when choosing which council members to keep and which to get rid of. By 1985 Doe had gone so far as to declare himself the winner of an election that he did not win, an incident that would repeat itself in the United States’ own history just sixteen years later.
On January 28th, 1948, in the town of Arthington, just a little outside Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Charles Taylor was born, the child of an Americo-Liberian father and a Gola tribeswoman mother. He grew up a troubled and rebellious child, expelled from schools, restless, and constantly getting into trouble. As he grew older, he developed a fascination with the history of Liberia and its connection to the United States. When he was 24, he finally made a move to Boston, Massachusetts where he went to school for his B.A. in Economics. While in the States, Taylor worked his way through the ranks of the Union of Liberian Associations to become the national chairman. Taylor used his position in power to demonstrate against then Liberian president William Tolbert, who instead of ignoring Taylor, insisted Taylor take up a public debate with him. Taylor’s quick mind and pension for language made him easily outshine the president, and further established his reputation as a political figure of note.
Tolbert was so impressed that he actually invited Taylor to return to Liberia and take a position in his government in the spring of 1980. It turned out to be a tumultuous and historic time in the country’s history. On April 12th , 1980 Tolbert was assassinated by Samuel Doe. It would have been reasonable for Taylor to be afraid for his life during a time when the Liberians and Americo-Liberians were in what basically amounted to a civil war, and where retribution against a hundred fifty years of oppression was taking place on a daily basis, but amazingly enough, Taylor managed to get himself a valued position in Doe’s government as head of General Services Agency.
Taylor was up to his own tricks, though. In May of 1983 Taylor was accused of embezzling nine hundred thousand dollars and depositing them into a private bank account. Naturally fearing for his life and freedom, Taylor fled Liberia for the United States. A year later he was arrested in Boston, and while awaiting a final verdict, he managed to escape from prison and vanish into the underground for the next four years.
It wasn’t until July of 1990, when Taylor invaded Monrovia with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) that he was seen to resurface. The NPFL was divided into two factions – one led by Taylor, and the other led by a revolutionary named Prince Johnson. By September Johnson’s forces had seized the government, tortured and finally executed Samuel Doe. Johnson’s position in Monrovia led to a civil war between him and Taylor’s factions of the NPFL, and after five years of violent civil war the men called a cease-fire and signed a peace treaty. Two years later Taylor was elected into office. That was 1997. On June 4th, 2003, Taylor was brought up on war crime charges by the United Nations. His government was accused of dealing arms to the rebels in Sierra Leone, violent agitators who were known for chopping up the bodies of their enemies, whether man, woman or child.
After Taylor stepped down from office, he fled to Nigeria, where despite requests for extradition by the United States, he was granted asylum. In 2006, Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, requested his extradition, a request which was honored by the Nigerian government. Taylor managed to escape and disappear again, only to be caught later at the border of Cameroon, carrying a cache of cash and heroin.
A PEACEFUL, PROGRESSIVE AND DIVERSITY-MINDED CONCLUSION
The new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected in 2006, has changed the political reality of Liberia from one of violence, corruption and oppression, into one of democratic elections, and relative peace. She has supported progressive measures such as LGBT rights, and is considered one of the best leaders the country has ever had. She embodies all the false promise that Charles Taylor seemed to at his outset. As the first female president of Liberia, she is an active member of the Council of Women World Leaders, and she has been an example to all of how the right person can change the political landscape of a country dramatically for the better, just as Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor were examples of how the wrong person can change the political landscape dramatically for the worse.
The questions surrounding Liberian history have changed since I first wrote this piece in 2003. The questions I was asking at the time were about power and corruption – does the old adage hold true that power corrupts. I think we can see with the example of Sirleaf that power doesn’t necessarily corrupt, and that if it seems to, it is because those that are most corruptible are also the most likely to pursue positions of power. I’m also writing this updated version of this essay at a time when the world is watching the U.S. during an important election. It is an election that involves a known demagogue, and an important female politician. The purpose of this addendum isn’t to make a political rally cry. I will vote for Hillary Clinton because I think too much is at stake should Trump win; however I can understand why some of my similarly progressive minded friends don’t want to vote for Clinton, and will effectively sit this election out; I too have my reservations about her. What I suppose I really find interesting here is why I feel the need to update this essay in the first place. I don’t remember what inspired me to write about Liberia back in 2003. I think something about it made me think of Liberia as a political fable that gives us another way of looking at the United States. This isn’t a new thought, of course. As early as 1931, George Schuyler’s novel, Slaves Today, used Liberia as a sounding-board for American politics. Schuyler, notoriously conservative, wanted to use Liberia as an example of how color doesn’t determine morality – and of course it doesn’t – although the most brutal of Liberia’s overlords – Charles Taylor – was Western educated, and the social structure of Liberia was always decidedly Western; which is simply to say that there seems to be something of the conquistador in the western mentality. But that’s all by the bye, as that’s not really the argument I’m making here either. What I find most interesting about this history is the history itself: where an oppressed people tried to create a land of more freedom and opportunity, and in effect, created a land of oppression and inequality. Sound familiar? So the parallels between the United States and Liberia are intriguing. Furthermore, there is the question of violent revolution. In the era of Black Lives Matter, when cops are killing our brothers and sisters at an alarming rate, and angry people are retaliating with violence, the question of violent revolution has appeared again in a way we haven’t seen since the Black Power days. Recent celebrations of the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panthers and renewed interest in the Black Power Movement seem to hint at this new political tension. Like any progressive minded person, I am against widespread violence; the history of Liberia shows that violence only leads to more of the same. My hope is that it can somehow be avoided in the United States, and we can still somehow come to a peaceful, progressive and diversity-minded conclusion. But in my worst moments, I’m skeptical. Neither of the two candidates primed to win next week’s election seem to be the person to bring about this kind of political harmony. On the contrary; they both seem to embody distrust, disharmony and division.
(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, September 2003; updated November 2, 2016)