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  • Liberia: Crying For Freedom
  • Dave Peterson (bio)

After six years of civil war, at least 150,000 deaths, and the displacement of nearly half its population of 2.5 million, the West African nation of Liberia is finally experiencing a semblance of peace. Elections may take place before the end of the year. Pessimistic journalists such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times have recently described Liberia as a lurid “Heart of Darkness.” They gape at chaotic Spriggs Payne Airport and the bullet-pocked buildings in the capital of Monrovia; they shudder at the squalor, the teeming crowds of refugees, the adolescent guerrilla fighters; they scoff at the optimism of the politicians and suggest that the country is hopeless. “As long as the innocent civilians have only one seat in the ruling council, any major funds poured in here will never get to the people who truly need them,” warns Friedman. 1 He is wrong. Such cynicism grossly undervalues the courageous struggle of thousands of Liberians to reclaim their land, and threatens to strangle Liberian hopes before they are even given a chance.

Liberia’s civil war has not only killed and displaced thousands and wrecked its own economy and infrastructure, it has destabilized all of West Africa, spreading conflict to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire; it has drained the resources and credibility of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the region’s main intergovernmental body; and it has undermined the world’s faith in the prospects for political and economic development in Africa in general. But Liberia might recover; democracy, stability, and economic development are not out of the question. Indeed, Liberia could become an African success story, with effects spreading far beyond its borders.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed; other and far grimmer scenarios are [End Page 148] just as possible. Liberia may fail despite massive and concerted international attention, one more futile effort at nation-building. Alternatively, international neglect of Liberia would more than likely make for a self-fulfilling prophecy of chaos, ruin, death, and despair. Or maybe Liberians will surprise the world and sort out their problems all by themselves.

For the time being, Liberians are cautiously optimistic. Most have personally witnessed the massacres, the torture, the starvation, and the horror of the last six years. But they have also seen a relative calm return to the country, small shops emerging and trading returning, buildings repainted and schools reopening, the curfew lifting and nightlife reviving. Sporadic outbreaks of violence notwithstanding, the fighting has died down. Peacekeepers are beginning to deploy. Soldiers are laying down their arms. The countryside is opening up. Refugees are returning to their farms. In parts of Liberia today, the ubiquitous “checkpoints,” or military roadblocks, are now manned only by comical scarecrows: wooden posts with painted grimaces, clad in cast-off uniforms and brandishing rusted weapons.

To better understand what is happening and why Liberians are hopeful, it is first necessary to sketch some of the Liberian political context, the origins of the current mess, what is being done about it, and what some of the personal, social, and psychological dynamics are.

Settled by freed American slaves who began arriving in 1821 and declared a republic in 1847, Liberia has the closest cultural affinity to the United States of any country in Africa, and is the only African country never to be colonized (even the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia was conquered and briefly occupied by Fascist Italy before World War II). Liberia was a key American ally in Africa throughout the Cold War, serving as the headquarters for the Western-aligned “Monrovia Group” that sought to counteract the pro-Soviet “Brazzaville Group.” Liberia also hosted a major U.S. communications base and CIA station, and was an important producer of rubber and other unfinished goods.

The “Americo-Liberian” settlers, however, monopolized power, excluding the country’s indigenous majority. In 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe led a military coup that overthrew the civilian government and executed president William Tolbert, Jr. and others. Doe’s initial program was to accelerate the inclusion of indigenous ethnic groups in the government, but this soon gave way to a regime...

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pp. 148-158
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