July 10, 2003


The tragedy of Liberia is entirely of its own making (Anthony Daniels, 09/07/2003, Daily Telegraph)
Liberia attained its independence as a republic in 1847. The Americo-Liberians, or Congos as they came to be called, stood in more or less the same relation to the native population as white colonists in Africa were later to do. Only three per cent of the population, they believed themselves to be in possession of a superior civilisation whose advantages it was their duty to spread to the benighted tribes around them.

The Americo-Liberians remained in power, through the influence of their all-pervasive True Whig Party, until 1980. Under the leadership of President Tubman (who died in 1971 after a cataract operation at the London Clinic), Liberia enjoyed for some years the highest growth rate of any country in the world.

At that time, the country seemed almost a fiefdom of the Firestone Rubber Company, Harvey S Firestone having planted 1,000,000 acres of Liberia, granted on easy terms, with rubber in the 1920s to break the British world monopoly on rubber production. To the American cultural influence was now added economic predominance.

Moreover, Liberia had suddenly become politically important to America. During the Second World War, the airfield at Robertfield was granted to the Americans as a re-fuelling station; and during the Cold War, Liberia became America's principal strategic listening-post and satellite station.

As the economy developed, the Americo-Liberians were forced by reality to co-opt more of the "native" population into the elite. Ever more students were sent to America for higher education, where many of them picked up the radical ideas of the time, and became rabble-rousers and demagogues.

After the violent and destructive riots in 1979 about a rise in the price of rice, fomented and fanned by the demagogues, William Tolbert, the last True Whig president of Liberia (who was also a Baptist minister, and was soon to be disembowelled in his bed), felt constrained as a sop to the demagogues to distance himself from Liberia's traditional policy of alliance with America, and turned, rhetorically at least, to the Left.

When Tolbert was overthrown in 1980 by a group of NCOs, of whom the semi-literate Samuel K Doe was soon to emerge the leader, and his cabinet massacred on the beach, there was popular rejoicing, and the demagogues thought they had come into their own. It appeared for a time as though the people had taken power from the top-hatted and tailed Americo-Liberian elite.

But Doe's idea of a popular revolution was soon revealed to be a clan-based kleptocracy, with himself as kleptocrat-in-chief.

One can be deeply ambivalent about the idea of colonialism, but it seems indisputable that no country ever improved itself by getting rid of its close relationship with either Britain or the U.S.. Posted by Orrin Judd at July 10, 2003 10:50 PM
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