April 28, 2007


Letter from Liberia: Liberia is a country mired in its past. But, as Zadie Smith discovers when she meets its traumatised boy soldiers, struggling rubber workers and children desperate to learn, it is taking its first tentative steps to a better future. In the second part of the Observer and Oxfam's 'Words in Action' initiative, the prize-winning writer finds hope amongst the heartbreak (Zadie Smith, April 29, 2007, The Observer)

The street scene in Monrovia is post-apocalyptic: people occupy the shell of a previous existence. The InterContinental Hotel is a slum, home to hundreds. The old executive mansion is broken open like a child's playhouse; young men sit on the skeletal spiral staircase, taking advantage of the shade. Abraham points out Liberia's state seal on the wall: a ship at anchor with the inscription The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here. In 1822 freed American slaves (known as Americo-Liberians or, colloquially, Congos) founded the colony at the instigation of the American Colonization Society, a coalition of slave owners and politicians whose motives are not hard to tease out.

Even Liberia's roots are sunk in bad faith. Of the first wave of emigrants, half died of yellow fever. By the end of the 1820s a small colony of 3,000 souls survived. In Liberia they built a facsimile life: plantation-style homes, white-spired churches. Hostile local Malinke tribes resented their arrival and expansion; sporadic armed battle was common. When the ACS went bankrupt in the 1840s, they demanded the 'Country of Liberia' declare its independence. It was the first of many category errors: Liberia was not yet a country. Their agricultural exports were soon dwarfed by the price of imports. A pattern of European loans (and defaulting on same) began in the 1870s. The money was used to partially modernise the black Americo-Liberian hinterlands while ignoring the impoverished indigenous interior. The relationship between the two communities is a lesson in the factitiousness of 'race'. To the Americo-Liberians, these were 'natives' - they continued an illicit slave trade in Malinke people until the 1850s. As late as 1931, the League of Nations uncovered the use of forced indigenous labour.

Abraham, in the front seat, bends his head round to Lysbeth in the back: 'You know what we say to that seal? The Love of Liberty MET us here.' This is a popular Liberian joke. He laughs immoderately. 'So that's how it was. They came here and always kept the power away from us! They had their True Whig Party and for 133 years we were a peaceful one-party state. But there was no justice. The indigenous are 95 per cent of this country, but we had nothing. Oh, those Congos - they had every little bit of power. Everyone in the government was Congo. They did each other favours, gave each other money. We were not even allowed the vote until the Sixties!'

Lys asks a reasonable question: 'But how would one know someone was a Congo?'

'Oh, you would know. They had a way of speaking, a way of dressing. They always called each other Mister. Always the Big Man. And they lived very well. This,' he says, waving at the devastation of Monrovia, 'was all very nice.'

The largest concrete structures - the old ministry of health, the old ministry of defence, the True Whig Party headquarters - are remnants of the peaceful, unjust regimes of President Tubman (1944-71) and President Tolbert (1971-80), for whom Liberians feel a perverse nostalgia. The university, the hospital, the schools, these were financed by a True Whig policy of massive international loans and deregulated foreign-business concessions, typically given to agriculturally 'extractive' companies which ship resources directly out of the country without committing their companies to any value-added processing. For much of the 20th century Liberia had a nickname: Firestone Republic. The deals which condemned Liberians to poverty wages and inhumane living conditions were made in these old government buildings. The people who benefited most from these deals worked in these buildings. Now these buildings have rags hanging from their windows, bullet holes in their facades, and thousands of squatters inside, without toilets, without running water. Naturally, new buildings are built, new deals are made. On 28 January 2005, while an interim 'caretaker' government presided briefly over a ruined country (the elections were due later that year), Firestone rushed through a new concession: 50 cents an acre for the next 37 years.

A processing plant - for which Liberians have been asking since the Seventies - was not part of this deal. Ministers of finance and agriculture, who had no mandate from the people, who would be out of office in a few months, negotiated the deal. It was signed in the cabinet room at the Executive Mansion in the presence of John Blaney, US ambassador at the time. During the same period, Mittal Steel acquired the country's iron ore, giving the company virtual control of the vast Nimba concession area. The campaigning group Global Witness described the Mittal deal as a 'case study in which multinational corporations seek to maximise profit by using an international regulatory void to gain concessions and contracts which strongly favour the corporation over the host nation'.

It is a frustration for activists that Liberians have tended not to trace their trouble back to extractive foreign companies or their government lobbies.

Their sense of connection to their Anglospheric roots is why there's reason to hope for their future.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2007 8:21 PM
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