August 3, 2003
Lost In Liberia- America has good reason to stay out of Liberia, for the country was unstable from the start and Liberians have yet to decide who is in charge.
The country was not founded by freed American slaves as much as it was conquered by them. Between 1822 and 1861, some 25,000 freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean arrived in what is now Liberia. But the area was already settled by over two dozen tribes. The wealthy Americans who sponsored the settlement (including several former presidents), thought the freed slaves would easily adapt. But they didn't. The Amero-Liberians (as the freed slave settlers came to be known), were seen as little different than the European colonizers. The Amero-Liberians (as the descendents of the freed slaves came to be known) spoke English and had superior technology, which they used to keep the tribes at bay.
After a few generations, about five percent of the population was Amero-Liberians, who looked down on the tribal peoples and did little to integrate them into Amero-Liberian society. Tribal peoples could not even vote until 1951, and even then only a few percent of them. Up until 1926, when the Firestone Tire company set up what eventually became the world's largest rubber plantation, there wasn't much of a cash economy, either. The Firestone operation covered four percent of Liberia's territory and ultimately employed over 20,000 workers. The rubber operation quickly became the largest economic activity in the country. For the first time, many of the tribal peoples had access to the cash economy, education and a different life.
The Amero-Liberians did well, as they comprised the majority of literate people in the country, and controlled the ports and retail trade along the coast. When World War II came along, and the Allies lost access to the large rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, Liberian rubber became even more valuable. Liberia also hosted American air and naval bases, bringing more jobs and money. The downside, for the Amero-Liberians, was that many of the tribal peoples were getting a taste of the modern world, and realized that everyone in Liberia could be a Liberian, if the Amero-Liberians would let them.
During the 1930s, there was a major scandal when senior government officials were caught, by the League of Nations, engaging in slavery. The government was exporting tribal Liberians to serve as slave labor in Spanish colonies. International pressure forced the government to treat the tribal people more fairly, something which was already happening, at least in terms of education, because of the growing economy. The World War II boom, led to even greater prosperity after World War II as Liberia became a "flag of convenience" for merchant ships world wide. And then iron ore and diamonds deposits were exploited, followed by lumber exports.
While some of the new prosperity found its way to the tribal areas, there was also more money for the politicians to steal. Bribes and extortion became more common, and this was noted by a post World War II generation, many of whom were going to college in the United States. Despite all the new money, only a third of the population was literate and 75 percent still got by with subsistence farming. In 1980, an army NCO, who was not Amero-Liberian, staged a coup and the Amero-Liberians were not able to muster enough muscle to save themselves. The last colony in Africa was now run by the native population.
The Amero-Liberians never expected to lose control, as they considered themselves African by virtue of ancestry and appearance. There had been an unsuccessful coup in 1963, and the politicians thought they were paying off enough tribal leaders to forestall another one. The Amero-Liberians also extended voting right to all tribal peoples in 1963. But the main problem was that the massive foreign investment and new jobs were only reaching about a quarter of the population. The majority felt excluded, and they were.
In the past, when the Amero-Liberians had trouble with foreign countries, the U.S. always helped them out. The U.S. recognized Liberian independence in 1862, and between 1892 and 1911, the United States helped Liberia negotiate fixed borders with Britain and France (who controlled colonies that surrounded Liberia.) But the U.S. had also long complained of the corruption of the Amero-Liberians and their harsh treatment of the tribal peoples. Thus America had no interest in helping out the Amero-Liberians in 1980.
With the Amero-Liberians no longer in power, there followed over two decades of fighting between the major tribes over who would get control of the government, and the opportunities to plunder the national wealth. After 1990, cheap guns (AK-47s for $20) and a network of middlemen willing to pay cash for natural resources like diamonds and lumber, armed tribal militias that kept fighting over what wealth was left. The AK-47s came from the huge arsenals of the former communist countries. They didn't need all those weapons, so they sold them cheap. AK-47s were showing up all over the world in the early 1990s, being hustled by East European gunrunners.
In the early 1990s, Nigerian peacekeepers tried to disarm the young men, but only got about a third of the 60,000 weapons in the country. East European gun runners still came by, because there were still customers. The fighting has killed over 200,000 people so far, and left nearly a quarter of the population homeless. The Nigerians departed in 1999 and left a lot of ill will in their wake. The Nigerians often pillaged as enthusiastically as the irregular gunmen they were trying to disarm.
To stop the fighting, you have to intimidate the teenage gunmen into giving up their weapons and force them to go back to subsistence farming, because that's all that's left. Billions of dollars in infrastructure has been destroyed, and donors are not lining up to replace it. Firestone is gradually leaving and other foreign firms only want to come in quickly and take diamonds or lumber. No one wants to set up a business in a country where the people hate each other in 34 different languages. There are no easy answers to the problems in Liberia, there aren't many hard answers either. Africa's last colony wants someone to come in and put the pieces back together. But no one is eager to do the job. Neighboring African countries, who have a direct interest in maintaining peace in the region, want the United States to help subsidize the peacekeeping. Even the neighbors don't want to get lost in Liberia.