[Marxism] Liberia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 10 07:50:06 MDT 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2004

Rubber, Rebels, and Resentments
Scholars explore the difficult past and uncertain future of the 
relationship between the United States and Liberia


As rebel forces closed in on Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, 
last summer, most newspaper accounts gave Americans in-depth coverage of 
the fighting -- and only a single sentence or so as to why they should care.

Reporters in Monrovia briefly noted that the United States had 
historical ties to Liberia dating back to 1822, when the U.S. government 
and freed American slaves founded the West African nation and named its 
capital city after the American president James Monroe. Few reporters, 
however, attempted to explain the complex history of that relationship.

That complicated knot of history is at the center of two new books: 
Claude A. Clegg III's The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the 
Making of Liberia (University of North Carolina Press) and Ibrahim 
Sundiata's Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940 
(Duke University Press). Taken together, these works lay out crucial 
interactions between America and Liberia in the African nation's first 
118 years. In many cases, the interactions led to bitterness and 
disillusionment. Both Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata reveal how cherished 
myths about Africa and America ran aground on the shoals of political 
and cultural realities.

Mr. Clegg, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, 
traces the journeys of black North Carolinians who settled in Liberia 
during its first seven decades as a nation, while Mr. Sundiata, a 
professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis 
University, details the stirrings, trials, and eventual collapse of 
Marcus Garvey's African emigration movement in the early 20th century.

The two narratives observe the history of the U.S.-Liberia relationship 
with a keen eye. But in the light of last summer's conclusion to a 
14-year civil war, the authors point to lessons for the future as well. 
Because of the global campaign against terrorism being waged by the 
United States, that relationship may once again take on a significance 
not seen since the days of the cold war. Mr. Sundiata is among those who 
argue that the United States would be remiss not to stabilize Liberia 
and engage its help in the post-September 11 world, as it once did to 
counter the Soviet threat.

In his introduction, Mr. Sundiata points out significant parallels 
between the violence and chaos of 2003 and that which existed in Liberia 
in early 1933, when its greatest natural resource, rubber, was a key 
concern for American national security.

"Seventy years ago, in the name of human rights, a Republican 
administration stood on the verge of using military force to secure a 
material deemed essential to national defense," writes Mr. Sundiata. 
"Today, amid the slaughter of thousands, another Republican 
administration is timorous of all but token involvement. Interventions 
proceed, but perceived national interests have shifted. This is the most 
cautionary part of the tale."

That is a tale that many Americans would rather not hear. Against the 
tide of public interest, however, Mr. Clegg and Mr. Sundiata have 
written books that highlight U.S. indifference to a country it has for 
the most part deserted.

"We now have sort of divested ourselves of any interest in Liberia 
because it doesn't seem to have anything we want," Mr. Sundiata says.

A Life Imagined

In The Price of Liberty, Mr. Clegg begins from the African nation's 
first encounter with Americans, telling the stories of former slaves 
from North Carolina who helped to settle Liberia in 1825. "I was 
interested in the sort of community that the African-Americans who 
became settlers in West Africa envisioned, what kind of life they 
imagined," he says.

Among them is Charity Hunter, a free black woman, and her three 
children, who left North Carolina for Norfolk, Va., where they got a 
view of slavery, before leaving for West Africa. In the introduction, 
Mr. Clegg tries to re-create what Hunter may have seen in Norfolk and 
all that she may not have understood about her journey.

"Perhaps unbeknownst to Charity Hunter and many of her fellow 
sojourners, the idea of black Americans emigrating from the United 
States, voluntarily or otherwise, as a solution to racial conflict was 
as old as the republic itself," Mr. Clegg writes. "As early as the 
Revolutionary period, Thomas Jefferson proposed relocating 
African-Americans beyond the boundaries of the new nation. Similarly, as 
late as the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln still envisioned a great black 
exodus that would purge the country of African-Americans once and for all."

This idea, Mr. Clegg writes, became known as colonization, and it led to 
the creation of the American Colonization Society. The group, promoting 
an idea that many viewed as a compromise between slavery and its 
abolition, relocated free African-Americans to Liberia.

The United States helped establish the future country as a settlement in 
1822 for Africans captured from transatlantic slave ships after 
transatlantic slavery was abolished 14 years earlier.

Although the new colony was expressly intended for the settlement by 
freed black Americans and illegally traded Africans, prominent white men 
actually headed up the society. Bushrod Washington, George Washington's 
nephew and chief justice of the Supreme Court; U.S. Rep. Henry Clay, of 
Kentucky; and Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, among other 
prominent politicians, led the society, which functioned as Liberia's 
government until 1847, when Liberia became an independent state. These 
men sought "to model the country upon the American model," Mr. Clegg 
says, by converting the Africans to Christianity and therefore 
"civilizing" them.

For many of the settlers, Western ways, including the wearing of top 
hats and overcoats, and slavery itself, were all they had known. So the 
very people seeking freedom in Africa ended up enslaving native 
Africans, Mr. Clegg says, and this led to the existence of slavery in 
Liberia in the late 19th century.

The settlers' denial of freedom for Africans "speaks to the fact that 
settlers saw themselves as superior to Africans because they were 
Christian and civilized and they spoke English," Mr. Clegg says. "They 
were in some instances mimicking what they had learned in the U.S." and 
were "coming from a society in which notions of equality were not the 
lived experience."

And so "in the process of forging the world's second black-ruled 
republic," Mr. Clegg writes, "they also constructed a settler society 
marred by many of the same exclusionary, oppressive characteristics 
common to modern colonial regimes." (Many historians consider Haiti, 
whose slave population rebelled in 1795 and declared independence from 
France in 1804, to be the world's first black-ruled republic.)

While Mr. Clegg's book deals with Liberia's early years, Mr. Sundiata's 
book, Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940, 
pushes the narrative of the U.S. "colonization" of Liberia forward into 
the 20th century.

Mr. Sundiata says he questioned why black emigration, "black Zionism, 
never really got off the ground." Only 15,000 African-Americans 
emigrated to Liberia in the 19th century. "A drop in the bucket," says 
Mr. Sundiata.

But once settled, they became the American-Liberian elite and dominated 
the indigenous Africans, who did not exactly welcome them.

In addition to discussing the tension between these two groups, Mr. 
Sundiata chronicles the troubled relationship that Liberia shared with 
the United States in the early 20th century. Not only did the new wave 
of emigration proposed by Garvey strain relations, but the expansion of 
American commercial interests also played a role. In 1926 the Firestone 
Tire & Rubber Company built a rubber plantation in Liberia. Rubber a 
natural resource found in abundance there, proved essential to America's 
national defense in World War II. The country also allowed U.S. troops 
to use its Firestone-built airstrip, which was, at the time, America's 
only entry point into North Africa.

The two countries grew especially close, Mr. Sundiata says, during the 
cold war, when the United States established a listening post in Liberia 
and its dictators declared themselves pro-American and anti-communist. 
But "with the end of the cold war and the rise of synthetic rubber, 
Liberia shrank in significance," Mr. Sundiata says.

Hot and Cold

Mr. Sundiata argues that "having had [Liberia] as its best friend in the 
cold war," the United States "has a moral responsibility to the people 
of Liberia."

In particular, Mr. Sundiata points to the repressive cold war-era 
regimes of William V.S. Tubman, who ruled Liberia from 1943 to 1971, and 
William R. Tolbert Jr., in power from 1971 to 1980.

President Tolbert, Mr. Sundiata observes, declared himself president for 
life, and yet the United States "backed him to the hilt," simply because 
he was anti-communist. The position often proved effective in getting 
Washington to ignore not only the human-rights abuses Liberia's leaders 
committed against their own people, Mr. Sundiata says, but also their 
failure to transform their dictatorships into democracies.

"The United States valued loyalty over any particular style of 
government or whoever was in power," Mr. Clegg says.

For instance, when Samuel K. Doe, the first indigenous president of 
Liberia, overthrew President Tolbert in 1980 and killed him, Doe "very 
quickly came around and said 'I'm pro-American,'" Mr. Sundiata says. 
President Ronald Reagan even invited him to the White House to thank him 
for his support.

But when civil war broke out in 1989 between Mr. Doe's government and 
rebel forces led by the future Liberian president Charles Taylor (and 
continued off and on between various parties until Mr. Taylor's defeat 
in August 2003), successive American administrations reacted to 
Liberia's instability with indifference. Ultimately, President Bush sent 
the marines to monitor the end of the conflict and ordered a handful to 
enter the country to help with humanitarian efforts.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had stretched U.S. troop strength too 
thin for another major intervention. The Bush administration decided to 
intervene only minimally. "The feeling was, Liberia might be a 
quagmire," Mr. Sundiata says. "Although you have hundreds of thousands 
of people displaced and killed, the feeling was, if we go in, we will 
have to stay a long time."

But both Mr. Sundiata and Mr. Clegg say America had an obligation to do 

Given that the United States often has presented itself as the world's 
policeman, says Mr. Clegg, extending the history lesson that his book 
offers to the present day, last summer's conflict in Liberia "would have 
been the perfect opportunity for the United States government and the 
American people to say, 'We believe in the principle of freedom. We see 
the suffering experienced by not only Africans, but people who are 
descendents of Americans, people who are from us.'"

At the time of the Liberian president's ouster in August 2003, U.S. 
Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in an interview with Reuters that 
America's role was primarily to support African nations seeking to 
broker a cease-fire and to remove Mr. Taylor from power.

The Lay of the Land

Looking toward the future, some scholars debate whether the threat of 
terrorism will spur the United States to try to stabilize Liberia. But 
first America must shake off its ambivalence toward this West African 
nation, says D. Elwood Dunn, a political-science professor at the 
University of the South and a former government official under President 
Tolbert. That ambivalence toward his home country, Mr. Dunn says, runs deep.

"It's there, it's a stepchild of the U.S., but it's also been useful to 
the U.S.," he says.

The campaign against terrorism has put U.S. officials on notice that 
Liberia could prove useful once again, Mr. Dunn says. Charles Gyude 
Bryant, head of Liberia's interim government, has signed an agreement 
with the United States allowing it to board Liberian ships on the high 
seas to search for terrorists. (Ships registered in Liberia rank second 
only to Panama in the number of tons carried to American ports each 
year.) Mark Kroeker, a former police chief of Portland, Ore., currently 
heads the training of the Liberian police force, Mr. Dunn says.

"Small countries like Liberia, they are not going to be marginalized 
like they were in the 1980s," says Mr. Dunn. Back then the United States 
could afford to dismiss such small countries. "Precisely because you're 
small, you're weak, you're poor," he continues, "you could become a 
breeding ground for terrorism. For that reason, we want you to, in your 
context, prosper."

Another former Liberian official does not want to see his country's 
policy toward the United States hinge closely on the campaign against 
terrorism. When that threat fades, so will Liberia's importance to the 
United States, says Amos Sawyer, who headed an interim Liberian 
government from 1990 to 1994. Mr. Sawyer is now associate director of 
the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana 
University at Bloomington.

"Part of the long-term struggle to ensure Liberia does not become a 
haven for terrorists is to engage it along a democratic path," he says.

That involves more than just organizing free and fair elections for 
president. "It must go to the level of constitutional reform," he says. 
"Now is the time to do it."

Mr. Sundiata agrees that the United States, out of its own 
self-interest, must help to maintain Liberia's stability. "If Liberia is 
a vacuum where narco-traffickers can come ... people who deal in 
weapons, small arms, machine guns on up to missiles, ... 10 years down 
the line you could have another Colombia."

Mr. Clegg, however, takes a dimmer view of Liberia's newfound 
relationship with America. Such an alliance may include training a new 
Liberian army, sending counterterrorism advisers, and dispensing 
humanitarian aid, he says in an e-mail message. "I don't necessarily 
believe that the U.S. government ... will do much more than form an 
alliance of convenience with whatever Liberian government takes shape," 
he observes.


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