Small America

Michael Peel

The sense of lives ruined for no purpose is pervasive in Liberia, a country colonised by freed US slaves, cultivated as a strategic anti-Communist American interest in Africa and largely ignored by the West during a post-Cold War decade in which its name became a byword for brutality. I first had a glimpse of Monrovia’s ruined infrastructure, along with the wretched refugee camps near the border with Sierra Leone, in 1998. At the time Sierra Leone was caught in an internal conflict of its own with which the huge troubles of Liberia and the surrounding region are closely linked. When I returned to the country recently, after the announcement of a short-lived ceasefire in the latest civil war, I talked about my earlier visit to a Liberian woman in the queue at Immigration. ‘It’s still the same,’ she said.

In 1998, Liberia had just emerged from another devastating civil conflict, in which the current President, Charles Taylor, played a leading role. A former Government minister who fell out with the military regime of Samuel Doe, Taylor managed to escape from a Massachusetts jail in 1985: he was being held pending extradition on embezzlement charges. He launched his bid for power on Christmas Eve 1989, when a small band of his fighters entered Liberia from the east intending to end Doe’s rule as it had begun, in 1980, by armed overthrow. Doe’s own military coup had involved the execution of 13 former Cabinet ministers on a Monrovia beach and concluded the 133-year hegemony of Liberians of US descent. Doe had little to offer, however, beyond human rights abuses and corruption. In 1985, he rigged the election intended to legitimise his rule. Taylor was not the only one gunning for him. The rebellion soon split and the President was cornered in the capital in 1990 by fighters loyal to a different rebel commander, Prince Johnson. The video of Doe’s torture before he died, compiled by Johnson and his men, is available across West Africa, a notorious symbol of the depravity of Liberia’s conflict.

Six years of factional war followed, and with them the familiar images of soldiers dressed in women’s wigs, or carrying Mickey Mouse bags, which stood in grotesque technicolour contrast to the atrocities they were committing. In Mark Huband’s The Liberian Civil War (1998), the author describes his growing disillusionment with all the rebel leaders, including Taylor, who spoke of his uprising as a grassroots response to the shame Liberians had felt in the face of the Doe regime. Several hundred thousand people are thought to have died as Taylor’s group and the other factions fought for control after Doe’s death. Outside Africa, the war was barely noticed.

Taylor established himself as the most powerful of the competing warlords and won an election in 1997: people voted for the clique they thought was most likely to bring peace. At the time of my visit the following year, Monrovia was calm and plastered with stickers urging people to help rebuild the country, but in 1999 a new rebel group emerged in the north: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). What Taylor had once seen in Doe Lurd now saw in Taylor: a regime which thrived on violence and corruption and which would have to be removed by force. The insurgents gained ground gradually over the following years and arrived on the outskirts of Monrovia two months ago. Since then they have made several advances on the capital, a ceasefire agreed in Ghana has collapsed and many hundreds of people are thought to have died.

As the US talks of rebuilding nations in the Middle East and elsewhere, the war in Liberia and its neighbouring states looks increasingly like a paradigm of what happens when lawlessness, mass poverty and social injustice go unaddressed. A United Nations report published in May described what is now a nihilistic conflict unfolding in Liberia and the surrounding region, involving armed youths moving freely between four countries. The document is an implicit criticism of those in the international community who for years have concentrated on excoriating President Taylor and given the impression that removing one man from power could in itself solve a region’s problems. In a sub-Saharan echo of debates over the Middle East, Western powers – and the US and Britain in particular – are accused by many observers of advocating regime change without giving much thought to what follows.

Lurd, for its part, has shown little evidence of a clear command structure or an aim beyond unseating the President. Last year, the rebels refused to take part in national reconciliation talks set up by the Government, saying there could be ‘no peace and security with Mr Taylor in power’. James Brabazon, a journalist who has travelled with Lurd, reports that many of the rebels fought against Taylor during the previous civil war and were not integrated into the Government Army when he became President. Lurd’s human rights record is said by some to be better than that of the Taylor Government – in part because the rebels need civilian support in their bush war – but Human Rights Watch has received reports of serious abuses.

The damage Monrovia has sustained over 14 years of intermittent fighting provides a darkly satirical backdrop to the billboards put up by the authorities in an attempt to create an atmosphere of national self-improvement. ‘Be your brother’s keeper,’ one urges. ‘Total reconciliation before 2024.’ Others instruct a dispossessed public – the Red Cross estimates 80 per cent of the population has been displaced by the fighting – to go back and farm the land and advise putative refugees that it is ‘unwise’ to abandon the motherland and build ‘another man’s home’. For some of the time I was in Monrovia, the front line appeared to be a bridge that ran across Providence Island, where the first US settlers arrived in 1882. The warring parties could have gazed from their respective positions at a monument telling them to ‘Respect the civilians’ and ‘Respect human dignity’. The history of colonial occupation embedded in Providence Island is integral to an understanding of the circumstances destroying Liberia today. In one sense, the country is a model of the oppressed turning into the oppressors. Outside the Centennial Pavilion, there is a monument in which large statues of J.J. Roberts, the first President, and William Tubman, head of state from 1944 to 1971, face one another beside an inscription listing the country’s Americo-Liberian leaders under the portentous heading: ‘These men have governed Liberia.’ The 19th-century colonising elite of American freed slaves adopted the lifestyle of wealthy whites and developed a fondness for morning coats and champagne; there was a huge gulf between their values and those of indigenous Africans. The system finally gave amid ‘native’ discontent over injustices such as the high price of rice, which generated riots and helped create the opportunity for Doe’s coup in 1980. The monuments of the Americo-Liberians – from Monrovia’s masonic temple to the Southern plantation-style mansions around the city – mostly lie in ruins today, chiefly of interest to squatters fleeing the war.

Life in Liberia is far removed from that of the US, yet Monrovia is full of wilting Americanism. People talk in a drawl, using a laconic idiom that often belies the gravity of their circumstances. When the fighting restarted in June and panic hit the town, one young man in Monrovia told me: ‘It won’t be an easy disaster for us.’ The following day, President Taylor complained in a radio address that Lurd had ‘come once again to disturb the peace and quiet of the country’. People speak about the US with more affection than many Africans in neighbouring countries refer to their former colonisers. It is ‘our closest friend’, for instance, or ‘our big brother’. Evidence of the old country is plentiful in public life, from the US-style street names to the Liberian flag: a lone star and stripes. Many Liberians look to the US for assistance and feel betrayed when it fails to arrive. ‘Liberia is small America,’ says John Dahn, one of thousands of people who took refuge in Monrovia’s main sports stadium during the recent fighting. ‘Whenever we have problems we call on America to help.’ Liberia’s colonial experience is both more contemporary and more intimate than that of surrounding countries in the region, most of which were ruled by the British or the French. In Liberia the incomers were almost all black and the oligarchy they set up continued to rule the country until two decades after much of the rest of Africa had won its independence. The violent overthrow of the old political order – in 1980 – occurred in the lifetime of many young adults; in Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence, no one under the age of 45 has first-hand experience of the anti-colonial struggle. The Liberian appeal for US assistance is also a reflection of the links between the two countries over much of the past quarter-century. While many former European colonies got limited financial aid from their former occupiers after independence, the Doe regime received generous support from the US.

In The Liberian Civil War, Huband argues that Liberia’s importance to the US ‘lay almost solely in the form of strategic installations’ such as the Omega transmission station that served as a navigation post for aircraft and ships in the Atlantic. Doe was an ally against the Soviet Union in the proxy conflict between the two superpowers in Africa, and many hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were disbursed in the face of well-documented evidence of the brutality of his regime. The story of US-Liberia relations since 1990 is one of dramatic reversal: the Government is not even trusted with relief aid and diplomatic links have frayed, consequences, presumably, of the country’s diminished strategic importance and post-Cold War concerns about human rights abuses by the Taylor Government. A billboard near Taylor’s executive mansion captures the dysfunctional mood: it is dominated by a huge image of a path dotted with important dates in Liberia’s history, at the end of which a small figure in shorts talks to a tall man in a stars-and-stripes hat. ‘We have come a long way, big brother, but it’s still rough,’ the small figure says. ‘We are still suffering.’ ‘For true?’ is his American counterpart’s perplexed reply.

Without aid, Liberia’s social and economic life is a shambles. According to US State Department estimates, there is almost no foreign investment and 70 per cent unemployment. The souring of relations with the US is part of a pattern: Taylor has fallen out with a good many countries, including his neighbours, some of whom are accused of supporting the rebel war against him. Part Americo-Liberian and educated in the US, Taylor himself is widely accused of fomenting conflict in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast. In June, a UN-backed court in Sierra Leone announced that he would be charged with war crimes and that he bore ‘the greatest responsibility’ for many atrocities committed during the decade-long civil war (he had supported the Sierra Leonean rebel movement).

In Monrovia, the ritual flight from the areas of conflict to the diplomatic quarter and the US Embassy has been underway for some time. The streets are full of people carrying plastic bowls, foam mattresses, bundles tied in long coloured cloths and checked hold-alls. One man I saw was carrying a big cool-box with the motif ‘All power belong to God.’ On Broad Street, a group gathered quickly around me to condemn the breach of the ceasefire agreed in June. It was a reminder that for every child soldier in Liberia whittling sculptures from human bones, there are many ordinary people who can give a sophisticated analysis of the situation they find themselves in and an eloquent account of why the international community should help them get out of it. Everybody agrees that the US has a responsibility to help.

The following morning, there were hearsay reports of heavy looting by pro-Taylor militias in town. I went with a group of journalists to talk to some of the huge crowd of refugees gathered outside the US Embassy. We walked up UN Drive, astonished at the number of people camped out in the street and gathered at the windows of the tall buildings lining the road. A white pick-up truck went by, full of armed young men in plain clothes. Some other youths leaning on a car called out: ‘Journalists, how are you doing?’

The first blast hit as we were walking past the entrance to the Embassy. A short time later, a second explosion sent the retreating crowd into a panic. I almost ran into a vanful of armed youths; they barely noticed in their hasty retreat from the action. A photographer colleague reported seeing four dead bodies, victims of an attack on an Embassy building in which civilians were taking refuge. As so often in Liberia, those responsible – loyalist or rebel – were never identified.

Back at the hotel, the wounded soon started to appear on their way to the Médecins sans Frontières centre down the road. One young man was being carried in a fireman’s lift; another was being pushed in a wheelbarrow, his white T-shirt covered in blood. We helped where we could and then watched footage of the incident, leaning the hand-held camera on one of the hotel’s exterior walls. A disembodied voice called up to me from the other side of the wall: a small distance that belied the separation between the speaker’s vulnerability and the relative safety assured by our power and wealth. ‘This thing is a problem to us,’ the voice said plaintively. ‘Come and talk to me.’

President Bush has been under pressure to reach a decision on the deployment of US peace-keeping contingents in Liberia. The Pentagon has ordered 4500 troops to the Mediterranean as part of its ‘prudent planning’ for a possible intervention, although it could take the units several days to sail to Liberia. Extra Marines have arrived to defend the heavily fortified Embassy, but none is detailed to help protect civilians in the surrounding areas, which have come under heavy mortar fire. Liberians have protested by piling corpses outside the main section of the Embassy compound. Human rights groups and Western diplomats, who argue it is Washington’s turn to take some peace-keeping responsibility, are also dismayed by the delay. Both the US and Ecowas, the 15-member union of West African states, appear to be watching one another before making a decision on deployment. US intervention without Ecowas would mean that US troops had to police the front-line; Ecowas intervention without the US could quickly drain the resources of the poor West African countries that make up the union. If Ecowas went in alone, it would raise unhappy memories in Liberia of a similar intervention during the 1990s, when the Nigerian contingent was accused of partisanship and looting.

A further complicating factor is uncertainty over the intentions, and the future, of Charles Taylor. The US has said it will not send troops until the President goes; Taylor has said he will not quit until a peace-keeping force arrives. He has accepted an offer to take refuge in Nigeria when he leaves office, although it is not clear what this would mean for the charges laid by the Sierra Leone special court. Vaanii Paasewe, Taylor’s press secretary, says the President is coming under ‘immense pressure’ from his supporters to reconsider his decision to leave the country. Such enthusiasm as there is in Washington for intervention seems to derive from the threat that Liberia could pose as a ‘failed state’ and a base for anti-Western terrorists (see Stanley Uys, below). On an economic level, instability in Liberia might be unhelpful to attempts to drill for oil in the greater Gulf of Guinea region, which provides the US with a useful strategic bulwark against problems with Middle Eastern supplies. The issue of historical or post-colonial responsibility seems to mean less to Washington than it did to Britain when it sent troops to Sierra Leone in 2000, or France when it deployed three thousand troops to help stabilise Ivory Coast, and protect its own nationals, after the attempted coup last September.

Those interventions almost certainly saved many lives in the short term, but they raised questions about the international commitment to long-term peace and development in West Africa. Rich nations have become involved only in areas of their own immediate interests, effectively trying to ring-fence conflicts. In Ivory Coast, the French are protecting a former colony that once offered opportunities for French companies and a fine quality of life for expatriates. In Sierra Leone, Britain is prepared to back up what has become a substantial commitment to training Sierra Leone’s Armed Forces and developing institutions of government.

The country by country approach risks ignoring the much bigger problem of a disenfranchised, uneducated and brutalised younger generation, who can travel without restriction across porous borders and whose legitimate grievances can turn into abuses of their fellow citizens. As one diplomat puts it, the sizeable British investment in developing Sierra Leone’s democratic institutions since the end of the civil war could be futile unless Liberia receives similar help. Liberians are desperate, but there is little sense of the subjugation that exists in de facto dictatorships such as Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps the fighting itself has revived the possibility of political change; in what are ostensibly more stable states, by contrast, there is a deep cynicism about the institutionalisation of corruption and self-enriching elites. Before that change, however, Liberia needs a lasting ceasefire, and that can only mean intervention. As I write, President Bush has ordered an unspecified number of troops to be positioned off the Liberian coast to help support a West African peace-keeping force.

25 July