Liberia: America's First "Nation Building" Shows a Bright Future

Look, everything I know about Liberia comes from Fielding’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places and what was obviously a re-cast tombstone commemorating the first president of Liberia in his home town of Petersburg, Virginia, USA. I’m starting the thread because as best I can tell nobody else has done it yet, and it’s important.

Liberia was the creation of the United States. It has the distinction of being the only nation in Africa which was not colonized by white people.

Because it was colonized by the black people that white America didn’t want.

Its capital is named after America’s fifth President, James Monroe. Its original constitution was based upon the American one. Most of its leaders have been the descendents of repatriated American slaves, including its current, teetering leader, Charles Taylor. I think Taylor’s still opposed by warlord Roosevelt Johnson, (who by one specific set of criteria is two or even three times more qualified to be President) and his henchman, General Butt Naked, although the current rebels call themselves LURD, and I don’t know if they’re related.

The warriors of both sides are known to fight in wigs, or dresses, or halloween costumes, for reasons of fashion and to make the fighters invincible to bullets.

Today, five percent of the population are descendents of American slaves; twenty percent speaks some variant of English. And it appears as if the country is descending into anarchy for at least the third time in the last fifteen years. The impending disaster is compounded by the presence of more than a few refugees from the revolution in neighboring Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor has been implicated in the troubles in that country, too.

Liberia is FUBAR. Hell, it would be comedy were it not for the reputed murder, rape, looting, mutilation, and cannibalism that accompanies the sometimes nude teenagers with automatic weapons.

The last American intervention into the situation that I know about was in 1994, when we sent Marines in to evacuate its citizens from the embassy in Monrovia. Unless you believe that the US recently attempted to bribe Ghana into arresting Taylor.

I’m asking this question to learn more about and to monitor the situation there. But more importantly, does America have a “special interest” in Liberia, as France does in Rwanda and Brundi? What role should the United States play in restoring Liberia to a modicum of stability? They have diamonds, you know.

And perhaps most importantly, how does Liberia compare to other nations we are in the process of “establishing”? Is there anything we can learn from this situation and apply to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Whoever is Next on the List?

I thank you for your responses.

What about Sierra Leone? I thought it had a similar history to Liberia’s.

Another thing is that it’s kind of incorrect to say that the Blacks sent to colonize Liberia were those that the Whites didn’t want. The reality is that some of the abolitionists of the time considered repatriation to be righting a wrong.

No, insofar as France never was involved in Rwanda nor Burundi as a colonial power. Both were, along with Congo (ex-Zaire), Belgian possessions.

Diamonds are crap.

I should prefer that a regional force sort this out, with whatever technical and monetary assistance proves necessary.

No, the situations are not very comparable. Liberia is a foundation that is over a 100 yrs old. Iraq, Afghanistan etc. are entirely different items.

I lived in Liberia for two years in the 80’s. I graduated from high school there (my father was in the State Department serving at the American Embassy there). To be fair, the current regime is not descended from the original democratic government which was modeled on the US Constitution. The “American built” government was overthrown by a military coup in 1980. The junta which replaced it was headed by a “Chairman” named Samuel Doe who promised to rewrite the Liberian Constitution and hold free elections in a couple of years. Doe was corrupt and his reign was a reign of terror (he was in power while I was there). He also fixed the free “election” to elect, (surprise, surprise) himself. There were more coup attempts to follow and eventually a three-way civil war between the Doe regime and two separate rebel groups. Ultimately, Charles Taylor killed Doe and took control of the country. Taylor is, by all accounts, even more brutal than Doe, has conducted mass slaughters of civilians and has behaved aggressively towards Sierre Leone and the Ivory Coast (Liberia’s next door neighbors). Thus far the US has ignored all pleas for assistance in ousting Taylor.

As far as the merits of American nation building in Liberia, the problems that lled to the coup in 1980 were largely related to a class division between the descendents of the original colonists, who became the elite, upper-class in liberia, and the vast majority of indigenous tribal people who still lived in relative poverty. This led to great resentment over time and became the impetus for Doe’s revolution. Liberia was relatively stable while it was a democracy, but it was also a plutocracy and that was the problem. I’m not sure that this is an accurate example of failed nation building because the current “nation” has no relationship to the one that was built.

Having said all that, I am in general agreement with sentiments of the OP.

[nitpick=minor]Far more than 20% of Liberians speak English. English is the national language. They all speak English. The 20% figure may reflect those who speak it as a first language. Many Liberians speak their tribal language first and English second. In two years of living there, though, I never met a single Liberian who didn’t speak English at all.[/nitpick]

As I recall, Taylor comes onto the scene rather later. If I recall correctly Doe is killed in a coup …

Aha, my memory was faulty, however correct in that Taylor was not directly involved in

No doubts Taylor is a nasty and horrible character who deserves a bullet in the back of the head.

Your not meeting people who did not speak English in two years as a State brat does not really shed light on the extent of English in Liberia as a whole, especially after more than a decade of civil war and essential collapse of learning.

Given the rock bottom literacy rate, 20% seems like a decent estimate. The other ethnic groups langauges such as Vai also have written forms, but I doubt they’re in much use.

They’ve also got a whole lotta hardwood lumber, which if I’m not mistaken is sold as a luxury item around the world, making tidy profits for Mr Taylor, and not doing much for the natural resource base, or the natural environment, of Liberia.

I simplified it. Doe was captured and killed by Taylor’s rebels, but he was not directly involved.

As I said before, English is the official language of Liberia. The currency, the newspapers, the televison and radio broadcasts are all in English. Granted, I lived in Monrovia and didn’t go up country very often. but I came in contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of Native Liberians in the course of my two years there. If 80% of the country really didn’t know English wouldn’t i have met at least one non-English speaker?

Literacy has nothing to do with the ability to speak a language, btw. Most of those people outside of the Monrovia couldn’t read or write either English or tribal languages, but they could speak English, believe me (unless I was hallucinating an English speaking country for two years).

I had some of the same questions as the OP, much of which was helped by Diogenes answer. My main question is whether Liberia was a good idea that’s gone bad, or doomed from the start.

Diogenes, you mentioned the conflict that arose between the descendants of the colonists and the native tribes. Do you know if this is something that was there from the start, or if it developed over time?

I can’t see any parallels with modern ‘nation-building’ but I think it’s interesting history. As far as I know the primary aim was the return of former slaves to Africa; was there a goal of building up the country or did that arise from the cultural differences of the colonists?
As an aside, I’d like to thank France for their recent evacuation of 500 foreigners (including Americans).

I’m not an expert on Liberian history but from what I understand, the colonists established themselves as the the political elite from the beginning and pretty much always excluded and exploited the indigeonous people. The government of Liberia was even involved in the export of indigeonous slave labor as late as 1930. From Liberians I talked to it seemed to be the popular belief, at least, that there had always been an oligarchy which had the power and the indigeonous people always got screwed. There was a president in (I think) the 60’s named Tubman who tried to institute a lot of reforms and he was kind of popular, but I think
later presidents reverted to the staus quo.

Actually, the more I write about, the more obvious it is that establishing a bunch of settlements on the coast and arrogating power over the people that already lived there probably was apretty bad idea from the start.

nation building bad.