By Lekpele M. Nyamalon
Monrovia– I was at the Liberia National Museum on Friday 28 June 2019, when US Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Mrs. Marie Royce, donated to the Liberia National Museum original copies of official documents establishing diplomatic relations between the United States of America and Liberia in 1862, along with Liberia’s ratification. She also donated copies of books by Liberian Authors-including copies of my book, ‘Scary Dreams’.
That singular gesture is a historic feat that symbolizes the inking of 157 years of friendship between ‘Uncle Sam’ — a euphemism for the United States and Liberia. It is a testament of the reminder of friendship of one of Liberia’s most venerated allies.
But, this is a daring tale of trials, triumphs and tests. America’s relationship with Liberia dates beyond the shadows, far beyond the cameras of 1862. It is a grunting story of freed Black Americans being repatriated to the shores of Africa in search of a home to live and build and, perhaps, be free to exist. It is a tale of one of history’s gruesome presents that unveils itself in bits and pieces over time.
Liberia’s story began with the American Colonization Society – a ‘philanthropic’ body set-up with the intention of repatriating freed blacks to a land in Africa. Liberia became the ‘suitable’ spot to bring freed black slaves home to create a new nation. In 1822, the nation Liberia — ‘land of the free’ — was birthed.
Liberia gained her ‘Independence’ from the American Colonization Society in 1847 and became the first democracy in all of Africa. Although America had not colonized Liberia, Liberia was considered a de-facto American colony. All of Liberia’s first Presidents were direct immigrants from America with credible rumors of having parental ties to some powerful U.S. slave owners. Only Liberia’s 11th President Hilary Richard-Wright Johnson was born in Liberia and considered the first true ‘son of the soil’.
Strangely, it would take the United States some fifteen years (15) after Liberia’s Independence to officially recognize Liberia’s Independence in 1862; interestingly, during the American Civil War.
Historians have greeted this move with mixed reactions and sought to explain it as either a parental refusal to let her child walk out officially or looking the other way until it was safer to give the nod.
America’s influence on Liberia is tremendous — from culture, language accent, names, street layout, etc. A typical 1979 broad street in Monrovia looked like somewhere down town New York. There are towns in Liberia with names such as Louisiana, Virginia, and Mississippi. Liberia’s Capital, ‘Monrovia’ was named after US President James Monroe. Liberia’s second largest City, ‘Buchanan’ was named after Thomas Buchanan, first governor of Liberia and a
cousin of U.S. President James Buchanan.
One of Liberia’s counties,- ‘Maryland’, was a small American colony in Africa that officially joined Liberia in 1857. Maryland is a costal county that was founded by former slaves from the United States’ state of Maryland. Maryland in Africa was under the auspices of the Maryland State Colonization Society.
From the get-go, Liberia had had all the inklings of an offshoot of ‘black America’ or America’s heart sitting in Africa. Liberia’s oldest and longest concessionaire, the Firestone Plantations Company, is an American tire and rubber Company, named after U.S. businessman, Harvey S. Firestone, and was at one time the world’s largest rubber plantation.
But, the American-Liberian journey had been a tale of trials, triumphs and tests. Liberian politicians and presidents have trooped to Washington for a stamp of approval and recognition to lead. Liberia’s biggest diplomatic mission is its mission to Washington. Many Liberian protesters would take official statements to the US Embassy near Monrovia to read as the place of last resort to seek diplomatic intervention. There’s a viral picture of dead civilians deposited at the entrance of the US Embassy near Monrovia, during the heat of the civil war to draw Washington’s attention to the atrocities.
The average Liberian looks to Washington for political validation of its leaders when voting. But, America’s sustainable investment in Liberia has come under scrutiny by some members of Liberia’s intelligentsia. U.S. President Barack Obama’s investment in the Young African Leadership Initiative is perhaps the greatest investment of the United States to Africa- it targets sustainability of the mind. Since the inception of the fellowship in 2014, many young African leaders, myself included, have benefited and are making tremendous strides across the Continent.
When the first Liberian civil war began in 1989, many Liberians looked to America to put a halt to the looming destruction. America lost a glorious opportunity to intervene in Liberia during the civil war of 1989. By 1990, the war was closing in on Monrovia and even a phone-call from Washington was believed to have stopped the war in its tracks. A watch and see approach by Washington left a nation badly bruised with some 250,000 civilians dead, scores of traumatized child soldiers, destruction of property and the collapse of everything that got built from 1847. Several declassified information quotes key US actors at the Bureau of African Affairs at the US Department of state as having ‘deep regrets’ over their approach to Liberia in 1990. In the article, ‘Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War’s End,’ by Reed Kramer, managing editor of Africa News Service, who covered Africa and U.S.-Africa policy for more than two decades, Herman J. Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush administration is quoted as saying, “We missed an opportunity in Liberia”. Cohen goes on in an exit interview (CSIS Africa Notes, Number 147, April 1993): “We did not intervene either militarily or diplomatically.”
According to Kramer, Washington deployed a preference for arms-length diplomacy with U.S. involvement limited largely to the protection of American lives and the provision of emergency aid. There was relatively little or no pressure or any sort of forceful diplomatic engagement one would see from a superpower. Despite reports of atrocities on both sides of the fighting forces, with members of the death squad of the Armed Forces of Liberia breaking into the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church killing men, women and children in cold blood and reports of fighters disemboweling civilians, the Administration of President George H. W. Bush did not lift a finger.
Take, for example, the case of Ivory Coast when France moved in to help avert a brewing chaos when a post-election dispute had turned violent and President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested and whisked to the ICC.
During the second Liberian civil war in 2003, President George W. Bush’s statement to President Charles Taylor to leave was enough to get Charles Taylor out of Liberia and trigger an International Peace keeping mission — one of the largest in the world. The second Bush, perhaps, took a chance and saw the power of Uncle Sam’s breath.
After the end of the Liberian civil war, impunity continues to abound with former warlords roaming the corridors of power, threatening the peace and holding the gate of Liberia’s democracy hostage. America has made tremendous investment in Liberia’s recovery process — all of which could become a mirage if those who bear the greatest responsibility for the Liberian civil war are not brought to answer for their roles in the pillage and destruction of Liberia.
America’s Liberia relationship is a story of a Liberian adage of a family tree that bends but not easily broken. So, the US could intervene in ensuring that impunity doesn’t thrive in Liberia. The Civil war ended with its scars looming across the nation. Ex-warlords continue to occupy seats and influence politics in Liberia. America’s position on the establishment of a war and economic crimes court would help to cement trust and friendship of an age-old relationship of America’s heart in Africa that got cemented in 1862. And, 157 years after would be the re-cementing of that story of trials, tests and, possibly, triumph.
Lekpele M. Nyamalon is a Poet, Writer, Advocate, Inspirational Speaker, OSIWA Poetry fellow and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He is a child survivor of conflict in Liberia and the Author of the Book: ‘Scary Dreams’, An Anthology of the Liberian Civil War. He can be reached at [email protected]