A Tale of a Republic’s Debacle

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Dr. Fred van der Kraaij, a national of the Netherlands and a Liberianist, has written an amazing book, a mélange of memoir, history and fact sheet. In Liberia: van vrijheidsideaal naar verloren paradijs (Liberia: From the Ideal of Freedom to Lost Paradise) was published by the Africa Studies Centre (ASC), Leiden. Fred van der Kraaij takes the reader on a journey full of intrigues, while revealing mind-boggling information about crucial developments in the life of a nation at odds with itself. Liberia: Van Vrijheidsideaal Naar Verloren Paradijs is the story of a country that was regarded as the ideal of freedom but turned into everything from a theater of brutal civil wars, to failed state, to a state struggling to survive.

Van der Kraaij takes the readers on a pilgrimage to a lost paradise that was founded by black settlers from America. In the first chapter, ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,’ the Dutch author explains how and why he and his wife moved from the Netherlands to Liberia, ‘the Land of Liberty’. In this same phase of the memoir, the author masterfully narrates what motivated the first American colonists to settle in what is now Liberia, in 1821, and how they did it.

The narrative of Van der Kraaij‘s own settlement in Liberia also coincides with that of the American Colonization Society settling on that land. The difficulties he faced getting things done there, also share pages with adventures of the challenges faced by the colonists – ex-slaves and free-born blacks – when confronting the tribal people they met on that land, after making that voyage across the Atlantic, ‘back to Africa’.

Before the author could even begin the task for which he went to Liberia, it was overwhelmingly evident to him that tension brewed between groups of Liberians : the ‘Americo-Liberians’ and the ‘Congo people’ on one hand, and the indigenous people on the other. He would later on begin giving pieces of advice to Liberian government officials, one of which, if heeded to, could have saved the Republic from what is known as the ‘Rice Riots,’ in 1979.

What astonishes me the most is the devastating verdict against the Tolbert regime by his Minister For Planning and Economic Affairs, David Franklin Neal, when he spoke with the author : “During one of our conversations at the home of Romeo Horton, the dean of Business College and my “boss”, Minister Neal confided to me that he was working for the wrong regime, corrupt, elitist, but that he had no other choice and that under those circumstances was trying to make the best of it” (p.51).

This book traces stunning inside details about events leading to the 1980 overthrow of President William R. Tolbert, Jr., including an alleged US involvement in a plot to get rid of the Liberian president. The writer throws light on the lifestyle of the Americo-Liberian bourgeois ruling class and the anxiety of young political activists and leaders of pressure groups such as the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the People’s Progressive Party) PPP.

His remarkable sense of storytelling draws the reader to the scene when he vividly unfolds his experiences during the period immediately after the 1980 coup d’état. This is not surprising for a book written by an economist and historian who has lived in Liberia, worked there, and taught there, while rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of Liberian political life, past and present. This is what you get from a man who replaced Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh as lecturer at the University of Liberia; a University of Liberia colleague of Dr. Amos Sawyer, a former advisor to the then Deputy Minister of Finance, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and a friend and confidante of veteran journalist Tom Kamara.

Part two, ‘Paradise Lost’, provides astonishing analyses of major incidents from 1980 to1990. The author points out how a young soldier of tribal background – Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe – seemingly redeems the ‘natives’ by overthrowing a government which was dominated by ‘Americo-Liberians’ and ‘Congo people’. It didn’t take long before the new leader started to eliminate other members of the junta, thus leading to further division in the country and eventually to a civil war in 1989. It didn’t take long either for Liberians to realize that rampant corruption and misrule were also trademarks of the leaders who succeeded the Tolbert regime.

The last part of the book is like a fact sheet on Liberia. It illustrates how rich this West African country is and how it is being managed politically and economically. Van der Kraaij painfully points out the contrast between the abundance of wealth in the country and the poverty of the vast majority of the population. Very informative and beautiful maps enhance his text.

After reading this 143-page book, the reader may be tempted to conclude that the title ‘Paradise Lost’ really suits Liberia. The question is, how long will freedom remain elusive?

Each chapter of the book contains elements of surprise, even for someone like me, who studies Liberian history and monitors its current events. This book is a must-read for people who want to study Liberia; for people who intend to lead it; for people who want to invest in it; and of course, for people who want to redeem it.

Reviewer: Cletus Nah is a Liberian journalist/publicist/media producer/columnist. Cletus Nah is a former lecturer of Economics at the University of Liberia.

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