By F. Momolu Dorley
Barrack Hussein Obama’s election as America’s first African-American President brought high hopes to many Africans – more so in Liberia; a country with long standing traditional relations with the United States – which has earned the unenviable moniker as America’s stepchild.
The tiny West African country’s early leaders were all African-Americans who imposed the American brand of southern antebellum servitude on the natives whom they met on the land. They were propped up by the American political elites who employed that America’s geopolitical interest was secured and best served with the Americo-Liberians than the natives, though behind closed doors they whispered that the continued subjugation of the natives was untenable.
But the coming to power of Barrack Obama in 2008, right on the heel of the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil crisis and the ushering in of Africa’s first woman elected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was hoped to herald a new and improved relation; one that would have seen substantial American investment in Liberia, a foothold of American capitalism in Africa.
However, while very many Liberians embraced Obama’s 2008 bid for the Presidency, the Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rooted for her long time friend Hilary, whom with husband Bill Clinton are her best friends.
Rife speculations have it that this led to the strained relations between President Sirleaf and the Obamas. Until Robert Gates, Director of Central Intelligence under President George H. W. Bush, led America’s callous abdication from the traditional relations, Liberian leaders always prevail on U.S Presidents visiting sub-Saharan Africa to stop over in Liberia.
The leaders of Liberia, especially long ruling President William Tubman – a strong Americophile – wanted the United States to use the country as a conduit to the rest of Africa. President Obama’s numerous visits to
Africa without stopping in Liberia was seen by many Liberian watchers as a snub not only to the country, but its president stemming for the 2008 episode in which Sirleaf was a strong backer of Hilary Clinton.
Although under President Barrack Obama, United States policy of maintaining peace in Liberia and “aiding economic growth” continues, president Obama and his government, unlike President George Bush and William Howard Taft, did not cultivate any special responsibility to Liberia.
President Taft with his Dollar Diplomacy was arguably the biggest Liberianophile ever elected to the White House in the 19th century. He devoted a considerable portion of his First Annual Message to Congress on Liberia – noting that the close historical ties between the two countries gave an opening for a wider intervention. This led to the now infamous $1.7 million loans of 1912 – cobbled together by Western countries, Great Britain, America, Netherland and France to aid the Liberian government in its dire financial situation which resulted in a reduction of salaries of the civil service and the discontinuity of the debt service on the 1906 loan.
George Bush eclipsed Taft on Liberia by ending the 14-year of mayhem and bloodletting. No one probably expected Obama to surpass Bush’s intervention in Liberia especially so when he had taken over at a time America was facing its own peril; the great recession.
However, even after steadying the U.S economy on the right trajectory, brought back jobs, solved some of the burning issues – he like his predecessors George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton never pivots to the traditional relation. Since the end of the cold war and several miles removed from the center of the so-called war on terror, Liberia’s stock has diminished in Washington evidenced of the lack of earnest intervention to prevent or end the civil war.
It took a dreadful Ebola virus which plunged Liberia and the Mano River countries to the limelight to attract Obama’s attention to Liberia in 2014 – two years before the end of his second term. The response to the
Ebola virus was clannish. Obama, factoring in the traditional relations between the two countries, focused on Liberia while Britain and France expended their resources on their former colonies – Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The Obama administration allocated $ 2.5 billion, which was instrumental in combating the scourge of Ebola. President Obama also played strenuous role in procuring IMF and World Bank fund for Liberia’s fight against the virus. The administration also sent 2,800 US troops – the largest ever US deployment to Liberia since War World II, when a US Negro troop was stationed in Liberia; playing a pivotal role in US war efforts and annihilation of Nazism.
The troop sent to Liberia during the Ebola virus epidemic built clinics, trained nurses and worked actively to beat back the epidemic. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf thanked Obama and his administration for standing by Liberia. The virus ignited a furor among many Americans – some calling for travel embargo to be slapped on the affected countries. The Obama administration, however, resisted pressure to impose travel ban on West Africans travelling to the United States.
“We know there was fear in this country (the U.S), and we understood that because we were fearful ourselves. We didn’t know how to confront this unknown enemy. And we know that there was some pressure here to be able to stop any travels of people from Liberia or from the other affected countries” noted Sirleaf.
The Liberian leader thanked Obama for standing firm and resisting the pressure, and rallying the American people to see this for what it was and joined the partnership with Liberia and others to be able to confront the epidemic.
President Sirleaf did not reflect on the two countries fractious “Horse – Rider” relationship spanning nearly two centuries. James Ciment, the author of “Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves who Ruled It,” described Liberia as “America’s half forgotten stepchild,” poorly set up and neglected by the U.S. America’s engagement with the Ebola crisis, he noted, was nothing more than the fulfillment of a special obligation to help Liberia. America’s assistance in combating Ebola was welcomed and many Liberians thought this was a window of opportunity for the United Sates to craft a long term sustainable working formula in
its engagement with Liberia. The United States had always embraced a policy of stopgap with Liberia. The failure of America to help Liberia meets it rising long term developmental aspiration is triggering many Liberians to question the relationship.
Prior to the outbreak of the Ebola, the two countries ushered in a novel bilateral framework; the US-Liberia Partnership Dialogue. The Partnership Dialogue is intended to deepen the partnership between the nations and to support Liberia’s democratic and economic reform. The Partnership Dialogue, which is in its third year, has not yielded many dividends for the poverty ridden country; in part, because the Liberian government has not been assertive.
Liberians are bemused that their lot has not improved despite their traditional relation with the world’s only economic and military hegemony. In fact, more Liberians are questioning that their backwardness can be squarely put on the United States, which interventions in the tiny West African country for the most part has not been in the interest of Liberia and Obama the first African American President did little to correct this historical stain of America’s sin.
Many Westerners have elucidated that Liberia should shoulder its responsibility and stop being mired in a “Catch 22” – “subservient slave mentality”. In his book, “The Mask of Anarchy,” Stephen Ellis noted “Liberians are often inclined to overestimate the extent of US responsibility for whatever transpires in their country”accentuating that Liberians have “indulged in an orgy of conspiracy-theorizing” about the United States.
However, there is more to it than meets the eye. There is a raft of reports showing US policies undermine Liberia’s growth. A former Foreign Minister in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led government – cosying in a Hilton hotel in Istanbul, said George Bush’s visit to Liberia, which came on the heels of former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the country, stemmed purely from the fact that the Chinese were attempting to make inroads and grab a bigger pie of Liberia’s natural resources. This would have made the Chinese a key economic player in postwar Liberia and an imminent paradigm shift replacing US influence after more than a century and a half relationship.
He muttered that Bush was swinging in the chair like a toddler while Condoleezza Rice and others in the American delegation held bilateral talks with their Liberia counterparts.
Fifteen or so minutes in the meeting President Bush abruptly stopped and warned the Liberia leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to be careful with the Chinese, according to the Minister. This and other covert U.S schemes have led to both the Chinese and Americans’ delays to restore the hydro. That plant has eventually been restored with assistance from the U.S.
In a twist to the tale, First lady Michelle Obama –however- visited Liberia in 2016. Her visit led to USAID committing $27million in funding to Liberia’s program for the Let Girls Learn initiative launched by the President and his wife. Despite this and the Ebola success, many Liberians felt letdown. They had hoped the Obama administration would have accrued huge benefits for Liberia; righting America’s two centuries of Horse-Rider relation in which Liberia remains the horse driven to a bleak future. Obama missed a big opportunity to etch his name positively in discourse pertaining to the long standing traditional US-Liberia relationship.
About the author: F. Momolu Dorley has an M.A. in Advanced European and International studies from the Centre International de Formation Europeenne as well as a B.A. in International Relations and Politics from Istanbul University. He can be reached via email at [email protected]