Are We Missing the Boat Somewhere?

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On February 17, 1977, just a little over 40 years ago, Liberia, under the leadership of President Tolbert, established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Tolbert’s move was at the time considered unprecedented for a nation whose foreign policy direction was structured within the ambit of US foreign policy interests and objectives. For one thing, China professed adherence to Communism, then considered an anathema to virtually everything Western democracy and its capitalist values stood for and espoused.

For one thing the world was bipolar, torn between two great social forces, Capitalism and Communism represented in the main by the United States of America and the then Soviet Union. At the time in 1977 Liberia served as the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Africa, hosting the Voice of America broadcast relay facilities and the Omega Satellite Navigation station built to track US submarines around the world. But more to that, Liberia also hosted the Firestone Rubber Company, a US rubber concession with a ninety-nine-year lease to produce and export rubber.

President Tolbert had ascended to the Liberian presidency following the death, in 1971, of the autocrat President William V.S. Tubman in a London clinic. Tubman’s foreign policy, which had been virtually tied to the apron strings of US foreign policy interests, was given a jolt when Tolbert established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and other communist states including China and became an active member of the Movement of Non-aligned states, an umbrella organization of states committed to charting an independent foreign policy course straddling the divide between the Communist East and the Capitalist West.

The establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China was to bring some tangible benefits in quick fashion. A sports stadium and complex were established as well as the Kpatawee rice project in Bong County. A new Health Ministry was also erected in Congo Town, Monrovia. Additionally, a sugar mill and processing plant was established at Barrake, in Maryland County, while a crumb rubber plant was established in Gbarnga which brought great relief to Liberian rubber farms who had long been tottering beneath the oppressive yoke of Firestone’s buying and pricing policies.

The irony plain and evident was that “Communist” money was being used to help an avowedly staunch adherent of Capitalism compete against a greedy capitalist and corporate giant, Firestone.

Be it as it were, diplomatic relations between the two countries subsisted until October 1989 when the Liberian government under the leadership of President Samuel K. Doe signed a joint communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Almost immediately following this move, the People’s Republic of China, on October 10, 1989 suspended diplomatic relations with Liberia. However on August 10, 1993, the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), led by Dr. Amos Sawyer, resumed diplomatic relations with China. It is noteworthy that the government of China had provided scholarships to Liberians every year from 1977 to 1989 until relations were severed.

Four years later in 1993, diplomatic relations between both countries resumed but were broken again in 1997 with the ascendancy of Charles Taylor to the Liberian presidency. On September 5, 1997 Taylor declared Liberia’s recognition of a two-China policy, a move which again led to the suspension of diplomatic relations between both states. Relations however resumed in 2004, during the tenure of Transitional Chairman Gyude Bryant.

Bryant’s successor, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, reaffirmed her government’s commitment to a One-China policy, which again saw several benefits accruing to Liberia which, amongst others, include the ultra-modern Jackson F. Doe Memorial Hospital in Tappita, Nimba County and the construction of a modern airport terminal.

But there are lessons to be learned which we have apparently failed to learn. The fact that the nation’s economy is tied an economic policy based on the “Trickle Down” effect, which has only served to enrich a few but impoverishes the vast majority of the people, should provide strong and compelling reasons why this country needs to consider a new development paradigm.

Consider, for example how with the vast deposits of iron ore the country is endowed with, Liberia still has not produced a single steel rod. And then Firestone, which has dominated the rubber industry in Liberia such that, despite nearly after a century of operations in Liberia producing rubber for export, Liberia has not been able to produce a single rubber band or condom from all the rubber exported each year.

Take for example the Republic of Chad which has been producing and exporting crude oil for a number of years now without having a single refinery to add value to their oil exports. According to Professor Deborah Brautigam of the School of International Service, American University, Washington D.C. and Senior Research Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington D.C., a Chinese company is building Chad’s first petroleum refinery in a 60:40 joint venture.

The Chadian government, according to Professor Brautigam, had applied for a preferential export credit to help finance its share of the venture. Although the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project supported by the World Bank had envisaged the building of a small refinery, it never happened and the pipeline instead transferred crude oil outside Chad, while the country was all the while importing all its petroleum products.

The Chadian finance and Budget Minister noted that, had they made the request to their traditional partners, they would have asked them to give up the idea just like how President Sirleaf was persuaded to turn down the Chinese offer to rebuild the Mount Coffee Dam as well the construction of a steel plant for Liberia, making use of the country’s vast iron ore deposits.

Similarly, the Libyan-built glass factory, whose raw materials were sourced entirely from Liberia, was allowed to fall into ruins right under the watch of President Sirleaf as well as the crumb rubber factory, built in Gbarnga by the Chinese, was also allowed to fall into ruins although it was extensively looted by warring groups.

But as Professor Brautigam notes, “governments who do have well thought-out development plans appreciate the Chinese willingness to follow their lead. They also appreciate that the Chinese principle of noninterference in internal affairs allows them to maintain sovereignty over their development strategy”.

Are we missing the boat somewhere?

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