What’s Behind Liberia’s Crisis


THE RHETORIC is about AIDS and poverty, but the agenda is oil and empire. George W. Bush’s mid-July tour of Africa highlighted the ways in which the U.S. is consolidating its economic and strategic role across the continent–from preparing a possible deployment of American troops amid Liberia’s civil war, to praising pro-market “neoliberal” policies in Uganda, Senegal and South Africa.

But the more involved the U.S. becomes in the crisis-wracked continent, the clearer it is that Washington isn’t the solution–but bears responsibility for the civil wars and social catastrophes across Africa. Exhibit A is Liberia.

Established in 1847 by wealthy Americans determined to rid the U.S. of slaves by sending them to Africa, Liberia functioned as a virtual American colony, ruled by a tiny elite of the descendants of former slaves. Known as Americo-Liberians, they worked with U.S. companies like Firestone, which established the world’s largest rubber plantation there in 1926, while the indigenous population remained impoverished.

During the Cold War, Liberia, despite its small population–still only 3 million today– became a key outpost for U.S. efforts to undermine national liberation movements and prop up pro-Washington dictators in the name of fighting communism. In 1980, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe took power in a coup against the Americo-Liberian elite. When the Reagan administration took over the White House, it immediately flooded the new regime with millions of dollars in aid, in exchange for help in its efforts to destabilize nearby Libya.

Doe ruled through assassinations, repression and fraud. Once the Cold War was over, the U.S. cut him loose, and he was assassinated by rebel forces in 1990. “Master-Sergeant Doe is the latest victim of imperial euthanasia,” wrote Nigerian journalist Tunji Lardner. “He died because his treatment was withheld by the United States and his life-support system shut off.”

After a civil war in the early 1990s, the power vacuum was eventually filled by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian who used widespread hatred of Doe and ethnic tensions to mobilize support. Taylor had backing from Libya as well as the former French colonies of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and he successfully exploited regional rivalries to divide a series of peacekeeping forces sent by West African nations–principally, Nigeria–in the mid-1990s.

A combination of brutality and bribery allowed Taylor to win presidential elections in 1997 with 75 percent of the vote. Key to Taylor’s success was his control of much of the region’s diamond trade and his constant shifts of alliances in the region.

To tighten his grip, Taylor sponsored an insurgency by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF seized the former British colony’s diamond mines and smuggled the gems to Liberia, where Taylor took a cut and top Western mining companies cashed in.

Like Taylor in Liberia, the RUF–known for amputating the limbs of its opponents–was brought into the government in Sierra Leone in 1999, with the blessing of neighboring countries, as well as London and Washington. When the “power-sharing” deal threatened to unravel, a British-led contingent of some 13,000 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers moved in to prop up the government–while RUF leader and Taylor ally Foday Sankoh was awarded control of the ministry that controls diamonds. Taylor also backed a militia’s attempted takeover of diamond mines in neighboring Guinea, another former French colony.

The pattern is similar in Ivory Coast, where violence by Taylor-backed militias and an anti-immigrant backlash has effectively split the country between a mostly Muslim North and a Christian and animist South. Some 3,000 troops from France–the former colonial ruler of the country–are maintaining the status quo, leading some Ivorians to call for U.S. troops to replace them. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has intervened in the Liberia civil war by sponsoring yet another militia–the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL.

For its part, the U.S. has been reluctant to become directly involved in Liberia–but faces increased pressure to do so from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan, whose native Ghana is a close U.S. ally and key player in the region. Even France, which opposed the U.S. war on Iraq, has called on Washington to intervene–despite their competing interests in the region–to keep the situation from spinning out of control.

The fact that the Liberian capital of Monrovia, a city of 1 million people, remains without running water or electricity has led many who opposed the war on Iraq to support a U.S. peacekeeping force on humanitarian grounds. But anyone who believes that Washington will act out of concern for innocent people in Liberia should take a closer look.

Until now, the U.S. has been content to pressure Taylor by working with the government of Guinea–which got $3 million in U.S. military aid last year–to support the main anti-Taylor rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). While Taylor has been indicted for war crimes by a United Nations tribunal, the LURD is little different.

“There is not one person who wields real power within the LURD who has clean hands or comes close,” a European diplomat told the Washington Post. “The upper tiers are filled with the perpetrators of rape, looting and cannibalism.” According to Human Rights Watch, LURD forces have been involved in kidnapping, summary executions, looting, rape and forced recruitment–and like Taylor and the RUF, use young boys as combatants.

So while Bush has called for the ouster of Taylor–who has provisionally accepted an offer of exile in Nigeria–Washington’s solution is to replace one warlord with another. If the U.S. does move to intervene militarily, it’s because Liberia sits near substantial oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea. U.S. oil companies–including Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco–are expected to invest more than $10 billion in African oil this year.

At the same time, Washington is moving to boost its military bases in “the Arab countries of northern Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa, through new basing agreements and training exercises intended to combat a growing terrorist threat in the region,” the New York Times reported. Add to this Washington’s pursuit of free-market policies across Africa, and George W. Bush’s real goals in Africa become all too clear.

So does the need to oppose them.


Lee Sustar writes regulrarly for the socialist worker. His articles have been published on ZNet, Counterpunch and the International Socialist Review.

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