Liberia, America’s wretched stepchild

Founded by former U.S. slaves, Liberia was once hailed as the only free republic in Africa. But now a horrific civil war is tearing the country apart. What went wrong?

Why is there a civil war?

Two major rebel groups have been trying for three years to overthrow the dictatorial president, Charles Taylor. They’re now close to success. Taylor had agreed to step down last month under a prearranged cease-fire. But he reneged, sparking the most recent fighting in a wider upheaval that has raged since the 1980s. President Bush is now deciding whether to deploy U.S. peacekeeping troops.

Why would the U.S. intervene?

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We have a special bond with Liberia: It’s the one country in the world created by American emigrants. In 1819, the growing abolitionist movement spurred President James Monroe to authorize the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa. A group called the American Colonization Society settled the first 86 of these pioneers on a tract of land purchased on the West African coast in 1822. Two years later the society named the territory Liberia, for liberty, and the capital Monrovia, for Monroe. When the colony declared independence in 1847, it ratified a U.S.-style constitution, adopted English as the official language, and modeled its flag after Old Glory. By the outbreak of the Civil War, about 14,000 freed slaves and slaves rescued from slave ships had become Liberians.

How did the new nation fare?

Not well. Its founders installed the ex-slaves and their descendants as the rulers, but 97 percent of the inhabitants were indigenous Africans. A huge and permanent rift opened between the two groups. For 150 years, a series of largely corrupt presidents has preserved Liberia’s wealth for a small elite, while 3 million others have lived in abject poverty.

Has the U.S. maintained any ties?

Yes, mainly for economic and strategic reasons. In the 1920s, Firestone ran a 1 million–acre plantation in Liberia as a source of rubber for the booming auto industry. During World War II, the country was an important staging area for our North African campaign. With the Cold War, Liberia became a kind of fire wall to contain the spread of communism in post-colonial Africa. From 1962 to 1980, we poured in $280 million—more money per capita than we gave any other African nation. But in 1980, the tension between indigenous Africans and the descendants of American slaves finally erupted into a revolution.

Who led it?

Samuel K. Doe, a 28-year-old Army sergeant from an indigenous family. Doe’s insurgents staged a military coup, captured and disemboweled President William R. Tolbert, and publicly executed 13 Cabinet members. Doe’s ethnic group, the Krahn, also terrorized the Gio and Mano, who were allies of the ruling class. Despite his savagery, Doe won the Reagan administration’s support, along with $500 million in aid, by declaring himself a staunch anti-communist. Although Washington pressured Doe into holding free elections in 1985, he seized the ballots and declared himself the winner. But Doe’s reign was short-lived.

What happened?

Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, invaded Liberia from neighboring Sierra Leone in 1989. His army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, was a ragtag collection of young men and boys, who kept themselves high on drugs and depravity. One of its murderous factions toppled Doe, cut off his ears, and killed him in a drunken execution that was widely distributed on videotape. The NPFL practiced cannibalism on their slain enemies, kept women as sex slaves, and shot anyone who even “smelled” like a Krahn. Their invasion ignited wholesale slaughter among various warlords, with Taylor emerging as the most powerful. In 1997, he won a presidential election against 12 other candidates, mainly because voters thought he would finally stop the killing.

Did he?

No. As rebels and Taylor’s troops continue to battle, more than 200,000 Liberians have died. Another 800,000 have been left homeless by tribal fighting, and nearly 700,000 have fled the country. Today, Monrovia is a cesspool of misery; schools have become refugee camps and weeds sprout from the shattered buildings. Beaches function as vast, open latrines. Pro-government militias prey on those who venture out after dark. The infant mortality rate is 130 per 1,000, and 70 percent of the country is unemployed.

How did Taylor lose control?

By meddling outside his own borders. In the 1990s, his support of Sierra Leone’s brutal Revolutionary United Front allowed the rebel group to gain control over that country’s rich diamond mines. The RUF, notorious for hacking off opponents’ limbs, used the sale of these so-called “conflict diamonds” to buy more weapons and consolidate its terror. Taylor used his share to enrich himself and to assist insurgencies in neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast. His goal was to keep the region unsettled enough to prevent unified action against him.

Did his strategy work?

For a time. But in 2000, the United Nations responded by banning the export of conflict diamonds. Last month, a special court set up by the U.N. indicted him on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Guinea and Ivory Coast are also trying to oust Taylor by supporting separate rebel factions. Guinea backs the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, while Ivory Coast supports the Movement for Democracy in Liberia. These groups today have Taylor cornered in Monrovia, where he is dickering about how and when he will relinquish power.

Can the U.S. bring order?

It’s unlikely, but Liberians want us to try. Even though America has largely ignored them since the Cold War ended, many still revere what they regard as their mother country. “We are the 51st state,” said Herbert Walker, a street merchant. “We sang your national anthem and learned American history. We love American dollars. Why won’t you help us?”

The ruler who fled a U.S. jail

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