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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Still Stuck In Africa...Let's Talk About Liberia And Ebola (Part I)

Links: Wikipedia Liberia
           The U.S. Has An Obligation To Liberia
           Mea Culpa To Dallas From Liberian President

(Part I)
It's possible that in over two months of writing posts for this blog (I have yet to miss a day), this post may be the most important.
It should be important, especially to Americans.  I'm grateful that Wikipedia is always there to provide a snapshot of Liberian history; most grade school pupils in the United States have never heard of Liberia.  Beginning in 1820, freed slaves from the United States began returning to Africa (Liberia) with the support of various Abolitionist movements, especially the American Colonization Society.  In 1847, with a continual flow of freed slaves from mostly the United States, the Republic of Liberia was created (any slaves who were fortunate enough to be freed en route to the Americas also became Liberians).  The capital city was named Monrovia, in honor of U.S. President James Monroe, a strong advocate of the colonization of Liberia.  By 1867, roughly 13,000 citizens of the Republic of Liberia were former slaves.  Obviously this territory, located in west central Africa on the Gold Coast, was already inhabited in 1820.  Numerous indigenous tribes dotted the Liberian landscape before the arrival of the first settlers from the United States.  The former slaves and their descendants never accounted for more than five percent of the entire population of Liberia, but they immediately assumed the mantle of superiority.  The indigenous population were treated as savages and for almost a century were not considered actual citizens of Liberia.

In truth, the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was supported by both President Abraham Lincoln and Orator/Senator Henry Clay, believed that repatriation of former slaves to Africa was preferable to emancipation (freedom) within the United States.  Some in the organization were concerned about the difficulties former slaves would encounter after emancipation, while others felt it was in the best interest of both whites and blacks that they be returned to Africa.  However, it's important to keep in mind that by 1860 a large portion, if not the majority, of slaves had been born in the United States, or the Caribbean, rather than in Africa.
Life Membership Certificate ACS
Either way, on July 26, 1847, the settlers in Liberia issued a Declaration of Independence and promulgated a Constitution.  Not surprisingly, the Liberian Constitution bore a close resemblance to the Constitution of the United States.  The new nation suffered tremendous growing pains, as a small population of western-minded and Christian former slaves attempted to establish their authority over the indigenous inland tribes.  The government of Liberia (elected solely by male settlers) outlawed commerce between foreign nations and inland tribes.  A serious attempt was made to funnel all economic activity of Liberia to the capital city of Monrovia and through its port (a few other towns had sprung up, including Buchanan).  Development was very slow, and towards the turn of the century, France and England started exerting their authority over areas once claimed by Liberia.  In fact, The European nations were responsible for the boußndaries that today constitute the border of the Republic of Liberia.  With no army and no real diplomatic authority, Liberia had no choice but to except the demarcations as determined by France and England, which left Liberia with an English colony on its northwest border and a huge French-controlled territory on its northeast and east.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Liberia had very little to show for is fifty years of existence.  It was believed by most that the end of the Civil War would result in a huge wave of immigrants from the former slave population in the southern United States. 
For various reasons, that flood of new settler blood never really occurred.  In 1904 the Liberian government finally granted citizenship to all Liberians, but many indigenous tribes continued to oppose efforts at development.  In the mid-twentieth century, the United States became more involved in Liberia, with the construction of Roberts International Airport and new port facilities for Monrovia.  In 1945, Liberia became one of the original members of the United Nations, and was one of the first countries to openly oppose the Apartheid policies of the South African government.  Growth was slow and incremental, but progress was being made.  Rubber and Timber were being exported, and diamonds along with other precious metals and gems were discovered.  The soil appeared to be perfect for creating a fruit-based export avenue, and Liberia's history and the coastal areas seemed ideal for establishing a tourist industry.  In 1979, the economy was healthy and jobs were being created.  Unfortunately, a military coup was staged, led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe of the Krahn ethnic group.  Doe and his supporters accused then-President William R. Tolbert, Jr. of corruption and of giving preferential treatment to particular tribes to the detriment of others.  Tolbert and most of his cabinet were executed, along with many members of his political party; his family barely escaped Monrovia with their lives.

From 1980 until internationally-monitored elections in 2005, Liberia was literally hell-on earth.  Liberia suffered one coup after another, with each new government more despotic and violent than the previous one.  (If someone is interested in the details of the coups and the attempts at new governments, then Google is your answer.)  In fact, after 2000, it seemed the entire region was engulfed in war.  A horrendous Civil War swallowed Sierra Leone whole and created an entire generation of victims with missing limbs (instead of killing the enemy, it became habitual to just hack off a limb).  And the various mines planted everywhere rang up a high limb-count as well.  And to my surprise, even traditionally stable Cote d'Ivoire, with its French patisseries and tree-lined boulevards, fell victim to civil strife.  I'm so pleased to say that since 2005, a sea-change has occurred.  Peace in Sierra Leone, a new government and peace in Cote d'Ivoire, and a brilliant, no-nonsense President in Liberia.
  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist with a sparking reputation, took office with a tremendous display of energy and confidence.  The Liberian people immediately responded, and since then growth has been the word for a new generation of Liberians.  The western banks and governments love Sirleaf, and she has done wonders battling that eternal, always-present beast of African governance: corruption.  She has surrounded herself with gifted individuals and everyday makes a point to go into the street and communicate with the people.
Johnson was re-elected in 2011 and is, in my opinion, personally responsible for convincing international banks and governments to write-off billions and billions of dollars of Liberian debt.  This has allowed the Liberian government more freedom of movement regarding development projects and education.  I'm sure that Sirleaf has political opposition in Liberia and that some may accuse me of being a Sirleaf sycophant (I like the way that sounds).  Well, guilty as charged.  I love what this woman has done to strengthen and give hope to the faultering country, and I pray that the Ebola crisis doesn't destroy all that she has worked to build.

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