Making a Case for United States military intervention in Liberia

TBy Wynfred N. Russell The United States is under intense pressure from all corners to intervene and stop the carnage in Liberia, and for good reasons. The United States has long historical, economic and cultural ties with the West African country. But over the years, the United States has become increasingly disengaged from Liberia; especially after the end of the Cold War, and now, as attention is turned to the so-called war on terrorism.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, have described the United States as “the nation that everyone would think would be the natural candidate” to lead an intervention force to Liberia.

In the early 1820s, hundreds of emancipated American slaves were sent to coastal West Africa by abolitionists spearheaded by the American Colonization Society. The movement did not gain widespread support within the black community, especially amongst the ‘liberated’ blacks in the northern states; many blacks saw it as a scheme by white southern segregationists to legally purge the United States of black people. Since then, African Americans have been ambivalent about their role in Liberia. Nevertheless on July 26, 1847, they founded the continent’s first republic; they gave it a constitution, a flag and government modeled after the country they had come from.

But, despite its strong association with the United States, Liberia does not have a conventional colonial history like most of its neighbors. It was never ruled from Washington D.C. in the same way as most other African countries were ruled from various Western European capitals – such as, Angola from Lisbon, Senegal from Paris or Kenya from London. Therefore, no influential country sees Liberia as its moral responsibility.

Liberia had been governed largely by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves, for 133 years when, in a 1980 military coup, Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group seized power.

The United States overwhelmingly backed the new government and gave the Doe administration more than 500 million dollars in military assistance, the largest amount of aid given to any previous Liberian administration. Years of chaos and brutal, corrupt, misrule followed. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a U.S.-educated exiled Liberian, who once worked for Doe and was accused of embezzling nearly $900,000 from state coffers, led a rebellion that resulted in Doe’s death. Civil war ensued among seven factions, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people. The fighting degenerated into an orgy of ethnically-inspired killings that became the hallmark of Liberia’s seven-year civil war in the 1990s.

In 1997, Taylor emerged as the dominant and most powerful of all the warlords and went on to win internationally monitored democratic elections. He marginalized the opposition, refused to nationalize the army, and allegedly supported rebellions in the sub-region. It is clear that history is repeating itself, for many of the current fighters and leaders are former enemies of Taylor’s from the 1990s civil war.

The current fighting, if not stopped, would follow a similar path of ethnic and tribal-based killings. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, one of two rebel groups battling to unseat President Taylor is dominated by members of the Mandingo ethnic group, a staunch supporter of President Doe. The Mandingo ethnic group also formed most of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia, Kromah faction during the 1990s. Taylor was a bitter rival of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia and never reconciled with his former foes. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy’s vice-president is Chayee Doe, younger brother of the late president, who was tortured to death in September 1990, by a splinter group of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

Another rebel group joined the fray earlier this year and concentrated its forces in the south-eastern timber-producing region, calling itself the Movement for Democracy in Liberia. Their fighters are mostly Krahns, the ethnic group of the slain president and current vice president of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

To suggest, as a few pundits have, that U.S. soldiers will be attacked or find themselves in a quagmire such as Somalia is to not understand the cultural dynamics of the two countries. The United States has no greater friends and admirers in Africa than the Liberians. Liberians are inextricably tied to the United States in so many respects. To attack U.S. soldiers will be akin to attacking your stepbrothers and that is almost impossible in an African context. Besides, all warring parties have welcomed a military intervention by the United States.

For a long time, Liberia was economically and strategically important to the United States. In the early part of last century, the United States relied on one of its natural resources, rubber, to compete with Britain in the rapidly growing automobile industry. This natural source of latex rubber was also vital to the allies during World War II. The United States participated in many joint-venture concessions to extract iron ore and diamonds from Liberia.

During the Cold War, Liberia was viewed by the United States as an ideal launch pad to fight the spread of communism throughout Africa. A mutual defense pact was signed and the United States established a massive air base, sea port and built communications facilities to handle intelligence traffic, a navigation station and several relay transmitters for the voice of america to cover the entire continent. But, when the Cold War ended, United States political interests in Liberia evaporated. Now, the United States is being asked to turn its attention again to Liberia. In particular, Britain has suggested the United States lead a multinational military mission to the country.

Britain and France have both recently intervened in African civil conflicts. The British took the lead in buttressing the beleaguered United Nations peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, its former colony, and France recently headed a force to Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect civilians from armed militias, and it has troops enforcing a ceasefire between the government of Ivory Coast and rebels trying to depose the president.

Liberia is full of symbols that commemorate its historic links to the United States. The country legal tender is the U.S. greenback, the police look like cops from New York City, and the nation’s largest and only functional government hospital, JFK Medical Center, is named for U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The capital Monrovia was named after United States President James Monroe. Another major city honors President James Buchanan. And Harper, a major city in the southeast and capital of Maryland County, is named after Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper who invented the name Liberia, which means “Land of Liberty.”

Many Liberians look to the United States as their big brothers, others argue that an obsession with American culture has meant that many Liberians are lost between being a Liberian and being an American. But all Liberians want an end to the circle of bloody civil conflict, and many believe the United States is best-positioned to bring peace and stability to their troubled land. A 20-person U.S. “humanitarian assessment team” in Monrovia officially to look into the humanitarian situation has been greeted by hundreds of cheering and dancing crowds of desperate Liberians who regard them as the start of a peacekeeping mission. How long their celebration last will depend on a decision yet to be made by President George W. Bush.

Wynfred N. Russell is an instructor and project manager in the University’s Department of African American & African Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]