If you think you’re the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on in Liberia, you’re not. For more than a month the unrest in this West African nation has been thoroughly covered by the press, yet most people still can’t tell the difference between Liberia and Libya. However, more attention must be paid to Liberia, a country no bigger then the state of Ohio.
A bitter civil war began in 1989, and militia leaders, including Charles Taylor and his rival Roosevelt Johnson, have been vying for control in a country whose unrest has been punctuated by 13 peace accords in six years. The most recent cease-fire occurred last August when six rival leaders agreed to a plan calling for a transitional government and national elections. Peace appeared possible until April, when Taylor kicked Johnson out of the transitional government, charged him with murder and tried to have him arrested. The civil war then regained momentum.
How did the United States get involved in this mess? It began with President James Monroe’s interpretation of the Slave Act of 1807 as authority to colonize black Americans in Africa. A U.S. flag was raised over the first settlement, named Monrovia in the president’s honor. Repatriation to Africa was seen by many abolitionists as a solution to slavery. But Liberia, the “Land of Freedom,” deteriorated into a one-party state and created a wall between the native-born Africans and the Americans. In 1847 Liberia became an independent republic, but the English-speaking descendants of U.S. blacks — only 1 percent of the population — remained the intellectual and ruling class. That is, until 1980, when the government was overthrown, ending more then 130 years of “Americo-Liberian” rule and throwing the country into chaos.
The White House recently pledged $30 million to a West African peacekeeping force known as Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group made up largely of Nigerian soldiers. Although the six-year-old group is credited with helping maintain order in Liberia, it has a reputation — according to news reports — for corruption and looting.
American money would probably be better spent on international humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross or Doctors Against Disease. U.S. diplomats can be more effective bargaining with the strength of armed forces and international financial aid than by supporting ineffective foreign armies.
There is a renewed chance for peace on the horizon. This week U.S. diplomats are leading peace talks in nearby Accra, Ghana. Failed attempts to break up Somalia’s bloody civil war surely remain in the minds of State Department officials, but because of historical ties, the United States does have a moral responsibility to the citizens of Liberia to ensure democracy is given a fair chance.
“We will not support any government that comes to power by force in Liberia,” a White House statement said. With the military presence in place to back that statement up, the Clinton administration can foster peace in Liberia while continuing to limit further military involvement of U.S. forces.