Artists & Reviews 

Liberia at 168: Ellen Johnson has not helped the narratives

A COUNTRY FOUNDED by freed American slaves, who controlled the nation’s existence were instrumental in laying the basis for what is today the Republic of Liberia. Out of that troubled past, with no system, haphazard institutional setup, patronage, all borrowed from the unsettled life that was slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States, conspired to form a country that 168 years later; is the fourth poorest country on the planet.

TODAY, A NATION founded on the cusp of the American Civil War and one which played a major role in ending the slave trade in West Africa, finds itself struggling to stay afloat amid massive corruption, nepotism, human trafficking, influence peddling by powerful matriarchal family figures, broad-day light thieving of the country’s resources; a judicial system handicapped by the lack of trusted jurors, lawyers and judges, according to the U.S. State Department Human Rights report and a legislative branch yet to establish a bond of trust with constituents still struggling to benefit from or find reasons why they placed power in the hands of lawmakers with selfish preference for their own interests against the more pressing demands of those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder.

IF THESE ISSUES sound familiar, a trip down the historical archives of Liberia’s brutal and rugged past suggest an age-old debacle which painfully is showing no sign of going away any time soon.

AS FAR BACK as 1871, when the government of the day sought to modernize the economy in the years after independence, the country was engulfed in massive foreign debts which the government of President Edward James Roye had difficulty repaying.

ROYE’S FAILURE in solving the messy debt issue compounded by constitutional issues led to the overthrow of his government in 1871.

BUT THIS WAS the least of Liberia’s troubles, claims and counter claims over land contributed to the loss of large areas of land to Britain and France in 1885, 1892, and 1919, prompting rivalries between the Europeans colonizing West Africa. America’s interests however, helped preserve Liberian independence during this period. But the decline of Liberia’s exports and its inability to pay its debts resulted in a large measure of foreign interference.

BY 1909, the government was bankrupt, and a series of international loans were floated.

BY 1926, the emergence of the controversial Firestone lease agreement which saw the U.S. investor amassing large areas for rubber production raised eyebrows about the duration and benefits of the deal to Liberia.

A LABOR CRISIS in 1930 over the exportation of forced labor from Liberia, and a League of Nations investigation upheld the charges that slave trading had gone on with the connivance of the government. President C. B. D. King.

King’s vice president and associates resigned, and international control of the Republic was proposed. Thanks to the leadership of presidents Edwin Barclay (1930–44) and William V. S. Tubman (1944–71), Liberia avoided falling in the control of foreign hands.

TUBMAN’S OPEN DOOR policy would later pave the way for international investment and gave rise to the export of the country’s mineral wealth, particularly iron ore.

TUBMAN’S DEATH in 1971 paved the way for William R. Tolbert in 1972.

TOLBERT’S REIGN though resembling a democratic climate under which the formation of opposition political parties were formed, was marred by strenuous and turbulent period as an organized opposition mostly students living in the United States took the government of the day to task over corruption and high prices of basic commodities leading to a massive rice riots in 1979 after the Tolbert government proposed an increase in the price of rice.

FOR MANY LIBERIANS, Tolbert was viewed as the solution as he came to power promising to end corruption and create the economic and political climate were all Liberians could be benefit. Tolbert even created one of the first anti-corruption commissions, dubbed the Commission for the Eradication of Corruption, making Liberia, Hong Kong and South Wales as the frontrunners in the creation of anti-corruption agencies.

BUT SOON THAN LATER, the Commission for the Eradication of Corruption became a toothless bulldog, and replaced with a virtual monopoly hold on the economic and political system in Liberia. With the Montserrado Group of Companies, the Tolbert family became front and center of economic lives in Liberia, at a time when key government posts were occupied by the Tolberts. International attempts to remedy the corruption problems by sending experts of assist President proved futile.

ONE YEAR LATER, a band of lowly-ranked military officers led by a Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe brought to an end decades of Americo-Liberian rule.

TOLBERT WAS assassinated and thirteen members of his government executed as the indigenous-led rule of Doe pledged to return Liberia to civilian rule in 1981, rid the country of rampant corruption and improved lives for the impoverished.

DESPITE EARLY reservations about the bloody nature of the military takeover, the international community led by the United States of America pumped millions of dollars into Liberia under Doe. The U.S. looking to minimize communist movements in Africa doled out between $500 million and $1.3 billion during the 1980s from the U.S. through direct and indirect channels.

DOE’S REIGN HOWEVER was marred by a wave of secret killings, a clampdown on the opposition and a series of constitutional reforms in 1984 which shortened the presidential term and rid the nation of a one-party state label. A year later, Doe would contest the elections and be elected as Liberia’s first indigenous president in 1985.

THE IRONY BECAME as visible as Liberia’s past with Doe who had come to office pledging to rid the nation of corruption, nepotism and one-party state soon found himself resisting opposition threats similar to what Tolbert endured that led to his death on April 12, 1980.

WHAT FOLLOWED after Doe’s contentious ’85 elections was a wave of coup attempts, and wailings from opponents crying foul over corruption and human-rights abuses under Doe’s watch.

ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1989, an opposition bloc of Doe’s opponents rallied behind a rebel movement led by Charles Taylor, a former head of the country’s General Services Agency who fled to the U.S. and was jailed by the U.S. government, following a court case in which Doe’s government accused Taylor of embezzlement. Taylor mysteriously escaped a maximum security prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

TAYLOR AND HIS TROOPS provided the perfect antidote to Doe but it did not take long for strains to become visible. Killing of innocent and ordinary Liberians by rebels who took up arms under the guise of embarking on a quest to liberate Liberia from Doe.

DOE WOULD finally fall but not to Taylor; but to Prince Johnson, who had broken away from Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia to form his own Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL).

DOE’S DEATH HOWEVER was only the beginning as one rebel group formation led to another and another.

FOR DECADES, LIBERIA had been dominated by one party, the True Whig Party as the indigenous cried foul as Americo-Liberians dominated the political establishment.

SADLY MUCH of the same vices that led Liberia down a slippery slope of chaos, confusion and a brutal civil war appear to be looming.

JUSTICE STILL remains elusive for those who cannot afford while offering protection for those protected by the establishment.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, CORRUPTION as it was for Roye, Tolbert, Doe and others remains entrenched in our daily lives, wreaking havoc in not just the government but at the lower levels as well in all strata of society

THE PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT given the embattled but suspended head of the National Port Authority, Matilda Parker and her comptroller, Christiana Kpabar Paelay, accused of embezzling nearly a million United States dollars earmarked for dredging of the port, during their appearance before the Court is symptomatic of the line of demarcation between the well-heeled and the poverty stricken.

MANY POOR PEOPLE are in jail because they cannot make 50 dollars bail, yet Ms. Parker was able to avoid one night in jail by posting more than one million dollars bond. She had been alerted by people close to power that she would be arrested and thus she escaped the dragnet and was able to appear in court dressed as if ready for a Saturday afternoon matinee.

THE PAIR AVOIDED going to prison by outsmarting court officers who were prepared to serve writs of arrests at their homes early in the morning. Their escape is in stark contrast to previous similar cases where officials accused of corruption were handcuffed, picked up from their homes and thrown into jail. Albert Bropleh the former LTA boss is a case in point, and also Moses Wogbeh, the former FDA Managing Director.

ALL THIS AMID a damning indictment by the U.S. human rights report about various lapses in the Liberian government whose leader has greeted the report with a strong objection.

THIS WEEK, U.S. Ambassador accredited to Liberia, Deborah R. Malac, defended the report, stating that the U.S. is comfortable with what is obtained in the report.

PRESIDENT SIRLEAF had taken issue with the report she says was based on local media reports and did not paint an accurate picture of Liberia. The U. S. envoy retorted that she really did not know what President Sirleaf was talking about.

ALL THIS amid the recent trafficking of young Liberian girls to Lebanon and a wave of gender-based violence mostly against women

SOME 168 YEARS after independence and ten years after the current administration came into office, Liberians are still struggling to make ends meet, still massively engulfed in rampant corruption that Barclay, Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Taylor and Sirleaf pledge to rid Liberia off but still showing no remorse for the thousands of Liberians who lost their lives in a senseless liberation struggle that has yielded nothing but more of the same.

THE CURRENT HIGH LEVEL of officials’ corruption is also happening even after the international community intervene, again, through the GEMAP, with the goal to ring fence Liberia’s revenues, promote financial discipline and end corruption, making former Senate Pro Tempore Cletus Wotorson to argue in 2010 that he did not see what GEMAP actually did for Liberia.

IN 2010, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international stakeholders offered post-war Liberia a new lease on Life with debt reliefs in total amounts of more than four billion dollars.

AT THE TIME, it was widely expected that the relief would allow Liberia to secure additional financing, in initially modest amounts, to help deliver critically needed services and infrastructure necessary for Liberia’s future prosperity.”

MR. JOHN LIPSKY, First Deputy Managing Director at the IMF at the time said on a visit to Monrovia in 2010. “Liberia’s own economic and social policies, political stability, and above all continued peace and security will be of paramount importance for delivering the better Liberia that we all hope for.

BUT LIKE LIBERIA under Roye, the relief failed to improve the lives of the Liberian people. Electricity remains a challenge for many, the education system in the President’s own words is in a mess and millions of dollars in investments have failed to make life better for many still languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder.

TODAY, THE DEBTS have begun piling up again with Liberia again knocking on the doors of the world to consider a new debt relief because of the recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. The current administration could leave behind a significant debt burden, furthering strangling an already broken economic system. The accumulation of debt and the misdirected spending of it comes at a time when American Ambassador Deborah R. Malac cautioned the Liberian Government, “Do not spend what it does not have.”

SADLY, After 168 YEARS in existence, the recurring nightmare of ‘rampant’ corruption, nepotism, economic mismanagement, financial indiscipline, hardship, rising prices and ever increasing expensive way of life, it appears Liberia is no further from leaving its worst behind by repeatedly taking pages from its rugged past while apparently deliberately refusing to shed the painful memories lingering somewhere in a space and moment that time has apparently forgotten. WILL 2017 GENERAL and presidential elections be a true watershed moment for positive? Culled fron

Ellen Johnson

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