Behind Liberia's sudden upheaval

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The coup in Liberia has shattered the tranquility of what had been one of black Africa's most stable enclaves. Until now, there has been continuity of government since freed slaves from the United States founded black Africa's first independent republic back in 1847 .

This early US connection with Liberia has made the country an outpost unfailingly sympathetic toward the US for nearly a century and a half. It is a strategically useful toehold on the bulge of West Africa into the North Atlantic. The US has been able to have there communications facilities and a staging post for its civilian and military air traffic. (This does not mean there are US bases there.)

Whether or not this no will change remains to be seen. Liberia was a latecomer in establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. But there is little doubt that the USSR would welcome any opening in the present turmoil to increase its local influence in West Africa at US expense.

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Liberia is unique in black Africa. It is the continent's only country that has never know European colonial rule. When the United Nations was founded at the end of World War II, Liberia and Ethiopia (which was briefly under Italian colonial rule) were its only two black African members.

Yet the men who have run Liberia since the country was founded in the first half of the 19th century were not strictly indigenous Liberations. They were freed black slaves from the US, whose return to the African continent was funded by US philanthropies ans the US federal government during the early twinges of the American conscience against the institution of slavery.

Under the former slaves and their descendants, Liberia has hardly been a paragon of democracy. Yet the absence of a white European presence running Liberia lessened the pressure for revolutionary change or revolt. Hence the long duration of the oligarchy, or rule by a few persons.

Yet this version of minority government may be crumbling with the assasination of incumbent President William R. Tolbert. He was gunned down in the early hours of April 12 in his official residence by a group of insurgents from his own armed forces, led by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, a man in his late 20s.

It still has to be definitively proven, however, whether the coup means a complete transfer of power from the oligarchy of Liberians with US ancestry -- probably no more than 10 percent of the population -- to the indigenous Africans who, in recent decades, felt increasingly they were not getting a fair deal.

The ouster of the Tolbert government still could prove to be no more than a rebellion by a younger generation -- one with roots to a past American experience but frustrated by an old guard's continuing monopoly of power.

Tensions against Mr. Tolbert had been been building up for exactly a year. On April 14, 1979, riots in Monrovia, the capital, against proposed food-price increases, turned into a demonstration of political protest. Over 40 people were killed. Mr. Tolbert blamed the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), founded in New York in 1975 and in which the moving force was Gabriel Baccus Mathews.

The annual summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, under Mr. Tolbert's presidency, later in 1979 encouraged the restoration of calm. But by early 1980, things were on the boil again.

Mr. Tolbert apparently had recognized the need to open up Liberian politics. He permitted the registration of Mr. Mathew's new People Progressive Party (PPP) as a legal party in opposition to his own True Whig Party. (The latter had kept Liberia a de-facto one-party state since (1969).

But in the wake of a PPP call for a general strike to overthrow the government, Mr. Mathews and his top associates were arrested last month on charges of treason and sedition, and the PPP was banned.

Sergeant Doe and the coup leaders have freed Mr. Mathews and he has been appointed foreigh minister in the new government. Three other PPP members also are in the Cabinet of 15, which includes five military officers.

According to Reuters, three of Mr. Tolbert's ministers have been retained in the new Cabinet. Sergeant Doe has been appointed head of state.

Now in jail or being rounded up are Mr. Tolbert's Cabinet ministers and inner circle. Reuter reported from Monrovia that they would be put on trial before a six-man military tribunal starting April 14. The local radio said the charges would include high treason, rampant corruption, and gross violation of human rights.

SALIENT FACTS Population -- 1,733,000 (1978). Area -- 43,000 square miles (roughly that of Tennessee). Economy -- based mainly on iron ore, rubber, agriculture.

Adult literacy rate -- 15% (1974).

History -- 1822 -- first settled by freed US slaves under auspices of American Colonization Society.

1847 -- becomes black Africa's first independent republic, under US sponsorship.

1920s -- introduction of rubber industry by Firestone Corp.

1926 -- Firestone leases 1 million acres for 99 years for $5 million.

1951 -- First iron mine opened at Bomi.

1943 -- William V. S. Tubman becomes president.

1971 -- Tubman dies; William R. Tolbert succeeds as president. Form of government -- Until now, run by civilian oligarchy recruited from descendants of freed US slaves, although these are now no more than 10% of population. Currency -- US dollar.

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