Liberia: From oasis of freedom to ongoing civil war

Freed American slaves formed Africa's first republic, but its ideals have yet to be realized

The faded, splintering sign on the way into the capital city of Monrovia reads like a broken promise: "Welcome to Liberia. The Love of Liberty brought us here."

It hearkens from the hundreds of freed slaves – many of them the mulatto sons and daughters of American slave owners who sailed across the Atlantic 180 years ago and arrived on the shores of this place they named Liberia – for the liberty it promised.

But these days, freedom goes to those with the biggest guns – like the young soldier with bloodshot eyes and an AK-47 manning the checkpoint leading to the city.

The first independent republic on the African continent has proved a big disappointment in the departments of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The exclusionist society created here by those who had suffered terrible exclusion themselves set the tone, say observers, for much of what has come since, including years of civil war.

"Liberia was created, in theory, as an asylum for respect, dignity, and protection of those whose rights were deprived," says Taiwan Gongloe, a prominent human rights lawyer, whose ancestors were indigenous Liberians. "But it was never that. It was an illusive dream. We have never been about equal rights, and this irony has seeped into our land and poisoned us."

The former slaves called themselves Americo-Liberians. They founded colonies named Virginia, Maryland, and Providence; christened their capital Monrovia in honor of President James Monroe; built a model of Washington's Capitol Hill; and penned a declaration of independence reminiscent of America's own. They then put on bowler hats, white gloves, and morning coats; hoisted a flag that looked much like the Stars and Stripes; and began ruling in the only way they knew how: with oppression.

"We cannot blame the Americans for teaching us slavery," argues Mary Brunell, a community leader in Liberia, born of mixed parentage. "Divisiveness and exclusion is something that can be found all over Africa. As for America – we could have taken the best from them. We took the worst. We could have risen above slavery, but we didn't, and that is the crux of our problems."

The indigenous population, which made up 99 percent of the inhabitants in the new Liberian Republic, were put to work as laborers on Americo-Liberian plantations, or even sold off to other African countries. The indigenous could not vote, marry Americo-Liberians, or attend their schools. They were barred from the best hospitals, the good jobs, the front pews in church.

In time, some reforms were instituted. Voting rights were expanded, property was more equally divided, and by the middle of the 20th century, intermarriage was allowed. But it took a bloody coup in 1980 to really change the balance here, bringing to power a young, illiterate Army sergeant from the indigenous Krahn tribe, Samuel Doe, and with him a whole new governing class and a new constitution.

But power was still currency, and Mr. Doe was brutally killed by a group of rebels. The 1989-1996 civil war ensued, and ended with the election of President Charles Taylor – a man who often boasts of his mixed Americo-Liberian and indigenous parentage – and yet another new clique of insiders, who still rule today.

The infrastructure and economy of the country have been so wrecked by the years of war and mismanagement that nearly everyone is deprived off access to healthcare, roads, electricity, and employment.

Today, the lines of segregation have shifted. "The problem of this country has historically been the policy of alienation and segregation, whether by ethnicity or class," says Abraham Mitchell, an opposition party founder. "Now we have indigenous and Americo-Liberians working together for their own personal gains – against others of different classes."

The current escalating civil war, in which a new group of rebels is challenging the old rebels-cum-government, is part of this same historical cycle, argues Mr. Mitchell. It is the same feelings of exclusion that fuel the discontent. "We will never get out of this cycle unless we bring in a government with a national agenda," he says. "And this is something we, like many other African countries, still seem to know nothing about."

Liberians say they have a special relationship with the US and are very much alike. "Everyone here wants to go to America, be like an American," explains Cyril Allen, chairman of the ruling National Patriotic Party. "We came here from your country, we studied at your universities, learned from your Peace Corps," he explains. "It was ... the US on which we modeled ourselves."

"We do have a very similar constitution," notes Jemima, a local businesswoman whose grandparents came from North Carolina. Wary of criticizing the government, she will not give her family name. "The only difference is we haven't fully implemented it the way you have," she says.

In a room outside Mr. Allen's National Ruling Party office sits a throne-like chair emblazoned with his party's motto: "Above all, the people." Tape is stretched across the chair so no one can sit down.

"It is not really for the people," says a guard. "We just like to say that."

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