Saturday, 5 October 2013

Liberia - The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here

West Africa is a fascinating place.  With a population of around 300 million people - living right next door to Europe, I can't help thinking that West Africa will be a true test of Europe's commitment to the world, if not a major partner in Europe's future prosperity.  We tend to overlook West Africa and think about markets across the Atlantic or in Far East Asia - but our ties to West African countries go back a long way - a chequered history of repression, blame and guilt.

I've blogged about West Africa before - when I researched Togo, exactly three years ago and I'm really looking forward to my next virtual journey to this part of the world, as I blog about Liberia over the coming weeks.  With a population of about 4 million, Liberia is a small fish in a big pond, but it holds an important symbolic place in the hearts and minds of all West Africans, as the first West African 'nation' to rule itself.  Liberia became an independent nation in 1847 - 110 years before Ghana became the second West African nation to gain independence. 

Liberian school girl by Ken Harper
Ten years ago this month, Liberia emerged from years of civil war that bankrupted the economy, killed a quarter of a million people and left the country's infrastructure in ruins.  Whilst a lot has been done to rebuild the country, Liberia still has the second-lowest per capita income in West Africa, being slightly ahead of Niger.  The current government faces a whole host of challenges, as it draws international criticism for its failure to address corruption and restore social services to the Liberian people. 

I've already had my first 'myth' about Liberia exploded - ie. the idea that Liberia was established as some kind of benevolent act of charity, funded by the United States.  It's true that many supporters of the American Colonisation society had a genuine desire to do the right thing, by establishing (what was then) a colony for freed slaves back in the 'homeland', on the West African coast. 

The reality is that the freed slaves were born in North America and were ill-prepared to survive in the tropical jungles of West Africa.  Was the establishment of Liberia really an act of kindness in the pursuit of Liberty, or an attempt to 'cleanse' the United States of freed blacks, who could unsettle the slave population of the Southern states?

Local radio station by Ken Harper
The survivors of this attempt at (re)colonisation must have been a tough bunch and, until modern times, Monrovia has remained the centre of Americo-Liberian culture. 

The country's motto is quite revealing - The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here - which means, 'we' are not from 'here', but from 'elsewhere'.  Liberia found itself in the unusual position of an African nation colonised by North American Africans.  Apart from the population that was 'brought here' - like most West African nations, Liberia already had a complex ethnic make-up - the addition of Americo-Liberians was another layer on top of an existing tapestry of cultures, languages and traditions that had been there for centuries.

The Americo-Liberians of Monrovia dominated Liberian history until 1980, when the tribal people of the hinterland rose up in a bloody revolution that saw Samuel Doe, of the Krahn tribe, take control of the country.  Doe unleashed an ethnically motivated campaign against the Mano and Gio tribes of Nimba county and was ousted in an equally bloody take-over by Charles Taylor, who got a lot of his support from the restless north-eastern part of the country.  A civil war ensued, which lasted until the mid-90's before settling into an uneasy 'peace' as Taylor held firm to the reins of control.

Figure in stairwell by Ken Harper
Just last week convicted of war crimes in relation to his meddling with Sierra Leone, Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003 and was later extradited to the Hague to await sentencing for the murders, rapes and acts of terrorism that he has been found guilty of aiding and abetting. 

Liberia's current leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is one of only 17 women in the world who currently lead national governments.  She is one of the two female leaders in Africa - the other one being Joyce Banda of Malawi.  President Johnson-Sirleaf very much represents the emergence of civil society in Liberia, especially in relation to the peace movements, mostly led by women, that emerged in the early years of the 21st century.  Tasked with rebuilding a country in ruins, Liberians have managed to sustain the mood for peace and make the first steps in the direction of economic recovery. 

Image credits:

A quick search for Liberia on Flickr currently brings up the photos of Ken Harper, a college professor at Syracuse university - originally from Indiana!  I wanted to highlight some of Ken's photos.  All photos were taken as part of the Together Liberia project.

Thanks to Ken for sharing them with us using the Creative Commons License
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