Back to Stopdown home page, click here
Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves who took control of the native African people there, denying them civil rights and exploiting them economically, just as white colonists did elsewhere in Africa. In a 1980 coup, indigenous (native) Liberians ousted a government of "settlers" -- those of American descent comprising about 5% of the population -- and violence reigned after that, with tribal factions battling for power.
Below: a photo of ministers from the government brought down in 1980, as they are about to be executed. (Photo by Larry C. Price for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.)
|The New York Times, Sept 3, 2003
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 The New York Times Company
A few nights ago, a well-dressed man from the Foreign Ministry walked out on the veranda of the Mamba Point Hotel, ordered a beer, and proceeded to explain what happened here.
The hotel looks out on the Atlantic Ocean, over a beach where many bodies are buried, and into the horizon where three American warships bob in the mist. Here is where the diplomats, aid workers and reporters drawn to the disaster of Liberia gather to discuss, over drinks and dinner, the death and destruction around them.
All of Liberia's troubles, said the man from the ministry, all the death and misery, were the fault of the aborigines.
The aborigines, said the man from the ministry. When, led by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, they overthrew the government in 1980, the world turned upside down, the bottom on the top.
A few days later, one of Liberia's most prominent lawyers begged to differ. ''It was the settlers who, in many ways, brought the destruction upon themselves,'' the lawyer said.
The settlers? The word has a certain resonance in Africa, where most people use it to describe the white Europeans who colonized the continent and created apartheid in South Africa.
The man from the ministry, an urbane descendant of a former president, and the distinguished lawyer, born in a little village without American roots, had divided their nation in two. This divide, they explained, ran so deep that it was like a geologic fault in the earth. It was the source of the wars that have ruined Liberia.
By settlers, the lawyer meant the American Liberians, whose ancestors are the freed slaves who founded this republic in 1847. They have names like Scott, Dennis, Roberts, and Payne. They belong to Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist churches, and a dozen other Christian denominations. Some are members of the Masonic Order established here in 1851. Today they represent 4 or 5 percent of Liberia's three million people.
By aborigines, the man from the ministry meant almost everybody else in Liberia, the people who were here first. They belong to the Kpelle, Krahn, Kru, Gola and Mandingo tribes, and a dozen others. Half are Christians, a fifth are Muslims. Some follow traditional African rites and religions; some belong to secret societies called Poro and Sande.
The settlers made two sets of laws: a civil law for the civilized, an indigenous law for everyone else.
From 1930 to 1935, the United States and Britain refused to have diplomatic relations with Liberia because of its sale of human labor -- slaves -- to Spanish colonists in Africa. Civil rights, including the right to vote, were not granted to indigenous Liberians until 1963.
''The population was coming together in the 1970's,'' said Gloria Musu-Scott, 50, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in Liberia. ''There was intermarriage. Very few of the settler population could say they had pure blood. Now, I have a lot of respect for them. They came here with nothing and established something. It was like they transported the United States to Africa.''
Intermarriage did not dissolve disunion. ''I married a Mandingo girl and her father threw her out,'' said Nat Richardson, 57, a Liberian geophysicist whose great-great-grandfather was a brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who burned Atlanta in the Civil War.
Nor did it solve inequality. ''There are very few people who can say, ''I'm an American-Liberian,' '' said Hilary A. Dennis, 58, president of the nation's biggest shipping company. ''The problem has been one of have and have-not.''
Those tensions grew as the era of colonialism ended and tribal pride and passions rose against the power of the settler community.
They exploded with a murderous 1980 coup led by an ''aborigine,'' Sergeant Doe, of the Krahn tribe. The ''settler'' president, William Tolbert, was killed in his bedroom, and 13 government ministers were tied to telephone poles and shot on the beach.
They raged on as the warlord Charles G. Taylor began fighting his way to power in 1989. (Around that time, Mr. Taylor, who has said he is a child of intermarriage, changed his middle name from McArthur to Ghankay, which means warrior in Gola.)
The tensions never left. Mr. Taylor, after bringing 14 years of civil war to Liberia, stepped down as president last month, leaving much of the country in the hands of rebels: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a largely Mandingo force backed by Guinea and Ivory Coast, and the Movement for a Democratic Liberia, also backed by Ivory Coast, and dominated by Krahn tribesmen. The rebels and their political rivals will try to share power in a transitional government to be installed next month. All parties are haggling and maneuvering for position.
''And this is what has led Liberia to self-annihilation,'' said Chief Justice Musu-Scott, whose court and chambers were looted by government soldiers three weeks ago. ''This is what our selfishness, our lack of nationhood, our lack of compassion for our fellow citizens has brought our country to. This is what we have done for our country. Our existence as a nation is threatened.''
The rancor and sadness were banished Saturday night at K.D.'s, an open-air roadhouse on the edge of Monrovia, which reopened two weeks ago after a tenuous cease-fire came to town. It was dark, too dark to see any ethnic or tribal differences on the faces of the people there.
The beer was cold, the barbecue hot. The band began looking for a beat, and found it in a groove somewhere between Nigerian high-life and Jamaican reggae. A singer began mocking Mr. Taylor, who has fled to Nigeria:
People running.....Running their mouths......About Ghankay.....Ghankay running.
Everybody laughed, and when the chorus kicked in and reprised, everybody sang along:
No more running ......No more fighting .........No more war ..........War no more.
Back to Stopdown home page,
Back to Magazine home page, click here