Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lessons from Liberia (1)

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

 By Kingsley Omose

After the last civil war that resulted in the removal of Charles Taylor from power I made several visits to Liberia, and after each visit it always amazed me that despite gaining independence in the 19th century and being one of the oldest independent nations in Africa the level of development in Monrovia and surrounding counties was nothing to write about... read more

Yes, Liberia had just gone through the brutal reign of Charles Taylor and a long running civil war the consequences of which were evident in the level of destruction brought to bear on human lives and properties and that had also destabilized neighboring countries, yet there was little to show for over 130 years of independence.

From the Roberts International airport which looked more like one of the small domestic airports in Nigeria, to the road network leading into Monrovia and within the city, the level of development within and outside the capital city, and the high levels of illiteracy and poverty amongst its peoples, it was evident that something was clearly wrong.

In my quest for answers to the reasons for the stunted development and growth of Liberia and Liberians, a country rich in natural resources and having one of the largest rubber plantations in the world, I spoke to many Liberians, rich and poor, educated and non-educated, and cutting across many sectors of the society.

I also spoke to some non-Liberians residing in Monrovia and read books about the history of this nation including its constitution and despite having an intriguing origin and being independent for such a long time my findings from these efforts showed that Liberia was actually a nation of two peoples, i.e. the settlers and the natives.

The records show that prior to the so-called granting of independence, present day Liberia was occupied by various ethnic nationalities until the United States of America in search of land to resettle freed black slaves acquired land in that territory for resettlement purposes and began shipping freed black slaves to their new home.

Arriving to meet indigenous African peoples living in conditions that looked to them barbaric, and who they felt were not as exposed and educated as them, these freed slaves proceeded to build a two tier societal structure that almost replicated what they had experienced whist under slavery in the United States of America.

You would have expected these freed slave settlers to seek to build an inclusive society by sharing their developmental expertise with the African people they came across in their new found home, but the reverse was the case as they used their superior skills to design a political, economic and social system that reinforced their supremacy.

For those natives who wanted to ascend to settler status, adoption of settler names, education and marriage into settler families were some of the high wire acts that had to be implemented to become part of the ruling class but even at that access to political power at the very top was reserved for only those from pure breed settler families.

Just reading through the Liberian constitution and understanding the awesome powers that had been reserved for the nation's President drove home the importance of why the Liberian settlers wanted that position reserved for one of their own, and why for the Liberian natives resort to unconstitutional means was the easiest way to gaining power.

This was precisely what Master Sgt. Doe did when he overthrew the Tolbert government shedding a lot of human blood in the process and became the first Liberian native to rule over the nation of Liberia supposedly to use the immense powers of that position to uplift the status of his people after over 100 years of oppression.

Other than elevating some few Liberian natives to juicy positions in his government, Master Sgt. Doe and his chosen few proceeded to doing what other Liberian settler presidents had done, which was to take care of themselves and perpetuate their hold on power, while Charles Taylor and others who had taken up arms started the struggle on behalf of the Liberian settles to return to the status quo.

Many have complained of the brutality of the struggle to unseat Master Sgt. Doe and the harsh manner in which he was killed, but I believe this was to drive home the message of deterring any descendant of Liberian natives who would dare to contemplate ceasing control of the reins of power in the way and manner that the late Doe had done.

There is nothing to indicate that other than the symbolism of having a Liberian settler descendant in the person of Charles Taylor rule over their nation, that the lot of Liberians descended from settler families or even the lot of Liberians in general improved during this period until he was driven from the seat of power.

Even as recent as the last elections between Ms. Seliaf Johnson and George Opong Weah, the struggle between Liberians descended from settlers and natives again reared its ugly head and could have sparked crisis but for the presence of United Nations and ECOMOG forces, and remains a time bomb which can always be exploited by evil mined politicians to retain power.

Many other African countries especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa including Nigeria have variants of the Liberian problem and this to a large extent explains why Africa is referred to as the dark continent where crisis is the order of the day and millions of people are impoverished whilst the elites fight over control of political power.

"We must be the change we want to see in the world."  - Mahatma Gandhi

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