The Ruin of Nations

A rebel loyal to the warlord Charles Taylor poses next to the painted skull of a Krahn ethnic soldier of President Samuel Doe in Monrovia, May 15, 1990. (Photo: Pascal Guyot / AFP-Getty Images)

This article has been reposted to bring together what was originally intended to be a two-part article. -Eds.

"Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained."
—Andrew Roberts, "Waterloo, June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe"

The Destabilization of West Africa

It all began in 1787 when Britain set up the Province of Freedom in Sierra Leone, on the peninsula, which became a haven for freed slaves from Britain, Jamaica, the United States, and Canada. Britain was a knowledgeable empire builder with considerable experience in walking on thin threads. And Sierra Leone would escape from becoming the origin of the brutal rebel war that began in Liberia in 1989, which could have happened if the educated freedmen were allowed to form a monarchy to rule the hinterland people in Sierra Leone.

That was exactly what happened in neighboring Liberia when the American Colonization Society (A.C.S.) founded that nation in 1822. According to Alan Huffman, in "Tumult and Transition in '"Little America'" (Smithsonian Magazine, 2000), the idea was first proposed in 1800, "following a thwarted Virginia slave uprising that resulted in the hanging of some 35 slaves."

"Virginia delegates called upon President Thomas Jefferson to purchase lands 'where persons obnoxious to the laws or dangerous to the peace of society may be removed'".The A.C.S. thought the Province of Freedom in Sierra Leone was a novel idea. "Jefferson initially proposed a joint effort with Great Britain, which had already started a colony for former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but rising tensions that would eventually culminate with the War of 1812 stalled Jefferson's proposal," said Huffman.

This would be the plan that Francis Scott Key, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay awakened four years later under the A.C.S., which was strongly supported by James Monroe. (Monroe would later become president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. Between these years, the first shipment of freed slaves landed in Liberia to form a city that would be named after him, Monrovia.) But the A.C.S. either was shortsighted or had plotted an attempted genocide against the Africans.

For "when an outsider comes into a new ecological system, even if he is more skilled he does not necessarily function as effectively as those who have familiarized themselves with the environment over centuries; and the newcomer is likely to look more ridiculous if he is too arrogant to realize that he has something to learn from the 'natives'," said Walter Rodney, in "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa."

In Sierra Leone, the British oversaw the Province of Freedom through the Sierra Leone Company. But unlike the British, the United States brokered a very bad deal with the aborigines in Liberia. The United States was not concerned with the safety of the freedmen the A.C.S. dumped on this small piece of land wedged between English and French colonial territories, — present day Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast.

It seems that for the A.C.S. the specter of freed slaves revolting in America was the main reason behind the resettlement plan. Referring to Sen. John Tyler, Adam Hochschild writes, "Like most Southern politicians of the era, he was frightened by the specter of millions of freed slaves and their descendants harboring threatening dreams of equality."

Indeed, the strong survival instinct and high fertility rate of the African was increasing the black population at an alarming rate, which spurred the need to get rid of them. Thus, this piece of land, which the United States named Liberia, became a hot bed for trouble from the outset when the A.C.S. quickly dumped the content of its vessels and left the freedmen to fend for themselves. Could it be that they chose that area because of its known unfriendliness to Westerners? More or less, it seems they did not expect the repatriated freed slaves to survive.

Indeed, almost all the freedmen from the first vessel died, including the three agents that went with them. The survivors were evacuated to Freetown. But the A.C.S. brought more, assured that their presumption was correct. Why would they keep bringing more freedmen if the first barely survived? Once again, the innate survival instinct of the African would prove itself on the land the Europeans and other Westerners had labeled "the white man's grave" when he thrived.

But the settlers, some of whom were highly educated before coming to Liberia, turned on their own kind and, for one and half centuries, subjugated the aborigines who had kindheartedly accepted them. The settlers carried out the subjugation of the aborigines with heavy-handed support from the United States. To make matters worse, an American company by the name of Firestone returned to Liberia and compounded subjugation with slave labor on what became the world's biggest rubber plantation. These cruel treatments victimized the aborigines for over a century. This is best articulated by Howard W. French in "A Continent for the Taking":

"As they settled the land, the Americo-Liberians fondly strove to reproduce the only model they knew, the plantation society of the American South. Affecting top hats and morning coats, the freedmen ruled Africa's first republic in a clannish and conservative manner, established their own curiously paternalistic brand of apartheid, systematically excluding so-called aborigines from positions of privilege and power."

There is a parallel between the A.C.S. and the International Society of the Congo. The former is the origin of the destabilization of West Africa and the latter, the destabilization of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Angola. Both organizations were deceptive; capitalists' interest cloaked in humanitarian reason. Both used forced labor on rubber plantations. The United States probably did not colonize Liberia because of the possible international criticism the action could have mustered — it would have been quite a story for a nation that had just won its independence. But it sure accomplished the same goal in Liberia as any other colonial power in Africa.

In 1930, a League of Nations report exposed the forced labor practices in Liberia by Firestone. The United States' relation with Liberia was consistent with every other colonial power in post independence Africa: capitalist imperialism.

Any society that is pushed around too long and too heavy-handedly by its leaders will become a time bomb.

Inhuman treatment of the aborigines in Liberia by Americo-Liberian settlers created the destabilization force for the Economic Community of the West African States (E.C.O.W.A.S.) region. The rice price hike of 1979 is a secondary reason to the most potent political one that had set Liberia on a springboard for war. Even though the rebel war affected Liberia and Sierra Leone the most, their neighbors shared some of the burden. The media reported little skirmishes in Guinea here and there, Sierra Leone pointed fingers at Burkina Faso for staging beachheads for rebel forces, and the diplomatic corps implicated the Ivory Coast for sponsoring rebels against Samuel Doe. Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a long time dictator in the Ivory Coast loathed Samuel Doe for killing William Tolbert, his daughter's father-in-law. Nigeria and Ghana carried on their shoulders heavy financial and military burdens. Refugee crises plagued almost every country in the E.C.O.W.A.S. region. Tarty Teh, in "Still Stupid After All These Years," explains:

"Dr. Patrick Seyon was the water boy for the band of Americos who first coalesced as A.C.D.L. (Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia) which, according to Mr. Greaves, ''operated on two tracks and at two levels'' from Washington, D.C. Apparently Dr. Seyon was aware of only the track that led to the U.S. Capitol Hill where he was led to deliver a testimony against an elected government of President Samuel Doe. As I remember his testimony in early 1990, it was Dr. Seyon's belief — echoed later by Mr. Francis Afonso Dennis, former Liberian ambassador to Washington in the lost dispensation — which democracy was on the horizon in Liberia in 1980 when the People's Redemption Council (P.R.C.) overthrew the 130-year-old Americo Liberian Empire. It was that apparently slow-rising democracy that was aborted by the coup that removed the last Americo president (before Charles Taylor) from office."

The United States had also used Liberia for military purposes. Liberia had been a beachhead for the Pentagon for many years. It also had become very important to the United States because U.S. currency was the medium of exchange there. Evidently, this small country thousands of miles away from mainland United States had become a destabilizing ground for U.S. dollars. But it seems that the military importance of Liberia was so compelling then, that the United States could afford to have its currency thrown around in Liberia by what Washington referred to as shady business people and terrorists. And rumor has it that Washington failed to persuade Liberia's president to surrender the use of U.S. dollars through diplomatic means. And that the C.I.A. was behind Doe's bloody coup to overthrow Tolbert.

That could not be true in my opinion, though it is worth looking into. Liberia had gone wrong when the first A.C.S. ship, the Elizabeth, left the shores of the United States in 1820. There is no doubt that the United States was later also concerned with Soviet influence on an inexperience Doe 161 years later. The United States provided $500 million in aid to the Doe government between 1981 and 1985.

As quoted in Huffman's article, Chester Crocker, assistance secretary of state for African affairs under then President Ronald Regan argued, "The United States had an obligation to Liberia. It had vested intelligence and commercial interests and an infrastructure there, and cutting off aid could lead to regional destabilization and increasing Soviet and Libyan involvement."

No wonder that President Reagan's secretary of state, George P. Shultz went to Liberia in 1985 to endorse the first presidential election following the coupe and expressed the following regret after meeting Doe, as quoted by French:

"Perhaps I made a wrong career choice, if it was people like that I was going to meet. Doe was unintelligible."

Doe had outright stolen the election in 1985. And the United States' support of Doe regardless of that fact was one example of realpolitik by a Western nation in Africa.

This pattern of supporting dictators and despots for strategic or other interests is not a new phenomenon. Realpolitik has been the policy of Western nations for Africa in the global spheres of political, ideological, and economical influence. Thus, the insidious manner in which Washington settled its currency crisis in Liberia made the currency rumor compelling even without empirical evidence. Especially since Doe changed the currency to Doe dollars, which by the end of the year was as worthless as a roll of toilet paper. Even seasoned researchers will be to find an explanation for this unprecedented change of currency following the coup.

Like many other despots in Africa, Doe protected his power base by cleansing the political atmosphere. He killed not only his supercilious political rivals but also his comrades in the struggle to overthrow Tolbert. A man such as Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa (a young soldier, who with Doe staged the 1980 coup that overthrew Tolbert), with his known valor, all he needed was a desire to take power from Doe and nothing could have stopped him from trying. A fair threat as far as Doe was concerned. Eliminating his friends, now political enemies, created peace of mind for Doe. He needed to cling to power.

The Destabilization of Central and West Africa

But the rebel war, which had begun in Liberia, would spread to Sierra Leone. It is hard to understand how Taylor, who was awaiting extradition to Liberia, escaped from a Massachusetts prison facility (so the United States government claims). Worse yet, he became the head of the serpent that slithered across West Africa—a rebel leader that had much authority and an arsenal of sophisticated weapons to destabilize the whole region.

This induces further pondering over the role of Washington in the rebel conflict in Liberia. What is more is the following irony: Taylor's fellowship later with one of Washington's enemies in the person of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya. Many believe that this strange relationship prolonged the civil war in Liberia for the 15 years it lasted.

Did Taylor unknowingly become a double agent who Washington would later divorce and want to put down, which probably added further fuel to the fire of civil war? Of course, Taylor was mystified to be freed from jail. But Taylor's actions and involvement with Qaddafi probably mystified the C.I.A. even more. But the people of the region seemed to be mystified the most; the United States' possible involvement in the conflict was hardly discussed. The reason is simple: the United States and Libya could not have advanced a common cause through a common agent.

If Taylor was indeed a double agent who enjoyed sponsorship from Washington, and later Tripoli, how did he do it? If Taylor had been blindfolded by Washington's covert operatives to maintain secrecy, he may have found it easier when he turned to Libya for help. As well, it was probably too late if Washington had thought twice about its leadership choice in Taylor for Liberia. The confusion about Taylor's freedom from a jail in the United States is quixotically explained by John-Peter Pharm in "Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State." Pharm was either ill informed of the truth or his account was in accord with a possible Washington cover up. He is an American who happened to be an international diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea at the time:

"Taylor was arrested by U.S. marshals in Somerville, Massachusetts, on May 24, 1984, on the authority of the extradition treaty that the U.S. had with Liberia. He then spent 15 months in prison while former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark tried to fight his extradition. When a federal court ruled that sufficient evidence existed to support the Liberian government's request for his return, Taylor escaped from the Plymouth House of Corrections, where he was being held, in September 1985. According to one report, Taylor convinced a guard to bend the rules at the facility to allow him to pass from the north wing, where he was held, to the east wing, telling the guard he wanted to play cards with a friend. Once there, he used a hacksaw blade to cut through an iron window bar and, using bed sheets tied together, he and four other inmates climbed down from the second floor, scaled a fence, and ran into the nearby woods."

This makes it seem as if correction facilities supply hacksaws to prisoners in the United States. It is naive to disseminate information that Taylor simply told his guard he wanted to play cards with a friend in jail only to escape afterward. Tarty Teh's essay, "Still Stupid After All These Years," may help us in making a logical conclusion as to what happened:

"But that was then and this is now. The plan that the ACDL put forth called for recruiting Charles Taylor from prison to execute it. Taylor had a neat dictum for his mission: 'The only good Doe is a dead Doe.' In the end, President Doe and 220,000 other Liberians died. Harry Greaves spent much of that period of gruesome death and destruction on vacation from his original plan after his initial elation, expressed in dazzling prose. All that is part of our recent history. We have since screamed at one another at conferences about how to fix what was destroyed by Greaves' plan. And just when we have begun to talk to each other about what to do next, here comes Greaves with some redistribution and re-direction of already assessed blames."

No doubt, Qaddafi was not happy with the United States' activity in Liberia and would support anything that would make such activity impossible in the future. And it seemed accepting help from Qaddafi was Taylor's Achilles' heel in his over-ambitious drive to dethrone Samuel Doe.

Doe's human rights records over the years had brought shame upon Washington, yet it seemed that annoying him would have caused damage to the political and economic interests Washington had protected all those years in Liberia.

The race between Prince Johnson and Charles Taylor to kill Doe was hardly seen by average Liberians as a race between Qaddafi and Washington. But it seemed that Washington had lost its man, Taylor, to Libya in secrecy and must do anything to reach Doe before Qaddafi did.

No matter how aristocratic William Tolbert's government was, it was democratically elected by the people. Even though it was not working in the interest of all of the people, it did not warrant foreign interference. Many think that Washington came to support Doe's ouster clandestinely to protect its image in world politics. Thus, Taylor did not know he had Washington's support and could only ponder why he was released from jail in Massachusetts.

It indicated that Taylor was not knowledgeable of Harry Greaves' plan, "The plan that the A.C.D.L. put forth called for recruiting Charles Taylor from prison to execute it." Now one could begin to connect the dots why Charles Taylor did not know not to run to Qaddafi for help.

There are stunning similarities between the conflicts in West Africa and the Great Lake regions. An AfroAmerica Network paper provides the testimony of Wayne Madsen, an expert on intelligence and privacy issues in international investigative journalism, from an April 6, 2001, roundtable conference organized by Cynthia McKinney, a Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, to discuss international investigative journalists' concerns over the link between the powerful in Washington and the crises in Africa:

"He [Madsen] explained how, under the Clinton administration, the Rwandan Patriotic Army troops were trained by the U.S. administration along with the armies from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea. He added that the preparation was conducted by the U.S. Special Forces. The National Security Agency (N.S.A.) provided intelligence and helped in propaganda. He added that what Clinton said in Rwanda, that the U.S. administration did not know about the Rwandan tragedy, was not true. He gave the example of the U.S. ambassador in Burundi in 1994 who was declaring that Habyalimana's plane might have been shot down by the R.P.F. while the ambassador in Rwanda said the plane might have been shot down by the Hutus. He concluded that the major motives of the West in African conflicts are purely economical and that the perspectives for peace in Africa remain bleak."

Madsen asserts that United States policy in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lake region at large rested "on the twin pillars of military aid and questionable trade. The military aid programs of the United States, largely planned and administered by the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Defense Agency, have been both overt and covert."

In Liberia, it seemed the U.S. overt and covert operations started with Doe against Tolbert in 1980 and Charles Taylor/Prince Johnson against Doe in 1989. In the Congo, on the other hand, it was Mobutu against Lumumba in 1961, Laurence Kabila against Mobutu in 1996 and U.S. policy against Kabila in 1998, in the absence of a notable strongman.

After Ugandan officials close to Yoweri Museveni were nabbed and charged with attempting to smuggle weapons from the United States, and made a deal, Museveni became the United States' point man in the Great Lake region. But he had to put up $1 million bail and the $20 million Ugandan U.N. Mission House as a lean to prevent the incarceration of his right hand man, Bisangwa-Mbuguje. According to Madsen, "In September 1992, some of Museveni's closest aides were charged with attempting to illegally smuggle 400 TOW missiles and 34 launchers from the United States to Uganda."

This seems to be a pattern. The United States government made deals with strongmen to further its cause in Africa once they were in the custody of its justice department. Those leaders, the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Angola, Eritrea, and Burundi, which President Bill Clinton's former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, would call "beacon of hope" for Africa, are all former Marxist strongmen. Diamonds in Sierra Leone and columbite-tantalite or coltan, a primary component of computer microchips and printer circuit boards, in Congo have become a curse to both nations and subsequently to West Africa and Central Africa.

A month after the roundtable conference, Madsen presented other stunning revelations in a United States House of Representatives hearing on May 17, 2001, on how U.S. overt and covert operations in Central Africa aided and abated the killing of Hutu refugees by providing forces from Rwanda and Uganda with military training and logistics and satellite images of Hutu refugee positions. Every step of the way, Madsen said, American companies were there to take full advantage of the financial benefits of exploiting minerals and providing logistics. In summary of his detailed report, he said,

"It is beyond time for the Congress to seriously examine the role of the United States in the genocide and civil wars of central Africa, as well as the role that P.M.C.'s [private military companies] currently play in other African trouble spots like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Cabinda … At the very least, the United States, as the world's leading democracy, owes Africa at least the example of a critical self-inspection."

These actions leave Africans pondering aloud why Africa is being treated by the West as a place "where it pays to play."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Karamoh Kabba.