Liberian-American Relations - The Looming Challenge

By Abraham L. James, Ph.D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 11, 2004


United States-Liberian relations have experienced many challenges over the years. Today, the issue of rebuilding the Liberian nation seems to loom large. There is a need to overhaul and strengthen the great institutions and legal system of the country, rebuild its ravaged economy and “expunge” corruption from Liberian society. The process is likely to become one of the most important challenges ever encountered by U.S-Liberian relations. Although the reconstruction of Liberia is the responsibility of Liberians, in this globalized world of interdependent countries, economies and peoples, Liberia will need external assistance for its reconstruction and renewal, and the United States is likely to be expected to take the lead in this endeavor.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln extended diplomatic recognition to Liberia. By an Act of Congress, requested by the President, he was authorized to appoint a diplomatic representative to Liberia. An American embassy was established in Monrovia, Liberia after the American civil war had removed the main obstacle to the presence of a Black envoy in Washington. It was sixteen years after Liberia declared its independence. The president declared that there would be perpetual peace and friendship between the Republic of Liberia and the United States. The American Ambassador in England, Charles Francis Adams, was instructed to conclude a treaty of commerce and navigation with Liberia. The treaty contained a most favored nation clause that there would be no discrimination in the trade of the two countries. Another clause stated that the citizens of each nation were, “to have customary rights in the territory of the other.” The nature and scope of “customary rights,” for the purposes of this treaty have never been clearly determined.

Although the American relationship with Liberia during the first half century of independence has been described by some scholars as one of benign neglect, there were periods in Liberia’s history when the American connection was deemed necessary to ensure the territorial integrity and political independence of the country. The United States succeeded in admonishing the British and French when they whittled away valuable sections of Liberian territory in the hinterland. In 1901 an American Commission of Inquiry, by its very presence and its recommendation (never officially accepted by the United States government), prevented both England and France from taking over the country as a protectorate as a result of Liberia’s defaulting on the repayment of a series of European loans.

The election of President Franklin Roosevelt, and various developments of the Second World War and the Cold War that followed it, led to a significant improvement in U S-Liberian relations. The relations experienced special strains during the period from the mid 1980s to 2002.

In 1980, during the Cold War, the military, led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, overthrew the constitutional government of President William Tolbert. Following the coup d 'e-tat, the United States, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, provided a substantial aid package to the Doe regime estimated at $500 million, and urged the Liberian leader to restore constitutional government. Initially, Doe indicated an intention to allow a return to civilian government, but by the mid-1980s, it was clear that he was not prepared to relinquish governmental authority. After an election that was later declared rigged, political and social discontent continued to mount until forces led by Charles Taylor launched an attack in December 1989, leading to the overthrow of Doe. Neither the seizure of power nor the result of an election that was intended to legitimize Taylor’s administration seemed to be able to bring peace and stability to the country. In fact, the deterioration of relations between the two countries that had begun during the second half of the Doe regime worsened.

The people of Liberia suffered egregious abuses during this period. Living conditions in the country deteriorated. There was no central electricity, no central water system, and employment in the formal sector was estimated at 20 percent. The rule of law was adversely affected. It is estimated that at least two hundred thousand Liberians lost their lives and many more were traumatized. The international community charged the Taylor government with destabilizing the sub-region by supporting armed groups and carrying on business in blood diamonds. Despite the dangerous security situation encountered by Liberians and diplomatists in Monrovia, the American embassy in Monrovia remained open. It was the only Western mission to do so. Indeed, it is a mark of U S-Liberian relations that since the establishment of the Liberian diplomatic mission in Liberia in 1863, the mission has never permanently suspended its operation, even though it became necessary to evacuate some of its personnel during the most violent period of the civil war.

Various developments dating from the siege of Monrovia in July, 2003, seem to indicate that U.S-Liberian relations may be entering a new era, one marked by a series of significant American involvements in the affairs of the Liberian state.

On August 11, 2003, during the Liberian civil war, President George Bush intervened by demanding the departure of the Liberian leader, Charles Taylor, who was granted asylum by the government of Nigeria. The United States sponsored a Security Council Resolution to create the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in September 2003.

A non-partisan coalition of U.S groups and individuals including several important senators from both parties succeeded in obtaining a $200 million aid package from Congress for Liberia, and an additional amount of $240 million for the United Nations Mission in Liberia. It was made possible as an amendment to the $87 billion supplemental appropriation bill for Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance and disarmament and reconstruction for Liberia. The amendment was sponsored by an interesting group of senators that included Lincoln Chafee, a Republican from Rhode Island and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee. Cosponsors included Norm Coleman, Republican from Minnesota, and Joseph Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut. In a statement issued by Senator Chafee he said: “It is not too late for the United States to redeem its promise to Liberia.” Liberia Watch, a loose coalition including non-governmental organizations like Africare, Bread for the World, as well as U.S. officials who have served in Liberia, worked for many weeks to focus attention on Liberia and increase U.S. support for the Liberian peace effort. The group generated more than 50 letters to President Bush and members of Congress, urging recognition of “how important this is for Liberia and equally for the United States.” Dr. Vivian Derryek, co-convener of the coalition known as Liberia Watch and former head of the Africa Bureau at the U.S Agency for International Development, said in an interview that “This could be a win-win situation for the United States to gain the respect of people all over the world by showing support for a country that has been a long standing and loyal American ally.” This was followed by a United Nations-United States sponsored donor’s conference during which many countries pledged more than $500 million for the Liberian reconstruction program.

Over the years, the presence of Americans in Liberia has always had a certain psychological effect on major events in the country. A series of developments in recent years following the civil war have been noticeable. On November 28, 2003, America’s experienced and proactive Ambassador in Liberia, Henry Blanley III, was requested by Chairman Gyrude Bryant of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) to persuade the former warring parties of the (NTGL) to cooperate with the U N supervised process of disarmament. The request was made after the three armed factions walked out of the inaugural meeting of the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (NCDDRR).In response to Chairman Bryant’s request, Ambassador Blaney, from his official residence, condemned the behavior of the representatives of LURD, MODEL and the former Government of Liberia for walking out of the meeting and called on the parties to “immediately resume their active and cooperative participation in the National Commission.” He told them that the United Nations Mission in Liberia had the full support of the United States in its efforts to implement the Comprehensive Peace Accord and UN Security Council Resolution 1509. The intervention of the Ambassador of the world’s only super power had a salutary effect, it secured the return of the LURD and MODEL representatives to the disarmament activities. Also, an earlier warning of the Ambassador caused the LURD and MODEL representatives to call off a threat for the removal of Chairman Bryant as head of the Liberian Transitional Government (LTG).

Furthermore, addressing a major news conference on March 25, 2004, in Monrovia, Ambassador Blaney announced that there would no longer be a safe haven for corrupt Liberians in the United States. He pointed out that the low level of transparency, and good governance in Liberia was troubling and represented a real threat to the economic, social and political reconstruction of Liberia. This symbolic reading of a sort of “Riot Act” received extensive media coverage in Liberia. The issue of corruption and sleaze in Liberian society is of paramount concern to most Liberians.

In a different context, on July 13, 2004, came an announcement that through the USAID grant program, the U.S had renovated the University of Liberia, the country’s highest institution of learning with an enrollment of 13,5000 students, and also the Matilda New Port High School, for the reopening of the two institutions that had been closed for several months.
The significance of U.S. presence in Liberia is also manifested in United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s decision to appoint as his Special Representative in Liberia, Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein, a career U. S. Foreign Service Officer of the United Sates. In light of the Secretary General’s special interest in the Liberian peace process and reconstruction process, it seems to have occurred to him that an American citizen with a commendable international public service record would be likely to receive appropriate U.S. backing for his program in Liberia. There are indications in the Liberian press that Liberians at home and abroad seem to appreciate and welcome the American and UN roles in their country as demonstrated by ambassadors, Blaney and Klein. And there is also a suggestion in a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), in November 2003, that recent U.S. activities in Liberia, some of which are detailed above, may in fact be opening the way for the U.S. to play a major role in the rebuilding of Liberia. U.S.-Liberian relations may be approaching a new era of cooperation.

About the author: Dr. Abraham L. James is a Former Assistant to President W.V.S. Tubman
and Adjunct Professor of History at The Comey Institute, Saint Joseph’s University, Pennsylvania