Global war on terror: Is Liberia re-emerging as a U.S. strategic partner?

By Gabriel Williams

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 24, 2004

The Associated Press and other news organs reported on February 13 that U.S. Navy sailors may board thousands of commercial ships in international waters to search for weapons of mass destruction under a landmark pact between the United States and Liberia, the world’s No. 2 shipping registry.

According to the reports, the accord - expected to become a model as Washington seeks other two-country deals authorizing searches on the high seas - comes amid fears that terror networks would use ships for attacks, taking advantage of comparatively lax security on the seas after crackdowns in the skies.

Liberia, an American-founded West African nation emerging from nearly 15 years of civil war, has held a U.S.-based shipping registry since 1949 and hosts more than 2,000 foreign vessels. The country ranks second only to Panama in total shipping tonnage in U.S. ports, under so-called flags of convenience that offer cheap fees and easy rules. One-third of America’s imported oil arrives in the U.S. on Liberian-flagged vessels, it is reported.

The significance of this development is that Liberia, America’s most reliable ally in Africa, abandoned when the country was no longer deemed of any geo-political significance to U.S. strategic interests following the end of the Cold War, has been generating renewed interest in Washington lately culminating to the signing of this landmark agreement.

The agreement was signed a few days after the U.S., UN and the World Bank co-sponsored a high profile donors conference attended by more than 90 countries and 40 aid groups on February 5-6, which raised over $520 million for Liberia’s reconstruction for the next two years. In addition to bilateral aid, the U.S. pledged $200 million at the conference, co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Liberia’s transitional leader Charles Gyude Bryant was well received in the U.S. during the conference, and he met with President George Bush before his return to Liberia. Bryant took over from Liberia’s evil ruler Charles Taylor, who was forced to relinquish power last August and go into exile in Nigeria. It was impossible that the U.S. could have reached such agreement with Liberia during the reign of Taylor, who reportedly became a billionaire by plundering resources in Liberia and other West African countries. A brutal rebel leader turned president of Liberia, Taylor was backed by Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi, a leading sponsor of global terrorism, who is now trying to improve relations with the U.S.

The signing of the agreement reflects the historical pattern of how that country has been a place of convenience in the projection of America’s security, economic and diplomatic influence in the world. Here are a few examples of how Liberia, founded in 1822 by freed men and women of color from American, has been a U.S. ally.

During the Cold War era, Liberia allowed for the U.S. to build the Voice of America relay station for broadcast throughout Africa and the Omega Navigation Tower to track the movement of ships along the Atlantic Coast and the Mediterranean. The country also served as the main Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) base in Africa, while U.S. military planes were granted landing and refueling rights on twenty-four hours’ notice at Roberts International Airport near Monrovia, which was built as a staging ground during World War II. The airport, which became a vital link in the air route across the South Atlantic to the Near and the Far East, was once managed by Pan American Airways.

To counter the high price of rubber imposed by the British - who controlled 80 percent of the world’s rubber production - to pay their war debts following World War I, the United States, which at the time consumed 75 percent of rubber for its expanding automobile industry, turned to Liberia for relief. In 1926 the Firestone Rubber and Tire Company in Akron, Ohio reached an agreement with the Liberian government for the establishment of the world’s largest rubber plantation. Firestone signed a 99-year lease on one million acres of land at a price of six cents an acre.

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who paid a brief visit to Liberia during WW II, encountered opposition to the use of American ships to transport arms and other goods to help Britain because the U.S. was neutral during the early stage of the war. Such foreign policy developments led to the creation of the Liberian Ship Registry, which has operated under the administration of a U.S. corporation. The creation of Liberia’ registry evoked hostilities from Europeans maritime nations and international maritime unions, which were in competition with the U.S. in the maritime industry. With the establishment of its American-operated ship registry, Liberia became known as a country with the "Flag of Convenience" or free flag.

Another manifestation of Liberia’s unwavering support for U.S. foreign policy was that the country cast the historic tie-breaking vote at the United Nations in favor of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, amid tense international controversy.

These developments are cited as examples of the long and close historical relationship between the two countries, even though U.S. government officials dismissed said relationship as non-existent at the end of the Cold War to justify their policy of non-intervention as Liberia degenerated into an unspeakable degree of death and destruction. An estimated 300,000 Liberians were killed and the entire country is almost completely destroyed. While evil warlords and their collaborators enrich themselves from the indiscriminate plunder of the country’s abundant resources, the Liberian masses are reduced to a state of abject poverty and destitution.

The U.S. is seen as a part of Liberia’s unresolved past by supporting pro-American dictatorships, among other failed policy measures. And there have been arguments that America’s policy of non-intervention in the Liberian crisis was underlined by factor of racism. Nevertheless, the Bush administration deserves high commendation for getting actively involved in Liberia’s stabilization and reconstruction under the auspices of the UN. More commendable are American organizations and churches connected with the country, which have identified with the plight of the Liberian people and have been leading a pro-Liberia crusade for U.S. government intervention.

The reality now is that failed states like Liberia and Afghanistan are breeding grounds for terrorists capable of wreaking havoc on a global scale. Afghanistan, which was also used by the U.S. to contain Soviet expansionism, equally vanished from America’s radar of strategic importance following the end of the Cold War. The Afghan people, like the people of Liberia, were abandoned to self-destruction. The abandonment of those countries not only enables some of the world’s most brutal regimes to emerge and thrive, but terrorists and the criminal underworld found a haven from which to operate.

Since 9/11, three of the world’s most brutal and barbaric regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia have fallen, and Washington is heavily investing and maintaining a very strong presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While some have argued that the money pledged for Liberia pales in comparison to the billions being spent for Iraq and Afghanistan, Liberians are grateful for the generous support. It is hoped that the U.S. would continue to lead international efforts for Liberia’s recovery. In so doing, Washington would not only be compensating for what it should have done to help stop Liberia’s civil war from the beginning, but that it would be manifesting its self-interest.

As Liberia embarks upon a course of rebuilding and a renewed relationship with the U.S., there are several grave mistakes of the past that must not be repeated.

The United States and the international community should help the Liberian people build and sustain democratic institutions. Washington should lead international effort aimed at the empowerment of the Liberian people, rather than support corrupt and incompetent dictatorial regimes that lack transparency and accountability. Independent since 1847 as Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia’s prolonged history of bad governance is the primary reason for the once promising country to now become a failed state.

There is a very serious need to support and strengthen Liberia’s civil society, which includes the media, the legal system, and rights advocacy groups - in order to check on the activities of public officials and the government. A viable free press and the rule of law, which are key pillars of a peaceful democratic society, must be vigorously supported if the country is to depart from the past, where individuals who are aggrieved by acts of the government resort to violence or armed insurgency as a logical course of redress. Liberia’s once progressive independent media, mostly destroyed during Taylor’s campaign of extermination, urgently need resources for training and infrastructure rebuilding. Indications are that most of the trained and experienced journalists who fled the country are prepared to return and get involved in the process of rebuilding as soon as they have the means to sustain their families while they get readjusted in Liberia. But with so much areas of priority, it remains to be seen how much the international community would help in the revitalization of Liberia’s media. Some of us have been in contact with individuals at relevant U.S. government agencies and international organizations in hopes of getting timely assistance for Liberia’s media.

The U.S. and the international community should immediately begin to focus on capacity building in Liberia, so as to eliminate the dependency syndrome and its attending consequences of poverty. There is a very serious need to do away with the policies of the past, where the natural resources of the country were exploited and exported abroad with little or no benefit in return for the Liberian people. Firestone is an example of the kind of exploitation in question. Even though it operated the world’s largest rubber plantation that had a major impact on America’s industrialization, not a single rubber processing plant was built in Liberia to help develop the skills of the people. Over the years, thousands of laborers - rubber tapers on the Firestone Plantation - were housed in shack-like quarters, most of which lacked electricity and indoor plumbing and seemed cramped and poorly ventilated.

After serving for years as one of the world’s major exporters of iron ore, what is left in Liberia now are the deep empty holes in the mines from where the ores were extracted. Also endowed with a large portion of Africa’s remaining rain forests, Liberia is a major exporter of tropical timber. But there are no timber processing plants for employment, not to mention other needed incentives to help improve the lot of local people in the areas where the logging companies operate. The conditions are even worse for people in diamond mining areas.

In light of the numerous disparities evident in Liberia’s economic relationship with the world community, we appeal to the U.S. and the international community to seriously consider giving Liberia a fresh start by taking steps to forgive the country’s estimated $3 billion debts. To restore immediate confidence in the Liberian economy, the U.S. and the international community must also act to prevent the country from being used by the criminal underworld as a major center for money laundering. The use of the U.S. dollar as legal tender in Liberia - once a middle income country in the 1970s - has caused international criminal activities to thrive since the country became a rogue state.

I have learned from well-placed sources that the technology has been developed to exploit oil, which was discovered off the coast of Liberia years ago. Whether this is partly responsible for the renewed interest the war-ravished country is generating remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is important to underscore that agreements to exploit Liberia’s reported oil deposits should include safeguards that would ensure that the country’s share of the oil revenues best serve the interest of the country and its people. We do not wish for the kinds of situation in other parts of Africa like Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, where oil revenues are known to largely end up in the foreign bank accounts of a few fat cats and their cohorts, while basic public services remain deplorable or non-existent.

It is also important to note that we Africans, particularly Liberians, must now begin to take responsibility for our own rampant corruption and gross abuses that have brought disastrous consequences upon us. We have to stand up for ourselves. Jack Welsh, a great American business leader once said: "Control your own destiny or somebody else will." Greed, selfishness and narrow mindedness have been like cancer eating the vitals of Africans, often preventing us from seeing the bigger picture or to do what is in the interest of general society. We’re just a sick people as that.

This is why I wish to appeal to the UN, U.S. and the international community in general to put into place a mechanism that would ensure strong oversight of the $520 million and other resources being generously provided by the international community for Liberia’s reconstruction. If not, a large portion of the funds would end up in foreign bank accounts of those criminals masquerading as Liberian government officials and their collaborators. The current government is dominated by rebels, who are murderous criminals and elements that have committed grievous economic crimes for which they should be prosecuted. The governor of the Central Bank is a left over crony of now indicted war criminal Taylor, who stands accused of grievous economic crimes. Vital government ministries like Finance, Commerce, Justice and Foreign Affairs are being controlled by rebels, while the Speaker of the legislature is known to have murdered many people during the war. These, along with other warlords before them, are rebels without a cause but to loot resources and enrich themselves.

That many of the advisors surrounding interim leader Gyude Bryant are former officials from Taylor’s regime, may provide some indications as to why Bryant opposed the setting up of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) or a war crimes court to hold those criminals accountable. Bryant recently bowed to public pressure by announcing the creation of the TRC, but he conveniently said that Taylor’s prosecution or the setting up of a court would now be left to an elected government, which is expected to come to power in 2006. We urge the international community to be actively involved to ensure that the functions of the TRC are not compromised, and also for the establishment of a war crimes court.

The tragic developments unfolding in Haiti are ominous signs of what could occur in Liberia if the UN mandate expires without putting into place the legal mechanism to hold accountable those criminals who have wreaked havoc on the country over the past 14 years, and also to deter overzealous politicians bent on sponsoring violence to manifest political control. The culture of impunity must be ended.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gabriel Williams is a journalist and author of the book, "Liberia: The Heart of Darkness," which provides extensive accounts of Liberia’s civil war and its destabilizing effects in West Africa. He can be reached at