Liberia Deserves A Fresh Start

By Charles Walker Brumskine

The Perspective

December 9, 2001

Editor’s Note: On November 15, 2001, Counselor Charles Walker Brumskine was a guest at the University of North Florida’s International Forum Institute, Jacksonville, Florida. The International Forum Institute (IFI) is an independent, nonpartisan and nonpolitical organization dedicated to exploring and debating all sides of current political, economic and social issues. IFI conducts international forums hosted for foreign dignitaries from more than 90 countries. The Institute also conducts investment and trade conferences, overseas fact-finding missions, political and economic research, and international conflict resolution. Below is full text of Counselor Brumskin’s speech:

In December 1889, Edward Wilmot Blyden was the first Liberian statesman to visit this City. A Pan-Negro Patriot, he visited Jacksonville as a traveling agent of the American Colonization Society to publicize the fact that the Society was still active and to collect subscriptions on its behalf. He was on a mission to recruit blacks to return to Africa and help build Liberia a new home for all Africans, the first black republic.

A bit over a hundred years later, I am honored and humbled by the invitation to discuss my country, my home, and a place where men who love liberty met about 181 years ago—a little nation called Liberia.
The repatriation of freed slaves to the West Coast of Africa in 1820 and thereafter began the process that gave rise to the creation of the Republic of Liberia. Liberia’s origin and inspiration was largely American, notwithstanding, the nature of the relationship between Liberia and the United States remained, at best, ambiguous for many years.

In the mid 1840s the British government, acting in the interest of its nationals, made representations to the United States government about the status of Liberia in accordance with international law. Was it an American colony, or was it "a mere commercial experiment of a philanthropic society" occupying an "anomalous position" in the society of nations? The United States refused to clarify the situation, contenting itself with the issuance of a vague disquisition of unwillingness to see Liberia "improperly restrained in the exercise of its necessary rights and powers as an independent settlement."

The people of the then Commonwealth of Liberia, realizing that under the circumstances the available options to the declaration of independence were integration with either the British or French possessions in West Africa or the return to the United States, opted for independence in 1847. As Liberia found its way among independent nations of the world, the United States, "caught in the toils" of its domestic race problems, assumed an official position of neglect with only sporadic show of concern.

After withholding recognition of the Liberian State for fifteen years, the Lincoln administration in 1862 appointed a diplomatic representative to Liberia—a recognition of Liberia, which was hailed as an act of justice that would inure to the "American national character and prestige."
Since recognition, the relationship between Liberia and the United States has been one of a dual character: a "special relationship" resulting from historical ties, on the one hand, and a relationship that normally obtains between a major power and a small country, on the other hand. Notwithstanding, Liberia played a significant role in support of United States foreign affairs agenda throughout the Twentieth Century.

At the onset of World War I, Liberia declared a state of neutrality because its most important trading partner was Germany. However, upon the request of the United States, Liberia subsequently declared war on the German nation. During World War II, Liberia provided the Allied forces with land for an important military base and an airfield. And a major breakwater port was also constructed. These facilities were used to prosecute US military campaign in North Africa. Liberia was also the major source of natural rubber.

During the Cold War, the US national security policy had a clear and unifying principle: it was to contain the Soviet expansionism that was fueled by both its ideological and nationalistic objectives, while deterring nuclear attack on, or intimidation of, the United States and its Allies. Liberia became a strong Cold War ally of the United States. Liberia’s 18th President W.V.S. Tubman made the Cold War Liberia’s war. Tubman declared in 1963,

"We wage no war against socialism if it is kept within the territories and among people so inclined, but we shall fight till death any attempt to impose and force upon us what we consider a mystical illusion."
Liberia gave the United States a considerable advantage in the continuing ideological war with the Soviet Union by permitting the construction near Monrovia of a Voice of America transmitter, powerful enough to cover the entire African continent and a telecommunications relay station that transmitted the diplomatic traffic between Washington and almost all of the U.S. Embassies in sub-Saharan Africa. The American linkage was further reinforced through the opening in 1976 of the OMEGA navigational station in Liberia, a system which provided worldwide assistance to shipping in all weather conditions, twenty four hours a day. Liberia provided diplomatic support for the American position during the war in Vietnam, and for other issues of international concern.

Notwithstanding Liberia’s unflinching support of the United States during the Cold War, Liberia endured a period of "benign neglect" in its relationship with the United States throughout the Tubman administration.

Liberia’s foreign policy during the administration of W. R. Tolbert, Tubman’s successor, saw a shift from "Washington-controlled" to a pro-African/Third World and neutralist role in foreign affairs. The determination of the Tolbert regime to forge a more independent role in international politics—establishing diplomatic relationships with communist nations, however, led to the appearance of a dramatic break with the United States. The relationship between our two countries became so strained that Liberia’s foreign minister stated at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia on July 4, 1975, that he participated in the 199th anniversary of American independence with "mixed feelings." He called the U.S. attitude toward Liberia "somewhat ambivalent" and expressed the wish for a more reassuring relationship in the second century of the U.S. independence.

The Liberian/American relations did not seem to improve; certainly there was not a return to the status quo ante until the military coup in 1980 that brought S.K. Doe to power. Although Mr. Doe initially seemed disposed to retain diplomatic ties with communist countries, Liberia soon found itself returning to the foreign policy of the Tubman era—unquestionably supportive of the US’s position on just about every issue.

Then the Cold War ended, "we" won! The United States and the West, Liberia and other freedom-loving nations that stood against communism and resisted Soviet expansion and communist domination, had won the great ideological battle that threatened the existence of mankind. But in fact, Liberia lost—it became a posthumous casualty of the Cold War. When communism was brought to its knees with the failed coup on August 21, 1991 in Moscow, Liberia was well into the second year of a devastating civil war.

As the result of the civil war, it is estimated that ten percent of Liberia’s population have been killed, and about half of the population are either in refugee camps or internally displaced. And all economic indicators have taken a nosedive. There was a collapse of the modern economic sector, virtual disappearance of government services, and the disruption of the traditional subsistence economy. The value of Liberia’s GDP fell from US$1 billion in 1989 to less than US$300 million in 1997. Since then, there has been no appreciable improvement in the productive capacity of the Liberian economy.

Even more devastating has been the inability of the current government of Charles Taylor to provide effective leadership in the war-torn country. The government’s lack of respect for human rights, failure to adhere to the rule of law, the absence of transparency and accountability, its hostile policy posture in dealing with donors, and the belligerent relationship with its neighbors have proven to be major deterrents to foreign investment.

Social statistics, as reported by UNDP/Liberia, Liberia Economic Review, 2000, provide a grim picture of Liberia: unemployment in the formal sector of the economy is 85%, life expectancy is only 47 years, adult literacy—37% (male—50%, female—24%), only 26% of Liberians have access to safe drinking water, only 11% have access to sanitary facilities, HIV/AIDS prevalence—2.8%, but yet only 3% of the amount budgeted for the health sector was actually spent for health services, general poverty level—76.2%, severe poverty—52%.

Over the last twelve years, Liberia’s place within the international community has been classified in the ranks of a ‘failed state’, a ‘rogue state’, a ‘state of concern’, or a ‘pariah state’, and today the Taylor government is regarded as a "criminal enterprise". The United Nations has imposed sanctions on the Taylor government in Monrovia for its role in the Sierra Leone war—dealing in "blood diamond," gun trafficking, and using Liberia as a sanctuary for Sierra Leonean rebels. Now there are public allegations of a connection between the Taylor government and the al Qaeda terrorist outfit.

In the cause of human rights, social justice, regional peace and a world free of terrorism, Liberia’s downward spiral must be stopped—Liberia deserves a fresh start! Creating an enabling environment to hold free and fair elections in 2003 would be a good first step. The people of Liberia should be empowered to choose their destiny and return their country to the fold of conforming members of the international community.

Of course, a new Liberia would entail a new national polity that will ensure the realization of the Liberia that was intended by its founders. A nation based upon the rule of law, with a sense of commitment from each, and the integrity of all. A government formed upon the constitutional premise that all Liberians are equal, and that each and every one of us is endowed with the same natural, inherent, and inalienable rights, regardless of our ethnic background, religion, gender, or political affiliation. We will be guided by the mistakes of the past, determined never to repeat them.

We envision a post-Taylor Liberia, which will seek a new partnership with the United States based on shared values and common interests. We will develop a new strategic framework to replace the Cold War mindset, setting forth the rationale for reformed development assistance, while dealing with the challenges of globalization.

Globalization has brought about a new reality. The world has become an increasingly smaller community in which institutions, groups, and individuals, whether in lawful enterprise or criminal conspiracy, interact directly without regard to national borders. And Liberia has become an object of concern with regard to some of the major issues on the global agenda: controlling violence (arms control, terrorism); addressing intra-state and inter-state conflicts; addressing international public health crises, such as HIV/AIDS; international economic issues, including not only trade matters, but the implications of the widening gap between poverty and affluence in our global community; managing global resources—environmental issues; plight of refugees; and, the list goes on.

The people of Liberia support the United States—led fight against terrorism because we share your values and your pride of a democratic, free, and open society. The fight against terrorism is also the fight of the Liberian people, but the words of George W. Bush, President of the United States, should be memorialized: "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

Liberia is going to resume our place on the African scene, starting with the Mano River Basin where in accordance with the protocols of the Mano River Union, the people of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia may again enjoy the free movement of goods and services, not fear and terror. We must once again become a dispenser of goodwill and cease to be a burden of the benevolence of our brothers and sisters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Liberia, whose 1959 Sanniquellie Declaration gave rise to the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), must assume its role in working with our brothers and sisters toward the full realization of the African Union.

We were a founding member of the League of Nations and an original signatory to the Charter of the United Nations. We look forward to once again joining the rank of member-states that subscribe to the rule of law and conform to the norms of international intercourse.
Liberia needs trade and investments, but the removal of trade barriers, offer of incentives to investors, and reducing the role of government in regulating the economy will not be sufficient to promote sustainable and equitable economic growth. Substantial new investments will be required in our human resources, institutional and physical infrastructure. Because private capital will not make all of the necessary investments in education, health care, clean and accessible water, electricity, roads, ports, and airports, such infrastructure will require government planning and development cooperation from the international community.

We have to deal with issues such as advancement of women, which will not be addressed by the economic marketplace. For an economy with 40% of its GDP in subsistence agriculture, female literacy rate of about 24% is a foreboding number for Liberian women. This illustrates that poverty is going to be the permanent state of affairs for Liberian women, if no corrective action is taken. In a society in which women provide an unequal share of support for the family, this condition of women will continue to have a negative impact on the Liberian economy and the Liberian way of life. Under a poverty reduction strategy, there must be a significant and direct effort made to increase literacy among women. Poverty-reduction in Liberia will be a coequal goal with economic growth.
Liberia will have to break out of its dependence on primary and unprocessed exports. Liberia needs more diversified investment beyond the traditional concentration in the extractive industries. International investments in search for the highest and quickest profit margins will not fit well with our long-term objectives.

Moreover, investments in extractive industries must become more environmentally sustainable. Otherwise, we could find ourselves in a land that will not support our basic living demands. Our world is so interconnected that the continuous abuse of Liberia’s environment would affect the ecosystem of the entire West African region.

Government will have to move away from bureaucratic monopolies that are obstacles to economic growth. The telecommunications sector is a good example. However, we are mindful that unregulated privatization would certainly lead to private companies serving only the most profitable markets, leading to unevenness of service distribution. The farmer in rural Liberia should have a phone connection to urban resources and capital markets. Universal access will therefore be a goal in the regulatory framework. Investments in new electronic technologies will create new opportunities for collaboration with foreign investors and will lower the cost of long-distance communication. These new technologies may enable Liberia to leapfrog some barriers to advancement.

Liberia has to address its sovereign debt problem, which is about US$3 billion. Consideration should be given to debt cancellation by multilateral and bilateral creditors, including delinking of such cancellation programs from the onerous structural adjustment programs of the Bretton Woods Institutions. The debt burden has multiplied over the past two decades, complicating prospects for macroeconomic stability and growth.

On a per capita basis, debt rose from $373 in 1980 to $700 in 1989 and was at $945 in 1999. The debt burden has had a devastating impact, closing all possible sources of fiscal support. For most heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs), debt service is on the average 1.5 times budget revenues. In 1997, Liberia’s debt service obligations were 29 times budget revenues and 700% of export earnings.
Resolving the sovereign debt problem will have a direct impact on the Liberian economy. It will lead to expanded formal sector activities and a robust private sector with improved private sector credit access.
In spite of its current state as an international outcast, Liberia holds enormous potential for future national reconstruction. This is evident in the resilience of the ordinary Liberian who, in the face of unimaginable adversity, is making a brave effort to reconstruct his/her life. The significant rise in informal sector employment and the return to rural agricultural productivity are clear indicators that Liberians are prepared to move ahead, given leadership with a sense of purpose.

Liberia’s beginning was an American experience. The story of African Americans cannot be told without the mention of Liberia, and the United States’ history is replete with the contribution of Africans whose descendents are today either African Americans or Liberians. Therefore, Lord Palmerston’s rule that countries have no permanent alliances, only permanent interests should not be allowed to characterize the relationship between Liberia and the United States.

We are a small nation of few people, but Liberians yearns for a democratic, free, and open society. We want to be governed by the rule of law and have our human rights respected. Our country must not serve as the breeding ground for terrorism or the launching path for regional conflict. We believe that the strength of our society depends on the empowerment of our people, and the condition of our environment will impact the future of our children. Our farmers want to get their goods to the world market, as they educate their children. But none of this is possible in Liberia, unless free and fair elections are allowed in Liberian in 2003. Liberians are crying for a fresh start!

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