Liberia: Charting the Path Towards Economic Recovery
(Part I)

By Ezekiel Pajibo and Herbert Brewer, Jr.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 13, 2003

Liberia’s history is one of greed and grievance. Greed demonstrated by its political elites who would stop at nothing to make a quick buck, even if it meant appropriating land resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousand of people as happened in Harbel and Pleebo, where the government in the 1920’s confiscated communal land from its own citizens, some 1 million acres and sold it to Firestone at the price of six cents per acre. The greed was further demonstrated when Liberian ruling elites decided that they could sell their fellow compatriots into slavery - the infamous Fernando Po event, which was investigated by the United Nations and found that indeed the Government of Liberia was culpable and resulted in the “downfall of the administration of Charles D.B. King in 1930. The grievance of the 40,000 Liberians who were conscripted and ordered to work for the Firestone Rubber Plantation Company continued to reverberate. They labored for 14-15 hours a day and were paid 3 cents per day. Those sold into slavery and their relatives continue to suffer that indignation, which our nation has not appropriately responded to, for example no talk of compensation to the aggrieved.

In the 1980s, we encountered yet more greed when the People Redemption Council (PRC) took power one year after Liberians protested against the increment in the price of rice. The refrain was “Let the Boys Enjoy Too” - greed, greed. When the Boys finished enjoying, we had a war on our hands. Then there is the $100 million, we are now told Taylor siphoned from our national coffers. Even as he boarded his flight into exile on that glorious day of August 11, 2003, he pocketed $3 million donated by the Taiwanese government. Grievances he left behind include all those young people he had armed and as now abandoned to their own vices. General Coco Dennis continues to entertain the vain hope of his master’s return. After all Mr. Taylor promised to return. “I will be back”, he said. He wants to return to his “Pepper Bush”, as he likes to call the Liberian nation. More grievances are bound to occur when Liberians begin to return to their previous domicile only to find destruction and death. Who will pay for the repair of homes, hospitals and schools, who will pay for the roads that have to be reconstructed and who will pay for all those lost years of not only childhood but the potentials and possibilities to secure a decent livelihood and build a secured future.

This is what the new Liberian economic dispensation will have to address.

The economic issue is thorny and complicated. We know we can't make any big changes overnight and that many changes will be incremental, but we need to begin to build the new edifice stone by stone, step by step. First of all, Liberia has several systems of property relations. This is what makes any notion of economic development complicated. Private, capitalist property relations co-exist with communal forms of property relations. Let us not kid ourselves: there can be no capitalist development in Liberia without capitalist property relations. But there is a fundamental contradiction between these two property systems. Of course, to a large extent, capitalist market relations have undermined pre-capitalist property relations in Liberia over the past 5 decades, certainly in the urban areas but also in the interior.

The question of land ownership is one such issue, which we have not been sufficiently discussed as Liberians. The very heart of the social and economic inequality that fuels all the chronic "instability" in Liberia lies in the control over and distribution of resources such as land. There is an equally important international dimension to this as well. How do we begin to address this issue?

Prior to the 1980s, Liberian farmers were already experiencing a steady
decline in their living standards. The state used its bodies (Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) and the Agricultural Development Bank ADB, etc.) to transfer surplus away from the rural areas. This policy, sanctioned by the UN and World Bank, etc.) was to favour mid-sized (kulaks) and large farmers. In other words, the idea was to develop capitalist agriculture in the rural areas, develop a rural bourgeoisie. The policy was called the 'green revolution.' We think some of the social roots of the wars (in Liberia and elsewhere) are to be found in the consequences of these policies, which was the standard prescription applied by the Bank and the UNDP in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. At the international level, they were looking at integrating these African economies into the world market in a subordinate role as specialists in tropical commodities; at the local or national level, the vehicle was to be a new class of mid-size and large capitalist farmers.

It turned into a disaster. It bred more social inequality in the rural areas, created a class of landless peasants who moved to Monrovia in ever increasing numbers. It destroyed older, pre-capitalist market forms of agricultural production. We must remember that forms of economic production rest upon social systems. These systems provide stability. The gradual destruction of the rural economy in the 50s, 60s and 70s, although a slow, almost imperceptible process, also undermined the pre-existing social order in rural Liberia. When the severe economic crisis of the mid 1970s characterised in part by the increase in the price of oil, brought the economy to a standstill, the now weakened rural social fabric could not hold things together. Traditional rural institutions had been badly affected by these changes. The military coup, itself a consequence of the crisis of the 1970s, and the government that emerged after it, masked what was really going on. In fact, the coup probably accelerated the process of economic and social disintegration in the rural areas, as the political power vacuum in the center and the destruction of national and local institutions created opportunities for plunder and accumulation and even more social inequality.

Any strategy for economic reconstruction has to involve the patient rebuilding of fractured rural institutions (cultural, social, etc.). There isn't one solution. But the question of access to land/property in a capitalist system has to be part of any solution. It allows people to build viable lives and communities. It gives large amounts of people a stake in the stability of the system. Again, maybe there should be less focus on depending on and looking to central government (Monrovia) for solutions, and more effort made to let these solutions be solved as much as possible at the local level. This same analysis we believe fits as well to the urban scenario. People need to have a stake in the system for them to voluntarily consent to the laws of a country. The cliché in development circles is 'stakeholder.' The truth is that many Liberians do not feel they are stakeholders and there are enough of them feeling that way to make life impossible for the rest of us. The country will continue to be vulnerable to them as long as these citizens feel they have no stake and to feel left out.

About the Authors: Ezekiel Pajibo, currently lives and works in Harare Zimbabwe; Herbert Brewer, Jr. lives and work in Washington, D.C.