Liberia: Who Created This Mess?

By James Kpou

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 5, 2003


Liberia is a tiny crayon dot situated on the West Coast Of Africa. For nearly two months now, its horrible civil war has made front-page news here. We've have seen pictures of nine-year olds towing machine guns, the military shooting into unarmed crowds, and thousands of people panicking and pointlessly stampeding. And we've have read arguments both for and against the U.S.A. Intervention.

News stories often begin by pointing out the historic link between Liberia and the U. S, that is, that the African country was founded by free slaves from America. There is a kernel truth there. But the deeper reality is that Liberia's origins have less to do with volition of free slaves than with America's misguided attempts to deal with its enslave population. Liberian story is different from that of other African countries, and I am writing this article with the hope that others will understand the historical origins of our pain and suffering, as well as our current plight. Perhaps an understanding of the past irresponsibility offers the strongest argument for responsible intervention by the U. S now.

To say that Liberia was founded by free slaves implies that freed slaves worked hard, saved their money, and organized and funded their voyage from America to the West Coast Of Africa. But that wasn't the case. According to several 19th century writers, the freed slaved did not have power required to do this, and they also lacked the experience of citizenship upon which to base a nation.

Charles Morrow Wilson, a white American who spent considerable time in Liberia explains in Liberia: Black Africa in Microcosm 1947 how Liberia was really founded by the America Colonization Society, in attempt to counteract anti-slavery functions in America. The society motives were, in fact, much more complex.

The American Colonization Society came together for the first time in December, 1816, in Washington, D.C., to discuss what should be done with the increasing population of un- known Negroes. The group represented polar positions regarding slavery. Some feared blacks and wanted to expel them from what chairman Henry Clay called the "unconquerable prejudice" existing in America. It was from this mixed bag of moral concern and self-interest that the idea of Liberia was conceived.

Besides Clay, the attendees included James Monroe, Bushrod Washington
(nephew of George Washington), Daniel Webster, Andrew Jackson and Francis Scott Key, to name just a few of the prominent people involved. The importance of many of these men in the history of Liberia cannot be overstated. In fact, back in grade school, I always thought they included Jehudi Ashmun (who became the first ruler of the new African settlement), Thomas Buchanan and Robert Harper were all black people. I later learned that not only they, but also many of the names of places along the Liberian Coast, had their source in a white America: Maryland, Virginia, Greenville, Georgia, Clay-Ashland, Robert G. Harper City, Thomas Buchanan, an of course the capital of Monrovia, named after American president James Monroe. Even the name Liberia was the creation of a white man.

Among all the white men who eventually held power in Liberia, Thomas Buchanan, brother of U.S. president James Buchanan, notoriously stand out. He favored the removal of the Negroes "not only from slavery but from the visible American a faraway place selected as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, and he actually escorted some of those freed men to Liberia, where he later served as governor of Grand Bassa County. The city of Buchanan in Grand Bassa County which rebel forces have occupied since last week, was named in his honor. In 1847, when Professor Simon Greenleaf of Harvard University finished writing the Liberian constitution, it was Mr.Buchanan who volunteered to return to America so that he might hand-deliver the Constitution back to the colony.

The Liberian Constitution of July 26, 1847, which declared the sovereignty of the nation, raised the social status of freed men to "first class citizens," while denying the rights of citizenship to the natives-who, of course, formed the vast majority of the population. In the country's first national election, Mr. Buchanan ran as a vice-presidential candidate with presidential candidate Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was the first non-white governor of the colony and who became Liberia's first president. Buchanan thus became vice-president of Liberia. Following his easy access to power, others came-from America, Barbados, Sierra Leone, from anywhere-to become presidents of Liberia. All continued to beat the aborigines into submission. Those from Barbados introduced "the cleavage system," which forced native people to renounce their tribal allegiance in order to participate in government. Others forbade the formation of alliances that might challenge the government. Such alliances nevertheless arose during the Grebo War of 1910, the Kru revolt 1914, the Sasstown massacre of 1930. The desperate images we are seeing on TV and in the newspaper today recall events of 1930, when thousands of the natives were slaughtered wholesale, their towns burned to the ground, their wives and children raped and chased into the forest.

Our submission was economic as well. In 1926, the Liberian government leased 1.3 million acres of land for 99 years at six cents per acre to the Firestone Rubber Company. Later, during World War II, when the cost of raw rubber from Latin America was $2.60 a pound, the U.S. government negotiated the purchase of the entire crop of Liberian raw rubber for 26 cents a pound. In one year, the U.S. government saved 10 to 15 times more than all it's aid-in loans and grants-to the Liberian government from the year of 1847 the colony was founded up to 1945.

The Liberia that white American constructed in 1847 is disintegrating. We cannot be optimistic, however, about what may emerge, because 150 year of degradation has meant the non-utilization and devaluation of Liberians human resources. Our constitution, our flag and many of our national symbols are replicas of from America, as if we had no history or culture of our own, as if we didn't have to think for ourselves.

The spirit of the people has been crushed. We lacked a sense of patriotism, of national identify. Our personal values are also skewed: The average Liberian equates hard work with slavery and thinks success lies in a pot-bellied, leisurely lifestyle. Status is important to him, but personal accomplishment is not. Instability and hopelessness are prevalent. Liberia has become a nation of endless talkers and beggars who consume much but produce nothing. The indigenous culture has been replaced by foreign values, though current-day Liberia is unlike either America or the rest of Africa.

America is responsible for the Liberia that exists today. To abandon what it has created would be immoral. American intervention can make a difference now, but it must be conceptually wiser than the 19th century self-serving assistance that helped create the current catastrophe.

About the author: Mr. James Kpou is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Liberian New Horizon Journal