TOPICS > Politics

Anarchy’s Children

May 1, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yesterday for the first time in Liberia’s civil war, the American military became involved in combat. U.S. Marines, guarding the embassy in Monrovia against a group of local gunmen, shot and killed three of them near the embassy grounds.

The incident followed weeks of rampant looting and shooting by rival factions in Monrovia. The capital now exists with no electricity, little water, or food. Recently, there has been a serious outbreak of cholera. Earlier this month, U.S. forces evacuated more than 2,000 foreign nationals, including over 400 Americans living in Liberia. Five ships, with a contingent of 2900 troops, are still stationed offshore. Nearly 300 Marines are guarding the embassy.

The latest incidents appear to have brought an end to a 10-day truce among the rival factions, but they highlight some recent tensions between Liberia and the United States. The two countries have had a special relationship since the oldest independent nation in Africa was settled by former American slaves in 1822 and declared itself an independent nation 25 years later.

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the main characters leaves America for Liberia at the end of the novel. In this passage, he describes what he hopes to find: “On the shores of Africa, I see a republic, a republic formed of picked men who by energy and self-educating force have in many cases raised themselves above a condition of slavery.” Having gone through a preparatory stage of feebleness, Liberia has at last become an acknowledged nation on the face of the earth.

Monrovia is named in honor of American President James Monroe, who sent aid to the freed slaves. Many of Liberia’s national symbols are modeled after American ones, its flag, its pledge of allegiance, its money.

Liberia’s official language is English. The U.S. has given $750 million in aid over the years to Liberia, making it one of the largest recipients of American dollars on the African continent. President Carter was the first American President to visit Liberia in 1978.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: And one of the purposes of these trips has been to demonstrate the genuine respect my nation feels for its partners around the world and our opposition to the continuation or reestablishment of colonialism in any form whatsoever.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In return, Liberia has given the U.S. consistent support. At American urging, Liberia entered World War I and II and provided a key ingredient to the allied victory in 1945, with its supplies of crucial rubber.

During the Cold War, Liberia led pro-Western forces in Africa and it defied Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s attempts to undermine American influence in the region. Liberia was governed by descendants of American slaves for most of its history, but the indigenous majority population grew increasingly resentful of that monopoly. In 1980, Liberia’s president, William Tolbert, was assassinated in a bloody military coup led by Samuel Doe. He became president, but his regime was marked by corruption, repression, and serious human rights abuses.

In 1989, Charles Taylor, a descendant of the American settlers and an ex-convict, invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Taylor’s forces eventually captured and executed Doe. Since then, Liberia has been embroiled in a civil war fought between Taylor’s followers and rival tribal groups. The death toll in the fighting is estimated at 150,000 people.

Last summer, diplomats from neighboring countries brought together the fighting warlords and came up with a power-sharing arrangement, the so-called Abuja Accord.

A ruling council was established with both civilian and military leaders. One of the warlords left out of the council, Roosevelt Johnson, rallied his supporters to start the fighting once again. A 10,000-man West African peacekeeping force has been unable to subdue the warring factions.

On the NewsHour last night, Secretary of State Christopher urged the factions to reach a settlement.

WARREN CHRISTOPHER, Secretary of State: It’s a very unsatisfactory situation. The only resolution for it is to have the entities within the country recognize that there’s no hope as long as they fight each other, as long as they’re killing each other, but unfortunately, we’re back in a “no win” situation for all of them at the present time.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In Monrovia, once called the “Manhattan of Africa,” anarchy reigns. Many of the combatants are boys, some only ten or twelve years old, many drunk or on drugs. They control the street, riding openly with AK-47 machine guns in stolen vehicles. Refugees sit in camps, afraid to leave and seek food. Liberia, once proud of its strong economy and democracy, now has neither.