Thursday, February 02, 2006

Talking Points: For Liberia a New Leader, and a Ray of Hope

January 31, 2006
Talking Points: For Liberia a New Leader, and a Ray of Hope
By HELENE COOPER

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first woman president, survived her country's troubled and violent past. Now she intends to set a new course for its future.

It's a good bet that few Americans registered that Laura Bush went to Monrovia, Liberia on Jan. 16 to attend the inauguration of Africa's first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. To Americans, their country's connection to West Africa's first independent nation is as tenuous as an occasional mention in seventh-grade history books. It's just as good a bet that Liberians, in droves, took notice of Mrs. Bush's short visit. The truth is, almost all of Liberia's conflicts and wars — and there have been many — have their root in a single place: the United States.

So, as it happens, does Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, who is descended from both former American slaves and native Liberians. Her dual ancestry may make her a particularly appropriate person to help Liberia overcome its complicated history, and move forward.


I. Liberia's American Origins

It started in the early 1800's with America's "Back to Africa" movement. In 1816, a group of philanthropists and abolitionists from the Northern states joined with some scattered slave-owners in the South to establish The American Colonization Society. America was in the throes of the "Back to Africa" campaign which started in part as a response to an unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia. Many Southern plantation owners blamed the insurrection on the growing number of freed blacks in the country, who they believed were inciting slaves to revolt.

The belief was that America could have free blacks, or it could have enslaved blacks, but it could not have both. To defend the institution of slavery in America, there had to be a place to send the growing numbers of freed blacks. So arose the "Back to Africa" movement.

Those pro-slavery supporters joined forces with slavery opponents, such as Rev. Robert Finley. Finley, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey who is credited with founding the American Colonization Society, believed that since America would never accept blacks as equals, they would be better off in Africa.

A lot of prominent Americans supported the movement, including Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House; General Andrew Jackson, who was 16 years away from being elected president, and Francis Scott Key, who had just composed the words that would later become the national anthem. All of them showed up at the first meeting of the American Colonization Society in Washington, D.C., in December 1816. Interestingly, most of the supporters at the meeting were from slave states; about half were slave-owners themselves. They didn't want to end slavery; they just wanted to get rid of the free black population.

Consider what Clay, a slaveholder from Kentucky and one of the founders of the group, said at its first meeting:

"Of all the classes of our population, the most vicious is that of the free colored. It is the inevitable result of their moral, political and evil degradation. Contaminated themselves, they extended their vices all around them, to the slaves, to the whites. Every emigrant to Africa is a missionary carrying the credentials in the holy cause of civilization, religion and free institution."

So, clearly, from the start, the movement was plagued by contradictions. The same miscreants who needed to be shipped out of the country were going to be good God-fearing men promoting Christianity in Africa.

The colonization society sent two agents to West Africa to scout for land. They went to the British colony of Sierra Leone, where their request for land for America's freed blacks was turned down. But the British did introduce the Americans to John Kizzell, the son of an African chief, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery when he was visiting his uncle on the coast. Mr. Kizzell landed in South Carolina, where he was sold to a Charleston family, just before the start of the Revolutionary War. During the war, he escaped and joined the British, who protected him until the war was over and then sent him to Nova Scotia, then England, and finally, in 1792, to Sierra Leone, where he became the equivalent of a big man around town: he used his English and Westernized accoutrements and values to serve as a negotiator between the Europeans and the West Africans.

Mr. Kizzell steered the American agents to nearby Sherbro Island, a malaria-infested swamp ruled by a variety of competing African kings. He negotiated with the African kings on Sherbro to provide land for the coming freed blacks from America. During his two-way mediation, he left out a lot of things to both sides. For instance, he didn't tell the American agents that the African kings expected any freed blacks to reside on Sherbro under their rule — to, in effect, become assimilated into the African village structure. Nor did he tell the African kings that the Americans expected they were colonizing their own country, and bringing the uncivilized Africans under their rule. The African kings were suspicious of Mr. Kizzell and the motives of the Americans. But while they didn't agree to sell the land outright, they didn't disagree either.

This non-agreement agreement was enough for the American Colonization Society. And so it was, that on the freezing, blustery winter afternoon of February 6, 1820, the first ship, called the Elizabeth, left New York harbor with 88 American blacks and three white members of the American Colonization Society. Just before the Elizabeth set sail, the ship's passengers drew up Liberia's first constitution, the Constitution of 1820, which required that the new settlement operate under United States laws. Thus began America's first and only attempt at empire building.


II. Liberia's Troubled History

The native Liberians didn't exactly welcome the new American colonists, and several battles were fought between the two sides early on. But the colonists had guns and cannons provided by the American Colonization Society, and they won all of the early skirmishes.

Shortly after the American Colonization Society contingent arrived, they changed the name of the capital city, Christopolis, to Monrovia, after President James Monroe. They called the nation Liberia, Latin for "Land of the Free."

On July 26, 1847, Liberia declared itself an independent nation — the first independent nation in Africa — in a document that borrowed heavily from the American Declaration of Independence. Liberia's 1847 Constitution explained, among other things, why it had become necessary for the nation to cut its ties to the American Colonization Society.

The native Liberians, by and large, were left to form the 95 percent of the population with access to very little of the country's wealth. They invented a derogatory term for the non-natives: "Congo people." The phrase came about in the early 19th century, after Britain abolished the slave trade on the high seas. British patrols seized slave ships leaving the West African coast for America, and returned those captured to Liberia and Sierra Leone, whether they came from there or not. The native Liberians, many of whom had engaged in the slave trade themselves, were not happy about this new business of freeing the slaves and dumping them in Liberia. Since most of the slave ships entered the Atlantic from the mouth of the massive Congo River, all newcomers became known as Congo people. The name also came to apply to all non-native Liberians, even those freed blacks who had arrived from America.

Ironically, the Congo people set up the same type of ante-bellum society they had left behind in America. They installed themselves at the top of the social hierarchy, monopolized the big government jobs, and basically ran the official economy. They wore top hats and tails to festive events, built big houses with wide verandas and hired native Liberians as their servants. It wasn't much different from the style of living in which the Europeans who colonized the rest of Africa were engaged, except for one thing: in the case of Liberia, the people at the top were black.

For 150 years, Liberia's ruling elite showcased its society and economy as one of Africa's finest. A lush tropical slice along the Atlantic, it was the only country in sub-Saharan Africa never colonized by Europeans. Many of Liberian's Congo people looked on smugly as coup after coup engulfed other African countries after the Europeans pulled out. The belief among many was that this could never happen in politically stable Liberia, because it was never colonized by Europeans. Until it did.

In the early hours of the morning on April 12, 1980, a group of enlisted Liberian soldiers led by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, a native Liberian member of the Krahn ethnic group, stormed the executive mansion and killed the president's security detail. President William R. Tolbert, in his dressing gown, came out of his bedroom on the top floor and tried to get to his wife and children's quarters. He was bayoneted and disemboweled.

Liberia, for the first time since its founding, was under the management of native Liberians. Unfortunately, the new President Doe was just as bad, if not worse, than his predecessors. He carved out the country's wealth for his native Krahn group, and targeted members of other ethnic groups, along with the Congo people. He had political opponents rounded up and executed.


III. The Rise of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

During one of his purges, after an attempted coup in 1985, Mr. Doe's forces arrested Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Her crime was trying to register an opposition political party. The government soldiers came to her house at night, taking Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf to the army barracks at Schiefflin, about 11 miles outside of Monrovia. They put her in a cell with about 15 other prisoners, all men. Just past midnight, the soldiers returned to the cell with a rope, which they used to tie together the hands of all the prisoners, except one. When they ran out of rope they relieved Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf of her shoelaces, and used them to tie the last man to the group. As she stood, shaking, in a corner, the soldiers led the 15 men outside, and executed them.

Still later that night, another soldier entered Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's cell, and tried to rape her. He was stopped by another soldier.

"They say you're Gola," her savior said. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf was descended from the American blacks who founded the country, but she had a native Liberian strand.

She nodded. "My grandpa was Gola."

"What village?" the soldier asked.

"Julejuah."

"You speak Gola?"

"A little."

"Okay," the soldier said. "I will sleep on the floor here in your cell tonight so no one hurts you."

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf survived the night, and 20 years later, on Jan. 16, as Laura Bush watched, she was inaugurated president of Liberia, the first woman ever elected president of an African country. She won 59.4 percent of the vote in the runoff election held in November, beating a former soccer player and native Liberian, George Weah.

The country she took over this month is not the same place it was before the 1980 coup that unseated the descendants of the American blacks; it isn't even the same place it was in 1985 when Mr. Doe threw Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf into that prison cell. After the Doe coup, the historic division between the Congo people and the native Liberians splintered into rivalries between almost all of the country's ethnic groups. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a Congo Liberian backed by the Gio and Mano, invaded from the Ivory Coast, where he had massed an army. Fourteen years of war, devastation and lawlessness ensued, including the execution of President Doe. Mr. Taylor was elected president in 1997 — beating Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf — and was later accused of helping launch wars in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. By the time he was driven from power in 2003 — under a deal forged by West African countries, the United Nations and the United States — Liberia was a bullet-ridden shell of itself.

It would be nice to think that after more than 150 years of injustice followed by 26 years of bloodshed, this great-great-great granddaughter of American blacks and native Africans can finally bring some measure of reconciliation to Liberia. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf must walk in both worlds, and convince a people exhausted and brutalized that the things that unite them are far greater than the things that divide them. She'll need the help of the outside world, particularly the United States. But in the end, it will be the Liberians themselves who determine whether their country finally lets go of the past and gets on with the business of reconciliation and rebuilding.

Lela Moore contributed research for this article.

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