Monday, 14 July 2003

What's Behind the Crisis in Liberia?

How Washington Set the Stage for War

The rhetoric is about AIDS and poverty, but the agenda is oil and empire. George W. Bush's mid-July tour of Africa highlighted the ways in which the U.S. is consolidating its economic and strategic role across the continent--from preparing a possible deployment of American troops amid Liberia's civil war, to praising pro-market "neoliberal" policies in Uganda, Senegal and South Africa.

But the more involved the U.S. becomes in the crisis-wracked continent, the clearer it is that Washington isn't the solution--but bears responsibility for the civil wars and social catastrophes across Africa. Exhibit A is Liberia.

Established in 1847 by wealthy Americans determined to rid the U.S. of slaves by sending them to Africa, Liberia functioned as a virtual American colony, ruled by a tiny elite of the descendants of former slaves. Known as Americo-Liberians, they worked with U.S. companies like Firestone, which established the world's largest rubber plantation there in 1926, while the indigenous population remained impoverished.

During the Cold War, Liberia, despite its small population--still only 3 million today-- became a key outpost for U.S. efforts to undermine national liberation movements and prop up pro-Washington dictators in the name of fighting communism. In 1980, Master Sgt. Samuel Doe took power in a coup against the Americo-Liberian elite. When the Reagan administration took over the White House, it immediately flooded the new regime with millions of dollars in aid, in exchange for help in its efforts to destabilize nearby Libya.

Doe ruled through assassinations, repression and fraud. Once the Cold War was over, the U.S. cut him loose, and he was assassinated by rebel forces in 1990. "Master-Sergeant Doe is the latest victim of imperial euthanasia," wrote Nigerian journalist Tunji Lardner. "He died because his treatment was withheld by the United States and his life-support system shut off."

After a civil war in the early 1990s, the power vacuum was eventually filled by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian who used widespread hatred of Doe and ethnic tensions to mobilize support. Taylor had backing from Libya as well as the former French colonies of Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and he successfully exploited regional rivalries to divide a series of peacekeeping forces sent by West African nations--principally, Nigeria--in the mid-1990s.

A combination of brutality and bribery allowed Taylor to win presidential elections in 1997 with 75 percent of the vote. Key to Taylor's success was his control of much of the region's diamond trade and his constant shifts of alliances in the region.

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