Many historians agree that the Civil War was America’s “answer” to slavery as an institution. However, most people of the time understood that simple emancipation would not be enough to solve the race problem; whites did not want to integrate with free Blacks. Their solution was far more revolutionary than war; it was the creation of the new African country Liberia, and the repatriation of all of America’s free Black slaves.
Unfortunately, more than 150 years after it’s birth, Liberia stands as a mere prototype of an unfinieshed ideal.
The American Colonization Society
The idea of moving free Blacks in America to an African colony was proposed shortly after the Revolutionary War by the “founding fathers” of the United States. Most white political thinkers of the day viewed Blacks as “incompatible” with white society, physically and mentally inferior to whites, and that because of the obstacles that slavery posed to our development, we as a people could never be successful in the United States of America.
It was these white separatists who refused to mix with the Black free population that would form the American Colonization Society in 1816, and who would also found the colony of Liberia in 1821 for the purpose of repatriation, or sending Black Americans back to Africa. While this may seem like a benevolent gesture from our perspective, make no mistake: this was a racist organization. Their argument against allowing freed Blacks to remain in the United States was four-fold. They feared that:
1. Blacks were morally lax, and would draw whites into savagery and miscegenation, or the sexual intermingling of the races.
2. More freed Blacks that lived amongst Black slaves would lead to more slave revolts. John Randolph, one famous slave owner, called free blacks “promoters of mischief.”
3. Blacks were mentally inferior, and were therefore unfit for the duties of citizenship.
4. More free Blacks mean more hands competing for jobs that would otherwise go to white workers.
Reverend Robert Finley, then President of the University of Georgia, proposed that a colony be established in Africa “(with their consent) the free people of color residing in our country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress may deem most expedient.”
For three years, the American Colonization Society lobbied Congress in the U.S. and raised funds to support their ultimate objective of ridding the country of freed Blacks. In 1819, they received $100,000 from Congress and on February 6, 1820 the first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed from New York for West Africa with three white ACS agents and 88 former slaves aboard, whose freedom had been purchased by the society.
Among the first crew members was Jehudi Ashmun, a white religious leader who did not want to see African-Americans “own” the new colony of Liberia, but wanted to transform Liberia into a landing zone for a future American Empire in Africa. He used force and manipulation to pressure local tribal leaders into signing over coastal lands, moves that increased Liberia’s power over neighboring countries, but won the organization many enemies among Blacks who previously supported the organization and its efforts. It also didnt help that from 1836 to 1849 the slave owner Henry Clay of Kentucky was the ACS president.
Many students of Pan-African studies are familiar with the ideological differences between the “Back to Africa” and the “Integrationist” camps here in America. The early racist motives and actions of the ACS are the source of this difference in ideology.
The idea of Blacks moving back to Africa to live happily ever after sounded great in theory, but the Black men and women who relocated to Liberia had already been stained with the blood and values of their white masters. In a twist of irony, the Americ0-Liberians began to use the same tactics of exploitation and forced labor against the natives of the area as were used against them in the United States. Americo-Liberians did not see themselves as Africans, and separated from them by creating a separate and unequal society.
By 1841, the Commonwealth of Liberia as it had become known had been completely handed over to Americo-Liberians, and J.J. Roberts became the first Black Governor and President. In 1847, Governor Roberts declared the colony independent and authored the first Liberian constitution that both abolished all political parties (except the ruling True Whig Party), and separated the 3000 Americo-Liberian settlers from indigenous Africans, who were denied voting rights, government offices, and upward mobility.
The indigenous people of the area refused to tolerate the bigotry and nepotism of the settlers, and waged a series of wars against them.
In 1856, war with Grebo and Kru peoples led to the annexation of the Republic of Maryland into Liberia. Later, in 1915, the Kru people would strike back in the form of armed resistance, and an alliance with the Brittish. With the help of a U.S. warship, the Americo-Liberians crushed the rebellion and secured control. From 1864 until 1920, the country continued to suffer from both internal conflict and external aggression from local tribes. During this same period, Liberia gained recognition as a member of the League of Nations.
It was this development that gained the attention of Marcus Garvey.
At the first International Convention of the UNIA in 1920, Garvey proposed the active repatriation of Liberia in pursuit of the greater goal of a United States of Africa. The Liberia program, launched in 1920, was intended to build roads, hospitals, universities, industrial plants, and railroads as part of a UNIA/AFL industrial base. The Americo-Liberians did not share Garvey’s vision, and even after agreeing to work with the organization, sold out to the American Firestone Corporation in 1926.
Firestone would exploit the people of the nation, create vast and brutal rubber plantations, and compensated Liberian employees with pennies in exchange for a $5 million loan to the bankrupt Liberian government. The money soon disappeared, and Liberia was once again bankrupt by the 1930s. After some American pressure, Liberia agreed to an assistance plan from the League of Nations, and two key officials of the League were placed in positions to ´advise´ the Liberian government.
The United States positioned armed forces in the seas and along the land borders of the country to prevent other colonial powers from gaining a foothold in the area, and to suppress indigenous uprisings. Liberia became a honey pot for exploitation by foreign corporations, and a nation impoverished by the corruption of its government. Between 1946 and 1980 Liberia received $780 million in aid and donations – virtually all of which disappeared.
CIA Intervention and Civil War
During the Cold War (1947 – 1991), Africa became a key ideological battleground. African leaders who aligned themselves with the Communism and the U.S.S.R. (Russia), found themselves the victims of assassins, political isolation, and economic embargo. One such victim was William R. Tolbert, Jr., a member of the powerful Americo-Liberian Tolbert family, the 20th President of Liberia and Chairman of the Organization of African Unity.
Tolbert peacefully ascended to power and brought radical reforms to Liberian government. The previous president, William Tubman, had held power for 27 years. Tolbert restricted the terms of office to 8 years starting with himself. He abolished one-party rule in Liberia, and broke ties with the West in favor of a more politically independent nation. Instead, he established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union,People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and several other Eastern Bloc countries.
Tolbert marked the beginning of what could have been a new age of peace and political stability, but from the moment he aligned himself with Communism, Tolbert became a marked man.
In the early hours of April 12, 1980, 17 indigenous members of the Armed Forces of Liberia led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe entered the Presidential palace and killed Tolbert, whose body was dumped into a mass grave together with 27 other victims of the coup.
Cables uncovered from Wikileaks proves that the United States spy agencies have long been involved in the political manipulation of Liberia. Cables such as this one even predicted the election of current President Sirleaf, and asked who her successor would be before she was even elected. Therefore, it is the author’s opinion that President William R. Tolbert, Jr. fell victim to the same tactics used against Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah.
Following the death of President Tolbert, Doe realigned the nation with the West, and received large sums of money from the United States for his participation. Doe would rule for 10 years, until Charles Taylor led a rebel group to capture and execute Doe in what is known as the First Liberian Civil War. After the fall of Samuel Doe, many of the rebels under the leadership of Charles Taylor broke into smaller factions and began fighting amongst themselves. When the fighting finally ended in 1995, more than 200,000 Liberians had been killed.
Following the peace deal, Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997. But enemies of Taylor did not intend to let his ascent to power go unchallenged. In 1999, a rebel group known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy launched an insurrection and set off a second Civil War. For four years, these rebels destabilized the country with little progress towards their goal of deposing Taylor. Then, in 2003, a second rebel group joined the effort from the south of the country.
Under siege from both the northern and southern part of his country, and facing international pressure for his participation in the blood diamond trade, Taylor resigned and fled into exile – leaving the country without a leader. The United Nations stepped in full-force, and by September of 2003, an interim government had been established. Two years later, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard graduate, was elected as the first female president in Africa in what were publicized as the most free and fair elections in Liberian history.
Today, Liberia hovers in limbo. Three and a half million people live in abject poverty. Only 2 percent of the population has access to electricity. Rebel groups remain active, and thousands of unemployed militia men remain armed and dangerous. The slums of Liberia are notoriously some of the most dangerous in the world. The average life expectancy of the typical Liberian is only 56. Only 58 percent of the population can read or write. But the spirit of the people of Liberia remains unbroken. One would not be able to tell by the looks on the faces of the people there that Liberia’s human development index ranks 182 out of 187 countries.
Africa is a world like no other. The people have simple needs and huge hearts. They accept their lot in life with a supreme calmness. [...] Africa is a land where the superfluous and superficial seem stripped away, a place where the fundamentals shine through. What makes it so special is that this vast continent accepts its fate with elegance and grace, head held high. Here, I was constantly amazed at the strength of humankind. Here, nothing is a problem, despite money always being one. Yes, Africans may be poor, but poverty does not bring misery. A state of mind alone can bring happiness.
Liberia, the Prototype
For Pan-Africanists, Liberia serves as an original model of an Americo-African state. Prototypes are typically developed, improved upon, and refined until a minimum level of operability are obtained. So it should be with Liberia, and Africa as a whole. Although many states can be called “failed” from a Eurocentric perspective, failure is always a temporary condition. In the future, Africa and Africans should change the metrics by which we measure our homeland.
- Democracy might not be the most appropriate metric by which we measure the political sophistication of African states like Liberia.
- Christianity or Islam might not be the most appropriate metric by which we measure the spiritual fortitude of Africans.
- Material wealth might not be the most appropriate metric by which we measure the prosperity of African nations.
- Western style academia might not be the most appropriate metric by which we measure the intelligence of the Black man and woman.
There are important lessons that Liberia has provided us, including the importance of unified African sovereignty, self perpetuated leadership, and the intentional direction of our moral disposition beyond Islam and Christianity.
Africa cannot achieve sovereignty alone. It will take the cooperation of nations outside of the African continent. Note that I did not say it would take their help, but foreign nations must cooperate with the development of an independent Africa. In Liberia, as in many other African nations, American, Chinese, Lebanese, British, French, and Pan-Arabic interests trump the interests Africans. Business, military, and political interests of these nations dictate African policy, with complete disregard for African sovereignty.
America refused to tolerate a Communist Liberia, and so President Tolbert was killed.
With that being said, independent African nations like Liberia cannot assert themselves when they are constantly being played against one another by external forces, and when their leadership fails to govern on behalf of the people. We know that many African leaders are either figureheads placed in power by American and European governments, or they are western educated and thus attempt to govern from an incompatible Eurocentric frame of reference. Africa must unite, perpetuate its own leadership, and forge its own identity free of invasive western influence.
The moral disposition of the people – from the youngest child to the oldest politician, must be intentionally developed and culturally reinforced. In countries where war and famine are the order of the day, it will take more than the spread of Islam and Christianity – both of which have been influenced by African spirituality, but have been made incompatible for the people of Africa and of African descent by the cultures who have modified the teachings to fit their own cultures.
The great awakening of Africa must be both political and spiritual. As we discuss the politics of the continent and explore alternatives to western style democracy, we too must explore alternatives to the incompatible spiritual systems that other cultures have forced on us. By intentionally directing the creation of new ideals can we resist corruption, war, exploitation, and all the resulting individual pain and suffering.
This is the mission of United Black America, and every other true Pan-African organization on the planet. Africa must wake up.