Friday, November 17, 2017

Liberia got off to a bad start and turned to Old Lady to dig itself out

The West African country of Liberia was born out of the desire of white people in the still young United States to rid themselves of a small, but increasing, anomaly: free black persons.

In early nineteenth century, America found itself with a growing class of freed blacks, many of them children of slaves who had somehow found themselves freed, for reasons ranging from happenstance to, in many cases, interracial rape. White slave owners had impregnated their slaves, who then had mixed race children whose skin color was a daily reminder of the hypocrisy that infused antebellum life. Many of these mixed race children were eventually freed.

The rising number of freed blacks worried the white slave owners. ... And so began the "back to Africa" movement, centered around the thought that the best way to prevent slave rebellions was to send free blacks back to Africa.

In 1820 the first of many shiploads of mixed-race freed slaves and blacks headed to West Africa ...

These new colonists were mostly lighter skinned, literate, and Christian as against the native population, Africans who naturally resented being told they had new superiors. These newcomers forcibly installed themselves as a ruling class over 28 indigenous ethnic groups, came to be labelled "Congo people" because the locals associated them with slave traders, and proudly ruled Liberia as an outpost of "civilization" among "savages" for over 100 years.

Helene Cooper, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal correspondent, is descended from these Congo people; her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as a coup plunged the country into violent upheaval. The subject of her book, Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also a descendant of those immigrants, but her family background is complicated, giving her from early life an ability to move between native Liberian culture and the highfalutin world of the ruling class. This biography tells both modern Liberia's story of mis-development, misrule, mistakes, and misfortune that made it ripe for a bloody 25-year war of all against all and also the life story of the complex, charismatic, talented, not always admirable individual, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won two elections that finally brought some stability to a battered country.

It's hard to overstate how brutal Liberia's civil conflict was. From the 1980 military coup that evicted the Congo establishment through rule by a series of warlords until 2003, at least 250,000 people were killed and perhaps a million displaced. Exhaustion, global disgust with the warlords, and mobilization among some of the war's most helpless victims and enduring survivors, market women, finally brought an unstable peace. Along the way the last warlord, Charles Taylor, won a disputed election in 1997 in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, still very much a proud Liberian, but also a U.N. Development officer and banker, participated without much success.

For all the death and destruction he had heaped on Liberia, Taylor somehow had the support of a great many people. Those supporters -- including masses of young boys singing and dancing for their Pappy in the streets -- adopted the unofficial campaign slogan "He kill my ma, he kill my pa, I will vote for him." To most Westerners that made little sense, but to Liberians, it was a perfectly understandable extension of Darwin. Taylor had proven to be the strongest at war ... he deserved his shot at the presidency. "He spoil Liberia -- so let him fix it."

Taylor won that round and soon the war resumed, drawing in the neighboring West African nations. (Taylor is now serving a 50 year sentence in Britain, condemned by a U.N. tribunal for war crimes, torture and mayhem.)

In November 2005, after two years of anxious peace, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did win the country's new presidency. Her rise was foreshadowed by the rising of market women that brought the warlords to peace talks. The country's interim government had thrown them a scrap in the form of a new Ministry of Gender. As elections approached, the minister, Vahba Gaylor, threw her scant resources into getting women registered. Out of the country's disrupted population of 3 million, 1.5 million were enrolled, of whom 51 percent were women. Sirleaf campaigned on her history of resisting (some of the time) the depredations of a generation of warlords.

"Old Lady was old. But Old Lady knew how to fight!

The election came down to a runoff between Sirleaf and the soccer star George Weah. His support consisted mainly of young men, but "the women had their own tricks ..." Her women supporters worked overtime to get young men to trade their voter ID cards for beer or cash -- or simply stole them from sons and brothers.

Years later there was no shame among the women who stole their sons' ID cards. "Yeah, I took it. And so what? ... That foolish boy, wha' he knew? I carried him for nine months. I took care of him. I fed him when he wa' hungry. Then he will take people country and give it away? ..."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman ever elected president of an African country. Then she had to govern it, overcome constant male resistance, reduce some corruption, wrangle reduction of its unsustainable foreign debt, win re-election, try to revitalize a broken society and economy, and fight back against the 2014 Ebola outbreak that threatened to wipe out a million Liberians. Somehow she did all this, or something like it.

Cooper's account is detailed, surprisingly objective since this author obviously admires her subject hugely, and completely fascinating, a window into a world of which it is easy for people to the U.S. to stay ignorant.

This is a book to "read in the audio version." It is performed by Helene Cooper's sister, Marlene Cooper Vasilic, and offers an intelligible rendition of the Liberian English phrases sprinkled throughout the text. It's a chance to hear a little bit of West Africa.

As I write this, Liberia is again in political turmoil, still striving to achieve a peaceful transfer of power to another elected leader. Sirleaf, now 78, is termed out. An older George Weah is still the leading candidate of young men, while Sirleaf's vice-president Joseph Boakai runs against him. Neither received a majority in an October poll and a run-off has been postponed over charges of irregularities. For the sake of Liberians, let's hope this vibrant country can extend its short history of peace.

1 comment:

joared said...

This is a fascinating review of a country whose history has been mostly unknown to me other than recalling hearing of Taylor’s atrocities. Thanks for sharing. Let’s hope the nation can remain peaceful with a new leader who cares about his country and its people.