Friday, November 26, 2010

Liberia - Things You Might Not Know

Liberia History
Founded in 1847, the country known as the Republic of Liberia was started by freed American slaves. “Liberia” means “Land of the Free”. The government was modeled after the US, and the capital city Monrovia was named after James Monroe, President of the US and a supporter of this movement. Of course there were already people living on the land (16 ethnic groups) so you could imagine that the arrival of these colonizing “Americo-Liberians” was going to cause some tensions at some point. Liberia suffered two civil wars (often referred to locally as World War I and World War II), from 1989-1996 and 1999-2003.
In 1980 Samuel Doe led a coup of men from many ethnic groups that claimed marginalization by the Americos and ended the Americo reign of power by killing the President and most of his cabinet and assuming power. Doe controlled things, manipulated election results and stayed in power until the first civil war in 1989 when Americo warlord Charles Taylor entered the picture. Doe was captured, tortured and killed (an all to common ending to many who have led countries in Africa – payback is a bitch). Lots of other players were involved during this period of course - Prince Johnson, military involvement from many of the neighboring west African countries, the US, and everyone’s favorite north African crazy Muammar al-Gaddafi. Taylor was in power but it was very unstable and the first civil war blended into the second. Taylor was forced into exile in 2003. He currently sits in the International Criminal Court in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. His son, found in California, has already been convicted of war crimes and sits in jail in the US. 
Estimates are that 200,000-250,000 people died during the civil wars. That is a large number in any case, but it seems even larger when you realize that the entire population of Liberia is only around 4 million. In addition to these deaths, many more people were brutalized (injuries, rapes) and uprooted from their homes and forced to flee the country and live as refugees in neighboring countries. Infrastructure in the country was destroyed and life was disrupted including agriculture and schooling. So what you have now is a pretty broken environment and society trying to rebuild and make up for lost time.
  • Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Liberia has the or one of the highest population growth rate in the world at 4.5% per year (different sources claim different things). Half of the population is under the age of 18. Life expectancy is 44-60 depending on which source you believe. Estimates are that 85% of the country is unemployed – the second highest rate of unemployment in the world. 57% of the population is literate. 85% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
  • Liberia has the first female head of state in Africa – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard trained economist. She was inaugurated in January 2006, almost defeated by George Weah, a famous Liberian footballer. Elections are coming up again in 2011. Get ready! I love that every reference you ever find on President Sirleaf has to mention the “Harvard” background. That is funny.
  • 15,000 UN peacekeepers keep the country running. This is one of the largest most expensive UN operations in the world.
  • There is a small surfing movement in Liberia. Seriously. In Robertsport, west of Monrovia. Check it out. Look up Liberia surfing on the internet and see what you find. There’s even been a movie made about it – Sliding Liberia.
  • Liberia has the highest ratio of direct foreign investment to GDP in the world. Liberia’s economic history has included export of iron ore, rubber, timber,and diamonds. The country survives on foreign assistance and concessions given to multinational corporations interested in steel, oil, rubber and other raw resources. There is a very large Chinese presence there, like the rest of Africa. The Chinese have taken over the continent and you should be concerned.
  • There is a large population of Lebanese merchants, families and businessmen who "own" or run many of the large businesses in Liberia (similar to what you see with large South Asian communities in east and southern Africa). Some families have been there a very long time since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But they do not have citizenship rights and I don't believe they can really own anything, certainly not property. They can however secure 100 year leases to "own" the businesses for now.
Young rubber trees - photo by me
  • The American owned Firestone Rubber Plantation Company has been in Liberia since 1926. It is an interesting business with an interesting history. A lot of controversies, but probably also one of the better businesses in Liberia. They stayed during the war. They seem to be doing a lot for Liberians. Their hydropower plant powers Roberts International Airport. It is the only hydropower plant that survived the wars. Mount Coffee, the large hydropower facility that powered Monrovia, was destroyed during the war and remains in disrepair. This means the city is powered on diesel generators.
  • A very cool peace movement was formed by 1000s of women, led by social worker Leymah Gbowee, called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. These women staged silent protests, sit-ins, and refused to sleep with their husbands until Charles Taylor agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. I believe many would agree they played a major role in bringing peace. See the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell for more details. Once again - women rock.

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