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African view: Land of liberty?

A rebel fighter (left - PIC: AP) and a UN soldier (right - PIC: Farai Sevenzo)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Liberia, Farai Sevenzo considers why the country is such a conundrum 162 years after freed slaves from the US landed on its shores.

I was away in West Africa last week, visiting a land I had previously heard about only through its not so distant past.

Liberia could be like one of those small Gulf nations with so few people and too many natural resources for its own good

For Liberia has a past that gave us rebel soldiers, ensured that the term child soldier slipped easily into African consciousness, and showed us the depths to which the human spirit could sink, and the heights to which it could soar.

The warlords are gone, self-declared generals with names like "Butt Naked" have undergone a kind of religious metamorphosis into preachers and men of peace, the ranks of the rebel soldiers have dissolved into a heaving mass of the disarmed and unemployed, and their one time leader - Charles Taylor - is in The Hague, answering questions in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Liberia is a conundrum of sorts. There will come a time, one day in the far distant future, when the histories of African countries will be uttered like fables, as if the things which really did happen in the births of nations were too far-fetched to have been real.

Of course anyone can have such a thought when you look closely at where Liberia has come from - and that is not just the last 20 years or so of uncertainty and war, but also the last 162 years, since America's great colonial experiment began.

From the moment freed slaves set foot on the beaches here and lived close to the Atlantic, the natives have been restless.

UN jeep in Liberia (Photo: Farai Sevenzo)
UN peacekeepers have a presence throughout the country

In this new century, the last war has been over for some five or six years and Liberians are trying to open a new chapter with the ghosts of hostilities past still very much in their minds. Can they do it?

At Roberts International Airport, my eyes are filled with two letters of the alphabet - a "U" and an "N".

For even as the plane lands, all you can see is the archangel white of the massive United Nations presence.

At the last count more than 13,000 strong and all over the airport tarmac in the moody heat of Monrovia's rainy season is the massive machinery of peacekeeping - helicopters, tanks, jeeps, lorries and buses.

Liberia has 90% illiteracy in some parts. It's difficult to imagine what such high levels of illiteracy can do to a nation

In post-conflict Liberia, such a massive presence suggests a ferocious conflict whose repetition cannot be allowed.

It is a beautiful country, hills and rivers too numerous to mention; acres upon acres of unexplored rainforests; gold, diamonds and rubber over a huge expanses; and a population of only three and a half million to enjoy it all.

Liberia could be like one of those small Gulf nations with so few people and too many natural resources for its own good.

But this was the land that gave us murder and mayhem as the 20th Century drew to a close, whose child soldiers smoked gun powder and all manner of drugs, whose warlords practised cannibalism and whose citizens - young and old and maimed - will have a memory of the worst days of the crisis.

And so, wandering the city's hotels and watering holes, the stories of displacement war and terror still amaze.

"It was really bad," a woman not much older than my teenage daughter confides, "there was no such thing as school for us, we always had to be moving.

"So many bodies, if you had seen them you would have lost your appetite."

Forever looking backwards?

But never mind my appetite, how do Liberians find the stomach to relive their horror stories in a truth and reconciliation process? And was it enough?

Milton Blahyi, known as "General Butt Naked"
Milton Blahyi was known as "Gen Butt Naked" as he fought with no clothes

From Grand Kru to Lofa County from Nimba to Grand Bassa normality of sorts has returned.

The roads are bumpy but negotiable, the markets are full of traders, the citizens of the land of liberty are swarming home from every refugee corner and every life of exile as if a silent migratory signal has been set off calling them back to their nests.

But still the shadow of the past is in every conversation, from the indicted leader in The Hague, who is filling newspaper inches every other day - and there are an awful lot of newspapers in Liberia - to the young adults whose education was disrupted, to the nation's ruling elite.

At the helm is President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, whose task of uniting a once-fractured and divided society is too enormous to be judged prematurely.

Even as she stresses the huge work ahead for her nation, there are those who are questioning her decision once upon a time to have given money to someone like Charles Taylor.

But as much as the immediate past demands scrutiny and explanation, it is the long view and a different set of questions which seem to matter.

Liberia has 90% illiteracy in some parts. It is difficult to imagine what such high levels of illiteracy can do to a nation.

Why do so many villages remain remote to the advantages of the 21st Century? Why do tribal loyalties take precedence over national ones? Why is the influence of America, the super-power partner for over a century and a half, not seen in a better light?

And what, if anything can prevent the tragedy of the land of liberty from being repeated?

As Mrs Clinton gets to Monrovia, she should think long-term partner instead of strategic stooge.


BBC News readers have been reacting to this story. Here is a selection of some of the e-mails we've received in response.

It's a sad comparison and, of course, true - Liberia could have been like one of those Gulf States with abundant resources for it own good and indeed with a very small population. Past governments drained the economy of this mighty nation for their own greed to sponsor themselves & families in western and European capitals without bringing meaning and needed developments here. The low level of literacy rate here is also attributed to that.
Thomas W.Cooper, Congo Town, Monrovia

Most Liberians do not see the need to work together to achieve the Liberian dream but rather sit and criticise every government and leader who comes to power. We should look at the example of Mrs Clinton - who vigorously ran against Obama with all her might and lost but yet today can serve in his government as Secretary of State. I am no fan of America but the day I watched President Obama's inauguration, I knew that there is no greater nation on earth than United States of America. They may not be perfect but they have made great strive in that direction. Can you image three or four former presidents in Africa going to the inauguration of the new president? Africa's only problem is leadership. We should spend more money on making great leaders in Africa. I believe that Liberia will set that stage in Africa and be a beacon of light as is her mandate and mission.
Irene Wallace, Monrovia

If America wants to assist Liberia, the aid must be directed only toward education. I am sure if education is given full priority, Liberia will be far better within 20 years.
Samuel, Upper Darby, USA

Our ability to stay focused and confront the challenges of the future will lift our rich nation from self destruction to self construction.
Mohammed, Zwedru, Liberia

Liberia has looked up to the United States for too long with little or no benefits. The descendants of African-Americans in Liberia still see themselves as an elite. So long as these fragmentations exist, there will certainly be a relapse of the violence once the UN leaves. Liberia should forget their relationship with America and focus on developing as a nation, using the good sides of Ghana and the little from Nigeria as inspiration. Nigeria & Ghana are two black African states, each with their own problems, but they still have every reason to beat their chest with pride in terms of nation building. Liberia could start by changing her national flag.
Dozie, Lagos, Nigeria

I was in Liberia a few months back. Most striking thing was the rainbow of people who had descended on the country to help under the UN flag. From Kenyans at the Airport security to Uruguayans managing the traffic outside to Ghanaian machine-gun pill box outside my hotel to an all-woman Indian contingent at the Executive Mansion. Mankind's ability to transcend all that divides us and come together to help a people in need was truly uplifting! The second thing that stood out was the optimism of Liberians in face of acute desperation. Yes, many, many challenges. But I found a resilient spirit that I hope the world will not abandon before the country has had the chance to rebuild to its promise. With all that it has, I agree, Liberia is not supposed to be poor.
Ruby Sahiwal, Los Altos, CA, USA

My homeland Liberia is indeed a sweet place to live. What we need in our country now is to get rid of corruptions, nepotism and armed robberies and all will be fine with our people. Liberians are very strong people who from what I know as a Liberian. Liberians are quick to forget their trouble and never learn to make good of their troubled past. We need to reconcile Nimba county where I am from and Grand Gedeh County and our problems will be solved. Whether they will be true and honest about such reconciliation is the question we struggle with everyday to answer.
Emmanuel A. Rogers, Staten Island, New York. USA

Excuse me, but, the source of the problem can be traced to the attitude of those returned slaves who adopted the paradigm of American segregation and exploitative indenture in their dealings with native Liberians. How would all this not breed disaffection, suspicion and bad blood?Tito Mamza, Gabon

I think the comment made, "Liberia could be like one of those small Gulf nations with so few people and too many natural resources for its own good" is a harsh reminder of where the country has been and not a perspective of where they may be able to go. The true condition of a people is based upon their ability to impact change in a direction of the improvement of the masses and not just the elite. The fact that Liberia's population is so small and its resources so abundant is a good reason to believe that with a greater effort of educating the people in how to prosper from these resources would resolve many of the short term ambitions and inspire a greater depth to a plan for the future. I know that President Sirleaf is doing her best to encourage the education of her people as well as strengthen the women of the nation. So on a positive note, I think we would do more justice to the situation of the country to offer words of encouragement and aid to efforts of developing a sustainable and effectual education while they rebuild the country from the ashes of its troubled past. In conclusion to my response to the above quote I will say this, there is a greater possibility of a positive outcome with a smaller group of people and a larger number of resources.
Loren Brock, Houston, USA

I believe the tragedy of the land of liberty happened due to the high illiteracy rate in the country. Those with money and education (so-called war lords and their sponsors) played on the minds of the Poor and illiterate by giving them guns to fight themselves for a cause they did not know up to present. With this view, I believe that the most important long-term partnership Mrs Clinton and other powers could engage with Liberia should be in the area of promoting education for all. If every Liberian has at least a high school education, I believe no one would be mislead to take up guns and fight themselves.
T Kootee KORVAH, Beppu, Japan

MY COUNTRY IS RICH BUT ONLY THE BIG BIG PEOPLE EAT THE COUNTRY WEALTH.
Sylvester Seke, Monrovia

God help the greed for "acres upon acres of unexplored rainforests; gold, diamonds and rubber over a huge expanses; and a population of only three and a half million to enjoy it all". When will we learn that material assets are worthless when compared with the value of social economy?
Dr Danny Teal, Riga, Latvia

Thanks for the article: Rebuilding our war ravaged nation and maintaining the relative peace is still elusive. It is a pity that Liberians who have acquired education in the United States boast of wealth of experience turned out to be flops and corrupt and yet still occupied the corridors of power. If we are to usher in a whole new epoch President Sirleaf has to begin dismissing these corrupts officials and even prosecuting them.
F Momolu Dorley, Ankara, Turkey

I think the answer to the riddle called Liberia can be found by examining it trajectory after independence in 1847 and its relationship with the Western world. Liberian settlers saw themselves as transposed Americans while the Americans saw them as the success of a colonial experiment. On the other hand blacks the world over saw Liberia's existence as testimony of the ability of the black man to govern himself. All these observations were made from afar without any close scrutiny of the crass nepotism, deprivation and exclusionism practiced by the so-called American-Liberians against the indigenous population they met here. 132 years later, the result became evident with the violent overthrow of President Tolbert who became the ultimate scapegoat. As Liberia progresses, the key to maintaining peace and stability is through eliminating the cult of personality and patronage so pervasive in our society. Regardless of status or position people must be made to account. Probably, I see the Western world making the same mistake again with their current infatuation from afar. God help Liberia!!
Kanio Gbala, Monrovia, Liberia

A stooge is generally defined as a person that is under the control of another. Being called a stooge is not a form of praise. Stooge can also sometimes be used to mean "idiot". Apparently this "reporter" would prefer that the US send cash and troops so that he could assign further blame for US "interference". Liberals never blame the real source of the problem, the local people themselves.
CKH, USA

I agree with the writer that "Liberia could be one of those small gulf nations with so few people and too many natural resources for its own good". But mismanagement and systemic corruption from the ruling elite has made the country one of the poorest in the World. Liberia is not suppose to be poor period!
Abraham Kamara, New Brighton, Minnesota, US



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