Monday, October 30, 2006

Liberia - "Land of the Free"

This is a follow up to my previous post on Mittal Steel. I've just spent the last 2 days reading about Liberia, and it’s truly fascinating. In the United States, Liberia is associated with the ideal of freedom and liberty, as it is perceived as having been founded by freed American slaves. This romantic notion has become entrenched in American society but is not quite based on historical facts. “Liberia was actually founded by the American Colonization Society, a group of white Americans—including some slaveholders—that had what certainly can be described as mixed motives. In 1817, in Washington, D.C., the ACS established the new colony (on a tract of land in West Africa purchased from local tribes) in hopes that slaves, once emancipated, would move there. The society preferred this option to the alternative: a growing number of free black Americans demanding rights, jobs, and resources ata home”. The society found support amongst the white communities of Maryland where there were large number of fee slaves, and the state passed a law “that required any slave freed after that date to leave the state and specifically offered passage to a part of Liberia administered by the Maryland State Colonization Society”. By the 1840s, the American Colonization Society was largely bankrupt, and hostile local tribes, bad management, and deadly diseases demoralized the transported Liberians. The U.S. government would not claim sovereignty over the colony, so in 1846 the ACS ‘demanded’ that Liberians declare their independence.

After independence Liberia faced serious pressures from France and Britain who challenged its sovereignty and enroached upon some its lands. Liberia, was seriously economically starved and would soon find itself seriously in debt to foreign donors (prophesizing the predicament Africa would face a cenruty later). Thereafter two events would shape the fate of modern Liberia, one "was the grant in 1926 of a large concession to the American-owned Firestone Plantation Company; that move became a first step in the modernization of the Liberian economy. The second occurred during the Second World War, when the United States began providing technical and economic assistance that enabled Liberia to make economic progress and introduce social change".

Surely with its economic liberalisation, democratic institutions and deep rooted respect for Freedom, Liberty and the 'American Way' - in Latin, Liberia translates to "Land of the Free" - Liberia should be a beacon of hope for Africa and yet it remains a desoerately poor war-ravaged state. The two events that were meant to 'modernise' Liberiaended up enslaving it.

The Firestone rubber plantation is spread over an area in excess of one million hectares making it the largest rubber plantation in the world. The conditions there are appalling: "all of the workers are poverty-stricken Africans, enduring extremely inhuman conditions under the constant guard of American and now Japanese overseers who live in the finest houses in Liberia, looking down on the field hands from their verandahs and the company's private golf coursess." By contrast, "most of the workers have never been off of the plantation and do not even know that the world has moved on and slavery has been abolished." The company was sued by the International Labor Rights Fund in 2005 for "forced labour" - i.e. slavery.
The second event - economic liberalisaton meant to bring about 'social change', led to the country owing billions of dollars which it had absolutely no way of repaying.

Far from being a symbol of freedom, Liberia is a symbol of subjugation. The emancipated slaves who were 'sent' to Africa to 'establish' this country lost their freedom the moment they were 'asked' to leave. America challenged the very model of colonialism (discounting The Philipines, Puerto-Rico, Cuba, Panama and maybe its not all that against the occupation of nations !) by being the power that sought not to expand but that was only because it found other ways of enslaving people and Firestone is a testament to that. Liberia also proves that free and fair election don't translate into freedom. In 2005 the country elected Africa's first female Prime Minister in transparent elections, her first course of business: attracting foreign might remember Mittal Steel.


ayla said...

Great post, thanks for the education!

I hope you don't mind if I link this on my blog.

Rabia said...

great post. I believe Thomas Jefferson was an early supporter of the colonization idea.