Following the British example of Freetown, the American Colonization Society established the settlement of Monrovia in 1824 to resettle freed American slaves and called the surrounding territory Liberia.
In 1848 Liberia became an independent country with a constitution similar to that of the USA. The borders were delimited by treaties with the British and the French in 1892 and 1911 but the government did not gain effective control of the territory before 1940. From the outset, power was in the hands of a prosperous Americo-Liberian elite well organized around the "True Whig" party and the Masonic Order. This elite soon became corrupt and grew wealthy on rubber, iron ore and foreign ship registrations while the indigenous tribes comprising 95 percent of the population had little to say in running the country and still less about sharing its wealth.
In 1980 an indigenous non-commissioned officer called Sam Doe led a successful coup killing the president and publicly executing 13 of his True Whig ministers. The military dictatorship that followed was even more corrupt and brutal than the Americo-Liberians had been. Power was now fully in the hands of Doe's small Krahn tribe which accounted for only 2 % of the population. Any sign of opposition was brutally repressed and Doe's savagery was being compared to that of Uganda's Idi Amin Dada by the end of the decade.
Late in 1989, several hundred members of the Gio and Mano tribes that had been ill treated by Doe, revolted in the northeast under the leadership of Charles Taylor who had previously been accused of embezzlement by Doe when they had been working together in 1984. The Gio tribe soon formed their own separate rebel forces under Prince Johnson and a bloody three way civil war began. It took seven years of intertribal warfare and of repeatedly broken cease-fires, for the combined efforts of neighboring African countries and of the UN to impose a settlement and to organize elections which were won in July 1997 by Charles Taylor with 75% of the vote.
Liberia had once more a democratic form of government after almost twenty years of dictatorship and civil war but it was now physically ravaged and economically ruined with a 2 billion dollar foreign debt and no real assurance that the interests of corrupt leaders would not prevail again over that of the country and of its people.
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The building on the left is the Florida Hotel where I paid 10$ for a grubby room with no electricity and no running water.
Fighting in and around Monrovia had stopped more than two years ago but the city was still in shambles. The copper conductors of the high voltage power lines feeding it had not been replaced and the few who had generators had very little fuel to run them.
There was an atmosphere of tension around groups of unemployed young men with nothing to do. I took very few photos, and did so surreptitiously, for I had been told of severe beatings suffered by NGO expats who had taken pictures openly. That is why these are so poorly framed.
This shot, taken from the hotel balcony, shows downtown Front Street with a street vendors carting 50 liter water containers in a wheelbarrow.
The reconstruction of Monrovia and of the country's economy will cost huge sums of money which nobody is eager to invest in a country that shows little prospects for lasting stability.
It is difficult to imagine the potential for violence that hides behind this peaceful view of the Mesurado River taken from my hotel window.
There presently is a democratic form of government but there is no real community of interest between the two dozen tribes that inhabit the country. On the contrary, the political tradition in Liberia, as in many other African countries, is that of oppression of the majority by a corrupt minority that hangs on to power by all possible means until it is violently thrown out.
Democracy means little to the average Liberian who does not know what it really is (more than having to vote now and then). Sixty two percent of the population is illiterate and only a fourth of school age children attend classes. Family and tribal solidarity is far more important than abstract notions of how the management of public funds by politicians and officials should be kept strictly separate from that of their own private resources. As far as they know, corruption is the norm for that is all that they had seen for generations. Most of them accept that it is the prerogative any official to demand graft at any level of government.
A political career can be a very attractive proposition when corruption is so widely accepted and practiced. In many countries it is the only place where any real money can be made. Politics is the poker table with best odds and the highest stakes in Africa.
With such high stakes it is no wonder that it attracts all kinds of adventurers and desperados that would not be tempted to go into politics in countries where there is less money to be made without risk because corruption is better controlled.
In my mind, Liberia is a textbook example of the mechanism by which corruption leads to dictatorship, revolution and civil war. History repeats itself over and over. We have seen the same process at work not only in Africa but also in many other places, namely South America.
As I see it, Russia and Central Asia are now in the dictatorship phase of the cycle. We can all shudder at what the revolution and civil war that might complete the cycle will be like. We are all concerned for corruption prevents the establishment of an even playing field for the operation of the global economy. It is in the interest of each one of us to do something to fight international corruption.
On a lighter vein, this shot shows that there is always a good time to be had with good friends and a glass of beer, even here in war torn Liberia. These courageous African born Lebanese businessmen were reluctant to talk about the ordeal they had lived through but they had not lost their love of life and sense of humour. In the back, Louis Haddad, the hotel owner and friend Marta Cisco, in front from left to right, Jacques Khalef, yours truly and Alex Karout.