1990s >> 1997 >> no-1118-october-1997

“Democracy” comes to Liberia

Towards the end of July this year, Africa’s oldest republic— Liberia—held its first free and fair elections since its birth in 1847.

As had been widely anticipated, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party won a landslide victory—the same Charles Taylor who attempted to take power by force back in August 1990 and whose efforts were largely responsible for the ensuing seven-year-long civil war that brought Liberia close to socio-economic destruction, a conflict as bloody as any West African state had witnessed since Biafra’s attempt to secede from Nigeria back in the 1960s.

For the superstitious, it is paradoxical that the number seven meant nothing but bad luck for Liberia, for this is how long their civil war lasted, and that the number 13 now holds out hope. This is the 13th attempt that Liberia has made at resolving the conflict since 1990—all past attempt, under the auspices of Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States), having gone up in flames.

Whether Liberia is entering a new and real period of “relative” democracy is anyone’s guess. For one thing, ethnic and factional tensions are still simmering and only half of the 60,000 combatants of the recent conflict have handed over their weapons to Ecomog—the joint West African peace force that has supervised the country during the elections. For another, both the US and Nigeria want to lay before the world a “peace’’ they helped to orchestrate— Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha because of next year’s elections in Nigeria and the US because of their failure in Somalia and elsewhere to finally shed what may be seen as US responsibility to its former colony.

There is another reason for viewing Liberia’s newly-won ‘‘democracy’’ as illusory. Namely that for many voters. Taylor was a pragmatic choice. Most of Liberia’s largely illiterate population still view Taylor as a powerful demagogue, holding him in fear and awe and seeing him as possessing the keys that can both open the doors to further destruction or reconstruction. In this light it is easy to see why Taylor’s vote could well have been premised on the assumption that had he lost he could have used those same keys to Liberia’s detriment.


Critics have suggested that Ecomog—charged with monitoring Liberia’s first six months of democracy—are more interested in the lucrative spin-offs their stay will bring (access to resources such as timber, rubber and diamonds) than the peace they are supposed to watch over.


And neither will the US be turning down the opportunity to make a few quick dollars.They have indeed several geo-political interests in Liberia such as the world’s largest rubber plantation set up by the Firestone Rubber Company in 1926 and an Africa-wide communications network that from a US viewpoint can only be of use to serve the capitalists back home.


As always, bourgeois democracy comes at a high price to African countries and Liberia is no exception. Over 150,000 lost their lives in the recent conflict and the country’s economic and physical infrastructure has been decimated. Further upset is undoubtedly on the horizon as Taylor, sitting in his Executive Mansion faces the pressure from a population’s high expectations.


As can be expected, a fraction of what is required will only ever be delivered to those Liberians in greatest need. The real winners, in time-honoured tradition, will be those Liberians and foreign investors who own and control the means for producing and distributing wealth.


The greatest and saddest irony is that 150 years after Liberia was declared a republic (26 July 1847), a colony founded for freed slaves, the country is still inhabited by slaves, albeit wage slaves, and the only real freedom they can enjoy is that involving the sale of their physical and mental abilities to the highest bidder in order to survive.
In a country ranked 158 on the United Nations Human Development Index of 174 countries, with an unstable ruling class and an unpredictable leader at the helm of a society ravaged by poverty and war, democracy has a somewhat hollow sound.


John Bissett