Synopsis of Liberia's History
A Casualty of the Cold War's End" Continues...
1959, Liberia concluded a mutual defense pact
with the United States. Over the next decade,
the U.S. government built two sophisticated communications
facilities (known as R-site and T-site) to handle
diplomatic and intelligence traffic to and from
Africa, to monitor radio and other broadcasts
in the region, and to relay a powerful Voice of
America signal throughout the continent. In 1976,
the U.S. Coast Guard erected an Omega navigational
station -- one of eight around the world -- to
guide shipping traffic in the eastern Atlantic
and up and down Africa's west coast. Although
Liberia was no longer the focus of U.S. interest
in Africa -- new nations like Ghana and Nigeria
and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa
claimed the bulk of official and media attention
-- U.S. aid grew steadily.
1946 to 1961, Liberia received $41 million in
assistance, the fourth largest amount in sub-Saharan
Africa (after Ethiopia, Zaire, and Sudan).
V. S. Tubman
1962 and 1980, economic and military aid totaled
$278 million. In per capita terms, Liberia hosted
the largest Peace Corps contingent and received
the greatest level of aid of any country on the
entire African country. Liberia voted with the
United States on most key matters at the UN, although
it sometimes sided with other African states,
particularly on decolonization and anti-apartheid
gradually extended ties to the Soviet bloc, but
he supported the United States on Vietnam, as
did his successor, William R. Tolbert, who took
office on Tubman's death in 1971.
1978, Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president
to make an official visit to Liberia (Franklin
Roosevelt's stopover had been for refueling).
The Soldiers Take Control Americo-Liberian political
hegemony ended abruptly on April 12, 1980 when
17 young army officers of indigenous descent staged
a bloody coup. Tolbert was slain in the Executive
Mansion, along with more than a score of others,
mostly security personnel. Another 13 officials
died in a nationally televised execution 10 days
later on a Monrovia beach.
amid rising public pressure for political and economic
reform and a crackdown on dissent by the Tolbert regime,
the takeover was welcomed by many inside and outside
Liberia as a significant shift favoring the 95 percent
of the population excluded from power by Americo-Liberians.
went wild in celebration of what seemed like our history's
finest moment," according to one eyewitness, Cameroon-born
journalist Bill Frank Enoanyi, who lived in Liberia
for many years and wrote an account of the civil war,
Behold Uncle Sam's Step-Child (Sacramento: SanMar Publications,
turned 28 shortly after seizing power, became head of
state and chairman of the ruling People's Redemption
Council (PRC). The young soldiers reached out to the
grass-roots opposition groups who had campaigned against
Tolbert and named reform-minded politicians to senior
government posts. They faced a massive task, however.
"The past rulers, bent on improving their own personal
positions at the expense of the masses of the people,
destroyed the economy," Minister of Planning Togba-Nah
Tipoteh, one of the newly named civilians, said when
interviewed in his office several weeks after the takeover.
According to Sawyer, the new rulers vacillated between
"a populist program of development" and "retaliatory
indigenous hegemony.... The only consistency about military
rule in Liberia was the repression rained upon the people
and the looting of the society." Caught off guard
by the turn of events, the Carter administration reacted
cautiously. But after a policy review, an aid package
was approved "to exercise influence on the course
of events," Assistant Secretary of State Richard
Moose told Congress in August 1980. "We have maintained
an active, frank and open dialogue with the new Liberian
government," said Moose, who had visited Monrovia
in June. He characterized the coup as a reaction to
"the corruption of the Tolbert government"
and "the general indifference of the ruling elite
to the plight of the people at large."
Reagan took office in 1981, support for Liberia was
increased. Aid levels rose from about $20 million in
1979 to $75 million and then $95 million, for a total
of $402 million between 1981 and 1985, more than the
country received during the entire previous century.
Ties with the Liberian army were strengthened; the military
component of the aid package for this period was about
$15 million, which was used for a greatly enlarged training
program, barracks construction and equipment. In 1982,
Doe was invited to Washington for an Oval Office meeting
with President Reagan. Although the session began on
a miscue, with Reagan introducing his visitor as "Chairman
Moe" during a photo taking in the Rose Garden,
Doe received what he wanted -- a promise of continued
American backing. The policy was based on a belief that
Doe and his colleagues could be coaxed back to the barracks
and Liberia set on the road to democracy. Doe, who had
been trained by U.S. Green Berets, helped matters by
embracing the new administration's 'hot-button' concerns.
Before coming to Washington, he had closed the Libyan
mission in Monrovia, as Reagan had done in Washington.
Doe also ordered reductions in the size of the Soviet
embassy staff. His second-in-command, Thomas Weh Syen,
who was said to favor a pro-Libyan tilt, had been tried
and summarily executed along with four other Council
members for plotting Doe's assassination. And politicians
also considered to be "radicals," including
Tipoteh, had been removed from the Cabinet. As part
of the expanding relationship, Doe agreed to a modification
of the mutual defense pact granting staging rights on
24-hour notice at Liberia's sea and airports for the
U.S. Rapid Deployment Force, which was trained to respond
to security threats around the world. A year after the
meeting with Reagan, Doe followed the precedent set
by Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko in establishing diplomatic
relations with Israel, thus breaking away from the isolationist
stand adopted by most African countries in the wake
of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
A Cog in
the Anti-Qaddafi Machine Exerting a pivotal impact on
Liberia policy was the closely held fact that Doe and
his small country had been drawn into an effort to oust
Libya's Muammar Qaddafi from power. Within weeks after
Reagan's inauguration, the CIA, under the direction
of Reagan's trusted adviser William J. Casey, began
encouraging and supporting anti-Qaddafi activity by
Libyan opposition groups and friendly foreign governments.
Reagan officials were outspokenly critical of Qaddafi.
However, the existence of a large-scale covert operation
coordinated by a special CIA task force on Libya under
Casey's personal direction came to light only after
the 1986 bombing raid on Tripoli, when details were
published in February 1987 by Bob Woodward and Don Oberdorfer
in a front-page Washington Post article and by Seymour
Hersh in the New York Times Magazine. According to Hersh,
the Tripoli raid was directed by the same small group
of officials who carried out the arms-for-hostages operation,
which later erupted into the Iran-Contra scandal, including
National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, and Oliver
North, an NSC aide. Hersh also asserted that the decision-making
process within the White House and the CIA used "internal
manipulation and deceit to shield true policy from the
professionals in the State Department and Pentagon."
In addition, the administration set up an interagency
committee, headed by William P. Clark, who was then
deputy secretary of State, to outline economic sanctions
and other options for isolating Libya. By the time Doe
arrived at the White House in August of 1982, the CIA
task force had pinpointed Liberia as a key operational
area -- an easily accessible base for the CIA's heightened
clandestine campaign against Libya throughout the area.
to government officials involved in Liberia at the time,
one of the first steps taken was to make high-tech improvements
in at least one of the communication facilities in Monrovia
Liberia's usefulness as a regional linchpin already
had been tested during a covert operation in support
of Chadian leader Hissene Habre, who had successfully
ousted his Libyan-backed rival, Goukouni Oueddei in
June. In Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981 - 1987
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), the Washington
Post's Woodward says Casey launched the Chad operation
after an National Intelligence Estimate he read his
third day in office convinced him that Chad could be
Qaddafi's Achilles' heel. According to Woodward, Casey
selected Doe as one of 12 heads of state from around
the world to receive support from a special security
were designed to provide both extraordinary protection
for the leaders and otherwise unobtainable information
and access for the CIA. Unknown to almost everyone else
involved in making decisions about Liberia for the administration,
this gave the CIA and the White House a huge stake in
keeping the Liberian regime in place. That objective
proved increasingly challenging. Although a 25-person
constitutional commission headed by Amos Sawyer, then
dean of the University of Liberia, presented its report
in early 1983, the ruling PRC delayed the holding of
a promised referendum, creating growing unease in the
country. An assembly convened to review the constitutional
draft made a number of controversial changes. "Not
only did it remove from the draft every measure designed
to exact greater accountability of public officials,"
Sawyer charges in his book, "but it altered the
draft to suit the specific political ambitions of Doe."
When a vote was finally held in July of 1984, the draft
passed overwhelmingly. After tolerating a relatively
free press immediately following the coup, the regime
began to react more defensively, banning some editions
of newspapers and jailing reporters.
1984, the government shut down the leading daily, The
Observer, edited by Kenneth Best, one of Africa's best
known journalists. The PRC also used a ban on political
activity, enacted in the aftermath of the coup, to crackdown
on critics. Even after the ban was lifted at the time
of the referendum, the authorities refused to let students
engage in political activities. In preparation for presidential
elections, Doe set up an Interim Assembly (with himself
as president), changed the election timetable and his
date of birth to meet the age eligibility requirement
in the constitution, created his own political party,
and declared his candidacy for office. In the run-up
to the vote, the regime barred two of the largest parties
from competing, including one headed by Sawyer, who
was arrested for suggesting in an interview with a Monrovia
newspaper that Doe should resign his job because he
was requiring other government employees who stood for
office to do so. When the balloting took place, Doe
declared himself the winner by 50.9 percent of the vote,
despite ample evidence that he had been defeated.
the Reagan administration accepted the results. "This
performance established a beginning, however imperfect,
" Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker
told Congress two months later, a "benchmark"
by which the country can judge itself and be judged
in the future. Liberians were "baffled" by
Washington's reaction and the "reluctance to concede
the grimness of Doe's human rights record," Enoanyi
says. The situation grew increasingly bad, particularly
after a failed coup attempt by Doe's exiled former second-in-command
Thomas Quiwonkpa, which was followed by stepped-up attacks
on the opposition. The deterioration in the situation
provoked a congressional reaction. Prior to the election,
Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee
wrote Doe protesting the trial of a leading opposition
candidate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former minister
of finance and World Bank official. After the election
results were announced, the House and Senate each passed
nonbinding resolutions calling for an end to U.S. assistance,
but the administration announced aid would continue.
election spectacle, Washington again became preoccupied
by Libya, sparked by the hijacking of a Trans World
Airline flight from Athens to Rome. "Although there
was no direct connection between Libya and the TWA hijacking,
Woodward and Oberdorfer reported in the Washington Post,
"top officials at the NSC and CIA became determined
to get tough with Libya, the most vulnerable of the
terrorism-generating states." A National Security
Council staff proposal to support an invasion of Libya
from Egypt to remove Qaddafi led to further planning
and eventually to the April 1986 air raid. Meanwhile,
the CIA activity in Liberia increased markedly. "We
were prepared to use every lever against Tripoli, and
Monrovia had an important part," said one intelligence
official with on-the-ground experience in West Africa.
But it wasn't only the Libya operation that vindicated
Casey's pick of Liberia.
proved important for another covert action that year
-- the airlift to Unita mounted after the 1985 repeal
of the Clark Amendment, which had barred covert U.S.
security assistance to any of the factions in Angola.
Almost as soon as the votes were counted, the Agency
began shipping materiel, with Roberts Field again playing
a key support role as a transit point. In early 1987,
Secretary of State George Shultz landed at Roberts Field
at the end of a six-nation African tour and, to the
consternation of many, applauded "continued efforts
towards political reconciliation" during a luncheon
with Doe. The secretary, who also met opposition leaders,
stressed that the government "must make changes
in its economic policies." In private discussions,
Doe bemoaned his fiscal plight and told Shultz, according
to one official who was present, "I don't know
who to trust." But the secretary's warning was
too late. A General Accounting Office audit released
shortly after his return revealed massive mismanagement
of U.S. aid funds, which, on top of an existing $800,000
arrearage, forced the administration to change course.
After lengthy negotiations, Liberia agreed in 1988 to
hand over supervision of government spending for two
years to a team of 17 experts from the U.S. Agency for
International Development (AID). Before the year ended,
Doe had scuttled the arrangement and the experts went
24, 1989 two dozen armed insurgents quietly crossed
into Liberia from the Ivory Coast, ushering in a new
and tragic phase of the Liberian saga. U.S. Policy in
the 1990s The connections spanning two centuries and
the particularly close ties of the 1980s led Liberians
and others to expect that the United States would help
when trouble came. The 1989 insurgents were led by Charles
Taylor, 40, a former procurement clerk in Doe's government
who fled to the United States after being charged with
embezzling a million dollars, was detained in Massachusetts
for extradition and escaped from jail while awaiting
a hearing. The rebels expected to quickly garner support
and cover the 200 miles to Monrovia in a matter of weeks.
Doe's army responded by rushing reinforcements to Nimba
County, where the rebel force was advancing, but the
soldiers, who were mostly Krahn (Doe's ethnic group),
helped stir antigovernment sentiment throughout the
area by indiscriminately attacking villages and murdering
civilians. Two American military officers were dispatched
to advise on "restoring and maintaining discipline"
among the troops, the Department of State announced.
The unrest caused mild alarm In Washington. An interagency
working group , chaired by Assistant Secretary Cohen,
was convened to review the situation and reexamine options.
This was followed by extensive discussions in the Deputies
Committee. "There were different views on how active
we should be," said one participant, "but
ultimately, the prevailing view was that this was something
for the Liberians to work out themselves."
that evolved throughout 1990 can be viewed through the
prism of three guiding principles. 1. Reluctance to
Break with Liberia's Rulers. As soon as the first reports
arrived from Nimba, there were a few calls within the
administration for a course correction that would distance
the United States from Doe's unpopular rule. Many of
the officials taking part in the early discussions at
mid-level had direct experience in Liberia, and some
had tutored Doe in everything from diplomatic protocol
to separation of powers. Having directed the heavy investment
in promoting Liberia's "experiment in democracy,"
most thought the policy was working and "fought
like hell to maintain it," in the words of one
dissenter. As the deliberations moved up the policy
chain, new global considerations took precedence. Liberia's
proven utility as a military staging base and intelligence
monitoring site weighed in Doe's favor. Moreover, policymakers
were instinctually leering of Taylor, since they had
intelligence indicating he had received modest backing
from Libya, including training for some of his men.
2. Disregard for the Potential Impact of Low-Level Engagement.
U.S. prestige carried more sway in Liberia than most
senior policymakers realized in their 1990 evaluations.
The inclination was to downplay the significance of
historical ties rather than employing them as tools
for successful diplomacy. "We deployed a large
marine amphibious force near Liberia to evacuate U.S.
citizens, an operation accomplished with great efficiency,"
Cohen said in the previously cited interview. "A
modest intervention at that point to end the fighting
in Monrovia could have avoided the prolonged conflict."
to deploy the four-ship task force was taken on May
31, 1990 by the Deputies Committee, chaired by Scowcroft's
number two, Robert Gates, and officials hoped the move
was merely precautionary. "Gates worried that if
we sent the Marines ashore, desperate Liberians would
rush the embassy and CNN would be there showing the
grisly sight," a participant in the deputies sessions
said. Meanwhile, horror stories from Liberia received
little attention in the United States, even though the
fighting was moving into Monrovia and claiming hundreds
of lives. Although there was widespread disappointment
with the American approach, respect for U.S. power remained
high. In August 1990, the White House saw first-hand
what direct involvement could achieve. Officials wanted
to mount a rescue effort for Americans and other foreigners
trapped by the fighting in Monrovia without landing
Marines in the capital.
of vehicles was organized to travel from the U.S. embassy
through an area of Monrovia where many other foreign
embassies were located (and where foreigners had taken
refuge) and then south 65 miles to Buchanan, Liberia's
second largest city. The plan required cooperation from
rebel leader Taylor, whose forces controlled Buchanan.
Taylor had sent signals that he wanted to work with
the U.S. government, but many officials remained skeptical
of his intentions. After lengthy discussion, Admiral
David Jeremiah, deputy to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Colin Powell, placed a call to Taylor by satellite
phone. Taylor agree to allow evacuation helicopters
to land, and the rescue took place without incident.
A more dramatic
demonstration of what Washington could do came the following
month during a trip to West Africa by Assistant Secretary
Cohen following the capture and killing of Doe by another
rebel faction, headed by former Taylor protégé Prince
Johnson. A multinational West African peacekeeping force
dispatched to Liberia in late August had managed to
separate combatants but was itself coming under heavy
fire from Taylor's troops. Mediation efforts had failed
repeatedly, but Taylor told Cohen he would agree to
a U.S.-brokered truce. "With the United States
involved, we can have peace," Taylor's spokesman
said when the cease-fire was announced. News of the
break-through was not well received at the White House
where officials accused Cohen of exceeding policy guidance.
"He was ordered to come home and explain his actions,"
according to one official involved in the incident.
Taylor felt tricked, as he confirmed during an interview
the following year. Asked in a tape-recorded session
his attitude towards the United States, where he lived
for several years, Taylor said "we appreciate America's
concern." And he added: "We have had long
ties, and we are not stupid enough to believe those
ties should be broken." The cease-fire incident
left a scar. Tom Woewiyu, Taylor's defense minister
until he broke away last year, said the rebel army,
known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, had
postponed a full-force assault on the capital for several
months at the urging of U.S. officials. "The Americans
told us, 'it looks like Doe is going to leave-- why
don't you hold off,' and we did because we didn't want
to see Monrovia and its people destroyed." After
Taylor realized that Washington had no intention of
actively backing the accord he had made with Cohen,
he feared he had been the victim of a American and Nigerian
scheme to keep him from taking power. The delay probably
cost the Front the chance to seize control of Monrovia,
because the Nigerian-directed West African force was
later able to push the rebels out of the capital, the
only part of Liberia they never captured.
returned to fever pitch in Monrovia, the city became
a 'killing field' of previously unimaginable proportions.
3. Preference for Arms-Length Diplomacy. Forceful diplomatic
engagement of the kind that has long been routinely
employed by superpowers was never attempted in Liberia.
Instead, U.S. involvement was limited largely to the
protection of American lives and the provision of emergency
aid. And there was not much public pressure to do anything
more. "Unless television images come into American
living rooms of little starving babies," former
President Jimmy Carter said in a 1993 interview with
the author, "the U.S. government just looks the
other way and pays very little attention to what's going
on in Africa." In the case of Liberia, there was
almost no TV coverage.
members of Congress did press the administration to
seek additional avenues for actions. One of those urging
higher-level U.S. diplomatic activity in Liberia was
Republican Senator Nancy Kassebaum, now chairman of
the Subcommittee on Africa Affairs of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee."We have a responsibility to
help fix some of the problems we helped create,"
she said in a 1992 interview. One idea mentioned more
and more frequently as fighting grew heavier towards
the middle of 1990 was the "Marcos option"
-- a U.S.-managed departure for Doe like the one arranged
by the Reagan administration for Philippine President
Ferdinand Marcos. But the NSC Deputies Committee refused
to let the State Department make such an offer to Doe,
fearing further entanglement. As an alternative to American
leadership, the administration gave encouragement to
West African mediation and peacekeeping, initiated by
the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States
(Ecowas), with Nigeria playing a leading role. "Ecowas
said 'this is our responsibility' and they have been
doing their best to handle what is a terrible situation,"
Scowcroft said in the previously cited interview. "If
it can be handled by states in the area then that is
how it should be done." West African governments,
however, expected and wanted a more active American
role. "We could not understand how the U.S. government
with its long-standing relationship with Liberia could
remain so aloof," said Ambassador Joseph Iroha,
a career Nigerian diplomat who represented Ecowas in
Monrovia for several years during the war.
states sent in troops to stop the fratricidal killing,"
he said, because "we couldn't allow this sort of
thing to continue." What Have We Learned from Liberia?
Unfortunately, by the time Ecowas was able to organize
an intervention force in late 1990, the country's dismemberment
was far advanced and domestic division had been cemented
with widespread bloody conflict. In addition, the peace
force brought problems of its own. ECOWAS troops have
been accused of various misdeeds, including some extensive
looting in the early days, and they have at times turned
brutal in the face of resistance to their authority,
particularly from Taylor's NPFL. Nevertheless, the West
African initiative represents the first time that a
regional body had intervened to stop a conflict in its
own region, and there is little disagreement that military
and political actions of ECOWAS have saved many lives,
at considerable cost to the member states. With Nigeria
in the lead, participating nations have spent well in
excess of $500 million in Liberia, according to estimates
by both U.S. and Nigerian government officials. The
operation is one of the largest in the world and the
only major peacekeeping effort not run by the United
world body established a Liberian observer mission in
late 1993, the only significant outside assistance for
the West African effort was about $30 million from the
United States. After a lengthy interagency debate early
last year, the Clinton administration approved another
$30 million to underwrite deployment of troops from
outside the region. Critics of U.S. policy argue that
even after the administration decision to limit direct
American involvement, Washington could have done much
more, both materially and diplomatically, to bolster
the West African effort and make it more successful.
No one can judge with hindsight whether the loss of
an estimated 150,000 lives and the regional devastation
spawned by the Liberian crisis could have been prevented
without extended U.S. military engagement, but It is
difficult to find a Liberian who doubts that firm U.S.
leadership would have made a decisive difference. Many
U.S. officials, too, now share Cohen's assessment that
more could have been achieved without creating a quagmire.
What is certain is that failure to stop the fighting
during 1990, before the entire country was demolished,
erected barriers to a solution that still have not been
overcome. The result was to condemn Liberia and much
of the region to continuing suffering and to divert
scarce international assistance from economic development
to sustaining refugees.
tentativeness that characterized Liberia decision-making
has been exhibited in a number of other crises in Africa
and beyond. In Somalia, another Cold War orphan, military
action came so late that, as when all the King's men
were confronted with a shattered Humpty-Dumpty, it proved
impossible to put all the pieces back together. What
could be interpreted as a tacit admission that a new
approach is needed is contained in a re-examination
of policy towards Africa, National Security Review 30,
carried out by the Bush administration in the final
months before Clinton took office. "There is little
to be lost and much to be gained through an activist
policy," the study concludes. "Our enormous
relief efforts could be lessened by actions designed
to eliminate the causes -- political, environmental,
and economic -- of the crises to which we must respond.
A diplomacy aimed at prevention and resolution of conflict
is the sine qua non of an effective pursuit of all U.S.
goals in the region." Crisis prevention has been
the watchword of Clinton policy as well. "In the
face of all the tensions that are now gripping the continent,"
the president told the White House Conference on Africa
last year, "we need a new Africa policy based on
the idea that we should help the nations of Africa identify
and solve problems before they erupt." However,
this administration, like its predecessor, has seldom
found the political will to forcefully confront Africa's
crises -- even when they bear American fingerprints.
A Casualty of the Cold War's End," was published
in CSIS Africa Notes (July 1995). Copies can be ordered
for $4.00 per copy from the African Studies Program
of the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
1800 K Street, Washington, D.C. 20006 USA. Tel: (202)