The Liberian and African Experience: AFRICOM, Another Case of “Smell No Taste”
Felix Greene, a British-American journalist, film producer and the author of the book: The Enemy: What Every American Should Know About Imperialism (1965), wrote:
“Marshall Plan aid, essentially intended to keep the post-war economies of the West, European countries within the capitalist world, was also intended to dominate their economy. Every transaction was arranged to provide not only immediate profits for specific US banks, finance corporations, investment trusts and industries, but to make the European nations dependent on the United States”. (Felix Greene was a cousin of the novelist and playwright, Graham Greene)
The same is true of Africa and most developing economies. The Red scare or the Red menace classified "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" (Truman) as Communists or Communist sympathizers. There was hardly any distinction; if you were not with the West, you were considered Communist. The Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that was established in 1937, headed by Chairman Martin Dies, had as its main objective to investigate un-American and subversive activities. The Committee became a Red witch hunt. It is reported that about 600,000 persons abroad and in the United States were alleged to have engaged in subversive activities.
One of the first prominent African casualty is Patrice Lumumba; the son of a farmer, who was born in Katako Kombe in the central Congo on July 2, 1925. After leaving school, Lumumba worked as a nurse's assistant and a postal clerk. He was an active trade unionist. He founded the Post Office Employees Club. Also, he served as secretary of the Association for African Government Employees.
In October 1958, Lumumba founded the National Congolese Movement (MNC). He became president of the organization and the following year led a series of demonstrations and strikes against the Belgian colonial government. Lumumba called for Congo to be granted its immediate independence from Belgium. As a result, he was arrested but after sustained demonstrations the authorities were forced to release him.
After parliamentary elections in May 1960, the MNC became the country's strongest party. Lumumba became the new prime minister and immediately talked about the need for social and economic changes in the country. His decision to adopt a non-aligned foreign policy resulted in the CIA becoming interested in the activities in the Congo. At the time, Congo was governed from Leopoldville (Kinshasa). But in Kantanga, a rich mining province, was under the control of Moise Tshombe. In July 1960, Tshombe, with the support of Belgian troops and white mercenaries, proclaimed an independent republic. Lumumba appealed to the United Nations for help and Dag Hammarskjold agreed to send in a peace-keeping force to restore order.
During the disturbance, Lumumba was arrested by soldiers commanded by Joseph Mobutu; the man who became known as Mobutu Sese Seko. After Lumumba was arrested, he was transferred to Elizabethville, Katanga, where he was murdered on January 17, 1961. Lumumba’s murder prompted the UN Security Council to pass a resolution demanding an inquiry into the circumstances of his death. However, the inquiry was rejected by Moise Tshombe, but evidence that emerged later indicated that the Belgian government was behind the events that led to Lumumba’s death in Katanga. (source: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/COLDlumumba.htm)
The same can be said of many leaders and freedom fighters in Africa, Asia and Caribbean who were considered Communists; they were either killed, imprisoned or were on the run. This practice became the practice of the time. During this period, Liberia was considered significant to the West, especially the United States.
In 1932, in reaction to the hypocrisy practiced by imperialist nations, Kobina Sekyl, a Ghanaian lawyer and philosopher, wrote:
“When each tribe or nation is enabled to develop along its own line, the respective geniuses of the several distinguishable races will harmonise in the establishment of a settled state of peace and prosperity, where development, scientific and social, including moral and political, advance will be steady”. (West Africa, Third Week of July, 1932)
But no; this was not the type of relationship the West wanted to have with the rest of the so-called ‘Third World’! The relationship that Sekyl advocated has never been the relationship the West had with Africa, and for that matter, the United States had with Liberia. For this reason, some writers referred to Liberia as America’s “Stepchild”.
It is on this basis I compare the establishing of AFRICOM in Liberia as another “Smell-no-Taste”. For those of you who do not know what is meant by “Smell-no-Taste” or familiar with the area, let me fill you in. During World War II, the United States established a military base in Liberia. The base was located in the area known today as Robertsfield named in honor of the first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. “Smell No Taste” got the name from the local villagers who could only smell the food aroma coming from the U.S. military base but could not have any to eat, so they referred to the area where the food aroma came from as “Smell No Taste.”
In accordance to the practice in most African societies, it is considered ‘mean’ not to share one’s food with your neighbors or strangers; but in the case with the Americans, the villages could only smell the food, and were not given any to eat. In short, the relationship that developed between the villagers and the Americans is best described as: “Monkey work, Bamboo draw”. What started as “Smell No Taste” became the standard practice the United States use in dealing the Liberian authorities. U.S. corporations too, benefited from this one-sided relationship in their dealing with Liberia and its citizens.
As you are aware, Liberia has a long history of being a traditional friend and ally to the United States. This relationship started with the “founding” (establishing) of the Republic of Liberia, whose main purpose was relocating blacks who were considered undesirables to live among whites in North America. Yet, Joseph Jenkins Roberts spent the first year of his presidency attempting to attain recognition from European countries and the United States. The UK and France were the first countries to recognize Liberian’s independence in 1848. In 1849, Portugal, Brazil, Sardinia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Haiti recognized Liberia’s independence. However, the United States withheld recognition until 1862, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, because the leadership of the U.S. believed that southern states would not accept a black ambassador in Washington D.C.
Due to the lack of support in the relationship the U.S. had with Liberia, the British Government in March 1883, annexed the Gallinas territory west of the Mano River, which it formally incorporated into Sierra Leone. At another time, with the advise of U.S. Government, President Hilary R. W. Johnson yielded to the British demands; and in November of that year, the Havelock Draft Convention finalized the boundary between Liberia and Sierra Leone, which was ratified by both Liberia and Great Britain. Since then, the Mano river has formed the boundary between Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is how Liberia lost its Gallinas territory to Sierra Leone; it was in part due to the indicisiveness of the U.S. to support the country it helped established.
In short, President Grover Cleveland’s response regarding this matter is worth mentioning here. In an 1886 message to Congress, President Cleveland said it was the moral right and duty of the United States to help Liberia. "It must not be forgotten that this distant community is an offshoot of our own system". But when Liberia asked for military assistance against an internal uprising, which the French were thought to have helped instigate, Cleveland's secretary of state refused on grounds that Liberia lacked standing to make such a request. (author’s emphass) In 1892, the French forced Liberia to cede to the Ivory Coast the area beyond Cape Palmas which Liberia had long controlled. President Hilary R. W. Johnson was responsible for this negotiation but retired before the treaty was signed. (Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Liberia)
World War II
Since a country’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic interests, it is interesting to see how this behavior featured in U.S. Liberia relationship throughout the years.
For example, in 1937 President Edwin Barclay, under pressure from the United States, withdrew the concession agreement with German investors, who were accused of sympathies with the Nazi regime in their home country. For instance, after the fall of Malaysia and Singapore to the Japanese during World War II, Liberia became strategically important as its rubber plantation was the only source of natural latex rubber available to the Allies, apart from plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Natural rubber was needed to build tires for American war planes, military jeeps, aircraft guns and sensitive radar equipments. Natural rubber was also required to build portable bridges, gliders, oxygen masks and many other war supplies. American civilian industry also needed rubber for commercial uses, especially tires for private and commercial vehicles.
Due to the increase in demand and drastic reduction in supply, the price of natural rubber rose to astronomical levels. This situation created a national crisis in the United States because natural rubber had become a strategic commodity in their war effort. Writing in his memoirs, former Secretary of State, Cordell Hull wrote, "With Japan's occupation of the Rubber producing areas in the Far East, Liberia became of greatly increased importance to us as one of the few remaining available sources of natural rubber”.
Regarding the above, President Barclay assured the Americans that Liberia would supply all the natural rubber that the United States and its allies needed for the war effort.
In 1942, Liberia signed a Defense Pact with the United States. This commenced a period of strategic development for Liberia; it included the construction of roads, airports and other infrastructure projects. Robertsfield Airport was built with runways long enough for B-47 Stratojet bombers to land for refueling, giving Liberia the longest runway in Africa at the time. In addition, a deepwater harbor was built in the Capital, Monrovia making the country accessible to its huge iron ore deposits, just at the time that worldwide demand for steel was growing. Republic Steel, a U.S. corporation took a major stake in the venture, prompting construction of a rail line and roadway in providing new openings to Liberia's interior.
Due to Liberia’s proximity to South America, again, Liberia became a major West African bridgehead for the South Atlantic air ferry route. For this reason, the Liberian Government also granted to the United States, use of its territory to store war supplies and to construct military bases in Montserrado and Grand Cape Mount counties at what was known at the time as Fisherman's Lake. The United States’ military supplies were collected in Florida, transported through South America to Brazil, then flown from Brazil to the military depot at Robertsfield, where 5,000 African-American troops stored and maintained the inventory. From Robertsfield, war supplies were flown to their final destinations in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
May 27, 1943, President Edwin Barclay delivered an address to the joint session of the United States Congress. In the speech he said:
“…With the world now fighting to maintain for all peoples the democratic ideals upon which the American Republic was founded, Liberia, as a matter of choice is dedicated to cooperate with and to render all assistance within her power to those states that are now engaged in a terrific struggle to banish terrorism and authoritarianism from the world.
“Up to the present we have made considerable contribution to attainment of this objective.
“Although we have neither large armies, air forces, nor navies to contribute, we have what is important in the prosecution of the war-natural resources and strategic positions, which we have freely placed at the disposal of the United Nations as our contribution to the cause of liberty and human dignity”.
To make sure Liberia make good on her promise, President Roosevelt travelled to Liberia in 1943 with these four key issues to negotiate with the Liberian government:
1. finalize plans to establish United States military bases in Liberia, which were to be used as a springboard to transport American soldiers, military hardware, and supplies to North Africa;
2. reaffirm Liberia's commitment to continue supplying the United States with natural rubber;
3. persuade the Liberian Government to expel German citizens, because they posed a security threat to the United States and its allies; and
4. persuade Liberia to abrogate its neutrality, and declare war on Germany and its Axis.
As the result of Liberia’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States, in January 1944, Liberia renounced its neutrality and declared war on Germany and Japan. And in April 1944, it signed the Declaration by United Nations. (Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Liberia)
The Consequence of Severing Relationship with Germany
As you shall see, severing diplomatic relations with Germany and expelling all German citizens from Liberia was a difficult decision for Liberia to make for several reasons: first, German merchants in Liberia ran the Liberian economy; second, Germany was Liberia's major trading partner; and third, most of the doctors in Liberia at the time were Germans. Despite the fact that Liberia found itself between a rock and a hard place, the Liberian authorities were pressured to expel all German residents and declare the full might of the Liberian economy against Nazi Germany and the Axis. What a serious mistake!
As World War II gave way to the Cold War, the U.S. still viewed Liberia as an ideal post from which to fight the spread of communism through Africa. Under Tubman, Liberia voted with the U.S. on most key issues at the United Nations, although it sometimes sided with other African states, particularly on decolonization and anti-apartheid issues.
Since World War II and the Cold War, Liberia has supported America’s foreign policy interests to the detriment of its own, and Africa in particular. For example, Liberia was the only black (African) nation to side with the United States and European nations to create the State of Israel. When the United States needed rubber, Liberia came to its rescue by providing 1 million acreage for a 99 year lease agreement to build the Firestone Rubber Plantation. But when Liberia was badly in need of the United States’ assistance during its worse nightmare the civil wars, the Liberian people found out the hard way that countries only have ‘permanent interests and not permanent friends’. What happened to the “perfect relationship” that Herman Cohen, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs spoke of in the documentary, "Liberia, America's Step Child"? "They (meaning Liberians) were always willing to give us facilities in Liberia. For example, we had unlimited use of Robertsfield and Robertsport. We had two vast antennae stations there, one for diplomatic communications and one for the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasting. We had an Omega navigational station run by the Coast Guard. In other words, there was the perfect relationship for us."
But when he was asked whether the Reagan Administration should have supported Samuel K. Doe, who claimed to have won the 1985 presidential election, Mr. Cohen answered: "We had a dilemma of supporting this gentleman or not. Initially, the Cold War tilted us in favor of supporting him because we got reciprocal treatment..."
It was this nature of support provided by the Americans for its client that made enemies of those who sought legitimate change or reform in their country. This practice is best described by Dr. Byron Tarr in this manner: “…As had others before us, Liberians learned to their sorrow that America has no commitment to any ideals but to its interests, the range of which is narrow”. (Liberian Studies Journal , XV, 1 1990)
According to Deb Palmieri, U.S. Foreign-policy decisionmakers took a system-reformer view which place emphasis on the use of diplomacy as an instrument of projecting U.S. power and prestige in the international political system. On the other hand, these same leaders tend to emphasize "carrots" rather than "sticks" in their attempts to move the Soviet leaders in a desired political direction. They acknowledged that Soviet expansionism poses a tough challenge; nonetheless, they expressed confidence and optimism that the challenge could be controlled through managed competition, negotiation, and tough bargaining within the context of a responsible and regulated bilateral relationship. (U.S. Perspectives on the Soviet Union, Contempory International Issues, 1988)
But when these same US decisionmakers suspect or imagine a Third World country to be leaning towards the Soviet Union, instead of using "carrots", they resort to using "sticks". MOJA-Liberia (Movement of Justice in Liberia), is a classic case in point.
In 1968, the Liberian Ambassador to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr. was charged with treason; tried in media and convicted before the case against went to court.
“The Grand Jury of Montserrado County indicted Ambassador Fahnbulleh on March 7. the twenty-count document charged, in sum, that the defendant “between the 19th day of January 1967 and the 25th day of January 1968, and on several other days, the exact dates being unknown to the Grand Jurors, while in the employment of the Government of Liberia, serving in the capacity of Ambassador Extraordinary and Envoy Plenipotentiary, accredited to Kenya and other East African states and governments, in willful disregard of his allegiance and fidelity to his government, being the Republic of Liberia, did traitorously plan, conspire, contrive and combine with other disloyal persons, both Liberians and foreigners…with the intent to unlawfully and forcibly receive power and control over the Government of Liberia, and in so doing to overthrow this constituted government and authority’. The accused was alleged, more over, to be ‘the leader and promoter’ of an underground movement whose avowed aim was to overthrow the government’”. (culled from “The Trial of Henry Fahnbulleh”, Victor D. Du Bois) This case is interesting, see for yourself!
Again, in the early 1970’s, the drama was repeated. The chairman of MOJA, Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh was dismissed from his position as lecturer in Economics at the University of Liberia for what the authorities referred to as “foreign ideology”, and Members of MOJA were constantly harassed and detained by the State for their political activities. Agents of both the National Security Agency(NSA) and the CIA constantly monitored MOJA’ gatherings. It is relevant to mention here that the Tolbert government and its backer, the U.S.A., throughout the course of the 1970’s, continued to view and brand MOJA as a “subversive communist“ organization, even though the organization never claimed to be communist. (Moses Geepu-Nah Tiepoh, The Making of Disaster in Liberia: The Role of US Imperialism, 1990)
Therefore, when the True Whig Party(TWP) government was overthrown in the 1980 Coup, US Foreign-policy decisionmakers made sure the People’s Redemption Council(PRC) government did not become another Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, Doe’s visit with Mengistu during the early part of 1981 speed up the process for the US to provide support to its government; a government that had just overthrown its closest ally in Africa. And for the PRC to receive its ‘goodwill’, it had to ‘weed out’ the so-called Socialists or Communists in the government; the same trick implored in South Africa for which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, and Patrice Lumumba was tortured and killed in the Congo.
According to reliable reports, the PRC had come to a unanimous decision to reduce the number of Soviet diplomats in Monrovia and not to allow Kadifi’s Libyan Bureau located in Monrovia. After the decision was made, Thomas Weh Syen, then the Vice Head of State, spoke publicly against the decision. His action might have led to a major split between his supporters and Doe, for which he was accused of staging an abortive coup. He was arrested along with four others, they were speedily tried and executed. This began the process of weeding out those in the government that were associated with Weh Syen and for Doe consolidate his power.
Based on the October 1981 Edition of Africa Now, Dr. Tipoteh had expressed his fears to the editors about the direction Liberia was taking. He could not relate to the soldiers and criticism of him had sunk to a ridiculous levels: sartorial. He should not be ordinary in the way he dressed (wear his African attire) because others wanted to be chic (well-dressed, based on European-American standards).
Dr. Tipoteh was attending a World Bank Meeting in Abidjan when Weh Syen was executed, and he decided not to return home. In his letter of resignation to Doe, he said his departure would “give the enemies of the Liberian Revolution less and less opportunities to work against the interest of the Liberian masses”. He added, “The enemies of the Revolution are using the old but effective strategy of sowing seeds of suspicion in the government, especially in the council and the Cabinet, so that members of the government can fight among themselves, not on matters of principle but on accusations based on vicious rumours and hearsay”.
In the same article, Doe is quoted to have said, “Tipoteh’s flight had many implications. The basic being Tipoteh’s fear of what would happen to him because his name was principally linked with Weh Syen abortive coup”. He also stated that his former Minister’s personality and socialist orientation rendered him unsuitable for negotiating much needed loans with international financiers and donor countries. His credibility as an international economist and planner both at home and abroad are at its lowest ebb. His desertion is a relief”. (Africa Now, October 1981, p. 33)
Quite interesting! But since the end of the Cold War, American interests in Liberia have evaporated; which made it possible for Charles Taylor, the former president to take advantage of America’s “neutrality“ and with the blessings of powerful friends within the American political establishment to commit all sorts of atrocities in the sub-region with impunity. “Man like the Rev. Jessie Jackson, a man who condemns Police brutality at home but endorses amputations and diamond theft as ‘positive’ factors for democratization in Africa, has successfully campaigned to block American moves that would have made life difficult for Taylor. In Liberia months ago, Rev. Jackson vowed he would ensure Taylor’s Liberia’s acceptance within the comity of nations, while defying international opinion by informing journalist that the Liberian President ‘is not’ encouraging the war in Sierra Leone”, wrote Tom Kamara. (August 21, 2000 Edition of The Perspective, Article titled: The Futility and End of Elections 2003)
This brings us to the main point of this article, which already a chorus of Liberians and my friend and brother, Dr. Wafula Okumu had said, locating AFRICOM in Liberia is not in the best interest of the region. Secondly, the manner in which the invitation was extended to the Americans did not follow the normal protocol by involving the legislative branch of the government. Instead, the President took upon herself to do so without the required consultation. I personally considered her approach in this matter, a gross disregard for the safety of the Liberian people, and for that matter, the people of the entire West African sub-region. Thirdly, the economic benefits those who support AFRICOM argue will create for Liberians is hardly justified and misleading. A venture of this nature which doesn’t fit the definition of a manufacturing or service industry, cannot impact the economy in any measurable way.
In addition, one may ask, what is the actual intent for which the President has invited the Americans to locate AFRICOM in Liberia? Was the invitation extended on personal basis? That is, to serve as protection in case the perceived problem her government might face in the future? If not, what is the reason for putting the lives of the Liberian people at risk? Isn’t the oath of office she took says, “to protect and defend” the people of Liberia?
Based on news reports, the US had contacted several African Countries, i.e., Morocco and Senegal; they refused the offer before President Johnson-Sirleaf extended the invitation to them.
In this regard, I wish to state here that the building of a command post in Liberia to coordinate terrorist activities will only invite Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network to switch some of its operations to the West African sub-region. In fact such alliance with the United States will not only place Liberia in a defenseless position, it will make innocent Liberians the new target of Al Qaeda.
President Johnson-Sirleaf and those who support the position to locate AFRICOM in Liberia should draw from the experiences of nations like Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan whose alliance with the United States have caused their citizens to live in a constant state of war. Is this what we want? AFRICOM will turn Liberians into the new enemies of Al Qaeda. AFRICOM will not be an asset to Liberia as some people want us to believe, rather it will become a liability to Liberians.
Based on recent experience, it is safe to conclude that America is not interested in the welfare of Liberians unless its national security is in imminent danger. More important, America does not have permanent friends; it only has permanent national interests. This was evidence during Liberia’s 14 years worst nightmare, called civil wars. When Liberia badly needed America’s help, they were nowhere to be found! To add to these bitter experiences is the treatment Liberians received from America’s investors. Firestone for example, worked the Liberian workers like slaves and provided them with substandard living conditions; LAMCO Buchanan on the other hand, polluted the Atlantic Ocean beach with iron ore waste materials, which is now causing erosion in Lower Buchanan. Furthermore, similar environmental mess was created by the Liberia Mining Company (LMC) in Bong Mines and Bomi Hills. Today, the area is referred to by the locals as Bomi Holes.
As a continued struggle for the African people and the workers of the world, Dr Togba Nah Tipoteh offered these words of concern on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Let us ask ourselves why this grand hypocrisy continues to take place when millions of peoples the world over persists in their struggles for democracy. Is Walesa favoured as a Western partner because he is white and Mandela and Remaphosa not favoured on account of their being black? Well, racism does play a role, but it is not central here. What we are witnessing is another phase in the old-age scramble for multinational capital markets and the high profits which they bring. On the average, multinational corporation profits are twice as high in South Africa than in other parts of the Third World. Western creditors who have given Poland loans of nearly 30 billion dollars seek to lend more and continue to get high rates of return in order to prosper. Thus, ‘human rights’ are paramount when they promote profits, but human rights have to play second fiddle to profit rights, as South Africa, when they are considered by multinationals to be promotive of better living standards for the poor and erosive of profitability”. (Togba Nah Tipoteh, “The Hypocrisy of Western Democracy”: A statement by the Movement of Justice on Africa, MOJA-Liberia at UNESCO House, Paris, France December 8 -10, 1988)
Finally, as the saying goes, “You can FOOL SOME of the people, some of the time, but you cannot FOOL ALL of the people, ALL OF THE TIME.
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