Liberians’ Love-Hate Relationship with America

By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 7, 2007


In describing Liberia’s relationship to the United States of America, someone once coined the term, “America’s step child”. It is a description to which many Liberians take exception, although the description may be an apt appellation. Liberians’ furious rejection of this description is quite justifiable, because if the country is described as such, what does that make Liberians to Americans?

Many perceive this step-child relationship as meaning the country remains a perpetual juvenile. This idea psychologically undermines sovereignty and self esteem and many Liberians argue forcefully and continuously against it.

This debate about AFRICOM, the proposed US military base in Africa, and maybe Liberia, has kicked this age-old debate into full gear again. Is Liberia America’s step child? Is America worthy of the honor? Has America demonstrated any moral responsibility towards Liberia? In short, what has America done for Liberia lately?

To justify their argument, those opposed to the cozy relationship remind others to exercise caution and restraint in expressing faith in America. They rightfully raise such issues as: Where was the US during the Liberian crises? Many argue that as a principal ally of Liberia, the United States had an obligation to intervene when a legitimate government was overthrown in 1980. But not only did America not intervene to rescue the toppled government, she actually increased aid to the military government and actually hosted the leader of the coup at a White House dinner, thereby accentuating its legitimacy.

After civil rights erupted in the country in the early 1990s until 2004, America again had a hands-off attitude. America simply airlifted its citizens residing Liberia. She even went so far as rescuing Europeans and other nationals out of Liberia. In the process, Liberians were left to fend for themselves or die. Many died.

When the excesses of ex-dictator Charles Taylor were just too much to bear, US President George W. Bush finally spoke and issued an ultimatum: Quit and leave or face the wrath of America. Charles Taylor hurriedly packed his bags and took refuge in Nigeria. It was so amazingly effective; many were forced to wonder, “Why didn’t America act sooner?” The same people answered sarcastically, “Because America didn’t care.”

In the waning days of the Taylor regime, a brutal war had griped Monrovia. Rebel forces smelled an opportunity to take over the country as government troops battled to keep control. Many contend it was a last effort to loot the city for individual gain. Many residents who had hitherto survived found themselves trapped between two vicious forces --- the result was senseless death for many.

As this scene unfolded and the world watched in horror, America agreed to intervene by promising to send in some military troops; but America’s Marine and Naval forces were only stationed off Liberia’s coast, never set foot on Liberian soil where the battles raged. It was argued and concluded by the US legislature: “Liberia’s conflict is not worthy of American lives.” Using their experience in Somalia as a backdrop, they argued that it was too risky to involve the American military in yet another African conflict.

Whether one agrees in totality with these positions or not, it must be observed they make sense. Those who caution that Liberians must act with utmost caution in assessing the country’s relationship with its oldest ally, the United States, make a pretty strong point. It is seemingly true that the US has not acted in good faith always in dealing with Liberia. The bottom line seems to be that she acts only in her own interest, hence the argument that Liberia is not even a friend --- and to call her a step child, therefore, is preposterous.

But let us examine the flipside of the argument: Hasn’t America indeed being Liberia’s staunchest ally? Is it not true that America was justified in her “hands-off” approach to Liberia’s internal crises? Didn’t America have the right to exercise caution because civil wars are not the same as foreign invasions? Had Liberia been the victim of foreign invasion, instead of the self-inflicted crises, is it possible America’s response might have been different?

It is quite logical to reason that Liberia’s self-punishment justified America’s action or inaction. After all, what better way is there to undermine a country’s sovereignty than intervening in a civil crisis? America, by abstaining from taking any action, might have just been respecting Liberia’s sovereignty and its right to self determination, even if it meant self-annihilation.

I don’t have the actual figures, but it is apparent that in Liberia’s effort to rebuild herself, America has taken the leading role. America has pledged more and actually delivered more than any other country in rebuilding Liberia. (I stand corrected if this observation is wrong. Maybe somebody will publish official figures to contradict me, but I doubt it).

Here are some other facts: More Liberians have been settled in America than any other country. When the issue of returning home was revisited by US lawmakers recently, panic and pandemonium broke out among Liberians. The American legislature was debating whether Liberians residing here on expired visas should be accorded extra time or be asked to go home. After all, it was argued, Liberians now had a peaceful government. But nobody was prepared to go home. It was like being asked to board a bus headed for the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It is an open secret that Liberians just love to live in America --- eve those living in Liberia or elsewhere just can’t wait to get their hands on an American visa.

To have the right to stay in America, even for just one more year, Liberians launched an effective campaign lobbying the White House, Congress and State and Local governments. They participated in prayer vigils across the country and asked those in Liberia to pray for them. They appeared on numerous press media to appeal to all --- to beg and beg. Their cries could be heard all over the place and whether you supported their cause or not, you were simply moved to empathize with them. Everywhere you turned and listened you heard: “Please, please, please do not let us go back home; it would be cruel and unusual punishment to have us go back home after we’ve re-established our lives here. We don’t want to uproot our children; this is our new home and we love it here so much…”

Liberian organizations pressured the Liberian government to appeal to the US government to reconsider the decision. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a person much admired by the US president and many legislators as well as others in high places, actually had little choice in the matter --- she appealed to the US government: “Please don’t send my nationals home, they have no place to stay in their own country; their own country is not prepared to host them all, please continue to host them.” Believe it or not.

Finally, their appeals were heard --- their prayers were answered. America granted their request. Liberians were granted an extension of stay on a program called Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), though only for a year at a time. The process has to be repeated a year from now. But to many, a year in America is like an eternity in heaven; they enjoy it while it lasts.

Those affected by this temporary condition are working fast and furiously to gain permanent residency in America. Gaining permanent residency, getting a green card, is the most coveted desire Liberians have, maybe except for those who are already permanent residents and are trying to become US citizens. Yes, it is an age-old Liberian Dream: Becoming a US citizen. (As I was preparing this article, a Liberian residing in the US was asking for help in a chat room how to find a cheap one-way ticket from Liberia to America --- obviously for a relative or loved one). A one way to ticket to America!

So you see, many Liberians have this split personality or mentality when it comes to the question of America: They love America dearly, yet they love to hate America. That proverbial syndrome of psychological conflict --- the mind against itself, is what many Liberians exhibit --- this produces the classic love-hate relationship.

It is obvious that Liberians are a very proud bunch. We love our country dearly, yet starring reality in the face, we must admit that we’ve got problems --- very serious problems. We are the oldest African Republic yet seem like the youngest kid on the block. We send our patients to Ghana and South Africa for medical treatment. The Nigerians are helping to train our army and police force. Our schools and universities are deficient. We barely have any paved roads and those that qualify as paved roads are full of potholes. We can barely feed ourselves --- we have fertile lands yet we import our staple food, rice, which can be produced using the lowest form of technology. Our police force is corrupt and so is the rest of civil service. Our justice system is corrupt and inefficient. To put it mildly, the system is in shambles; operating at a very antiquated stage of development. We are grouped with the world’s poorest countries. Those are the facts, and so help me God.

It is a truism that unless a problem is clearly identified and correctly diagnosed through critical assessment, the right solution cannot be found. Liberians are reluctant to face our problems, instead we blame others for our shortcomings, never putting the blame where it belongs… right on our shoulders. But until we do, we’ll always fight that psychological battle; even when we win, we’ll lose.

We need to use our collective resources, human, natural and capital to assess and solve our problems correctly. Nobody will do it for us. We need to start by looking at ourselves as one people of one common nation., instead of playing the blame game and acting along ethnic and tribal lines. Our ethnic and tribal rivalries brought us nothing but wars and the ultimate loss of valuable lives.

So instead of blaming America or any other country for its foreign policy, Liberians need to wake up to poll our collective resources to build us an enviable nation --- a nation with modern institutions, pluralistic, free, secured and open to all. A nation that will respect the human rights of all its citizens and other residents without regards to religion, creed and other superficial differences. A nation that will establish and support the principles of free enterprise and free trade. Until this is done, even Liberians who become US citizens will ultimately become second class citizens of both countries. Unless Liberians wake up and face our problems realistically, not only will our country remain a step child to America, Liberians will forever be America’s step children.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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