Tuesday, December 23

Will Guinea be next?
After the death of President Lansana Conte

Today the death was announced of President Lansana Conte of Guinea-Conakry. President Conte, 74, died on Monday night after a protracted illness. He had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1984.
The news of his death came as no surprise. When I heard it this morning, my first reaction was: ‘Finally’. President Conte was known to be seriously ill and the last five years it was often rumoured that he had died. His declining health led to numerous speculations as to who in fact was in charge in the country. With his death, one of black Africa’s last dinosaur-presidents disappeared. Now only El Hadj Omar Bongo of the tiny republic of Gabon in Central Africa remains – who has the dubious honor to be the world’s longest serving president (since 1967).

Very soon after my initial reaction a second, more important thought came to my mind: ‘What is going to happen next in this country?’

I had to think of another country in the sub-region, Ivory Coast. Its president for over 30 years, President Houphouët-Boigny, died in 1993. Like Conte, he had monopolized power and kept possible successors, hence competitors at a distance. Soon after Houphouët-Boigny’s death the country entered a period of political turmoil, ultimately leading to a civil war (2002-2007/08). Nowadays, Ivory Coast may have left the civil war behind, but the country is de facto still divided in two regions, the North and the South, with 8,000 UN peacekeepers to ensure that presidential elections can be held (postponed till early 2009).

Two other countries in the sub-region, Sierra Leone and Liberia, have also had their share of political strife and violence. Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war ended in 2002, the UN peacekeepers departed in December 2005 after a five-year mission to restore order. Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended with the exile of warlord-president Charles Taylor in 2003. But the peace is very fragile, in both countries, with over 15,000 UN peacekeepers in Liberia (UNMIL).
If the death of President Lansana Conte would spark a civil war in Guinea, it is certain to have a spill-over effect in the region. Guinea is politically very divided – along ethnic lines – and the major tribes all have ‘brothers and sisters’ in neighbouring countries. The two most important ethnic groups are the Mandingo and the Fula. In Liberia, former Mandingo warlord Alhadji Kromah is known to have strong ties in Guinea, where he owns a house in Conakry. Mandingo and Fula people live in virtually each country of the sub-region, in Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Mali. In the latter country, the actual president, Amadou Toumani Toure ('ATT'), has a Fula origin (Peulh in French), whereas one of his main contenders, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ('IBK') has a Malinke (Mandingo) background.

A few hours after Aboubacar Somaré, the impopular President of the National Assembly of the Republic of Guinea announced the death of president Lansana Conte and asked to be sworn in as the new president, in conformity with the country’s constitution, a statement was read on state radio and televison, announcing a military coup d’état.

The statement was read by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, on behalf of a group called the National Council for Development and Democracy. The government and the institutions of the Republic had been dissolved, the constitution suspended, all political activity forbidden. According to Captain Camara, the coup was necessary due to Guinea's rampant poverty and corruption, and because the existing institutions were incapable of resolving the crises which have been confronting the country.
When hearing this, I remembered April 12, 1980. Then Master-Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe used almost exactly the same words when announcing Liberia's first military coup d'état.
Captain Camara said that someone from the military would become President, while a civilian would be appointed as Prime Minister as the head of a new government that would be ethnically balanced. However, a few hours after the announcement of the military coup d’état Prime Minister Ahmed Soumare declared that his government was still in power.

Chaos and confusion seem to be the next scenario for Guinea. A violent struggle for power in Guinea risks to have serious repercussions in the other countries of the sub-region, including Liberia.

To be continued.


Monday, December 15

Liberia: A Visit Through Books

Two weeks ago I wrote about Matilda Newport - myth or reality, facts and fiction - and another previous post was on three Liberian women, Elma Shaw, Helene Cooper and Diana Taylor, who wrote three remarkable books on Africa’s oldest republic (see my October 20 post). I have yet another great story to present. It is about Izetta R. Cooper and Kyra E. Hicks, who recently wrote a very interesting book, 'Liberia: A Visit Through Books'. I thank Kyra for drawing my attention to their work.

Izetta Cooper and Kyra Hicks met in the Washington DC area early 2008. Their passion for Liberia led to a series of meetings during which Izetta told Kyra about Liberia, her life and love for books. The two women decided that Izetta’s story of her life and her knowledge of historical books on Liberia deserved a wider audience, especially for Liberian students and Liberia-interested readers given the destruction of so many documents and books during the 14-year civil war.

The now nearly 80-years old Izetta Cooper was a librarian who worked in the University of Liberia library and also served as Library Consultant for the Presidential Library of the Executive Mansion for President William Tubman (1944 – 1971). Her master’s thesis was on historical books about Liberia and contains a bibliography of more than 230 books. While in Liberia she also hosted and produced a TV show called The World of Books.

The just published book (96 pages) is part biography and part bibliography. ‘Liberia: A Visit Through Books’ also contains an extensive timeline from 1900 – 2008 with historical events, literary publications, blogs, and films about Liberia. 'Liberia: A Visit Through Books' is published via lulu.com. This site has more publications on Liberia.

Kyra E. Hicks is an artist, author and prolific blogger. She taught herself to quilt after visiting a museum exhibit of African American story quilts in 1991. Her quilts have been shown in such prestigious venues as the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Kyra's story quilts have been featured in several books. Kyra E. Hicks also published The Liberian Flag Story & Love of Liberty Quilt, an Amazon Short.

Izetta Cooper and Kyra Hicks have made an important contribution to the preservation of Liberian history and I hope that their laudable initiative will inspire many others. Readers interested in related information are referred to this site of the Indiana University.


Monday, December 1

Matilda Newport (1822) and the civil war

Today, December 1, I had to think of Matilda Newport, a Liberian heroine. Generations of Liberians of all walks of life and every possible background have grown up with ‘Matilda Newport’. For over a century, December 1 was celebrated as a national holiday throughout the country. Liberian school children paraded in the streets of Monrovia and other cities, honoring this courageous woman. Matilda Newport, as the story goes, was a settler-woman, who in 1822 helped to repel an attack on the first struggling settlement by local tribesmen, known as the battle of Crown Hill. Reportedly, she fired a cannon using a coal from her pipe and killed virtually all native people, chasing the survivors. She thus saved the colony.

Nowadays, the younger generation may hardly know who she was. Matilda Newport Day, as December 1 was known, was abolished some 30 years ago. It is typical for Liberia’s unfinished written history that sources differ as to who abolished this controversial holiday. According to some sources the leaders of the 1980 coup, Samuel Doe and his comrades, abolished the holiday which they hated because it symbolized the political and social divide of Africa’s first republic. Other sources state that the Matilda Newport holiday was discontinued by President William R. Tolbert, in his desire to demonstrate that he sought to further cement the unification of the country.

Who was Matilda Newport? Did she really exist or was she an invention of the Americo-Liberian ruling elite, to portray their superiority and to re-affirm the inferiority and cowardice of the aborigines who lived on the land they claimed?

Many Liberian historians and authors of history books have devoted many pages to Matilda Newport, such as Ernest J. Yancy, Richard A. Henries and A. Doris Banks Henries, C. Abayomi Cassell and Nathaniel R. Richardson. The accounts of the Matilda Newport story vary from author to author but have in common that most references to the ‘natives’ were negative: 'savage, primitive, belligerent people' (A. Doris Banks Henries).

Foreign scholars have also researched the Matilda Newport story, like Jane J. Martin and Rodney Carlisle, who conducted a study ‘The Search for Matilda Newport’, published in the Liberian Studies Journal in 1975. Also Svend Holsoe threw more light on Liberia’s heroine in a paper presented at the Liberian Studies Conference, Indiana University, in 2007, ‘Matilda Newport: The Power of a Liberian Invented Tradition’. Particularly I would like to recommend, however, the excellent writings of Siahyonkron Nyanseor. He conducted extensive research on Matilda Newport alleged deeds. His (unpublished) research paper is entitled: ‘Matilda Newport’s Deed, Myth or Reality’. In 2004 he published the essay ‘Putting to Rest the Matilda Newport Myth’ (see Part I and Part II). The following quotation is from this source:

“Based on available sources, Matilda Newport was a real person who resided in Liberia during this period. She came to Africa on the “Elizabeth,” March 9, 1820 at the age of 25 as Matilda Spencer, the spouse of the 32 years old, Thomas Spencer. According to records, she could not read nor write (illiterate). During the Battles of Fort Hill, Matilda Spencer was 27 years old. Had she performed the deed she is credited with, she would have been known as Matilda Spencer, and not Matilda Newport. Probably, her husband, Thomas Spencer was killed in one of the conflicts. According to the Emigrant List, he died as a casualty in 1822. Matilda Spencer married to Ralph Newport sometime after 1822. Her story borne of the need to pass on the so-called victory of the Settlers over the natives, and it was nurtured through myth of larger-than-life proportions (....)”.

Matilda Newport and the civil war

On September 3, 2008 a Liberian historian, Professor Augustine Konneh, testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) that the system of authoritarianism, established by the American Colonization Society (ASC) and sustained and expanded by the various Liberian governments, from Joseph J. Roberts to Samuel K. Doe, laid the foundation of the civil war.

He said Liberians must also recognize and reconsider some of the nation’s myths, saying that myths exist in every society and Liberia is no exception. One of these myths, he said, is the Matilda Newport story, which he contended is an account of heroism on the part of Americo-Liberians and cowardice on the part of native Liberians. He said this false sense of heroism and cowardice have been the main source of conflict amongst generations of Liberians on either side of the political and social divide and thus undermine true patriotism and nationalism in Liberia.

I have a feeling (large) parts of Liberia’s history may have to be re-written.


Monday, October 20

Nine Blogs and Three Books - The True Liberian Spirit

The civil war left more than 200,000 peope dead and made many more victims: wounded or disabled people, child-soldiers, orphans, who had to restart their lives, often struggling with a trauma caused by unforgettable cruelties. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office, in January 2006, Liberia's infrastructure was in shambles, the economy ruined, most (foreign) investors gone. Yet, despite all difficulties and impossibilities, the Liberian spirit is alive. Isn't there a saying 'Tough times don't last, but tough people do!' ?

Recently, three Liberian authors drew national and international attention with their books related to the Liberian crisis. Is it a coincidence that all three were women? They follow the footsteps of other Iron Ladies of Liberia, headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. First there is Elma Shaw with her novel 'Redemption Road - The Quest for Peace and Justice in Liberia'. A very interesting book review and interview can be found here. Then there is Helene Cooper who wrote 'The House at Sugar Beach - In Search of a Lost African Childhood'. Read the very informative September 10 book reviews on Shellby Grossman's blog and Emmanuel's blog if you want to know more about the book and Helene Cooper.

The third book will be published early 2009. It is Diana Taylor's 'Black Diamond'. It absolutely is an extraordinary book with a fascinating theme. The book announcement reads as follows:

"At sixteen, Ellen was a normal young Liberian girl. Her father called her 'Black Diamond', because she was so precious to him. But Liberia was being torn apart by civil war, a war that would destroy almost everything she loved. Government soldiers murdered Diamond's parents in front of her. Diamond herself was then brutally raped, stabbed, and left for dead. Miraculously she survived. When she was strong enough she made an astonishing decision - to return to Liberia and fight on the side of the rebel forces. Rising quickly through the ranks Diamond became a leader of her own battalion of women. Many believed 'Black Diamond' must be a myth or a supernatural being - but in fact she was just a young girl, fearful but determined to create a better future for her country. This is her dramatic and heartbreaking true story of survival and courage - and of her struggles to create a new life both for herself and the women who fought with her. "

Now, after the war, Ellen tries to rebuild her life. She is tired of fighing, the war, and reflects on the future: 'We realized our goal. Charles Taylor is gone. I want to go back to school.'

The latest proof of the strong Liberian spirit - a survivor's spirit - I found while reading David Sasaki's blog. David writes about the free press in Liberia and how Liberian journalists become bloggers. His blog is part of an interesting site, Rising voices - Helping the global population join the global conversation. David describes how Liberians take advantage of modern media tools like blogs and photo-sharing sites. After a morning workshop at the US embassy in Monrovia, nine Liberian journalists have begun sharing their lives and stories with us on their newly created blogs. Here follows a list of their blogs:


They cover different topics: sports, politics, diplomacy, the press, grassroots organizations, and - of course - the persistent scars of the civil war.

Does anybody know how long it takes for memories to become history?

We don't know the answer to this question, but I want to thank and congratulate the three authors and the nine bloggers with their contribution to history and the rebuilding of the Liberian society!


Sunday, October 5

Rape of a Nation

Today, by accident, I stumbled upon the magnificent website of Marcus Bleasdale, a former trader of interest-rate derivatives for the Bank of America, turned photojournalist. In 1998, after having won an award for being a rising young photojournalist, he worked in Sierra Leone and later in Central Africa. Reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness he became intrigued with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Conflicts among warlords, rebel groups and government forces over control of the country's mineral wealth have left more than 5 million people dead since 1998 and created a humanitarian crisis in the country. Bleasdale made an impressive video called 'Rape of a Nation'. I think you shouldn't miss this movie because of the similarities with the Liberian civil war, except for the numbers.

Unlike the DRC, the Liberian war has ended. Both countries face the same problem: how to overcome the scars of the war.


Monday, September 15

“Did you know that....?” - My favorite facts and trivia on Liberia

I love facts. My favorite slogan is “Facts first, opinions later.” I also love factoids and trivia. Many are known ‘facts’, some may surprise. The entire list is a weird collection. Some ‘facts’ are fun-facts or useless knowledge, some ‘facts’ may increase our understanding of Liberia.

Here we go. Did you know that:

- The Liberian flag was modeled after the U.S. flag and the eleven red and white stripes of the Liberian flag stand for the eleven signers of the Liberian Declaration of Independence?

- The eleven delegates represented about 3,000 people (colonists) of whom only 600 had elected them?

- The Constitution of 1847 was written by an American Harvard professor, Simon Greenleaf?

- The original name of Monrovia was Christianopolis?

- Monrovia was named after James Monroe – 5th U.S. president - and Buchanan, Liberia’s second largest city, after Thomas Buchanan, the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia and cousin of the 15th president of the U.S.A., James Buchanan?

- The original settlement of Liberia was purchased for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300 but this was never paid in full?

- Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was an octoroon, who could have easily passed for a white man?

- 12 Presidents of Liberia were born in the USA and only two Liberian Presidents were of full tribal descent?

- Liberia in 1960 was elected to the Security Council of the United Nations, the first black African country ever to occupy a seat in this body?

- In 1969 the Liberian Angie Brooks Randolph was chosen to preside over the 24th General Assembly of the United Nations?

- In the late 1970s Liberia was led by two religious leaders: President William Tolbert and Vice-President Bennie Warner?

- Liberia’s Ruth Perry was Africa’s first female head of state and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Africa’s first elected female President?

- One Liberian President won the presidential elections in what was classified by the Guinness Book of Records (1982) as the most fraudulent elections ever reported in world history?

- Samuel Doe’s PRC (People’s Redemption Council) was nicknamed ‘People Repeating Corruption’ and the Liberian Peace Council (LPC, one of the warring factions during the civil war) the Lost Property Collector because of their habit of looting homes?

- Liberia is about the size of Tennessee?

- Liberia has 1585 kilometers of borders - with Côte d' Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone?

- Sapo National Park in Liberia is West Africa’s second-largest tropical rainforest and home to about 125 mammal species, including elephants, leopards, giant forest hogs, chimpanzees, duiker antilopes and the rare pygmy hippo?

- Liberia is an ornithological paradise, home to 700 species of birds, including the bee-warbler, a bird only slightly larger than a bee?

- Oprah Winfrey traced her ancestral roots back to the Kpelle in Liberia?

- The Liberian George Weah is the only African who in one single year – 1995 - was named FIFA World Player of the Year, European Footballer of the Year and African Footballer of the Year?

Certainly, more interesting facts and factoids exist. Please feel free to add your favorite ones!


Monday, August 25

Some thoughts on the 2008/2009 Budget

On August 5, 2008 the Liberian Legislature agreed on a National Budget of US $ 298 million for the Fiscal Year 2008/2009. This was nearly ten percent higher than the US $ 277 million Draft Budget submitted by the Director of the Bureau of the Budget, Mr. Augustine Ngafua, a few months earlier. As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf indicated when she commented on the Draft Budget to reporters, the draft budget represented an increase of almost 40 % over the last budget, which was US$199 million. It is interesting to note that the last performance report of the fiscal budget was not yet available when the proposed budget was submitted to the legislators.
More details on the 2007/2008 budget can be found here.

When I read this and after some additional reading, a few comments came to my mind.

(1) When President Sirleaf took office, in January 2006, the budget for FY 2005/2006 amounted to US $ 85 million (yes indeed, eighty-five million US dollars!). In a few years time the Sirleaf Administration managed to raise this to almost US $ 150 million, in FY 2006/2007, and to nearly US $ 200 million in FY 2007/2008. And now the Budget for 2008/2009 has even ‘sky-rocketed’ to nearly US $ 300 million.

Education ranks highest with US $ 27 million (twenty-seven million US dollars), excluding other allotments to the educational sector. Compared to the previous two fiscal years certainly a great improvement (US $ 10 million respectively US $ 15 million), but nevertheless ‘peanuts’ for a school-age population of more than one million. How can Liberia ever achieve the Millenium Development Goals set for education such as 'universal education'?

In fiscal years 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 ‘health’ received US $ 11 million respectively US $ 14 million. In a draft of the 2008/2009 Budget I found on the web some months ago (now apparently removed) it was shown - if I remember well - that for ‘health’ a budget of some US $ 15 million was allocated. To my great surprise, when analyzing the various data, I also discovered that this allocation was lower than the budgetary appropriations for the 30 Senators and the 64 Representatives of the National Legislature.
If this were true, this would mean that less would be spent on the health of the country’s 3.5 million population – according to the provisional data of the 2008 census the population was 3,489,072 on the night of 20th/21st March, 2008 - than for the country's less than 100 legislators, among whom some notorious warlords. Unfortunately, I could not find these data back. Readers who are more informed than I am on the subject are invited to provide the necessary corrections or supplementary data.

(2) According to Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) 2008 – 2011, revenue projections for the coming three years are substantially higher: US $ 550 million (2008/2009), US $ 535 million (2009/2010) and US $ 526 million (2010/2011).
Evidently, there is a great gap between the actual and the desired situation. The deficits will have to be financed by external sources - the international donor community - if Liberia is going to realize its envisaged expenditure levels, in particular for the social sectors (notably health and education). This will undoubtedly result in an increased dependency: 'Never bite the hand that feeds you....’

(3) I could not resist the temptation to compare the National Budget with the budgets of the 1970s, before all the terrible things happened (the PRC coup, the civil war). Between 1972 - 1976 the budgets varied between US $ 80 - 170 million:

US $ 80 mln (1972)
US $ 90 mln (1973)
US $ 104 mln (1974)
US $ 133 mln (1975)
US $ 167 mln (1976)

Source: The Open Door of Liberia - An Economic History of Liberia, p. 354.

Of course, the dollars of the 1970s cannot be compared to the 2008 dollar, and I will certainly not complicate things by introducing concepts such as Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). However, according to the 1976 census Liberia had a population of 1.6 million whereas the provisional results of the 2008 census indicate a population of 3.5 million. This means that the population more than doubled during the last thirty years. This strikingly contrasts with the evolution in the country’s national budget. Not surprisingly, Liberia ranks among the poorest countries of the world. Yet it is well endowed with natural resources. How can this be explained? Who knows the answer?


Tuesday, August 12

About Liberian Olympians and the Amputee All Stars

Three Liberians represent Africa’s oldest republic in Beijing. They are decathlete Jangy Addy, who carried the Lone Star flag during the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics on August 8, 2008, and the two runners Siraj Williams (men’s 400-meter) and Kia Davies (women’s 200-meter and 400-meter). See Joy Hancock's blog.

All three athletes live in the United States. Jangy Addy was born in Norcross, Georgia, in 1985 but is of Liberian heritage. The Liberian coach is Garfield Ellenwood, the American husband of former Liberian Track Athlete Joycelyn Harris. They are proud to represent Liberia.

In 1952 Africa’s oldest republic was for the first time participating in the Olympic Games. A considerable number of Liberian Olympians already preceded Addy, Davies and Williams - among them Liberia’s fastest man, Sayon Cooper , a two-time Olympic participant representing Liberia in Atlanta and Sydney. Liberia can be proud of these men and women.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics took place when the civil war was ravaging the country, destroying nearly all infrastructure, crippling the economy, causing many casualties. Liberia’s 14-year civil war cost many combatants their childhood and hundreds if not thousands of them their arms or legs as well.

When I was watching the Opening Ceremony and the Liberian representation I had to think of them. And I suddenly remembered a fascinating and emotional YouTube movie about Liberian amputee soccer players. Some of them were former child soldiers of opposing rebel groups. I will not dwell upon their history and conduct, it’s a sad story. Recruted, exploited and drugged by politicians-warlords they killed, raped, looted. But nowadays, after the demobilisation, they are representing Liberia too – as the Liberian Olympians do. They may not earn medals or other trophies - although... But they are representing the new Liberia. Look here for the Amputee All Stars, Liberia’s new hope.


Monday, July 14

The definition of a Failed State

During the past week - while enjoying holidays in the quiet and attractive north-western part of Denmark, Jutland - I read the newspapers brought to our Liberia-get-together (see my July 6 posting). I found it both pleasant and frustrating to read them. It was comforting to hear from my friends that they shared my feelings.

We found it very impressive that a large number of newspapers are being published today and were surprised by the freedom of the press! More than ten are now sold in the Liberian streets; in an hap-hazard order: The New Democrat (from ‘old-timer’ journalist Tom Kamara), the Business Journal, The News, The Analyst, The Inquirer, The Informer, The Star, Monrovia Tidings, National Chronicle, Daily Observer, Plain Truth, Heritage.

The freedom of press, thus demonstrated, is absolutely an asset. For this reason we want to congratulate the Sirleaf-Administration. We have witnessed different times.

Furthermore, it was remarkable and also surprising to read these newspapers. It led us to two comments. One is that some of these newspapers were presenting ‘news’ and ‘opinions’ hardly based on facts and with no base. Nevertheless, these newspapers at times took a strong position, generally against the present government. Responsible journalism is not a nature-born gift. It needs proper attention of law makers and law enforcement officers.

Secondly, reading the newspapers one could not escape from the impression that ‘little had changed’- compared to thirty years ago when the daily and weekly newspapers were The Liberian Star, The Liberian Age, The Bentol Times, the Liberian Inaugural, Scope, The Sunday People, The Sunday Express, and The New Liberian.

I read with growing amazement and interest articles like ‘Gov’t Launches Campaign Against Hunger’, ‘More Transport Buses To Arrive Soon’, ‘Bong Range Iron Ore Deposits High Contested’, ‘Firestone: The Folly of a Nation Within’, ‘Three Men Arrested For Selling Human Parts’, ‘Trinity UMC Crowns Father of the Year 2008/2009’.

The first thought that came to my mind, however, was that little had changed over the past 30 years... I have the same articles in my archives from The Liberian Star, The Bentol Times, the Liberian Inaugural and other newspapers from the late 1970s.

Given the fact that a fourteen-year cruel and devasting war led to 250,000 deaths, a million refugees, another million people deplaced internally, the swelling of Monrovia to a more than one million people’s capital, the departure of most foreign investors and the virtual destruction of the modern economy, it is amazing to notice that Liberians have picked up life as it was before Doe’s dictatorship, 1980 – 1990, and the civil war (1989- 2003), fed by the unscrupulous warlords’ greed for power and wealth, leading to anarchy and destruction.

Liberians are an amazing people. Many people seem to agree that Liberia is a ‘failed state’ but I wonder what the definition is of a ‘failed state’ - to say the least. After all, we in Europe are closely following events in Belgium because of the split between Dutch speaking and French speaking Belgians, and the almost inevitable break-up of the country – sooner or later. But none of the Liberian warlords – Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson, George Boley, Sekou Konneh, Charles Taylor, Prince Yormi Johnson, General ‘Peanut Butter’, General ‘Butt Naked’ - ever claimed a portion of the country. Separatism was not a driving force.

It was a crazy and cruel war. Greed, insanity and wickedness were its main ingredients. Liberia certainly is underdeveloped, but a failed state?

Sunday, July 6

A life altering experience

Today is a special day. The annual meeting of our Dutch organization Friends of Liberia is convening this year in Denmark. It is exceptional. Usually we meet in one of our members’ home towns in the Netherlands, but last year we accepted the invitation of our Danish friend to meet at her place in a small village in the north-western part of Denmark.

So here we are, twenty-seven people: twenty-four from Holland, two from Denmark and one from Finland. We were living in Liberia in the late 1970s, working at various places – most of us in Monrovia or nearby places. A few lived and worked ‘up country’. One was a medical doctor in Cape Mount, another worked in a Sanniquellie-based FAO project aiming at reducing post-harvest losses, yet another worked in Gbarnga for a humanitarian organization, two others worked for the Mano River Union and made frequent travels between Monrovia and Freetown over the then recently constructed Mano River bridge. Most of us worked in Monrovia: with the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, the West Africa Rice Development Organization WARDA, the School of Business and Public Adminstration of the University of Liberia, the Royal Netherlands Embassy. The great majority of us - about ten people - were agriculturalists, teaching and researching at Fendall, where since the mid-1970s the Agricultural School of the University of Liberia was located.

We then were all in our late twenties, early thirties, and our experience in Liberia was life altering. Some of us returned to the Netherlands after their stay in Liberia, others continued in a great variety of countries - Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Tunesia, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Iraq, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, the Fiji Islands, the United States, etc.. However, the Liberian experience was felt as the most impressive. It changed our lives and bound us together.

Liberia and the Liberian people captivated us. This tiny land, with it’s weird history – US free-born blacks, freed slaves and mulattoes who created Africa’s first republic in the mid-19th century and for more than a century ruled over twenty or more tribes although they numbered less then 50,000 (in the 1970s), and who seized over 90% of the nations’s national product – and with its fascinating culture, impressive nature, not to speak of its exhaustive climate – we all agreed: this ‘land of liberty’ had changed our lives.

Some of us are now retired - thought still active with voluntary work, often in the tropics. Others are educational and medical specialists, diplomats, public servants, or working in the private sector.

Inevitably, our thoughts and discussions were about the present state of affairs in Liberia. The devastating civil war, the actual reconstruction efforts, and the ‘Iron Ladies’. Most of us had seen this documentary film. But the comparison between what was and nowadays is, was saddening. Due to the civil war, the WARDA organization has been relocated from Monrovia to Ivory Coast - where another civil war intervened with its activities. The Mano River Union was paralysed because of the two civil wars: in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. Internationally-spondered projects (FAO, UNDP) were halted because of the war. The University of Liberia was ransacked, like many other buildings; the national health system was brought to a stand-still – to choose a polite formulation.

Now, all has to be rebuilt. Recently it was announced that China will give a US $ 22 million aid to restart Fendall, the agricultural branch of the Univerity of Liberia. Also, the Mano River Union is being revived (see my posting dated April 3, 2008). Virtually everything has to be rebuilt or re-started.

But our discussions were not negative or cynical. We all expressed hope and demonstrated great belief in the rebuilding of Liberia. One of us had brought a bundle of Liberian newspapers, recently acquired through his son-in-law, now working for an international organization in Monrovia. The large number of different newspapers, more than ten, was striking.

Our annual get-together is not unique in the Netherlands. There also exists the ‘Weaverbirds Club’. Generally, Weaverbird club members have worked with one of the numerous plantations in Liberia, or the iron ore mines. After all, it should not be forgotten that at one time, in the late 1960s, about 2,000 Dutchmen were working in Liberia, occupying various positions of responsibility in agricultural, mining, logging and trading organizations. The Dutch have a long history of relations with Liberia.


Tuesday, June 17

Who knows Herman Cohen? I came across his name when I read the report of his testimony before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) which recently convened in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Herman Cohen was a former Assistant Secretary of State, during the Clinton Administration. He was Under Secretary for African Affairs from 1989 till 1993 and, earlier, Director of African Affairs from 1987 till 1989. He was an important American politician during a crucial period of Liberia’s history.

Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen was testifying on Thursday, June 12, at a public hearing of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the role of the United States in the conflict in Liberia.

Let me briefly recall the TRC’s origin and mandate. The ‘truth’ committee effectively started its work in 2006. It is an independent body set up to investigate the root causes of the Liberian crisis, document human rights violations, review the history of Liberia, and put all human rights abuses that occurred during the period from 1979 to 2003 on record. The Truth Committee's mandate is to also identify victims and perpetrators and make recommendations on amnesty, prosecution and reparation.

Yes, indeed, that is no easy mandate!

The astonishing news was that Mr. Cohen said that the US had an understanding with NPFL rebel group leader Charles Taylor to take power following the ‘voluntary’ departure of President Samuel Doe.

We are talking about the first half of 1990. Charles Taylor’s NPFL – composed of Americo-Liberians and Mano and Gio people, and supported by Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Libya (see my May 16 posting) - had invaded Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989. There was insignificant resistance of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), loyal to President Doe, and Charles Taylor seemed to be sure of conquering and settling in the Presidential Executive Mansion in Monrovia.
Mr. Cohen said that he initiated discussions with Doe about leaving. The USA would provide the transportation. The understanding with Taylor was that he would take power as soon as Doe departed. After the plan was accepted by President Samuel Doe, Mr. Cohen called President Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, who agreed to provide asylum for the desparate Liberian president. Following President Eyadéma’s consent, Cohen called Taylor on a satellite phone to open corridors for troops loyal to President Doe to allow them to escape through the Liberian-Sierra Leonean frontier. But the plan, he said, was messed up when former Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) leader Prince Johnson seized control of Bushrod Island, a suburb of Monrovia, and blocked the corridor.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen said, when the U.S. was set to send an aircraft to carry out the evacuation, he received a directive from Washington to cease all engagements to end the Liberian conflict. To everybody’s surprise, Ambassador Cohen stated that no further explanations were provided by his superiors in Washington on the change in policy. At that point, he said responsibilities to intervene in the Liberian crisis were passed on to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

That was in mid-1990. We know what subsequently happened. The USA - the Administration of Bush Sr. - gave priority to the First Gulf War (August 1990 – February 1991) and abandoned Liberia, evacuating its citizens without intervening. Then, on September 9, 1990 President Samuel Doe was captured, tortured and killed by Prince Johnson’ s men. The video tape which registered this gruesome act circulated all over West Africa and beyond.

After I had read the report I was flabbergasted for two reasons:

1) A little bit of history: Charles Taylor’s escape from a Massachusetts prison in September 1985 has never been satisfactorily explained. Persistent yet unconfirmed rumours suggested that he might have escaped with connivance of President Ronald Reagan (1981 – 1989) who – becoming increasingly embarrassed with the human rights violations of the Doe regime - wanted to get rid of his former protegé. This ‘theory’ has never been proven, but Mr. Cohen’s testimony indicates close contacts between the US administration and Charles Taylor – a fugitive (!) – although the latter’s whereabouts in North Africa (Libya) and West Africa (Burkina Faso and Ghana) in the late 1980’s as well as his support by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi are largely unexplained and unknown.

2) The exact role played by Mr. Cohen remains a mystery. It is not commonly known, but Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen is (was) a much wanted lobbyist by African presidents who want(ed) to improve their public image. Most of these African rulers do not or did not have a very positive reputation (human rights violations, corruption). In the 1990s, he was reportedly hired by Burkinabe president Compaore, who had activily supported the December 1989 invasion of his friend Charles Taylor and who also supported Taylor in Sierra Leone. Mr. Cohen also was or had been on the payroll of Angola's president Dos Santos, Zaïre (Congo), Ivory Coast, and.... Liberia – when ruled by Mr. Charles Taylor (1997 – 2003).
Source: Africa Confidential, May 12, 2000, vol. 41, no. 10, pp.2-6.

The foregoing raises the question: How reliable is mr. Cohen?

The above described lobbying activities are legal in the United States and are registered. One of the most successful lobbying firms in international politics is ‘Cohen and Woods International’. Directors are the former Assistant Secretary of State, Herman ‘Hank’ Cohen, and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, James Woods.

Herman Cohen has been active in ‘special diplomacy’ in many countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Zaïre / Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique...

Who is Herman Cohen?? Does anybody know???

Please let me know. Liberia needs to know.

Recommended readings:
Africa Confidential, May 12, 2000, vol. 41, no. 10, pp.2-6.
Herman J. Cohen: ‘Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent’ (Macmillan, 2000).

About Herman Cohen:
Herman Cohen was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989-1993 and before that a Senior Director for Africa on the National Security Council Staff. He was U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and Gambia from 1977 to 1980. Ambassador Cohen is president of the consulting firm, Cohen and Woods International, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and author of the book Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent (Macmillan 2000).


Wednesday, June 4

Population – Part I:
The 2008 National Population and Housing Census

I am on vacation right now and enjoy making daily trips in the surroundings. The diversity of the Netherlands is astonishing and refreshing. It is a small country, one hundred miles from east to west, and at most two hundred miles from north to south. Yet, we live here – peacefully - with over 16 million people.
Compare that to Liberia, also a small country, but with an area of 43,000 square miles (about equal to that of Ohio or Louisiana) and a population of around 3 million people. The exact number will be known as soon as the results of the recently held Population Census will be published.

Upon my return from the daily trips, after the evening-meal, I usually go to my study and dive into my archives in an attempt to reorganise them. Or I re-arrange the books in my bookcase. Some days ago I stumbled upon a book which caught and held my attention. It was Merran Fraenkel’s ‘Tribe and Class in Monrovia’. I had read it many years ago, and vividly remembered it’s contents. It was one of the most informative books on Liberia, that is to say, Monrovia, and it became a standard work. However, the book was not appreciated by the ruling class. The author carried out her fieldwork in 1958/1959. In those days there was a great divide between Monrovia’s ‘upper class’ and the tribal people. Also, there was a separation between the five coastal counties and the hinterland, composed of three provinces. The coastal areas and hinterland were separated by lack of roads and other means of communication - even by different laws! This only changed in the 1960s.

The ruling ‘Americo-Liberians’ then numbered about 25,000; the great majority of the population was composed of members of about twenty tribes. On linguistic, cultural and historical grounds four groups could be distinguished: the Kru and the Grebo; the Bassa; the Vai and Gola; and the Kpelle and Loma. Mandingoes, from the Mande-speaking regions north of Liberia, and Fanti, from the Gold Coast, nowadays Ghana, have settled in Liberia in more recent times.

This mosaic of peoples still exists, fifty years after publication of Merran Fraenkel’s book. Half a century has since elapsed; many changes took place. The investment boom of the 1960s brought some, much needed, modernisation but not the even more needed integration of the various components of the population. President Tubman’s Unification Policy – aiming at uniting the Liberian people - was continued by his successor Tolbert, but came to an end in the 1980s – the Doe era. After the devastating civil war was over, the economy was in ruins and the Liberian people more divided than ever.

Liberia’s first National Population and Housing Census since 1984 was launched in June 2007. It cost about US $ 6 million to conduct the census, which was held in 2008. During the operation, people were hostile to the census workers, removing the chalk X written on their huts and houses to mark and distinguish them from households not yet covered. The scars of the civil war were too fresh.

The census data are needed for planning purposes. To recover from the war. To rebuild the economy. As such, the census is an indispensable instrument for planners and politicians. The census results are eagerly awaited; they may become available before the end of this year.

But counting people is not the same as uniting people.

To be continued.
Part II will focus on The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Staggering confessions continue to emerge at the public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Can Liberians ever come to terms with the past?

Recommended reading:
Merran Fraenkel, ‘Tribe and Class in Monrovia’ (Oxford University Press, London; first published 1964; reprinted 1965 and 1970).


Monday, May 26

An end to impunity in Africa?

Charles Taylor is not the only former African head of state who is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes and is being prosecuted. Today it was announced that Ethiopia’s Supreme Court has sentenced former Ethiopian ruler Mengistu – in absentia – to death. Already in 2006 Mengistu was found guilty of genocide after a 12-year trial and was sentenced to life in prison, but the State prosecutor lodged an appeal to demand the death sentence for the Red Emperor and his aides. The ‘Red Emperor’ – Mengistu’s nick-name – has lived in Zimbabwe since 1991. President Robert Mugabe has said he will not be extradited, but a presidential run-off is due next month in Zimbabwe and in case opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would win the elections, this decision could be subject to change.

In Senegal, another former African ruler is hunted. Since 1999 the victims of Chad’s exiled former president Hissène Habré are pressing the government of Senegal to prosecute Habré, accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed during his 1982-1990 rule. Ex-dictator Habré was first indicted in Senegal in 2000 and the Senegalese authorities even arrested him in November 2005. The following year, in July 2006, the African Union mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré, to which Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade agreed. Unfortunately, for several reason the Senegalese government is delaying opening proceedings against the former Chadian dictator who has lived in exile in Dakar, capital of Senegal, since 1990.

What do these three cases teach us?

I think that it is too early to conclude that the trials against Taylor and Mengistu and the efforts to bring Habré to trial announce a new dawn in Africa, more justice, less impunity. But they do give hope. However, recent political developments in Ethiopia where Meles Zenawi cracks down on the opposition, the refusal of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to step down and the outburst of xenophobia in South Africa are opposite signs. How should we appreciate what happens? One step forwards, two steps backwards – or two steps forwards, one step backwards?

Related links:
Ethiopia’s Supreme Court sentences Mengistu to death:

Human Rights Watch: The case against Hissène Habré:

Open letter to the international and African communities from the International Committee for the fair trial of Hissène Habré:

Senegal: Ex-dictator of Chad arrested:


Friday, May 16

Taylor ’s machine of death and the people behind him

I have been reading for the past six hours the proceedings of Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp’s examination of Charles Taylor’s former Vice-President, Moses Blah, and related websites. Moses Blah became President of Liberia after Taylor’s resignation following international pressure in 2003. During three days, May 14 – 16, former Liberian President Moses Blah unravelled Taylor’s machine of death and destruction, inspired by his hunger for wealth and power. Without any doubt, Blah’s testimony will turn out to be one of the most crucial contributions to the trial of the Liberian war-lord President Charles Taylor.

But I was not only struck by Charles Taylor’s greed, his apparant ruthless and heartless character, and the confirmation of cannibalistic practices, encouraged or condoned by the war-lord President. Blah also confirmed the international character of what seemed to be a civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This is another devastating part of his testimony.

The civil wars that raged in Sierra Leone and Liberia as from the late 1980s and the 1990s (Sierra Leone) and until the early part of the 21st century (Liberia) were not merely a part of nation-building in these countries nor where they the result of a struggle for political power of groups with opposing views as to how to organise the country. In reality, they were organised crimes at a large scale. Criminals disguided as politicians determined these nations’ history.

The international context and support of the civil wars and brutalities – through arms deliveries, training, military and financial support - in Sierra Leone and Liberia, confirmed by Blah during his testimony, are extremely important, not only to determine and judge Charles Taylor’s role and responsibiliy, but also to look at his accomplices. There are many.

Among these accomplices are not only Liberians (like Benjamin Yeaten, ‘Zigzag’ Marzah, Cyril Allen, Taylor’s son Chuck Taylor and Grace Minor, to name just a few) but also others, the most known being RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh (Sierra Leone), President Muammar Gadhafi (Libya) and President Blaise Compaoré (Burkina Faso). Moses Blah confirmed that the governments of Libya, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast supported Taylor’s 1989 invasion of Liberia. Training camps in Libya and Burkina Faso, cooperation with rebels from the Gambia, support from Ivory Coast, involvement of Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria: the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were not merely civil wars.

Is it likely that the wars and turmoil in West Africa, and in particular their international background, went unnoticed in European counties or North America? I cannot speak for other countries than the Netherlands, and even in that case I have to be prudent since I certainly do not know all details. Nevertheless, I dare to say that the Dutch government was not aware of all the foregoing and my sincere guess is that this was no exception.

But, isn’t that amazing? All these (developed) countries are member of international organizations, which are active in the region, whereas most of these European and North American countries have well-staffed and equipped embassies reporting on events and trends in the region. How well-informed are they, how competent are they, how reliable is their reporting? What do we – outside the West African region – know and understand what happens in the region? Yet, non-African presidents and other politicians pretend they know what happens behind the curtains.

I have my doubts.

Related links:
Trial of Charles Taylor Blog:

Charles Taylor trial advances at sustained pace: http://www.hirondellenews.com/content/view/1984/329/

Witness: Gadhafi helped Taylor to take over Liberia:

President Charles Ghankay Taylor 1997 – 2003: The war-lord President

Blah diggs into Taylor’s bloody past:

Blah cites death threats in war crimes tribunal

“This type of things happen at war”:

BBC Profile of Moses Blah:


Friday, May 2

Charles Taylor had about US$ 5 billion in private US bank accounts during his presidency! At least, that is what his chief prosecutor, Stephen Rapp, announced today. I was flabbergasted when I heard the news. I could not believe my ears listening to the radio report hearing the shocking details. Five billion dollars! The first thought that came to my mind was: ‘This cannot be true’. But the authority of the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone is supposed to be beyond any doubt. Subsequently I thought: ‘This equals the total Liberian debt’ - see my posting of March 19, below. Then I thought: ‘Where did all this money come from?’ I sat back, puzzled. How on earth could someone gather five billion dollars? More important maybe, why should someone amass such a fortune? It reminded me of well-known kleptocratic rulers like Indonesian President Suharto, Philippine President Marcos, President Mobutu of then Zaire, and the Nigerian President Abacha. They enriched themselves at the expense of the population. If it were true, then former President Charles Taylor would be among the Top Five kleptocratic rulers of the last hundred years! But whereas Indonesia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire) and Nigeria are big countries with a large population, Liberia is small country.

For the time being I refuse to accept the implication that former Liberian President Charles Taylor stole US$ 5 billion from the Liberian people. He always denied he had secret bank accounts and boasted that if any secret funds were found he would turn them over to the Liberian people. It is also shocking to realise that the international community had difficulties in pledging the necessary amount for the functioning of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, some US$ 100 million, an amount which is only a fraction of Taylor’s assumed US$ 5 billion (about 2%).

Chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp said that if Taylor’s monies would be found they would be subject to the existing UN freeze on his assets. He further said that he hoped any money recovered would be shared between the victims of the Sierra Leone civil war and the Liberian state, if Charles Taylor was found guilty.

I fully agree with Rapp.

Related links:


Friday, April 25

Today is World Malaria Day. I think it has been a good idea to draw people’s attention to this awful disease. Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. It kills each year between one and three million people, the most vulnerable groups being small children and older people. More than 500 million people suffer from the disease!
Compare this with HIV/AIDS: about 40 million people are affected by the hiv-virus (more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Southern Africa). About three million people die from it each year, of whom two million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Liberia, malaria is the number one killer. It accounts for 18% of all deaths. This week it was disclosed that Liberia has the highest rate of malaria in West Africa. Liberians no longer die from bullets. Nowadays the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are the greatest enemy.

The coastal zone of Liberia is one of the most humid regions in the world, as a result of the yearly rainfall which varies between five and six metres. Malaria is common and widespread. However, preventive measures are possible, in particular the use of nets during the night, and those who can afford it can take preventive medicine to reduce the risk of infection. Once infected, the sick person may take antimalarial drugs, such as quinine and artemisinine derivates, to treat the infection, but the poor of course cannot afford it whereas in the greater part of Liberia there are no pharmacies. And it should not be forgotten that Liberia has only 30 medical doctors for its population of about 3 million people, resulting in one of the lowest ratio in the world.

Malaria is among the most feared diseases I know. When in Liberia I got infected, despite the use of prophylactic drugs and being well-fed. Fortunately, I could afford to buy quinine to treat the infection. In Liberia, malaria is rampant during and shortly after the rainy season. I just read that the rainy season has started in Liberia. It will last until October, at least. I am afraid that this year again many Liberians will not survive the rainy season. Is it inevitable?

Related links:


Saturday, April 12
‘April 12’. This day ranks among the top three of historical days of Liberia, the first being of course July 26, Independence Day. I would not know the third one. Maybe ‘Flag Day’, somewhere in August, but who knows the exact day by heart? On that broiling hot day in August, 1847, the Liberian flag was hoisted for the first time by a small group of colonists who came from overseas. No, I rather think that April 14 is among the top three. On April 14, 1979, tribal Monrovia rebelled as never before in the country’s history, also known as the ‘rice riots’. During the forbidden demonstration of April 14, 1979 the Monrovian Police Force killed hundreds of people, many more were wounded. Widespread looting followed. Demonstrators asked fellow-Liberians to identify themselves by speaking a tribal language.

One year later, almost on the precise day - also on a Saturday like today -I woke up in Monrovia and heard shooting. Surprised and curious I turned on the radio and soon heard the historical words: ‘God is tired. After 133 years the enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe have toppled the Government because of rampant corruption and continuous failure of the Liberian Government to effectively handle the affairs of the Liberian people. No plane is allowed to come in. No plane is allowed to go out.’

We all know what had happened the night before. We all know what followed. The killing of President William R. Tolbert was only the beginning and the military coup d’état of Liberia’s first president of tribal origin turned out to be the start of a nightmare. As early as 1947 the American author Raymond Leslie Buell had predicted what could happen once the tribal population no longer tolerated the domination of those who considered themselves superior to Liberians of tribal descent. In those days I wrote that ‘The Land of Privileges and Poverty had turned into a Land of Hope and Glory. Whether this hope is justified, only future developments will tell.’

I was right to be careful in my assesssment. I could never have thought, however, that a quarter of a century later Liberia was to recover from one of the most tumultuous episodes of its history, facing three major tasks: to form a nation, to develop the country and to unite its people.

Related links:

Recommended reading:
Raymond Leslie Buell, ‘Liberia: A Century of Survival 1847 - 1947’ (New York, 1969; originally published 1947).


Thursday, April 3
At the end of a two-day official visit of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to Ivory Coast, the Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo announced his country’s decision to join the Mano River Union (MRU). President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf actually is the chair of the MRU.
What is it, that African presidents try over and again to establish, keep going and, if necessary, revive regional organizations, even though they haven’t had any success for decades?

The Mano River Union, aiming to create a customs union, was created in 1973 by then Presidents Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone and William Tolbert of Liberia, and named after the river which starts in the Guinean highlands and forms the border between the two countries. In 1980 Guinea (Conakry) joined the organization. The organization was still-born. Both economic underdevelopment, political instability and the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia prevented it from achieving its objectives. In 2004, then Presidents Conteh (Guinea), Kabbah (Sierra Leone) and Chairman Bryant (Liberia) reactivated the union. Now, a fourth country, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, joined. Will the union fare any better now?

The economies of African countries suffer from many weaknesses, one of them being a small domestic market. This partly explains the continuous attempts to establish regional economic groupings which may overcome this obstacle. The combined market of the four MRU-members totals well over 30 million people. About fifty percent of them are Ivorians. Moreover, the economy of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire is more robust than those of the other three member-states - but maybe I should say, Ivory Coast’s economy was much stronger than those of its neighbours. Like Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ivory Coast has been confronted with political instability which resulted in a civil war. Actually, the country is divided in a government-controlled southern part and a rebel-hold northern part.

Guinea is the only country that has escaped, so far, from the civil war virus in the region. However, many people in the region hold their breath because of the ailing health of President Conteh of Guinea, in power since 1984, and the signs of a forthcoming power struggle between his supporters and opponents.

Maybe the Mano River Union, a regional organization aiming at economic integration, will prove to be more important as an organization that fosters political stability. For that reason it may deserve our support. Its big sister in the region, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), is a shining example. Created in 1975 it has achieved very little, in terms of its main objectives – etablishing an Economic Union - or looking at the standard of living of its population in the 15 West African member-states. However, its contribution to political stability in the sub-region is undisputed, even though it is mainly due to its most powerful member, Nigeria.

Related links:

Monday, March 31
Today it is exactly two years ago that former president Charles Taylor was arrested in Nigeria and transferred, first to Sierra Leone, then to the Netherlands, to stand trial.

His trial, which had started in the second week of January 2008 and was interrupted for a two-week recess mid-March, resumed today. The morning session started with a direct examination of prosecution witness Isaac Mongor, also known as ‘Colonel Isaac’. Mongor, a Sierra Leonean who grew up in Liberia, told the Special Court for Sierra Leone that he has been abducted by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia and became part of Charles Taylor’s Executive Mansion Guard before being sent by Taylor to Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. In the course of his testimony Mongor made a number of allegations about Taylor’s role in the civil war in Sierra Leone.

As I wrote earlier, I do not envy the judges. How reliable are witnesses, how consistent their testimonies? It will take many more months before the Court will bring in a verdict. The Special Court’s prosecutor has estimated that Taylor’s trial will last between 12 and 18 months. ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’, to quote Oscar Wilde.

The fight against impunity not only is a long one, it also is a costly one. The budget of the Special Court for Sierra Leone surpasses US $ 100 million. So far, the Special Court convicted less than ten accused among whom three leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and three leaders of the former Civil Defense Forces. The indictments against the leader of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, Foday Sankoh, and his Deputy-Commander, Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bockarie, were withdrawn because of the death of the two accused. The case of Bockarie particularly is interesting. He was killed in Liberia in 2003 during a shootout with Liberian forces. Persistent rumours in West Africa have it that Taylor sent his troops to kill Bockarie, rather than to arrest him, since Bockarie’s testimony at the Special Court for Sierra Leone could have implicated Taylor.

It may be interesting to assist at one - or more - of the sessions of the Special Court. The SCSL convenes in the building which houses the International Criminal Court in The Hague; it’s address: Maanweg 174, Voorburg, the Netherlands. The trial is being conducted Monday through Thursday in three sessions (9:30-11:30, 12:00-1:30, and 2:30-4:30). There is usually no afternoon session on Fridays.

Related links:


Friday, March 28
It was not surprising to read negative comments on the Bridge Loan, provided by the US Government. See this blog, March 19.
A bridge loan may carry an interest rate between 12- 15 percent. As you may recall, the US became Liberia’s new creditor for the US $ 900 million (rounded figures) previously owned to the International Monetary Fund.

Thursday, March 26
The love-hate relationship between Liberia and Firestone will never end. Though Firestone is no longer an American-owned company – it’s Japan-owned – it is hard to think of Liberia without Firestone. And maybe that is not a bad thing!

Today I read that the amended and restated concession agreement between the Liberian government and Firestone Liberia Inc. was ratified by the House of Representatives (- more on the Liberian House of Representatives in my future blogs). One of the agreed articles of the recent agreement implies that Firestone-Liberia shall pay annually to Liberia a surface rental equal to US$2.00 per acre for a total of 118,999 acres including an annual income of US$237,980.00.

With the downfall of the US dollar it is a limited success for the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But more important is: what else has been agreed upon? And I mean structural agreements, not annual scholarships or contributions to education and training, how important this may be on an individuel basis. What are Firestone’s future tax obligations? Contributions to national research activities? Research is the key to the future!

Monday, March 24
Oh, astonishing Liberia! Although belatedly, today I read an extremely interesting CNN report on pygmy hippos in the Sapo National Park in South-West Liberia. The pygmy hippo is one of the most elusive and secretive large mammals on our planet. Pygmy hippos are much smaller in size and spend more time on land than their giant relatives, where they feed on leaves and other swamp vegetation. The animals survive in isolated pockets in rivers and swamps in the dense west African forests of countries including Liberia. The pygmy hippo (hexaprotodon liberiensis) is classified on the IUCN Red List as endangered, with its rapid decline put down to habitat degradation and bushmeat hunting.

The pygmy hippo is rarely seen in the wild. However, experts from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) set up special hidden cameras in Liberia's only national park – the Sapo National Park - and the first images of the wild pygmy hippos were recorded within the first three days. The ZSL team set up the extensive monitoring of Sapo National Park to try to discover how much the hippo had suffered from Liberia's brutal civil wars. The team of British conservationists were astonished to discover the wild pygmy hippo had not been wiped out by the fighting as previously thought.

The Sapo National Park is located in Sinoe County, Liberia. It is the country's largest protected area of rainforest and its only national park, and contains the second-largest tropical rainforest in West Africa after Taï National Park in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. The Sapo National Park is located in the Upper Guinean forest ecosystem, a biodiversity hotspot that has "the highest mammal species diversity of any region in the world", according to various sources.

Sapo National Park can be called a unique place. It hosts about 125 mammal species and almost 600 types of birds, including a numbered of threatened species. Prior to the formal designation of Sapo National Park in 1983 there had been no systematic study of chimpanzee populations in Liberia. Since then, various surveys have confirmed the existence of the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) in Sapo National Park, located primarily in the park's center and western areas, with estimates of the population ranging from 500 to 1,640. Seven species of duiker antilopes are found in Sapo National Park.

Though human settlements and commercial activities such as agriculture and logging are prohibited in the park, pouching and illegal logging do occur. One of the allegations refer to illegal logging activities of the Oriental Logging Company, linked to its Chairman, the Dutch businessman Gus Kouwenhoven, and his business affiliate, then President Charles Taylor.


Thursday, March 20
The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs today confirmed that Gus Kouwenhoven stays on the UN and EU lists of persons facing a travel ban despite being acquitted of smuggling weapons and war crimes in Liberia by a Dutch court last week. In 2001, the involvement of President Taylor in the civil war in Sierra Leone had led to UM arms and diamond embargoes and a travel ban for the Taylor regime, Kouwenhoven included since he was a close associate of President Taylor. In 2004 the UN Security Council also ordered international banks to freeze his – Kouwenhoven’s - assets. The European Union automatically endorses these UN decisions.

The foregoing shows how complicated international law can be. The UN sanctions have legal status and UN member states are obliged to respect and enforce them. Nevertheless, these sanctions have a political rather than a juridical base. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now investigating whether it is justified to inform the UN Security Council of the necessity of removing Kouwenhoven from these lists imposing sanctions.

Wednesday, March 19
The goverment of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has succeeded in normalizing relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In particular, all sanctions by the IMF against Liberia have been lifted. As former World Bank officials she and Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh know their way in Washington DC; they know how the two Bretton Woods institutions work. From now onwards, HIPC, PRS and PRSP will be household words in Liberia.

HIPC stands for the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative. It was launched in 1996 to provide debt relief to the world’s poorest and most indebted countries; it was followed in 1999 by the Enhanced HIPC initiative. One of the conditions to gain access to this debt relief scheme is to have a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) document or Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

Liberia has a debt of US $ 4.7 billion, owed to global institutions (including the two Bretton Woods institutions), other governments and private-sector creditors. IMF and World Bank officials acknowledge that this huge debt – large part of which was contracted by former Presidents Tolbert and Doe – is unpayable. Moreover, the necessity to rebuild the country after decades of mismanagement, corruption and destruction of infrastructure and institutions makes it essential to free vital resources needed to finance the nation’s reconstruction.

The important step was made possible after Liberia cleared it arrears of Special Drawing Rights (SRD) 543 million, or nearly US $ 890 million to the IMF. Liberia had been in arrears to the IMF since 1984 (under the Doe Administration). Following the clearance of its debt to the IMF, Liberia is now a fully paid up member of the IMF with full voting and related rights and access to IMF financial resources for the first time since 1984.

However, there is a snake in the grass. The clearance of Liberia’s large arrears was financed from a bridge loan provided by the US Government. That is to say, arrears to the IMF were replaced by a debt to the USA. Also, the country is now eligible for new financing arrangements under the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and other Fund Facilities – all on a loan basis, albeit concessional loans. Moreover, the normalization of relations with the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI) will pave the pay for Africa’s oldest republic to start receiving funds from foreign governments and commercial creditors.

The HIPC debt relief scheme will enable Liberia to have it’s US $ 4.7 billion debt cancelled, which is a laudable goal. But I am not so sure that replacing old debts by new debts will lead Liberia to the road of economic recovery. In the end, it risks to be the same old story over and again. Liberia’s history is interpersed with loans provided by foreign governments and other external souces that proved to do more harm than good. It started with the 1871 loan which led to the country’s first coup d’état and the death of President Edward Roye, followed by the loans of 1906 and 1912, the infamous 1926 Firestone Loan, and many more.

I hope I will not be misunderstood by the foregoing. In my view, close collaboration with IMF and World Bank is not a bad thing. I just doubt whether financing the financing of Liberia’s recovery by attracting new loans which are not directly productive will provide a long-term solution for the country’s problems. But Liberia faces a Catch 22 situation: either it depends on external funds from international financial institutions and bilateral governments or it has to rely on foreign investments, internal funds (= domestic savings) being unsufficient or absent. It reminds me of a Liberian friend who once wrote to me: ‘We need external funds to develop and foreign troops to keep the peace’. I wonder whether the majority of Liberians share his opinion.


Saturday, March 15
Many more atrocities committed by witness Marzah, ordered by Charles Taylor, according to his testimony before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Gruesome details of atrocities both in Liberia and Sierra Leone, it surpasses one’s mind. My initial reaction was ‘This cannot be true.’ Subsequently I thought ‘Why should someone tell or confess this?’ It puzzles my mind.

Maybe the most shocking confession made by Marzah relates to cannibalistic acts allegedly committed by former president Charles Taylor. It is not the first time such accusations are publicly made. It reminds me of the allegation made by Taylor’s former Defense Minister, Tom Woewiyu, cited by Stephen Ellis in his book ‘ The Mask of Anarchy’ (1999). Marzah’s testimony also disclosed involvement of Nigerian ECOMOG military personnel – bribed by Charles Taylor - in the transportation of arms to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. How reliable will this witness prove to be?

Starting Monday March 17, there will be a two-week judicial recess. Taylor’s trial will resume on March 31.

Friday, March 14
I just read a CNN report on the trial of former president Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former aid to Taylor, Joseph “Zigzag” Marzah, yesterday testified before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in The Hague, the Netherlands, that Taylor ordered his men to eat victims. Marzah said that Nigerian peacekeepers and United Nations personnel were killed and eaten on the battlefield by Taylor’s militiamen. He told the court more horror stories. What has happened during the civil war is unbelievable and I can understand that it is difficult to understand – sometimes also for Liberians but certainly for Europeans or Americans. How can the judges of the International Criminal Court and the Special Court for Sierra Leone comprehend, weigh and judge what happened and find out who is guilty?
The phenomenon of ritual killings, common in an important number of African countries, is hardly covered by the international media. As far as the Netherland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is concerned, it is not dealt with in the political reports ambassadors send to the ministry in The Hague. I am afraid other foreign embasasies are not doing a better job.

Wednesday, March 12
An old friend paid a surprise visit, Klaas Wit. We were neighbors in Harper, Maryland County, Liberia, in the late 1970s. He and Dr Regina Cooper led a village health worker training programme. The trained village health workers could, in the absence of qualified medical doctors, provide some relief to the sick and poor of this region who virtually were left on their own by the government in Monrovia and deprived of all advantages of (then) modern times. Klaas is curious to know what is left of this project which was a low-cost approach to tackle the health problems of rural Liberians. It was a project in the philosophy of the barefoot doctors.

The system of ‘barefoot doctors’ originated from China where it spread as part of the Cultural Revolution as from 1965. Its basic ideas with emphasis on primary health care and preventive medicine were important components of the Declaration of Alma-Ata, the output of a WHO conference in the city of the same name in Kazakhstan in 1978. In China the barefoot doctor system was abolished in 1981.

We spoke about the Tolbert administration, his assassination, Samuel Doe’s coup, the hanging of the Harper Seven (seven convicted ritual killers), and the conditions of nowadays Liberia after the devastating fourteen years of internal conflict. Klaas and I are both eager to see the country with our own eyes, to talk to the people we have known and who still are in the country. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faces an almost impossible task, to rebuild the country and to re-unite its people after the civil war. She has to start from scratch. Electricity and running water are out of reach for the majority of the people, not to speak of a daily decent meal.

Monday, March 10
I heard the surprising news of the acquittal of Gus Kouwenhoven, the well-known Dutch timber trader and millionaire, accused of arms trafficking for his business partner, former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The latter actually stands trial, also in the Netherlands. The court found unsufficient evidence to convict the Dutch conflict timber trader. The prosecutor apparently had done a lousy job and the judges said that in public, though in other words. Everybody – at least in Liberia – knows that it was impossible to do business in this country while not pleasing or helping the president and this makes it very likely that the Dutch trader and the Liberian warlord-president connived. But such circumstantial evidence is no base for a conviction in the absence of solid evidence. Whatever one may find of the court’s verdict, we in the Netherlands have a solid judicial system and rule of law. Better to have ten accused suspects set free for want of evidence than one innocent suspect wrongly convicted and put behind bars.

Sunday, March 9
I was too optimistic when I started this weblog last year. After the first attempt in October I was absorbed by the completion of a major evaluation exercise: the evaluation of the Netherlands’ Africa policy (fortunately bilateral relations only!). At the end of January it was ready. The minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, and the minister for Development Cooperation, Bert Koenders, sent the report to parliament, together with their policy reaction. One week later an impressive national conference took place, on Februay 13, which discussed the major outcome of the evaluation as well as related topics.

Hectic times were not over yet. At the end of February an international conference was held in The Hague, the Netherlands, partly occasioned by an evaluation report I completed last year. It focused on the Netherlands’ research policy in developing countries. The two weeks that have since elapsed were used to tighten social contacts I had neglected during the past five months, to sort out my overfloaded mailbox and to clean up my desk and office.