A War of Extinction


WITHIN the past two months the world has seen two nations disappear from the map -- East Germany by its own hand, Kuwait at the hand of a brutal neighbor. While these remarkable events gained the huge attention they deserved, precious little notice has been given to the possible impending extinction of yet another nation -- the small West African country of Liberia.

It was a little over 30 years ago that I made my first and only visit to Liberia as a reporter, but I was so taken with that sad little nation that I have followed its misfortunes with great sympathy ever since.

VTC Certainly Americans should feel a sympathy for Liberia, since the nation is a child of America -- although neglected step-child is the more apt description. Liberia was founded in 1847 as a refuge for freed slaves to return to their ancestral continent. Its very name celebrates liberation. Its capital, Monrovia, is named for a U.S. president, and one of its counties is named Maryland. They even adopted the U.S. constitution, and the Liberian flag is a replica of America's, with a single star in the blue field.

But the harsh truth is that for all its pretension, Liberia throughout its 143 years of existence has been a sick nation. Now there is cause to fear that the illness may be terminal.

It wouldn't be the first time Liberia was near death. In the 1920s the League of Nations considered revoking Liberia's statehood and placing it under a colonial trusteeship. The reason: Liberia was caught engaging in the slave trade! After a forced restructuring of its government Liberia survived that crisis, but the sickness continued as a few thousand descendants of the repatriated slaves -- the so-called Americo-Liberians -- ran the country as a kind of comic opera parody of the United States.

Had it not been for the Firestone rubber interests, ironically but fittingly called "the plantation," Liberia probably would have simply collapsed as an indifferent world looked on.

When I was there the president was the redoubtable William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, widely known as "Shad." During the few weeks I spent there I frequently saw him strutting around Monrovia to preside over presidential ceremonies in morning coat and silk top hat -- an utterly ludicrous scene amid the general squalor.

Ten years ago an army sergeant named Samuel K. Doe executed a military coup which was a sort of tribal rebellion against the Americo-Liberian oligarchy, which never numbered much over 100,000 but ruled a country of more than 2 million. Doe was the first person from an indigenous tribe to rule. After 10 dismal years under Doe the Americo-Liberians started a sort of every-man-for-himself civil war which became so unrestrained its brutality, including the mindless murder of women and children, that neighboring West African nations -- themselves hardly models of respect for human rights -- set up an international force to restore a semblance of order to Liberia.

But before the pacification force could enter the country Doe was caught and killed -- apparently after ghastly torture -- and the competing factions then fell to war with one another. As of today they are fighting the West African soldiers who came to impose order.

Under the circumstances, it seems out of the question that any of the rebel leaders could emerge as a acceptable national president. Once the neighboring nations have pacified Liberia, something akin to a colonial regime will have to be imposed. Almost certainly such a regime would and should reflect the interests of the 2.5 million indigenous tribes people over the 100,000 or so Americo-Liberians lucky enough to survive the terrors of the past decade.

If the country ever again gets on its feet, the chances are that it will drop its "American" name altogether, just as Ghana dropped "the Gold Coast" and Zaire dropped "the Belgian Congo," and become just another struggling African nation.

Maybe that's the way it should be. But it's a little sad to watch this nation, born of such high hopes, fail so dismally.

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