The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Liberia:
A Brutal Ethnic War in the Private Colony of Firestone and Goodyear

Nov 3, 1995

Liberia, a small country of three million people on the western border of the Ivory Coast, was the first independent state of the modern era in black Africa, established in 1847. Nevertheless, like all its neighboring countries, it was an artificial creation of imperialism, in this case American imperialism.

The creation of Liberia originated in the idea of a return to Africa which spread among the freed black slaves of the United States during the 1700s. They did not have the means, however, to put such a project into practice. The slave-owners themselves adopted the idea and provided the means to carry it out, in the hope of getting rid of these freed slaves, whose very existence posed a constant threat to the system of slavery, and who were often abolitionists as well.

The plan did not meet with the hoped-for success, precisely because of the abolitionists' opposition. Nevertheless, some twenty thousand ex-slaves were transported from the United States to this hostile strip of land which became Liberia. Deprived of the resources which they would have needed to begin to build a viable economy, facing incursions by British and French colonial expeditions and hostility from the different ethnic groups on whose land they had settled, the ex-slaves quickly became totally dependent on the American bourgeoisie which had supposedly emancipated them.

Liberia may not have been formally the colony of another country, but in effect it became the private colony of an American rubber cartel created by Firestone and Goodyear. This situation was formalized in 1926 by an agreement which granted the cartel a 99-year lease on 20,000 square kilometers of land, or nearly a fifth of the country's total land area. Not contenting itself with the rubber plantations, the cartel also ran banana and coffee plantations and exploited the country's rich mineral resources in iron ore and diamonds. But having recruited labor from the local population, the cartel had to control these workers by force and protect the corporations' property. The minority descending from the former freed slaves, who still lived cut off in the few urbanized areas of the country, provided the prison guard the cartel needed. The resulting social organization was just as bad as South African apartheid, except that the privileged minority were blacks themselves. Liberia became a monstrosity: a gigantic labor camp whose masters lived in grand mansions aping the architecture of New England; a country which was among the poorest in the world, but whose currency enjoyed de facto parity with the dollar and whose flag was flown by the largest commercial fleet in the world, thanks to accommodating tax laws.

The powder keg thus created was bound to explode one day. In April 1980, a coup d'état led by Staff Sergeant Samuel Doe ended the pseudo-democracy which had always been reserved exclusively for Afro-Americans. Doe had the consent of American imperialism, which was tired of subsidizing a regime increasingly unable to contain popular discontent. Doe swept aside the dictatorship of the Liberian apartheid rulers, replacing it with the dictatorship of the army. But his regime became increasingly unbearable for the poor. To consolidate his power, which was constantly threatened by attempted coups, Doe increasingly used repression while at the same time he stirred up ethnic rivalries, pitting different groups against each other.

As the international economic crisis threatened the country with bankruptcy, the regime lost all control over the country. Facing a rebellion led by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front, the regime collapsed in December 1989. Doe himself was killed in September 1990, in Monrovia, the scene of confrontations between three rival factions fighting for power. This situation led to the American military intervention of July 1991, which more or less succeeded in restoring a semblance of order in the capital, but not in restoring any kind of coherent army to combat the half-dozen rival armed bands who were already carving up the country among themselves. In the ultimate irony, American imperialism gave Nigeria, the country which has been the scene of constant ethnic conflict, including the Biafran War, the job of leading an intervention force, the ECOMOG. This force was restricted to the business district of the capital; its sole purpose was to give imperialism the means to arbitrate any future attempted agreement.

After the American intervention, the civil war quickly took on the guise of a regional conflict. Whole sections of the Liberian population have fled from the fighting into neighboring countries. But the armed bands themselves no longer respect national borders. Since 1993, Taylor's forces and those of the ULIMO, formed by former supporters of Samuel Doe, have been fighting on the territory of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone itself has been in a situation of civil war since the coup led by Captain Strasser in 1992. Most of the Liberian warlords have set up rear bases in the three bordering countries (Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast), where they enjoy ethnic support, and the more or less disguised support from the regimes in power. These regimes themselves hope to profit from a conflict which could lead to a redrawing of borders in the region.

Since the failure of the American action, the imperialist powers have refrained from any open intervention. But they are all intervening through their regional agent or agents. Britain and the United States have used Nigeria and Ghana which have supplied the bulk of the ECOMOG forces and, apparently, the bulk of the arms to the ULIMO. Nevertheless, Taylor's NPF, still the biggest of the armed bands today, seems to have obtained the most outside help. It's probably no coincidence that Taylor controls the iron-ore-rich Nimba region, together with the best part of the country's diamond production. The iron and diamonds Taylor exports to Europe pass through the Ivory Coast. Supplies of arms and troops apparently pass the other way through the same country. Although the Ivory Coast government has not openly taken sides in the conflict, it is inconceivable that this traffic could have gone on for four years without its approval and therefore, the approval from Paris. The opposition press in Ghana has described operations carried out on Liberian territory by the Ivory Coast army to evacuate Taylor's troops.

This long war has already been punctuated by several attempted agreements between rival leaders, thus far without success. The latest American-sponsored attempt seems to be more solidly based ... for the moment. On the subject of this attempt, and the price paid by the population for this brutal civil war, we reproduce below a translation of an article taken from "Le Pouvoir aux Travailleurs" (Power to the Workers), a Trotskyist publication printed in the neighboring country of the Ivory Coast.

Liberia: The Dance of the Vampires

After devastating the country for six years, the leaders of the rival factions in Liberia have finally agreed to implement the ceasefire they had agreed to last August 19.

A kind of transitional government has been set up in Monrovia pending a general election scheduled for August 1996. The warlords – who include the leader of the former "national army" – have agreed to become part of a collective leadership.

Special envoys from Bill Clinton are to attend the swearing in of the militia leaders when they are officially installed in office.

This peace attempt will be the umpteenth of its kind. Even assuming that the warlords can agree this time, it will not bring the thousands of dead back to life.

Charles Taylor, the leader of one of the seven main armed bands, the one which began the civil war in December 1989 and which is now part of the small ruling clique enthroned by international diplomacy, has just asked the Liberian people to "forgive" him for his "mistakes" and the "imperfections" of what he calls the "popular uprising". He explained that this uprising was, at the time, "the last solution for the people, deprived of its most fundamental rights by a government which used violence to maintain itself in power."

Taylor is certainly right – at least in what he says about the former government. But this did not keep him from reaching an agreement with the leader of the former national army, the instrument of repression in Samuel Doe's time. Apparently Taylor sees no problem reaching an agreement with those who have butchered the people, even though he has set himself up as a representative of this people. The truth is that Charles Taylor is no more concerned with the people's interests than the other warlords are, or than Samuel Doe was. These people are fighting for power, and the opportunities for enrichment which go with it. And they are doing so in the most harmful way for the population: by pushing ethnic demagogy to the extreme, by turning the different ethnic groups against each other, weapons in hand, in brutal fratricidal confrontations. Using armed bands recruited on this basis, they impose their dictatorship on everyone, including their own ethnic group.

None of the militia leaders was able to defeat the others, thus the war has already gone on for six years and there is no guarantee that it will not continue. The terror imposed on the population by the 50,000 or so armed men of the different factions has had disastrous results for the population. One hundred fifty thousand people have died. It is estimated that 80 percent of the population has had to flee from their villages, the majority to the region around the capital, with a minority going to other countries. And as the reporter for the daily newspaper Info Soir remarks, "the remaining 500,000 ... prey to famine and disease, have been reduced to slavery by the armed forces of all factions or subjected to their exactions: systematic rape of women, forcible enlistment of children, looting, destruction and torture".

This is what Charles Taylor calls "errors" or "imperfections." His fellow faction leaders and rivals have not even felt the need to pretend to "apologize" – or maybe they are just not as cynical as Taylor. If peace returns to this war-drained country, butchers like him and the others will henceforth "represent the Liberian people" and rule the country.

But here in the Ivory Coast, we should not be satisfied with pitying, while slightly scorning, our neighbors. For one thing, they are not really a different people, since the border between our two countries often divides ethnic groups which live in this country, too.

Moreover, who can guarantee the Ivory Coast is immune from the infection which has afflicted Liberia?

The battle for power in the Ivory Coast between Henri Bédié, Alassane Dramane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo is fortunately, for the moment, only a war of words and insults. Yet it already has an ethnic coloring. This in itself is cause for serious concern, since it creates ethnic tensions where they did not exist. If it continues, the situation will inevitably get worse.

So let us look at what is going on in Liberia. Let us take a close look at our brothers there. What is happening to them is an illustration of our own future if the destitute and the laboring classes allow themselves to be taken in by the nationalist and ethnic demagogy of irresponsible people competing to rule over us.