Liberia: War-Weary, With Echoes of Old Dixie

The Root's Teresa Wiltz traveled to the resilient West African nation and saw the imprint of its American heritage everywhere.

Courtesy of the Stanley Foundation

A Complex History of War

Indeed. Liberia’s two civil wars are a convoluted tale of coups and counter-coups, of multiple warring factions jockeying for control of the resource-rich land. The first war began in 1989, when Charles Taylor, a former official in Doe’s government, invaded the country from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire with the National Patriotic Front Rebels and toppled the government.

Prince Johnson, who’d split off from Taylor to form the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), captured Doe in 1990 and tortured him to death. (Johnson swigged a beer while his minions hacked off Doe’s ears.) Taylor was eventually elected president in 1997, but war waged on until 2003. More than 250,000 Liberians were killed, and more than a million displaced.

Today Taylor is on trial for war crimes in The Hague. Johnson, despite his history as a warlord, is an elected official and serves as senior senator from his state. Meanwhile, Liberians play soccer and attend concerts in the Samuel K. Doe Stadium. (Johnson did not attend a scheduled meeting with our group.)

The wars are a constant topic in everyday conversations here. Boakai Fofana, the Liberian journalist who helped organize our trip with the International Reporting Project, tells me matter-of-factly how, when he was 13, he and his family ran from a massacre, crossing the border into neighboring Guinea. Others weren’t so lucky. At one point the Guinea government barred that bridge, and hundreds of Liberians, running from rebel forces, leaped to their deaths in the river below.

Fofana spent his formative years on the run, which meant that he learned on the run, too. For many young Liberians, education became a casualty of the war. It’s not uncommon here to meet 29-year-olds who are still in high school, working when they can, studying when they can and determined to make it to university, even though tuition is beyond their grasp. “Because of the war,” says Fofana, who is now in his early 30s and studying for a master’s degree, “the definition of youth has expanded to include anyone from 18 to 35.”

A Relentless Optimism … and Yet

On paper, the odds are not in their favor. Some 85 percent of the country is unemployed. There is no middle class. Corruption is rampant, even in the schools. Young women tell me how commonplace it was to encounter underpaid teachers trading sex for grades — you don’t put out, you flunk. The infrastructure has literally been shot: The electrical grid was blown up during the war, and much of the country still runs on generators, suffusing the air with the pungent aroma of gasoline.

Outside Monrovia, the roads are in ruins, unpaved, rutted, riddled with massive holes. Impassable. Because of this, farmers can’t get their crops to market, and so the food rots. Many of the young men you see speeding by on motorbikes are former child soldiers still trying to find their way. What happens if they can’t find it?