Published June 18, 1992
John Murray Publishers Ltd
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Few countries have as interesting a history as that of Liberia. Founded in 1822 as a refuge for freed African slaves in America, the country has never been exactly African or exactly Western, but a kind of accomodation between the two. The white Americans who paved the way for black settlers there were not just — and perhaps not even mostly — motivated by humanitarianism but also by a desire to ensure the purity of white America in the face of the inevitable end of slavery. After suffering through indignity and injustice, the former slaves were anxious to find their own home in Africa but they had nonetheless become acculturated by American values and political ideals, so that they viewed their new home as a sort of America in exile. Complicating matters was the fact that, at the time of its founding, there were already Africans living on the land designated Liberia. The freed slaves, who came to be called Americo-Liberians, viewed the African natives much as they had themselves been viewed by white Americans: as savages.
After an 1847 Declaration of Independence modeled closely on that of America, the Americo-Liberians set about forging a country of American ideals, leading to economic and social improvement, especially during the mid-20th Century, but after sucessfully maintaining power for 133 years, they were overthrown in 1980 by the “natives”, lead by Samuel Kanyon Doe, an event that set in motion an orgy of tribal hatred and violence. A terrible civil war commenced in 1989, during which the capital, Monrovia, was thrown into anarchy. Doe was himself overthrown in 1990 and was tortured and killed by his enemies. Anthony Daniels arrived in the country in March 1991 to see for himself the rapid decline of order and civility and the consequent annihilation of Monrovia. As this period coincided with a brief lull in the civil war (a precarious peace enforced by international peacekeepers), his visit was relatively safe and therefore afforded Daniels an opportunity to investigate the aftermath of the violence.
What he finds is a city that has been almost completely sacked, without public utilities of any kind and with almost every building reduced to rubble. The remains of burnt-out cars are everywhere, and almost every item for sale is the product of looting. Doors and window frames have been removed for use as firewood. This vandalism “is not senseless — unless greed and the instinct for survival be senseless.” It was also, in many cases, a systematic attempt to destroy every vestige of the ancien regime, such that “even the light switches had been removed”. By contrast, he finds that the destruction of the university and library wasn’t “cerebral” but “more elemental”, the revenge of the ignorant upon the educated. “[T]he impulse to destroy what you cannot understand is always a powerful one, waiting to be acted upon once the normal restraints of law and order are removed.”
Lest one doubts the existence of those previous restraints, Daniels finds administrative files in the library and a local hospital (both abandoned) that attest to a former civic health, but the “records of infant welfare clinics, tracing the growth of babies over several months on a simple graph, alerting doctors and nurses to the onset of malnutrition or other disorders” had been “smeared with excrement”. He meets Americo-Liberians who are dignified and civilized and who look at the destruction of their once-proud city with sorrow, but he also spends time with some Liberian friends who are intelligent, well-educated and had barely escaped death themselves and who nevertheless delight in showing Daniels the famous videotape of the gruesome torture and murder of Samuel Doe by Prince Y. Johnson, the viewing of which causes them to giggle with laughter. (Daniels had already met the Field Marshal Brigadier-General Prince Yormie Johnson and discovered him to be a true psychopath.)
He finds in the vandalized Centennial Hall (where new Liberian Presidents are inaugurated) a beautiful, old Steinway grand piano with its legs cleanly sawn off, a sight which he attributes to “a long-contemplated but long-frustrated revenge upon a whole alien civilization.” He visits St. Peter’s Lutheran Church where 600 Liberians from the Gio and Mano tribes were massacred in July 1990 by the Armed Forces of Liberia under Doe. There is still dried blood covering the floor of the sanctuary, and he can make out silhouettes where the bodies had laid.
Certainly, these events testify to a truth to which Daniels often returns: the fragility of civilization. But what is the exact reason for the destruction so apparent in Monrovia? In this case, he argues that the country was attacked on multiple fronts by a kind of tag team of villains. On the one hand, the toppling of the Americo-Liberians may have been part of the willful and completely unnecessary destruction of civilization by intellectuals that we see in the West. Daniels concedes that the Americo-Liberian administrations were corrupt but notes that “no one valued the peace that reigned for many years or stopped to ask himself whether an uncorrupt and un-nepotistic Liberia was a realistic possibility.” He meets a Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, who had served in Doe’s government and had written a book justifying the revolt against the Americo-Liberians. In the book, Dr. Tipoteh:
“…displays no awareness that things might get worse rather than better; in his limited imagination, the ancien regime is already the worst imaginable, the grievances against it so grave that anything that comes after it must be an improvement… there is no acknowledgement of the intrinsic difficulties facing a country such as Liberia: if there is poverty, someone is to blame for it and must therefore be eliminated… no mention of the greed that gnawed at the hearts of the revolutionaries, and was soon to devastate the country, nor of the depth of the tribal feeling that was about to be unleashed.”
Daniels also says that:
“Times of change, even for the better, are dangerous times, however; for the changes are never sufficient for the dreamers and thinkers.”
So Africa has its own intellectuals, and the damage they do there is comparable to what our own intellectuals do here. But at the same time, Daniels suggests that it may have been inevitable that Liberians would eventually shrug off their American heritage, yet more evidence of the ultimate unsustainability of Western values in Africa. Daniels notes that “western principles and practices are not left unchanged in their translation to Africa” and that, in contrast to westerners, the acceptance of religious and superstitious belief among Africans lessens the importance they place on the here and now. As such, even charitable aid is seen by many Africans as paternalistic. African bureaucrats often play along with Western governments and aid agencies just to avail themselves of the material luxuries that the aid brings, like nice cars and conferences in Paris. This makes the aid givers and African bureaucrats happy, but the people are unhappy, because they will be:
“…badgered to do things for their own good which they do not wish to do and in whose efficacy they would prefer not to believe.
“When you immunize a population whose conception of life is profoundly magico-religious, you are not carrying out a merely technical procedure: you are challenging its very conception of life… Measures that are carried out for a population’s own good are therefore culturally disorientating; the former equilibria are destroyed, and old knowledge is discredited without new understanding to replace it.”
This explains why such hatred was directed toward the hospital and university. There is no question that the daily lives of ordinary Liberians were materially better under the Americo-Liberians, but how important is this fact if one’s religious beliefs are compromised in the process?