The first time I went to Liberia in June 2011, a friend said, “America is Liberia, and Liberia is America.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, but what I understand now is that there is a deep-rooted and complex relationship between the two countries and their people.
The history of Liberia and its political relationship with the United States has been well documented in history papers and foreign policy accounts. Most start with the American Colonization Society (ACS). Founded in 1816, the ACS was created during a time when the United States was dividing itself into “free” and “slave” states. The organization was made up of a mixture of people, ranging from abolitionists to slave owners. All of them were white, middle-class males, and all of them believed in separation. Some shrouded it in concern that former slaves would have a hard time finding viable opportunities in a white-dominant society. Others saw “repatriation” as a form of population control that would limit slave rebellions. And for many ACS members, the desire to create a separate home for former slaves was rooted, simply, in racism.
Regardless of the motives of its individual members, the ACS filled boats with emigrants and chose the west coast of Africa - what are now Liberia and Sierra - as the location for its new colonies. After forcibly taking over the land, the colonies, led by white men from the States, grew and gained economic stability. By the time Liberia gained independence in 1847, Liberian society had already been stratified into a hierarchy that placed those that came from the United States at the top and native Liberians at the bottom.
From this beginning, the US, and everything related to it, has become privileged in Liberia. In many ways, Liberia created itself as a reflection of the United States, copying institutional structures and democratic practices. For over 100 years, Americo-Liberians - Liberians who can trace their roots to the former slaves that colonized the land - held positions of power and had greater access to jobs and resources. It wasn’t until 1980, at the start of the first Liberian civil war, that Samuel Doe overthrew then-president William R. Tolbert to become the first president of non-US descent.
In many ways, the civil wars cemented the relationship between Liberia and the US. Nearly 1 million people moved into the diaspora, with a majority settling in the States. Many kept their familial, community, and economic ties to their home country, creating a transnationality that includes not just the movement of people across borders, but also the exchange of ideas, culture and values. Rather than undoing the hierarchy that privileges the US, this transnationality only furthered it.
The diaspora is now the growing middle class in Liberia. They occupy a space that is somewhere between the $2,000USD-a-month-for-rent-paying expats and the living-on-less-than-$2USD-a-day average Liberian, both culturally and economically. Whether or not they have repatriated completely or continue to travel between Liberia and America, they are the class that has access to both worlds. They travel, watch satellite television and use the internet. But their reach extends beyond transmitting information and culture; they also become key players in shaping Liberia’s political and economic landscape.
Pro-Obama graffiti in West Point, Monrovia
According to a World Bank report, 31% of Liberia’s GDP comes from remittances. That means a large portion of the population is dependent on friends and family from the diaspora sending money (a fact reflected in the long lines at countless MoneyGram and Western Union offices located throughout Monrovia). Many are also investing in and running businesses in Liberia, returning to start everything from clothing lines to radio stations.
They are also a strong political force. Despite a civil war that tried to redistribute power and increase access for all Liberians, the structure that maintains US-related hierarchy is still in place. Liberians from the diaspora return to Liberia to take jobs and hold positions of power. Many occupy high-level government positions and are advocating for dual citizenship in order to increase their political and economic reach in the country.
The diaspora is a strong economic and political force in Liberia, in large part because of their relationship to the US and the access that has given them. But what that does is continue the pattern established by the ACS, where those with US ties were privileged. What happens, then, to the Liberians who do not have that access? Where is their political voice? Upward mobility? How do such Liberians ensure that they, too, are part of the conversation so that the mistakes of history don’t repeat themselves?
Flag Day 1982, Tappita Liberia (Photo credit: Michael Gates)
In Liberia, the US is seen as the ultimate standard for everything. It is the place to go to school. It is the place to go when you travel. It is the place to look to for fashion and entertainment. Many DJs, for example, will play songs by US artists but have to be paid to play songs by local musicians. Musicians claim that they’ve “made it” once they’ve traveled to the US, and many have begun to imitate US styles and sounds in the hope that either their songs will get played in Liberia or that their music will have crossover appeal and make them famous in the US.
Liberia boasts that it is one of the few sovereign states in Africa never to have been colonized, and while it is true that Liberia was never a formal colony, its history with the US and the ACS, and the continued privileging of anything that comes from the US, underscores a psychological colonialization that continues today. The idea that the United States is the example to follow and the standard against which to compare everything else is deep-rooted in Liberian society.
There is resistance to this colonial mentality, however, especially amongst the youth. Many see themselves as Liberia’s future and are dedicated to remaining in the country to support its development and build capacity. Others, who have the option to travel or go to school, choose alternative places, like China. Hip co musicians struggle against foreign artists in an attempt to prioritize their own music, which consciously uses Liberian English rather than “standard” English. And this is just the beginning. As travel, internet, television and other forms of media become more accessible, and as other countries begin to strengthen their involvement in Liberia, it is left to be seen how much longer the US-topped hierarchy will continue.
According to the World Bank, Chinese direct investment in Liberia had reached 10 billion by 2010