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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

West African Troops Land in Liberia

Transcript of Amy Goodman’s radio talk show,
“Democracy Now,”
aired on August 4, 2003.


As West African forces land in Liberia we speak with author and freelance journalist, David Goodman, on Liberia’s history and its relationship with the U.S. government.

The first West African forces arrived in Liberia capital of Monrovia today. The troops are part an international mission to end 14 years of carnage and oversee departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor. 300 Nigerian soldiers are scheduled to land today. The soldiers’ ranks are expected to swell to 5,000 by the end of the month.

AP reported a dozen Nigerian soldiers in green camouflage and flak jackets leaping out of a Russian-made helicopter at Liberia’s main airport. They took up defensive positions around the landing strip. Residents near Monrovia’s embattled port heard cheers and watched flares go up as the rebels celebrated the arrival of the West African forces.

The situation in Monrovia is dire. Two months of rebel sieges have killed more than 1,000 civilians and more than 1.3 million have been cut off from food and water. The Washington Post reports Liberians are still pleading for President Bush to send in U.S. troops but no move from Washington has been made. The deployment of U.S. troops has been delayed in part because President Bush first wanted assurances that any troops who go into Liberia will be protected from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. We’ll have more on Liberia later in the show.

Liberian President Charles Taylor had agreed to relinquish power on August 11 but it is no longer clear when he will go into exile in Nigeria. Taylor wants the war crimes indictment against him to be dropped before he goes into exile.

—By Alphonso Toweh, Reuters correspondent in Monrovia, Liberia. David Goodman, freelance journalist and author of Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: As we turn now to Liberia. The first West African forces have arrived there today, 675 Nigerian soldiers, 18 of their officers assembled on the airfield to take part in the first deployment. The troops are the start of a promised 3250 force of U.N. peacekeepers.

A reported dozen Nigerian soldiers in flack jackets leaped out of a Russian made helicopter at Liberia’s main airport. They took up defensive positions around the landing strip. Residents near Monrovia’s embattled port heard cheers and saw flares as rebels celebrated arrival of the West African forces.

The situation right now in Liberia is dire. People are suffering from disease, having been cut off by the fighting as well as starvation.

We turn now to David Goodman who is a freelance reporter and author of Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa. I spoke to him last week. He has reported on Liberia on the situation of child soldiers as well as the Firestone plant in Liberia—about the U.S. role over the years.

DAVID GOODMAN: The U.S. relationship with Liberia is a long and sordid one. It dates back to 1816 when the first U.S. Navy warships delivered settlers, the first settlers to Liberia. This was part of the American Colonization Society that was headed by then president James Monroe, who then got to have his name attached to the capital of Liberia, Monrovia. The operation then was sort of a bizarre mix of missionary zeal and ethnic cleansing.

It was an attempt to have free African Americans leave the country because southern slave owners were afraid of what they represented, that they might inspire slaves to revolt, and it was also the hope of a lot of churches that they could Christianize this African territory at that time.

The relationship continued in the mid-1800’s when Liberia was officially established by freed American slaves, but in the 1900’s, it took on a much stronger economic dimension. In 1926, Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tires was granted a lease under strong pressure from the U.S. government, which he had got a million acres of [in] Liberia. Now having traveled in the Firestone rubber plantation, this is the largest rubber plantation on earth.

It supplies much of the rubber for Firestone tires, which until recently were the main tires on any Ford vehicle that you might have had. The plantation functions as almost a separate nation within Liberia. It has its own security force, it’s basically a no-go zone for the Liberian government. And it gives very little back in terms of finances, except in the salaries it pays.

When I was there in 1999 I was looking into the working conditions for Mother Jones magazine on the Firestone plantation. [I] Found out that rubber-tappers there are paid $2.50 a day. And they were suffering as a result of the Firestone debacle here where their tires were blowing up. So for making $2.50 a day their wages were further slashed and their benefits further slashed in Liberia because of tires blowing up on our roads.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Goodman who has reported on Liberia on the Firestone plant there and the Liberian workers and also on child soldiers.

DAVID GOODMAN: Right. I was also in Liberia for Unicef investigating the aftermath of the seven-year Civil War that raged through the 1990’s when Charles Taylor led a rebel group that eventually brought him to power and elections in 1997.

15,000 children down to the age of six fought in that conflict. It became one of the most notorious conflicts for its use and abuse of children. And I heard often in my travels around the country the particular fear that these units, they were called small boy units, the S.B.U.’s in Liberia. They were particularly feared because children can be persuaded and brainwashed to do just about anything. So many of the most heinous crimes during the Civil War were actually committed by children on the orders of their commanders.

Once again … in the conflicting go-on now, both the government and in Liberia and the rebel groups LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] and MODEL [Movement for Democracy in Liberia] have been accused of using child soldiers. I spent one particularly memorable day with the group of what were called hard core combatants.

These were children by and large; if there’s any effort at all made to do something for these kids, and often there is no effort made. But where help is offered, it’s to reunite children with families. But these hardcore combatants had committed atrocities so severe that their communities would not take them back.

Now, this is kind of a longstanding ritual, which is that a way to prove loyalty to your commander is to force a child to do something to his own family or to his own community. The commander thus knowing that he cannot return to that community or family. So it can involve everything from burning down a whole village, to killing a family, to killing a family member. So these were the kids I was dealing with.

All I can tell you is that the damage done lasts a lifetime. And when I asked one Liberian social worker looking around at the wreckage of Liberia—and it is particularly striking—I’ve traveled in war zones all throughout Africa, I’ve never seen anything quite like Liberia. The capital Monrovia is as if a lawn mower were lowered over all the buildings. They’re simply blown off. Glass lies shattered on the street that has been there for seven years because no one bothers to clean it up. This was the state of Monrovia two years ago. One can only imagine right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Charles Taylor and the U.S. relationship with him?

DAVID GOODMAN: Well, Charles Taylor, we have to trace him back just a couple more years to the Coup that brought him into the picture. In 1980, there was a Coup in which the president, Tolbert was overthrown by a Sergeant Doe a 28-year-old illiterate Army sergeant who was trained by the U.S. Green Berets. Ronald Reagan who became president shortly after Doe came to power—Doe was a particularly sadistic leader but he was also a particularly shrewd and loyal one when it came to the United States.

At that time, in the 1980’s, the U.S. was concerned that Libya was going to make a move on Africa and line up a series of satellite states. Doe played the Libya card very well. Such, that in the 1980’s, Liberia became the top recipient of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa, receiving over 400 million dollars between 1981 and 1986. What flowed from that was an increasingly brutal dictatorship that enjoyed basically an open checkbook from Washington. As long as Doe kept uttering the words Libya or Russia, he was golden. He met with Ronald Reagan in a famous meeting where Ronald Reagan welcomed “Chairman Moe” to the White House instead of Samuel Doe. And Charles Taylor was actually a clerk in Doe’s government. But then came to the United States, was arrested and was going to be extradited.

AMY GOODMAN: Was arrested for what?

DAVID GOODMAN: He was charged with corruption in Liberia, which is almost a joke since corruption was endemic in Liberia with all this money flowing through. He was being extradited and was in jail outside of Boston and miraculously escaped. It is thought that he had help from inside the prison from the prison guards themselves. In 1989 he shows up in west Africa and Ivory coast, launches an attack against Samuel Doe, and what follows is a horrendous seven-year-long Civil War in which some 200,000 people are killed and a million-and-a-half people are displaced.

That’s where we are today. In 1997 he gets elected president. I asked people around Liberia who they voted for, he won with 70 percent [of the] vote. In [an] election that was actually certified to be somewhat free and fair—when I asked people, even educated Liberians “who did you vote for?,” they say “well we voted for Taylor.” And why would you vote for a sadistic war Lord like this?

The answer was, because he’s the only one who can stop the fighting. If Taylor isn’t president, the war goes on and soldiers go back to the bush. We know it will never end. [What] people voted for in 1997 was an end to war. That meant voting for Charles Taylor. So Taylor’s corruption and brutality has not ceased. So it’s not surprising that he has also spawned conflicts in every state around him. Ivory Coast, the most stable country in West Africa. With the Liberian backed insurgency now toppling the government [in] Guinea [and]Sierra Leone.

AMY GOODMAN: Sierra Leone; he is doing it for the diamonds?

DAVID GOODMAN: Right. How is he funding all of this? So-called blood diamonds, which are the diamonds that are being extracted from Sierra Leone to finance his war—but also more recently, timber sales. Charles Taylor in a wide ranging U.N. investigation has been implicated in the sale of rare hardwoods, basically clear-cutting huge swatches to sell these hardwoods overseas. Diamonds and wood have financed his war. But when you travel to Liberia [you can see] the U.S. marks everywhere: enormous radio satellite towers that are here and there across the country. It was the main C.I.A. listening post for all of Africa up until the Civil War in the 1990’s.

So when we hear now that Liberians are looking to the United States not to the French, not to the British, it’s because they are intimately familiar with this close relationship with the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: The second city, Buchanan, has fallen to the rebels. You’ve spent time there.

DAVID GOODMAN: To call Buchanan a city?—I mean it has a kind of wide open dirt path in the middle, it’s been nearly destroyed in the last war. It was a base for Charles Taylor. And many of his old bases, his hometown in the interior, a place called Bonga, has fallen to the rebels, he’s basically lost most of the country except Monrovia. Buchanan is significant. Its the second port city in Liberia. To re-supply or feed the many people who are now starving in Liberia, it’s either Buchanan or Monrovia. Now both ports have by and large been cut off because of fighting. So here we have—fast-forwarding to right now—we have Marines stationed off the coast of Liberia. Well, this is a very familiar scene for Liberians. In 1990, the first President Bush sent Marines to the coast of Liberia when fighting broke out. And a number of Liberians recounted to me the sense of joy at seeing that their suffering was about to end. The Americans had finally come.

And indeed they came; and in a scene that was described to me: Marines landed in amphibious boats, razor wire went up on the streets around the enormous U.S. embassy—it takes over [a] whole section of the city called Momba Point; and sure enough the Marines came, got all the white people and embassy employees and left. And what followed was the 7-year civil war. Interestingly, Bush the First’s Undersecretary of State, Herman Cohen, has said in his exit interview [that] one of his biggest regrets was dropping the ball in Liberia which he says a modest deployment … of our troops could have avoided a very long conflict. What have we learned in the 13 years since that time? ….

—Democracy Now, August 4, 2003





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