James Ciment’s “Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It” is, in my opinion, a much better history of Liberia than David Reese’s “Liberia: America’s African Stepchild”.
In Ciment’s book the primary objective of his historical investigation is the politics of Liberia, not the people, although for obvious reasons the people figure prominently in the book as well. Unlike in Reese’s book, which fails to really explain how and why Liberia developed into a racist, elitist society, where 95%+ of the country was disqualified from citizenship for the first 100 years of the republic’s existence, Ciment’s book really examines in detail the Americo-Liberian monopoly on power in Liberia. Although established by freed slaves from America, based on what Ciment writes, the initial settlers in Liberia encountered many of the same challenges as early European settlers in America: impoverishment, starvation, disease (most settlers succumbed to malaria), and incessant wars with indigenous peoples. Under these conditions, whatever their intentions, Americo-Liberian settlers became a close-knit, xenophobic, and incestuous group, clinging to life on the fringes of Liberia’s Winward Coast.
The 133-rule of the Americo-Liberians came to an abrupt end in 1980. Master Sargent Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian officer, overthrow Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, in a violent coup d’état. Ciment attributes the causes of the coup to two main factors. Firstly, he cites growing discontent with the increasingly autocratic rule of the Americo-Liberians, especially under William Tubman’s 27-year long rule. An important Cold War ally of U.S. imperialism, a die-hard anti-communist, and enemy of Nkrumah’s Ghana, Ciment describes how Tubman established his own veritable, U.S.-backed Gestapo to hunt down opposition. Secondly, Liberia underwent tremendous social and economic change after WWII. By the time Tubman died in 1971, Liberia had the world’s largest rubber industry and was one of the largest iron ore exporters. Small-scale, indigenous rice farmers were increasingly — and not uncommonly forced — to work in the rubber plantations and iron ore mines as cheap labour, forcing Liberia to import most of its rice. In April 1979, Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, increased the price of rice, provoking a riot in Monrovia. At least 40 people were killed when Liberian police opened fired on the protestors. Fearing that Liberia’s mostly indigenous armed forces would side with the protestors, the Tolbert administration brought in 700 troops from neighbouring Guinea to quell the violence. This severely damaged Tolbert’s credibility, not only in the eyes of most Liberians, but also in eyes of Liberia’s armed forces.
Ciment concludes the book with a brief overview of Liberia’s history after the 1980 coup. Tolbert’s violent end at the hands of Doe changed little in Liberia. Awash in military support from the rabidly anti-communist Reagan administration, the Doe regime continued the violent persecution of indigenous Liberians, especially the Gio and Mano ethnic groups. Charles Taylor, a sociopathic former Doe official, and his rebels (mostly Gios and Manos) invaded Liberia from neighbouring Ivory Coast, sparking the First Liberian Civil War. Taylor and another equally sociopathic rebel leader, Prince Johnson, laid siege to Monrovia as they battled for control of Liberia. Johnson can still be seen on YouTube, drinking a Budweiser, and shouting orders while his soldiers mutilate a bloody and screaming Doe on camera. Taylor’s triumph over Johnson again changed little in Liberia. Indigenous Kahan Liberians, persecuted by Taylor, formed a rebel group and invaded Liberia in 2003 from neighbouring Guinea, sparking the Second Liberian Civil War.
The story of Liberia and the former slaves who ruled it is a sad but nonetheless very interesting one.