Leader: Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe
Economy: GNP per capita $520 per year
Monetary unit: Liberian dollar and US dollar
Main exports: iron ore, rubber, timber, diamonds
People: 2 million (1983), about 34% live in towns
Health: Life expectancy 54 years
Infant mortality: 194 per 1,000 live births
Culture: 16 major tribal groups; 93% of population indigenous, 5% descendents of American slaves, others include Lebanese and Asians who control commercial sector. Religion: 75% traditional/animist, 15% Muslim, 10% Christian. Language: Official language English spoken mostly in cities; 20 African dialects used in rural areas.
Source World Development Report 1983.
Friday night in Monrovia and the McBurger restaurant is packed with spiffed-up touts drinking Guinness and civil servants lounging over a cheeseburger and Coke.
Liberia is an African curiosity’. Tucked between Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast it has been an independent republic since 1847. The idea of Liberia (‘land of liberation’) was created in America. In the 1820s when the cotton gin reduced the need lot slaves in the US south, blacks suddenly became a liability for plantation owners. What better solution than to export them ‘home"? Home, of course, was a bit difficult to find after 100 years in America. But West Africa scented as good a bet as any. So thousands of slaves were repatriated - English-speaking, Christianised and thoroughly American, these blacks were as foreign to local inhabitants as white Europeans.
Torrential rainfall, no obvious natural resources and a treacherous coastline combined to keep the European colonisers at bay during the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s. In Monrovia (named after US president James Monroe) the ‘American-Liberians’ became the local elite. In the interiour, life was much as it had been for generations with tribes growing upland rice in the traditional shifting pattern of ‘slash and burn’ farmers. The country’s precise borders weren’t defined until after the second World War.
In 1926 Harvey Firestone began to carve a rubber plantation out of the forest and Liberia joined the world economy. Harbel Plantation named after Harvey and his wife Idabelle became the biggest rubber farm in the world. Rubber soon became the countins’ ‘s major industry’, although in the 1950s iron ore replaced it as the number one foreign exchange earner.
But Liberia is best known for its ‘flag of convenience’ shipping operation. Foreign owned vessels purchase cut-price Liberian registration and receive reduced taxes and lax safety regulations as part of the deal.
During the recent recession Liberia’s economy has scraped bottom. Rubber and iron ore markets died, income plummeted and jobs were slashed. Only Washington’s aid dollars keep the country from bankruptcy and indeed Liberia is the only African nation where US currency is legal tender. In return America’s corporate interests are secure, with Liberian bases for Voice of America, a satellite tracking station and the CIA.
In 1979, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe kicked out the corrupt regime of President Tolbert and became the first native Liberian descendent to hold power. Great things were promised by his People’s Redemption Council. But so far not much has happened, and not much is likely too until the global economy picks up.
In recent years the old elite, the ‘Americos’, have slowly begun to run the country again. The reality, as Dr Doe soon discovered, is that no one else has the skills. Elections have been promised for 1985, but the decisions that really matter will continue to be made in the boardrooms of foreign corporations.