Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Witchcraft is No Joke in Africa

Here in America, we enjoy funny, cute witches on television and in the movies. The Harry Potter kids have grown over several movies, and audiences can’t wait until the next book or movie. However, witchcraft over the ages has not been fun and games, and in Africa today, being accused of witchcraft can mean imprisonment, torture or even death.

For centuries, churches and mostly rural communities have blamed bad weather, failed crops and the sickness or death of family on someone summoning the powers of darkness. We tend to look on societies that believe in what we consider superstitions to be less than completely civilized. However, this fails to take into account such excesses in our nation’s past as the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century. As recently as the late 20th century, there was a wave of reports about satanic cults and child sacrifice throughout America.

Here in the 21st century, Africans, mainly children, are victimized by people playing on fear, ignorance and desperate poverty. As a result, various international agencies and organizations report that thousands of children are losing their homes and even their lives each year across the continent.

· A United Nations study reported in 2009 that half the people in a local prison in the Central African Republic were being held because of accusations of witchcraft, which is a criminal offense punishable by execution if the accused is charged with causing the death of another person.

· An Africare official in the Democratic Republic of Congo, discussing the growing number of children accused of being witches in May 2009, said they are often subjected to violent exorcisms in which they are beaten, burned, starved or even murdered. The official added that accusations of witchcraft “have become socially acceptable reasons for why a family turns a child out on the street.”

· The Associated Press reported the story of a nine-year-old Nigerian boy whose family pastor had denounced him as a witch last October, leading the boy’s father to try to force acid down the youth’s throat, instead burning away his face. According to AP, the boy, who died a month after the incident, was one of about 100 cases out of 200 interviews in which a pastor had accused a child of being a witch.

· Amnesty International reported in March 2009 that about 1,000 Gambians accused of being witches were locked in detention centers and forced to drink a dangerous hallucinogenic potion.

There are numerous other examples I could cite. Over the past few decades during which I have travelled to African countries, there are few instances in which during my trip there was not some report of witchcraft suspected or punished. Like many, I came back with tales of published reports such as the campaigns against people believed to have shrunken men’s sexual organs. Some of these reports I took to be cultural curiosities, often not amounting to more than discrimination caused by ignorance and fear. But now this fear and ignorance is leading to the deaths of those too weak to defend themselves.

Accusations often are made by so-called Christian preachers latching onto Biblical texts from the Old Testament warning against allowing witchcraft in one’s midst. Exodus 22:18 states: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” These unschooled, uncompassionate leaders claim to hear from God that some child or adult is practicing witchcraft and must be punished for the good of the community. In so many cases of the spiritually blind leading the spiritually blind, desperation caused by uncontrollable situations leads even relatives to denounce their children and either cast them out or turn them over to those whom they believe represent the justice of God. Sometimes, it is said, these relatives just seek to escape responsibility for another mouth to feed when times are hard.

Lest we continue to blame these people and turn away from an unpleasant and embarrassing situation, we must look in the mirror and acknowledge that our silence on this human rights tragedy is partly our fault. By doing and saying nothing, we allow children to be turned to the cruelty of the streets or the absence of mercy of those who receive payment for their vicious treatment of the weak.

I had to think long and hard about writing this blog because of concern over contributing to a negative view of Africa, but my continued silence on this issue is no longer possible for me. The lives of people are more important than the reputation of countries.

Cain asked God in the Book of Genesis if he were his brother’s keeper. The answer then is the same as the answer now: Yes. Let us never forget this responsibility for the wellbeing of others.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Where is U.S. Policy Toward Africa Heading?

For many years, the United States had no Africa policy beyond that connected to policy involving the colonial powers – our European allies. During the period in which African nations were gaining their independence, American policy was guided by the policy of the European colonial power in question, except, for example, Liberia and South Africa. Later, it was the Cold War that dominated our view of the African continent.

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon came to support U.S.-Africa trade as the result of his late 1950s visit to Africa for the Eisenhower Administration, but not much resulted from his suggested initiative. The end of colonialism provided an opening for more direct engagement with the new African governments, but that opportunity was not taken advantage of at the outset.

When President George H.W. Bush became president, few would have expected him to do anything much to benefit Africa despite his extensive foreign policy expertise. As it turned out, his Administration came to power at a point in history when the Cold War influence on U.S. policy toward Africa was about to end and colonialism was already finished. Now America could consider relationships with African nations that had nothing to do with European colonial powers or the former Soviet Union. Under the first Bush Administration, the United States fielded a large humanitarian operation in Somalia and created the Africa Regional Electoral Assistance Fund, which would make significant technical contributions to the wave of African elections and transitions to democratic systems in the 1990s.

Moreover, the Administration of the first President Bush issued National Security Review 30, a paper that outlined a broad policy of increased U.S. engagement with Africa. That policy initiative came too late in his Administration to be enacted, but fortunately, President Bill Clinton did enact it. Clinton had no Africa experience to speak of coming into the presidency, but building on the Bush plan, he produced a robust engagement of Africa that has set the tone for his successors. He signed into law the first African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which realized the increased U.S.-Africa trade Nixon had spoken of decades earlier. Many of his Cabinet secretaries visited Africa and involved their departments in Africa programming.

The second President George Bush came into office with no Africa experience as well, but he assembled a remarkable record of achievement on Africa policy, including his Administration’s greatly expanded contributions of funds to combat HIV-AIDS and malaria on the continent, his steadfast advocacy of AGOA, his support for African education (especially for girls) and his partnership with African governments on mutual security issues. His Millennium Challenge Account process has provided billions in development grants to African countries.

We expect President Obama to continue the growing engagement with Africa that his immediate predecessors championed and take America’s relationship with Africa to a new level. Unfortunately, like all Administrations, President Obama faces crises that distract from longer-term planning and implementation of development policy for Africa. There are countries in Africa with active violence underway, such as Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as simmering tensions in countries such as Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, there are long-term issues that also must figure into American policy. Good governance, enhancing agricultural production, creating adequate infrastructure, stemming the tide of disease, raising the level of education, reversing the impact of the brain drain and many other issues pose a challenge in executing an effective Africa policy.

Despite a heightened attention and some solid accomplishments in the last couple of Administrations, a thorough, integrated plan on African development was not among their achievements. The overall framework of Africa policy always seems to depend on several points on which policy will hinge or several pillar countries with whom our government will partner. At some point, one hopes one Administration will put together a comprehensive plan in which development, human rights, trade, security, governance, transparency and humanitarian issues will all mesh so that its successors will have a blueprint from which to work.

One can only hope.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nigeria at a Crossroads

Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter, the economic engine of West Africa and a major supplier of peacekeeping troops internationally. But despite its economic and military power, Nigeria has reached a crossroads in its history that could decide its future course. So precarious has the situation in Nigeria become that an African leader has openly called for splitting Africa’s most populous country in two – something that would not have happened publicly until now.

In the past, there were coups, a civil war, rigged elections and other crises, but Nigeria always managed to muddle through. Military men handed over to civilian control (even if another seized back power), the civil war was concluded, and complaints about elections faded into the background. Now, however, a leadership struggle has placed governance in this West African giant in question and delayed action needed to keep Nigeria functioning.

For more than three months, President Umaru Yar’Adua was in a Saudi Arabian hospital for treatment never made clear to his countrymen, and several delegations of government officials were turned away when they sought to see him. In his absence, concern grew, but his loyalists fought off efforts to replace him with Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

The strong U.S. reaction to the so-called underwear bomber caused significant concern among official Nigeria, and there was no president to defend the country’s interests. Increasing violence that appeared to be due to religious disputes created gruesome headlines and rising body counts. Jos, the so-called city of peace, has been at the epicenter of the horrific events. Again, leadership was absent in either acting to prevent such violence or apprehend the perpetrators. The Federal Government issued a report condemning the role of the Nigeria Police Force in dealing with the situation.

Northerners wanted Yar’Adua to have his two full terms before a southerner took the reins of power; the unwritten political arrangement in Nigeria calls for regional “sharing” of the presidency. However, the long absence of the president finally led the National Assembly to pass a resolution calling for Jonathan to assume the role of acting president in early February, which he did shortly thereafter. A little more than two weeks later, Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria, but came back under the cover of darkness and retreated to seclusion, amid rumors that he is in a coma.

Nigerian activists were not satisfied with a caretaker President. Thousands marched to demand that the entire cabinet be fired and that President Yar’Adua appear in public. They got part of their wish. Acting President Jonathan at first fired the Attorney General and then let go the entire cabinet. As you would expect of politicians everywhere, many immediately began lobbying to get their jobs back through their state governors. Abubakar Muazu, Pioneer Youth leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, warned Jonathan that northern governors were not operating in his interest. There is continuing concern that Yar’Adua’s political allies want to subvert Jonathan.

When Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi stated that the conflict between Christians and Muslims could be solved only by dividing Nigeria into two nations, there was immediate outrage among Nigeria’s politicians, who immediately disparaged Ghadaffi for meddling in Nigeria’s affairs and recalled Nigeria’s ambassador to Libya. Yet the Libyan leader was voicing what some have suggested quietly for years. The unequal distribution of natural resources leaves the south in possession of the country’s oil resources. The atrophy of agriculture and mining would put the north at an immediate disadvantage if such a radical move were taken, which is extremely unlikely anyway.

Still, the reaction by religious leaders in Nigeria is interesting in their different takes on the situation. Ahmadiya Muslim Jama’at Nigeria labeled Ghadaffi’s statement uncalled for, while recommending true federalism for the country. Dr. Mashood Adenrale Fashola, head of the Islamic organization, said the bloody violence experienced in parts of Nigeria is more ethnic than religious. Meanwhile, some Christian leader supported Ghadaffi’s call for splitting the country. In fact, Bishop Joseph Ojo, the immediate past National Secretary of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, said the British amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914 has been a hindrance to the country and suggested that Nigeria be split not in two, but into six different nations. Other Christian leaders echoed his sentiment.

Too many Nigerians see themselves as members of regions or ethnic groups rather than truly accepting a national view. The supposed sectarian violence in the country reportedly is due to ethnic clashes and revenge raids, reportedly instigated by politicians using the violence for political purposes. Nevertheless, if you allow people to believe a thing is true, it can become so even if it doesn’t begin that way.

Nigerian leaders must act to resolve this disparity between their countrymen soon, or Nigeria will be de facto split if not in law. President Jonathan faces some difficult decisions, and the Yar’Adua faction can either cooperate to save their country’s future or act in their own selfish interests as so many other Nigerian leaders have done before them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Good Cop-Bad Cop on Sudan?

Recently, two top Obama Administration officials gave conflicting views on Sudan policy, and the contradiction was pointed out as proof of confusion within the Administration about how to address the continuing problem of Darfur specifically and Sudan generally. However, it is just as possible that the two divergent views are an indication of a good cop-bad cop strategy as a way of dealing with a complex, difficult situation.

United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice said in a news conference that the Khartoum government was responsible for the continued military over-flights and offensive actions in Darfur. “We continue to receive reports of offensive military actions by the Government of Sudan in Darfur,” Rice said. “If these reports are true, this behaviour does not suggest a new willingness on the part of Sudan to fully engage in the peace process.” Ambassador Rice also signalled frustration at international community violations of Sudan sanctions and the failure of the U.N. sanctions committee to stem the tide of weapons into Sudan.

Meanwhile, Special Envoy Scott Gration hailed last month’s signing of a peace accord between the Government of Sudan and the main rebel force, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), as a “landmark” agreement. Gration also has been working steadily to bring together other disparate rebel factions and engineer a similar peace accord signing between the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) and the Sudan government. However, he has downplayed mention of the government’s offensive in Darfur in recent weeks, which reportedly has claimed hundreds of lives.

Rice was previously Senior Director for Africa at the National Security Council and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Clinton Administration. She has had to deal with the Khartoum government before and has experienced their repeated duplicity on peace agreements. In her position at the U.N., she has to keep her fellow representatives focused on pressuring Sudan to finally end the Darfur conflict, while at the same time conduct acceptable elections next month and a referendum on southern Sudanese autonomy next January. She cannot afford to look past Khartoum’s refusal to cooperate with international mandates on the restoration of peace and an end to human rights abuses in that country.

Gration, on the other hand, faces different actors having variant aims in this situation and a window of opportunity for peace that could close soon and lead to all-out war in Sudan. Neither the United States nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to intervene militarily in Sudan if war breaks out, and the combined U.N.-African Union force has not and will not be effective in stopping conflict in Sudan. U.N. peacekeeping forces act to maintain a peace that the warring parties agree to end. They have not shown the will in recent years to intervene in an active conflict, which could be on more than one front in Sudan. Gration is a military man and not trained to see life through rose-colored glasses so one would think his position must be tactical.

The Government of Sudan, which lost control of Darfur several years ago, has now re-established its authority in advance of elections, and by resuming cooperation with neighboring Chad, is putting all rebel movements in a more difficult position. Both JEM and the fragile LJM are not likely to be in a better position than now to negotiate a peace agreement. Meanwhile, the United States, which has been the main peace negotiator for the past several years, has seen Libya continue to supply rebel forces and Qatar become an increasingly important player in peace talks on behalf of what they apparently see as Arab unity.

The elections are in slightly less than a month from now. JEM has said it will not run candidates, and the LJM would not have time to enter the elections. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, southern Sudan’s ruling party, is only partially contesting the elections; much of the party is focused on the 2011 referendum on autonomy. The Khartoum government stands to do well in the elections, which they undoubtedly believe will legitimize the regime.

Given the combustible mix that is Sudan, the U.S. government must try all tactics – even if some seem to signal hopelessness about a negotiated peace in Sudan while others see light at the end of a long tunnel. Neither tactic has worked alone in the past, so perhaps the Obama Administration is trying more than one path to the same goal at the same time.

We won’t have long to wait to see whether either approach or both will succeed.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jacob Zuma – Statesman

South African President Jacob Zuma, the former soldier in the military wing of the African National Congress, has emerged as a significant African statesman, both internationally and domestically. His newly-realized skills in that regard are challenged by his current effort to mediate between Zimbabwe’s ruling party and its opposition partners in the Government of National Unity.

Zuma, who has led South Africa since May 2009, was asked by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to mediate between President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front and the two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Despite a 2008 Global Political Agreement that led to a unity government, Mugabe has refused to fully implement it. Recently, Mugabe stripped opposition ministers of their power, leading to a deadlock in continuing with the unity government. Zuma has been asked to put the process back on track and is in Harare this week to do just that.

Although he has his work cut out for him in dealing with a recalcitrant ruling party and a fractious opposition, Zuma is in a far different position in dealing with Mugabe than his predecessor – Thabo Mbeki. Zuma is a veteran of the armed struggle against the white minority regime in South Africa and spent time in the prison on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. Mbeki is the son of an anti-apartheid hero – Govan Mbeki – but lived in exile for much of the time until the ANC was unbanned. Zuma is a supporter of trade unions in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, which have opposed Mugabe’s rule. Mbeki was hated by South Africa’s unions and had no relationship with or apparent sympathy for unions in Zimbabwe.

Lasting success in Zimbabwe remains to be seen, but Zuma, the leftist supported by the South African Communist Party, evidently has worked his charms on the British government and business community. He impressed the Queen and even an initially skeptical media with his stamina and constant good humor. Zuma overcame even the disagreement with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on lifting sanctions on Zimbabwe. He stressed education during his state visit and offered to use the power of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to benefit education. The business community likely breathed a sigh of relief at his assurances that his government would not nationalize mines or mineral resources. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the enduring memory of his United Kingdom visit “will be his broad smile.”

Back home, Zuma also is employing his charm and his authority as President. At the request of the Afrikaner community in South Africa, Zuma had a private dinner with Afrikaner leaders at his official residence in Pretoria. The President assured his guests that he understood the need for all South Africans to be a part of the larger community. The meeting was necessary because of statements by ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, who called one white political leader a “Satanist” and urged nationalization of South African mines, among other incendiary statements.

Malema’s divisive statements are symptomatic of tensions within the ruling ANC. BusinessDay reported that the party’s National Executive Committee has been forced to instill discipline among its fractious elements. While cushioning the blow to Malema, who is favored by his base in the ANC’s leftist elements, Zuma did support warnings by party leaders to halt public spats by party figures.

Thus far, Zuma has been successful in at least beginning d├ętente between his government and the United Kingdom public and private sectors, supporting internal peace within his ruling party even at the expense of offending his political base and reaching out a hand of cooperation to those who jailed him. Whatever his previous political problems he may have had or the humility of his background, President Zuma is becoming an African statesman to be reckoned with.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Africa's Human Rights Slide

The U.S. Department of State’s 2009 human rights report was released the other day, and it showed disappointing trends toward human rights abuses in counties in conflict; restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly and association and discrimination and harassment of vulnerable groups. Countries such as Iran, Iraq, China, Russia and Cuba were among those singled out for their human rights abuses, but African nations also received criticism for their violations of international standards of human rights.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan led the way in human rights abuses in conflict situation. In Sudan, “government-sponsored forces bombed villages, killed civilians and supported Chadian rebel groups.” Women and children in Sudan continued to experience gender-based violence, according to the State Department report, which calculated that 2.7 million civilians have been internally displaced , about 253,000 have sought refuge in eastern Chad and more than 300,000 Sudanese have died since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003.

Meanwhile, in DRC, “counter-insurgency operations by government security forces resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 civilians; the displacement of hundreds of thousands whose government did not adequately protect or assist them; the rapes of tens of thousands of women, children and men; the burning of hundreds of homes; the unlawful recruitment or use of thousands of children as soldiers by the DRC military and various armed groups, and abductions of numerous persons for forced labor and sexual exploitation, both domestically and internationally,” the report stated.

Nigeria’s national police army and other security forces were said by the State Department to have “committed extrajudicial killings and used lethal and excessive force to apprehend criminals and suspects.” Moreover, “violence in the form of killings, kidnappings and forced disappearances; mass rape, and displacement of civilians attributed to both government and nongovernment actors continued in the Niger Delta.”

The State Department report charged Egypt with failing “to respect the freedom of association and restricted freedom of expression” and said the country’s freedom of religion remained very poor. “Sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians mounted during the year,” the report stated. “The government failed to redress laws and government practices that discriminate against Christians.” Egypt also was cited for the airing of a television show that acknowledged the Holocaust of Jews, “but instead glorified it, praising the slaughter and humiliation of Jews and calling for future Holocausts.”

Eritrea also was cited by the State Department for serious restrictions on the right to practice religion, among other human rights violations. “Only the four religious groups whose registrations had been approved by the government (Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic, and Lutheran) were allowed to meet legally during the year. Security forces continued to abuse, arrest, detain and torture members of nonregistered churches; at times such abuse resulted in death,” the report charged.

Uganda was cited because gay Ugandans faced arbitrary legal restrictions. “It is illegal to engage in homosexual acts, based on a 1950 legal provision from the colonial era criminalizing ‘carnal acts against the order of nature’ and prescribing a penalty of life imprisonment.” While no Ugandan had been charged under the law, the report described a bill introduced in the Ugandan legislature “providing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and for homosexual ‘serial offenders’” that has resulted in increased harassment and intimidation of gays in 2009.

There are many more citations of African human rights violations in the State Department report, but the dismal human rights record of some African countries obscures the generally good human rights record of others, such as Botswana, Cape Verde, Lesotho, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone and South Africa. These governments were described as respecting the human rights of their citizens, except for some issues.

All the world’s nations, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have some human rights issues caused by government action or inaction to right wrongs done to people. However, the excuse that everyone does it won’t free political prisoners, house the displaced, heal the wounded, unrape women or raise the dead. Furthermore, as the colonial period fades ever further into the past, so too does the excuse that the colonial powers set Africa on a path of disrespect for human rights.

Whatever other nations may do, Africa should reach back to its pre-colonial past for principles and practices that once allowed men and women, various ethnic groups and religions to coexist more peacefully. Conditions were not perfect in Africa’s past, but many situations were better then than now. This should be a requirement for Africa to enjoy the physical blessings with which the Creator has endowed the continent.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A U.S.-Africa Trade Disconnect

When I attended the August 2009 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, I heard complaints from African participants that AGOA was not as effective as it could be because its term needed to be extended, and its coverage of products needed to be expanded. U.S. government officials responded that AGOA had already been extended to 2015 and that relatively few of the more than 6,400 tariff lines were being used currently by Africans. This disparity is the result of a disconnect on the how and why of AGOA that must be corrected.

African producers aren’t taking full advantage of AGOA, but we have made it unnecessarily difficult to do so. The U.S. government has extended AGOA, but what officials see as a long extension is too short for business people asked to make longer-term investments. African governments have been too slow to make the necessary adjustments to enable their producers to better compete on the world market, including trade preference compliance issues and internal trade process issues.

The reason we and other developed nations deviated from the fundamental principles of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (and subsequently the World Trade Organization) was that colonialism had crippled the ability of newly independent developing countries to produce and sell world-class products and market them in a globalizing economy.

Some of the developing countries were able to utilize initial assistance and grow their economies, such as the so-called Asian Tigers: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. In Africa, however, obstacles prevented many economies from taking off. These obstacles included continued neocolonial foreign economic interference, disastrous national leadership decisions, the until-recently slow pace of regional economic integration, non-existent or ineffective infrastructure and over-reliance on basic, non-value added products.

The Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and AGOA, which was built on a GSP foundation, were meant to give a boost to African countries by providing benefits such as special tariff reductions to make them more competitive. However, our efforts, though well-intentioned, have been just enough off the mark that they have not accomplished our desired goal of enabling African countries to become more self-sufficient through more successful international trade. There is joint fault for this incomplete success. Neither the United States nor African governments have done the most effective job of working in concert to achieve our mutually desired goal in this regard.

I think the basis of the disconnect here is that AGOA was presented as a “gift” to African nations: the United States believed enhanced access for African products to be brought into the U.S. market was a significant benefit. While that was a correct and generous conclusion, AGOA was a process that was designed by Americans, protected American businesses and allowed only certain African products relaxed access to the largest consumer market in the world.

In reality, only petroleum and minerals would initially benefit fully from AGOA. Textiles early on benefited significantly until the international Multi-Fiber Agreement expired in 2005, which allowed Asian giants such as China and India, and subsequently developing nations such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, to become major textile producing countries. Manufacturing is taking place in some African nations, but a lack of consistent power is a major impediment.

Again, we too often forget that the colonial powers designed their various African empires to be independent of the rest of the continent. Francophone countries were programmed to trade with and build travel links to other Francophone countries. The same was the case in Anglophone and Lusophone countries. Even within colonial zones there often are no transportation links. A 2009 trade mission from Maryland found no direct connections between Senegal and Cameroon – both in the Francophone sphere.

To make AGOA work, there has to be a realization of the difficulties in removing remaining obstacles to intra-African trade that also limit international trade. American government, business and civil society are increasingly working together to facilitate U.S.-Africa trade, but we need to work with our counterparts to form a similarly cooperative alliance.

Blaming Africa is no solution to this problem. Only more successful cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic will work.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Our Liberian Kinsmen

Over the weekend, I listened to His Excellency Nathaniel Barnes, Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States, give a keynote address at a conference. It reminded me of the many Liberians I have known during my lifetime. I have been touched by their feeling of connection to the United States and its people and simultaneously saddened by the general lack of indifference with which even African Americans receive Liberians. Actually, Liberians and African Americans have family linkages, but only one side realizes that fact.

Liberia means “the land of the free” because it is a nation founded by free African Americans and freed slaves from America. Initially, 86 immigrants from our shores settled in Christopolis (now the capital city of Monrovia, named for U.S. President James Monroe) in 1820. Thousands of others eventually followed thanks to the assistance of the American Colonization Society, which was an alliance of white clergymen, abolitionists and slave owners who had varying motivations for support of a return to Africa by black people in America. In 1847, the new inhabitants of the land called Liberia declared their independence.

If the returnees to Africa stayed there, the story might hit a dead end. However, Liberians apparently maintained their ties to the land of their captivity and oppression – though not always in a positive sense. The so-called “Americo-Liberians” formed an elite that ran the country as a one-party state from independence until Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew the government of President William Tolbert, Jr., in 1980. This expatriate elite had excluded indigenous people from citizenship in the land of their birth until 1904. It seems they learned the worst from their American experience.

Things were so good for the Americo-Liberians and at least stable for indigenous Liberians that there was negligible emigration to the United States in the first few decades of their independence. By the first half of the 20th century, though, Liberians started trickling into the United States. For example, in the last half of the 1920s, 27 Liberians came to America, and during the 1930s, another 30 Liberians arrived. In the 1940s, only 28 Liberians were recorded as coming to America, but by the 1950s, the number of Liberian immigrants reached 232. In the 1960s, the number more than doubled to 569 and then jumped to 2,081 in the 1970s before doubling again in the 1980s.

During the 1990s, more than 13,000 Liberians fled to the United States to escape a bloody civil war in their country. Many of the children of these more recent immigrants had their education disrupted so they found themselves behind in school, and it was difficult for them to fit in as older kids in lower grades with what Americans would consider strange accents. Those Liberians you would have noticed, perhaps feeling uncomfortable with their alienness. However, the Liberian elites who emigrated here or maintained dual citizenship were usually professionals or business owners. They could have been your doctor, lawyer, dentist or accountant, and unless you asked where they were from originally, you might never really know they were from Liberia.

But whether the Liberians you met were among the Americo-Liberians or indigenous people, they had a connection to America, and African Americans have a connection to them. Many of the descendants of the early African Americans who remained and the Liberians have blood ties of which many of us are still unaware. Those ties are not limited to the Americo-Liberians; after all, they left Africa and then returned so they were separated from the indigenous people by class and not necessarily by blood.

The sad part for me in all this was that when Liberians appealed to the United States for help during their civil war, African Americans did not respond broadly with the empathy Liberian expected. They felt a kinship to us we didn’t feel for them. Even now, Liberia is considered by many African Americans just another African nation, while Liberians feel they have historic and kinship ties to this country.

African Ancestry, the company that has pioneered DNA testing of African Americans, finds that as high as 10% of the matches are from ethnic groups in Liberia. So of the 500,000 or so Liberians in America, you may have a family member among them you don’t know you have.

Think about that next time you hear some a story about Liberia. Perhaps if you’re African-American, it will matter to you more.