Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sirleaf Resurrects Liberia

Liberia, a West African nation that was calm, prosperous and the envy of its neighbors for more than a century, spent the 1980s, 1990s and the early 2000s in turmoil. First, Sergeant Samuel Doe led a bloody 1980 coup following food price riots. The coup displaced the Americo-Liberians, the ruling minority of descendants of African-American who returned to that land in the 1800s, and unleashed ethnic hatreds. Doe’s arbitrary rule and the economic decline of the country encouraged a long civil war begun in late 1989 that eventually saw Charles Taylor take power. He led the country further into economic and social collapse, while supporting rebels bent on destruction in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf lost her first race for the presidency against Taylor in 1996, but after his forced resignation in 2003, she became Africa’s first elected woman president after winning the second round of a 2005 contest.

These facts are certainly well-known, but what may be overlooked is how much progress Sirleaf has made since her election in regaining her country’s international stature. At home, schools and clinics are reopening, and agricultural production is picking up. Certainly much remains to be done in restoring water and electric power to all parts of the country. Corruption has not yet been tamed, and infrastructure is still being put in place. However, whatever the pace of reconstruction in Liberia, the once pariah of West Africa is now able to credibly reach out to the world beyond its borders and offer help and solidarity.

When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called for the partition of Nigeria due to what he saw as irreconcilable religious cleavages, the Nigerian government reacted quickly and angrily withdrew their diplomatic representation. When Nigerian officials cited the fact that Christians and Muslims lived in peace in many Nigerian communities, Gaddafi refused to change his prescription, except to say that Nigeria be divided along ethnic lines. A major diplomatic conflict seemed to be in the making that could fracture African unity and peace. Then in stepped the Iron Lady of Liberia.

President Sirleaf intervened in the dispute and got the leaders of both countries to agree to meet to resolve their dispute. A private meeting between Libyan emissaries and Nigeria’s Acting President Goodluck Jonathan was arranged by Sirleaf, and both sides praised her for her initiative in the matter. The Libyans lauded Sirleaf as being “elevated among Good and Great leaders of modern day Africa.”

Acting in her capacity as third Vice President of the African Union, Sirleaf was said to have conceived this effort on her own and pledged to continue until both sides had finally resolved the matter.

This is a far cry from the country that Nigeria and other member state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had to save from self-destruction and prevent from destabilizing the region. Liberia under President Sirleaf now has become a force for peace and reconciliation in Africa.

Meanwhile, this nation built with the input of free Blacks and freed slaves from America had long been a client state of this country. Liberia modeled itself after the United States, naming cities and counties after American presidents and copying the American flag among other elements of linkage. One might say the African-Americans “Westernized” indigenous Liberians to a great extent, a process accelerated by the presence of American missionaries over the years.

Still, African-Americans remained indifferent to the fate of Liberians, who are generally seen as no more akin to Americans than any other Africans. This is despite the obvious ties of so many who left this country, leaving family behind, and the fact that Liberia is among the top African nations identified as being linked to African-Americans taking the African Ancestry, Inc., DNA test. But now Liberia is reaching out to its kin in the Americas.

In a speech in Brazil, President Sirleaf, speaking before the predominantly Black University of Salvador in Bahia State, said Diaspora Africans are “an important segment” of the African family.

“The Government of Liberia is calling upon all Africans everywhere to bring their talent, their skills and their expertise to join us in our Liberian odyssey,” she said. “We want you to be a part of the rebirth of the Liberian nation, to pursue the vision of our forbearers, in creating a nation that will be a haven for all people of African descent.”

So the continent’s first Black republic is now in the process of regaining its previous stature as an international example of diplomacy and a beacon on the continent for the African Diaspora. Not bad for a country that less than a decade ago was in ruins.