LIBERIA

Home to Freed Slaves


By Liz Goldner

The journey of soil from Providence Island, near Monrovia, Liberia, to the home of Common Ground 191 in Laguna Beach, CA, began in August 2006. The collection of that soil began with correspondence between Florence Geegbae Dukuly, Cultural Assistant/Executive Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and Gary Simpson, creator of Common Ground.

By the end of 2006, Ms. Dukuly was not returning emails and we have not been able to make contact with her. We thank her for her help in collecting and sending out the soil and we wish her well. We like to trace the journey of soil on its destination to Laguna Beach, but have been unable to do so with soil from Liberia, possibly due to long-term volatility within that country. It is fortunate however that Common Ground now has two pounds of soil from Liberia.

Natural Resources

Liberia has always had copious natural resources, including iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold and hydropower, as well as a climate favorable to agriculture. The country has produced and exported basic products, such as raw timber and rubber, but has had little local manufacturing.

Since 1989, civil war and government mismanagement have destroyed much of the country’s economy, especially the infrastructure in and around Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Many businessmen have fled the country, taking financial resources and expertise with them. Only a few businessmen have returned. Embargoes and local corruption have further hindered the country’s ability to export its resources, resulting in widespread poverty.

In the last few years, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, has taken steps to reduce corruption, build support from international donors and encourage private investment. The embargo on timber exports has been lifted, opening a source of revenue, but diamonds, another natural resource, remain under UN sanctions. The reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure and the raising of incomes continue to depend on generous financial support and technical assistance from donor countries.

Illustrious History

In spite of the current disastrous social and economic conditions, Liberia has an illustrious history. Officially called the Republic of Liberia, the country was founded as an independent nation by the American Colonization Society, with support of the American government, for freeborn and formerly enslaved African Americans.

In 1822, two vessels of freed slaves attempted to land on the mainland of what is now Liberia. But after natives attempted to assault the ships, the ships sailed down the coast to Cape Messurado, landing on Providence Island, the site of the soil collection for Common Ground. The new colony was named Liberia to signal the liberty that it had brought the black settlers. The main village on the coast of Cape Messurado was later named Monrovia in honor of President James Monroe, whose efforts had made the colony possible. Over the following years, African-Americans gradually immigrated to the colony and became known as Americo-Liberians.

On July 26, 1847, the Americo-Liberian settlers declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia. The settlers regarded Africa as a "Promised Land," but still referred to themselves as "Americans." They were recognized as such by local Africans and by British colonial authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The religious practices, social customs and cultural standards of the Americo-Liberians have roots in the antebellum American South – ideals that strongly influenced the settlers’ attitudes toward the indigenous African people. Further, mutual mistrust and hostility between the "Americans" and the "Natives" was a recurrent theme in the country's history, along with attempts by the Americo-Liberian minority to dominate the natives. Nevertheless, over the years, hard work by the Liberians and copious natural resources resulted in a decent economy.

By the 1970’s, agriculture was providing a livelihood for about 70 percent of the population and accounted for roughly 40 percent of GDP. The rubber industry generated over 100 million US dollars annually in export earnings and provided employment for 50,000 people. Iron ore deposits also attracted substantial foreign investment in the 1960’s and first half of the 1970’s, encouraged by the Government’s "open door" policy. By 1975, Liberia had become the world’s fifth largest exporter of iron ore. However, Liberia’s growth rates of percent in the 1960s and 4 percent in the 1970s, "characterized as growth without development," mainly benefited a small urban elite.

Military Coup

More than a century of strife between the “Americans” and “Natives” resulted in a military coup that brought Samuel Doe to power in 1980 and ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule. Then, in December 1989, Charles Taylor launched a rebellion against Doe's regime that led to prolonged civil war.

In 1997, relative peace ensued for a few years, with Taylor as President. But major fighting resumed in 2000. In August 2003, a peace agreement ended the war and prompted the resignation of former President Taylor who was exiled to Nigeria.

In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia. Complimented by a strong presence of the United Nations, the country has begun the laborious process of rebuilding itself. But with a continuing volatile security situation, the process of rebuilding the social and economic structure of the war-torn country remains sluggish.

Indigenous President

Johnson-Sirleaf, born in rural Liberia, has a personal history that in many ways mirrors that of her country. As the daughter of the first indigenous Liberian to be elected to the national legislature, she announced her senatorial candidacy in the 1985 elections during the military rule of Samuel Doe. She also gave a speech that was heavily critical of Doe, and was subsequently sentenced to ten years imprisonment, of which she served a short time. She then fled her country and worked for Citibank in Nairobi. She held the post of Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa at the UNDP, formulating development strategies for African economies, and was Senior Loans Officer at the World Bank.

Known as the “Iron Lady,” Johnson-Sirleaf is working to have Liberia’s external debt of $3.5 billion cancelled, and is striving to rebuild her country. In addition to focusing her efforts to restore basic services such as water and electricity to the country, Johnson-Sirleaf has established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address crimes committed during the later stages of Liberia's long civil war. She is also working to re-establish Liberia's food independence.

Liberia, which is slightly larger than the state of Tennessee, is in Western Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and is between Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. The country is mostly flat to rolling coastal plains, rising to rolling plateau and low mountains in the northeast. The coastline is characterized by lagoons, mangrove swamps, and river-deposited sandbars; the inland grassy plateau supports limited agriculture. The population of the country is 3,042,004, as of July 2006.

The University of Liberia, in Monrovia, opened in 1862, is one of Africa's oldest institutes of higher learning. Civil war severely damaged the university in the 1990s, but the university has begun to rebuild following the restoration of peace.

 

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