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How Liberia Held 'Free' Elections | The Nation

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How Liberia Held 'Free' Elections

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How Liberia Held 'Free' Elections Michael Massing

About the Author

Michael Massing
Michael Massing, a New York writer, is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and Columbia Journalism...

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On December 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa anxiously awaited testimony from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, the Administration's top policy-maker for that continent. Crocker had been called to testify on recent events in Liberia. America's closest African ally had undergone the most wrenching crisis in its history, including a stolen election, numerous arrests, newspaper closings and an attempted coup that may have taken hundreds, perhaps a thousand, lives. Through it all, the Reagan Administration had kept quiet. Now Crocker was going to break the silence.

To appreciate the significance of his remarks, it is necessary to understand the role of Liberia in U.S. foreign policy. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia is host to nearly 5,000 Americans-- diplomats, businessmen, missionaries and military advisers. The Voice of America transmitter for all of sub-Saharan Africa is located in Liberia; so is an Omega navigation station, one of five in the world, which is used to monitor shipping in the eastern Atlantic (its 427-meter transmission tower is the tallest structure in Africa.) U.S. intelligence data from West Africa is channeled through the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. U.S. investment in Liberia approaches half a billion dollars; Firestone operates the world's largest rubber plantation there.

Personifying this special relationship, as it's called, is Liberian head of state Samuel Doe. Doe is one of the most quixotic leaders in Africa. On coming to power in 1980, he was greeted as a liberator. With a handful of junior military officers, Doe overthrew an autocratic regime that, for more than a century, had ruled on behalf of a narrow elite descended from the original American settlers. Within days of the coup, thirteen officials from the former regime were tied to stakes on a Monrovia beach and publicly executed. Doe, a 28-year-old master sergeant and a high-school dropout, promised to hold free and fair elections, institute civilian rule and, for the first time, extend power to the mass of indigenous Liberians.

It did not work out that way. Master Sergeant Doe soon became a five-star general and, after receiving an honorary doctorate from a South Korean university, took to calling himself doctor. The once-humble soldier donned three-piece suits, built himself a plush country retreat and zoomed around Monrovia in a chauffeured Mercedes. The army was treated to improved housing (courtesy of the United States), pay increases and new weapons. When asked last year by a Nigerian journalist what he had done for the masses, Doe could only respond that "we have also done a lot for the people, not just the army, since we came to power; a lot of things which I cannot recall now." Liberia's 2 million people suffer an astounding 80 percent illiteracy rate, and unemployment exceeds 50 percent. Since 1980 the gross national product has shrunk at a rate of almost 5 percent a year. Last summer the government was so broke it fell three months behind in paying public employees.

Liberia's economic collapse is remarkable given the extent of American generosity. From about $20 million in 1980, U.S. assistance rose to more than $80 million last year--the most U.S. aid per capita to any African country. About $12 million of that amount goes to Liberia's military, which faces few external treats and is primarily occupied in keeping order. U.S. military advisers, including Green Berets, have visited Liberia to train Doe's army. Bags of food stamped "United States of America" are visible everywhere in the country, and some 200 members of the Peace Corps work there. As tokens of his appreciation, Doe expelled the Soviet Ambassador and established ties with Israel. The general met with Ronald Reagan in 1982--a visit that went smoothly until the President introduced Doe to the White House press corps as Chairman Moe.

During his meeting with Reagan, Doe reportedly promised to hold free elections. In the summer of 1984, the general announced elections for the following year and, in anticipation, lifted a four-year-old ban on political activity. However, rather than return to the barracks as he had promised, Doe declared his intention to stand as a candidate. To meet the constitutionally required minimum age of 35, he pushed back his birth date two years. Over the subsequent months, Doe demonstrated just what free and fair elections meant to him:

§ He passed Decree 88A, an Orwellian edict that made it a crime to spread "rumors, lies and disinformation" about the government.

§ He jailed Amos Sawyer, leader of the opposition Liberian People's Party and a professor at the University of Liberia. When students demonstrated against the arrest, Doe's troops invaded the campus, shot and killed an undetermined number of students, wounded scores of others, raped women and stripped professors naked. The government refused to investigate the incident.

§ Government troops nailed shut the offices of The Daily Observer, Liberia's leading independent newspaper. The paper's chief offense was playing a story about labor unrest more prominently than one about a speech by Doe to street peddlers. The general also temporarily closed another newspaper and imprisoned three journalists.

§ Two major opposition parties, the Liberian People's Party and the United People's Party (U.P.P.), were banned. The ostensible reason was that they subscribed to "foreign ideologies," i.e., socialism. More to the point, both parties had mass followings. The U.P.P., in fact, was widely considered the most popular party in the country.

§ Dozens of political figures were thrown in jail. Most prominent was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former Liberian Finance Minister. Johnson-Sirleaf had studied at Harvard University, worked for the World Bank, and served as a Citibank vice president in its Nairobi office. Last summer she returned to Liberia to help found the centrist Liberia Action Party (L.A.P.). In a speech to the Union of Liberian Associates in America, in Philadelphia on July 6, Johnson-Sirleaf accused the Doe government of mismanagement and corruption and said it was run by "many idiots." On her return to Liberia at the end of the month, she was arrested and charged with sedition, a crime punishable by death. She and other prisoners were eventually released, but only after sharp international protest.

When the election was finally held, last October 15, the L.A.P. and two other parties were permitted to run against Doe's National Democratic Party. The turnout was heavy, but Election Day was marked by widespread reports of fraud. Teams of observers were barred from many polling places, and a batch of ballots was discovered smoldering in a heap north of the capital. According to virtually all independent observers and foreign correspondents, the election was won by L.A.P. candidate Jackson Doe (no relation to Samuel). However, after the votes were tallied by a government-appointed commission working behind closed doors, General Doe was declared the victor, with 50.9 percent of the vote.

A month later, on November 12, a coup was launched. It was led by Thomas Quiwonkpa, a popular general who had helped Doe engineer the 1980 coup but who later broke with him over his autocratic rule. Quiwonkpa, who had fled Liberia in 1983 and moved to Baltimore, made his way back via neighboring Sierra Leone. With a force of only thirty-five men, he quickly gained control of the nation's main radio station. When it appeared that his coup had succeeded, hundreds of Liberians took to Monrovia's streets to celebrate.

The rejoicing was premature. Troops loyal to Doe managed to beat back Quiwonkpa's meager force. Quiwonkpa himself died. Then Doe's troops went on a rampage. It is unclear exactly how many lost their lives in the resulting bloodbath, but estimates range from 400 to more than 2,000. The government also rounded up individuals it perceived as a threat and accused them of complicity in the coup. Among those imprisoned were Jackson Doe, Johnson-Sirleaf, newspaper publisher Mamolu Sirleaf (a distant relative) and BBC reporter Isaac Bantu. In all, probably more than one hundred people were jailed. While some have been released Doe and Johnson-Sirleaf, among others, remain in prison awaiting trial.

The U.S. Congress reacted sharply to these developments. Last spring, it passed a resolution conditioning the Administration's 1986 aid request for Liberia--$86 million--on the holding of free and fair elections. When Johnson-Sirleaf and other Liberians were imprisoned last summer, many members from both arties signed a letter urging Doe to release them. Even Jesse Helms has received Liberian opposition figures visiting Washington.

It was thus with great anticipation that the Senate Subcommittee on Africa awaited Crocker's testimony on December 10. Members of the panel were astounded by what they heard. Yes, said Crocker, two of the biggest parties had been banned, Decree 88A had forbidden criticism of the government, and the final vote had been counted behind closed doors. Nonetheless, he asserted, the election's "shortcomings" should not obscure its "noteworthy, positive aspects." Among these, he maintained, were the participation of four political parties, the press's ability to report opposition activities and he large, orderly turnout. Therefore, said Crocker, "there is now the beginning, however imperfect, of a democratic experience that Liberia and its friends can use as a benchmark for future elections--one on which they want to build." Overall, he said, "election day was a remarkable achievement.... The Liberian experience was not only important for Liberia but for all of West Africa." As a result, he concluded, the United States would stand by Doe:

To walk away would be irresponsible and clearly viewed as such elsewhere in Africa, where we are seen as having a unique responsibility for assisting Liberia. Abdication of that responsibility could provoke chaos and bloodshed, endangering the lives of nearly 5,000 Americans in the country.

Crocker's remarks were met with disbelief. "It's time that the U.S. stopped playing Uncle Sucker to this dictator," said Democratic Senator John Kerry. "Why should the U.S. contribute $90 million a year to what is clearly an unpopular and unstable regime?" Subcommittee chair Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican, noted Congress's "growing concern" over developments in Liberia, adding that Doe's self-proclaimed victory "almost makes a mockery of the process."

A few days after the hearing, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the election as fraudulent and mandating the suspension of all military aid until free elections could be held. The House is expected to take up a similar resolution in the coming weeks. The Administration is determined to fight it, however, and the State Department has already enlisted Republican representatives willing to carry its water.

To its credit, the Administration has at times worked behind the scenes to restrain Doe. When the Liberian government imprisoned Johnson-Sirleaf and other political figures, the State Department suspended $25.5 million in aid. Doe squawked and threatened to send his foreign minister to Libya, but after a few weeks he relented and released the detainees. The aid was subsequently provided. After the attempted coup, Administration officials privately pressured Doe to refrain from mistreating political prisoners; U.N. ambassador Vernon Walters personally telephoned Doe to tell him to back off. Clearly, however, such actions have come only in response to pressure from Capitol Hill. The State Department badly wants to keep on good terms with Doe, and to do so it must placate disgruntled members of Congress.

The Administration's Liberia policy helps us see through President Reagan's professed concern for freedom in other African countries, particularly Angola. In Liberia, the State Department cannot argue that the United States is supporting an incumbent for fear of the alternative. Liberia is not about to head into the Soviet camp. Doe's threat last summer to strengthen ties with Libya proved to be a bluff. With U.S. aid making up one-third of the national budget, no Liberian leader could afford to alienate the United States. For many Liberians, American food shipments are the difference between eating and going hungry.

Furthermore, not one of Liberia's opposition parties poses any conceivable threat to the United States. The largest of these parties, the U.P.P., is left of center but moderate in outlook. Its leader Baccus Matthews, studied at City University of New York and founded his party in the United States, where he lived for eleven years. Matthews stays in regular touch with the U.S. embassy in Monrovia.

Finally, the Liberian people would never tolerate a break with Uncle Sam. Liberia's first constitution was written at Harvard Law School. The dollar is legal tender in the country. Monrovia has a Roxy Theater, a Capitol Hill and a grim shantytown called West Point. Most important, Liberians take American ideals seriously. As its name indicates, Liberia was founded on a yearning for liberty. Thus many Liberians are perplexed by the Administration's policy. Visitors to the country hear a constant refrain: If only the Reagan people knew the reality of Liberia, they would back away from Doe.

The Administration, of course, does know. The problem is, it doesn't care.

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