How Liberia Held ‘Free’ Elections Michael Massing
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.