interviewBy Charles Cobb Jr.
Washington, DC — Part of what her television film "Liberia -- America's Stepchild" portrays, says producer Nancee Oku Bright, is that Liberia's "usefulness" to the United States ended, in the eyes of U.S. policymakers, with the end of the cold war. "Essentially, no one had any use for Liberia any more. That's Liberia's tragedy," she says.
Following a failed coup attempt in 1985, President Samuel Doe launched a reign of terror that drove many young boys into neighboring countries. Civil war erupted in December 1989, when Liberia's current president, Charles Taylor, led a rebel militia known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) into THE country from the Ivory Coast. By the time the war ended in 1997, when Taylor won a contested presidential election, an estimated 200,000 people had perished. Virtually the entire population was uprooted, and thousands were forced into exile in neighboring states and further abroad. Unrest has continued, and serious fighting erupted earlier this year with a rebel group vowing to overthrow the Taylor regime.
The documentary premiers on public television stations Thursday at 10pm (check local listings).
The hopes of freeborn blacks from America, who emigrated to the west African nation early in the 19th century, should not have led to the late 20th century carnage that the world has witnessed, says Bright, who is Liberian herself. Liberia was the only black-ruled republic on a continent that was being colonized by Europe.
The film analyzes U.S./Liberian ties against the backdrop of the sometimes difficult relationship between incoming black settlers and the indigenous communities who had occupied the territory for centuries. "The film," Bright says, "is a testimony to the people who went before us, to the people who died during the course of the civil war, because many Liberians of all ethnic groups on all sides -- all of us -- have lost people. My own family." AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke with Ms. Bright about the film and about the Liberia of today and yesterday. Excerpts:
What is the origin of this film? You, of course, are Liberian, so I assume that heritage is part of the motivation. But what drives the production of this film now?
The film really comes out of two frames of thought. The first has to do with something that took place in 1994 -- the genocide in Rwanda. I was working for the United Nations at the time, and I was the deputy in charge of the Horn of Africa program in Geneva when the genocide began. I felt very, very helpless. And I felt very, very angry that a slaughter like this has been done to a population and the world stood by and did so little.
I stared to think about the power of media to influence people so negatively. I started to think that this thing [genocide] is happening; it's not just happening out of some vacuum. It's happening because people perhaps don't understand its historical antecedents. It's happening because people perhaps don't understand the role that they can play in actually determining history.
I think that every person who committed those acts of genocide didn't think about those things. They didn't think about their role in history, how history would see them. But the people who came up with the media strategy probably thought about it, and they didn't care. I thought, if you can use media to such ill, can't you use it for good. It was just one of those every simple things. And, I was thinking about all of the things that have happened over the centuries. I was thinking about the different perceptions, and I thought I was properly placed to make such a film, if I wanted to do a film about Liberia. I was the perfect person to do it.
You know people see me, they hear the name -- Bright -- and they make complete assumptions about the name. The first thing they assume is that if your name is Bright it has to be Americo-Liberian. I came from a fairly well-to-do family, but my father didn't wear shoes until he was probably about 15 -- really wear shoes. He didn't wear shoes at all until he was about ten. And he struggled. His parents had immigrated to Liberia from Nigeria and Sierra Leone. They had worked with missionaries and that's how they got the name 'Bright.' So they were indigenous Africans.
Then, there are also assumptions made about who would have married who, because in Liberia's history, people always assume that it's the native woman who will marry the settler man. And in my mother's case -- it is my mother who is the product of both 'Congo' -- which is the so-called 'Americo-Liberian' and the 'Country', which is 'indigenous.' And it was her mother who married my grandfather, who was a native man.
So everywhere there were challenges to all of the stereotypes of the whole Liberia dichotomy -- the way in which people look at the Liberia Story. My whole experience growing up was very much outside of the way in which my history has been told. I really wanted to understand how this history was created, because while I think there was some truth to it, I also think that people see black and white, and they don't see the gray. And I think that, to some extent, is what makes tragedy -- when people are so set in their ways that there is no room for compromise. that has been our problem to a large extent.
In the film you are really telling two stories: Liberia's internal story, the story of the people of Liberia's relationship with one another. And then, the story of Liberia's relationship with the United States. At least part of the subtext of these two stories, a way in which these two stories appear to me as linked, is that Liberia has been, if not betrayed, at least let down by the United Sates. Is that the story you're trying to tell? Part of the story you're trying to tell?
Yeah, but it's a strange story to try and tell, particularly in this climate that we have now. People are feeling very vulnerable in the United States, and they're feeling very prickly about any kind of criticism. I think there is, within Liberian society, and regardless of where you go you see it, there is this sense that there is some sort of disappointment in the relationship between Liberia and the United States and what has actually evolved. There is a sense that when it was useful....it's the cold war story to be frank with you. [Former assistant secretary of state for African affairs] Herman Cohen says that in the film.
He was quite frank in the film, I think.
He was extremely frank in the film. And he says, the cold war had ended and essentially no one had any use for Liberia any more. That's Liberia's tragedy. It felt closer to the United States than anyother African country. And probably any other country outside of Israel this country, Liberia, felt so close to the United States regardless of whether someone came from an "Americo-Liberian" background or "indigenous " -- "native" I guess I should say, because all Liberians are indigenous -- there was this real sense that...not that they were Americans, certainly not because I think that Liberians did identify themselves as very firmly in Africa, but in the way that so many African countries have had this colonial linkage; Nigerians often go to school in England; Senegalese often go to school in France; the Liberians went to school in America. If they ever had the opportunity to do so, that's where they went.
In the film we say that people called Liberia, "Little America". And that's true! So there was this great sense of disappointment, a sense that here's a country that it was useful during the time of the first world war, when Liberia was actually the only country in Africa, I believe, that was actually bombed by the Germans. And, at the time, Germany, not the United States, was Liberia's primary trading partner. Yet Liberia stood beside the United States and not beside Germany. And when Firestone came in , it had access to a million acres of land, which is larger than the whole state of Rhode Island, to produce rubber -- at a time when the rubber industry in the United States was very, very low.
Do you think Americans, meaning U.S. citizens, are aware of this at the level at which Liberians are aware of this relationship? In the film we see some Black Americans, African-Americans -- Dubois, Ossie Davis, interested in Liberia. But in general do you think the U.S. public has any awareness or understanding of this relationship?
No, I don't think the bulk of the American population understands or even particularly cares. But it's a really interesting story to tell. It's a fascinating story when you think about it. The linkages were so strong from the Liberian side. Firestone came in and made agreements to do many things that Firestone simply didn't do. So I think that Liberia felt that, yes, there were many benefits, but there were many things that could have been done that were not done.
Then you have [Liberian president William V.S.] Tubman, who is very close to the United States. He was truly a cold war warrior who felt himself to be very close to [U.S. president John F.] Kennedy. I have to phrase it this way, because I don't know whether the perception that he had, and that Liberian leaders had, about their closeness to the United States was reciprocated. And that's part of the problem. All [Liberian] leaders felt that they were close to the United States.
Tubman felt himself to be very much a 'capitalist', and in the film he says, "Communism is spreading everywhere, and if you don't put that fire out it's going to burn the house down." He's very clear about that. But he also undermined the notion of democracy. He was in power for almost 30 years. Prior to Tubman, no Liberian president had been in power for...I don't remember the exact numbers, but at one point when you ran for the presidency -- and there were several political parties at the time -- you couldn't be in the presidency for more than two years. If you wanted to run again you had to come out of the seat, let someone else into the seat and then run two years later. So there was some semblance of democracy. Tubman was the person who instituted what ultimately became the one-party state in Liberia.
Then, of course, [president William R.] Tolbert came on board and Tolbert wanted to change a lot that had taken place in Liberia. He really saw the need for things like freedom of the press, the right to congregate in public, to actually speak out on political issues. These were all things he really welcomed. He built more roads and schools and really did quite a lot. But he also undermined the notion of democracy.
Tolbert comes across as the most sympathetic politician in this film. In a weird way he reminded me of former Soviet Union president and Communist Party head, Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to keep his nation's system intact by pushing for reform, and who was in the end engulfed by what reform unleashed.
I think that's true to some extent. I don't know that Tolbert wanted to keep a lot of things intact. I think he was at heart a rebel really. And I think he is one of the real heroes of Liberia's recent history. There were others. But Tolbert wanted to institute many, many changes. He was the person to welcome the Soviet ambassador, the Cuban... There were all of these people in Liberia who never would have dreamt of setting foot in Liberia. He wanted to create a much more open society. Now what does that mean? It means a society that is open for ideas; to be able to decide whether you want to be pro the U.S. or pro the Soviet Union. He really wanted to give people that opportunity. I think at heart he was certainly still a capitalist, he would not have been considered a communist in any sense of the word, but he wanted people to have the opportunity to debate these ideas.
He ends up being a very tragic figure because he opens up the society, and as he opens up the society, he allows dissidence to ferment because the society had been so closed. Tubman had instituted this thing called the "public relations officers" who were essentially spies. My father had a spy who was placed on him; many people I knew had spies who were attached to them. Tolbert abolished that; he didn't want that! He got rid of it. What he did was say, 'Listen, the press can be free. You have the right to congregate in places; the right for political parties.
In a sense, Liberian society wasn't prepared for it at the time. It had been so long that this hand had been placed over this kind of freedom of expression and, when it happened, many people who were not on the same side felt threatened. Many of the young dissidents had come out of the 1960s and 70s in the United States, or they had gone to the Soviet Union. And these people had ideas they wanted to bring out. And they wanted to bring them out very, very quickly. They wanted to express then and they wanted to establish, in their view, what was equivalent status for everyone in the society.
Tolbert, who was trying to open the society up, was moving far too slowly for the young firebrands. He wasn't doing enough. They were very angry at this "dinosaur." And from the other side, you had the old guard who were exactly the opposite. As far as they were concerned, these young firebrands needed to be gotten rid of. These people were challenging the society, challenging all the tenets that they held dear. And the structures that they held dear.
Tolbert was really caught between, and I think he made some real tactical errors, which really, to a large extent, led to his downfall. Maybe that was the role he had to play. I don't know, but I think it is very sad.
What followed Tolbert was really a disaster. We had these assassinations that took place; these killings that took place on the beach. [Thirteen senior members of the Tolbert government were executed on the beach, following a military coup in 1980. Tolbert was mutilated and disemboweled in a public alley.] I think that really laid the ground for this tragedy that has befallen Liberia over the last decade.
When Tolbert was running the government, people might have thought things were bad; people never realized that they could get this bad. We can see in retrospect that there was safety, there was security, there was the right to congregate. And there was a slow opening up of society.
I was talking to [former interim president] Amos Sawyer [about this period]. We didn't realize how weak the society was; we didn't realize how weak the structures were, because you thought you could shake things and that somehow things would fall into place and that they would fall into place with so much less violence. I think that violence has shocked everyone.
Liberia has never recovered from that violence. And then -- the real money that came into Liberia from the United States afterward. Liberia received half a billion dollars in assistance in less than a decade. Much of that aid went into the military and went into all sorts of things. And much of the money was actually utilized by individuals.
Was this a difficult film for you to make?
It was difficult. I come from a family that has been very active in Liberia for a very long time. The film is a testimony to the people who went before us, to the people who died during the course of the civil war, because many Liberians of all ethnic groups on all sides -- all of us -- have lost people. My own family.
It was a very difficult film to make at that level. My parents were very very supportive. Sometimes they didn't understand certain things, but they really felt that this had to be made, because the Liberian story is such a unique story. Every country has a unique story to tell, but the Liberian story is singular. Imagine, in 1820 you had 86 black men, women and children who get on this ship and go off to this continent where they have no idea of what's going to happen to them. But many of them are committed to going because they are determined that they will not be humiliated; that they will not live a life of indignity.
Many of them perceived that life in the United States would be a life of indignity. There were others who felt compelled to go because they felt they would do extremely well in Africa. And there were still others who felt pushed to leave, because at the time in the United States, [white] people were very concerned about the presence of free-born blacks. People always say Liberia was created by freed slaves, but the initial group of passengers were essentially free-born blacks who came from various states, many of whom were quite well educated. That's something that people don't realize.
The next group of people were people who were manumitted, some of them only in order to leave and go to Liberia. There were a variety of people who went to Liberia but all of them, whether they were free born or not, someone in their family had been enslaved, and that's why they were in the United States.
While the process was difficult it was also a very joyful process. A very cathartic process.
What about today? Liberia still seems to be in turmoil, still seems to be a killing field. Liberian president Charles Taylor hardly seems to be a democrat and perhaps can be held accountable for much of the unique brutality of Liberia's civil war. And you have LURD (the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, fighting to topple Taylor) who may not be much better. Are you optimistic at any level? Can you envision yourself making a film anytime in the near future that shows us how Liberia has escaped from these two decades of turmoil and bloody conflict?
I really don't know; I really don't know. I think there has to be political will. There has to be a vision. I'm not sure where this vision will come from. I do think that there are certain things that need to be done.
Schools! There is a population of Liberia that has no sense of where they are going. There is a population of young people who were part of that civil war, who were child soldiers, who have never ever managed to move away from being gangsters because Charles Taylor, [George] Boley, [Mandingo rebel leader and Taylor opponent Alhaji G.V.] Kromah, all of them, all of them used young people.
Child soldiers proliferated. These people are now young adults, and the question is, what has happened to them? The chickens may very well come home to roost. We've seen it everywhere else. Why would we not see it in Liberia? Obviously they were victims, essentially. I don't know.
Liberians are also very resilient. So maybe the worst will not happen. If you go to Liberia, you will see that people are trying to work. They're rebuilding their homes, their farms; painting their houses, selling things.
But right now Liberia is really on its knees. Economically there is absolutely nothing happening in that country. The political will has to be there.
I also think the international community has to take another look at Liberia. I argued that, after the war, what should have happened, whether people like Charles Taylor or not, is the funds should have gone into training the police force, into the judiciary, into schools, into basic social services. Many people who were in positions of power elsewhere didn't like the fact that Taylor won. People were very surprised that he won. I think they thought that if this is what they want, then let them have it.
In some ways that was not a good decision to take. I am not trying to make excuses. Our situation and our country's impact on the region has been appalling. But I do think that after the civil war, when so many people were coming back home and so many people had so much hope, that was the time. There was a window of opportunity. Who knows what could have happened. But even in the international community, the political will wasn't there.
For background on the conflict, see Liberia: A Casualty of the Cold War's End