Liberia: Dissecting Political Undertones of Trump's Choice of Ambassador to Liberia

Monrovia — When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took command of the Liberian Presidency in January 2006, she became the first woman to lead an African nation. Ironically, it also marked another historic moment, for the first time, in US-Liberia relations, a woman, Dr. Linda Thomas Greenfield, in July 2008, became the first female Ambassador to Liberia, two years after Sirleaf's ascendancy to the Presidency in January 2006.

In nominating career diplomat Michael McCarthy as his choice for the next Ambassador to Africa's oldest republic, US President Donald Trump is ending more than a decade of women nominations as Ambassador to Liberia.

McCarthy, if confirmed, will replace Ambassador Christine Elder who departed abruptly in March after nearly four years at the helm of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.

During her term, Ambassador Elder, one of the longest-serving U.S. Ambassadors in Liberia's history, worked closely with both Presidents Sirleaf and Weah and their respective administrations, overseeing U.S. diplomatic engagement with Liberia and U.S. foreign assistance here.

Since 1821 when groups of free blacks from the United States emigrated from the U.S. and began establishing colonies on the coast under the direction of the American Colonization Society, the two countries have enjoyed a somewhat cordial but complex relationship.

Although Liberia became independent in 1847, it was not until 1862 that the US finally recognized Liberia and commissioned its first representative, Abraham Hanson in 1863 as commissioner/consul general. The status of the commissioner was later upgraded to Minister, and finally to full ambassador in 1949.

That appointee was Edward Richard Dudley, a lawyer, judge, civil rights activist and the first African-American to hold the rank of Ambassador of the United States to Liberia, from 1949 to 1953.

Relations between the United States and Liberia have been continuous since that time and a total of eight US ambassadors have died at their post while serving in Liberia.

Over the years, the intricacies of the relationship have often times fizzled in a sea of mixed expectations, misconceptions about America's perceptions of the way things should and should not be. Relationship between the US and Liberian government vs. US and the people of Liberia.

'86 Hearing Raised Pivotal Points

This was clearly evident during a 1986 House Committee Hearing of the Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa featuring Congressman Howard Elliot Wolpe, a Representative from Michigan and New York Times reporter Michael Massing.

Wolpe was concerned about one of the intriguing elements of Massing's testimony regarding the way in which American initiatives were being portrayed within the Liberian government controlled media during the Samuel Doe era.

Wolpe asked: "I take it that the trust of what you were saying is that Mr. Doe, General Doe, and the Liberian government attempt to use the least opportunity, to affirm the United States is supportive of the government?"

Massing replied: "Yes, that is accurate. I think that the Doe government realizes that one thing it cannot afford, is to have Liberians perceive a loss of US support for the country. That would be disastrous, so you are quite correct. The statement that Ambassador Perkins made as positively leaped upon the Liberian government and, as I mentioned this front page editorial attempted to portray it in the midst of glowing terms.

It is also interesting that the government-controlled media always refer to the previous ambassador, Bill Swing as having been recalled by the United States. My understanding is that this is not the case - that Mr. Swing, in fact served four years - longer than most ambassadors do. But the state media in Liberia repeatedly say, "The recalled Ambassador Swing has been replaced by Mr. Perkins."

Williams Perkins was US Ambassador to Liberia at the time. The comment in question was made when he presented his letters of credence to Doe.

Interestingly, Perkins, who was appointed on July 12, 1985, just five months before the Thomas Quiwonkpa invasion. He lasted only a year in Liberia. He terminated the mission on October 22nd, 1986.

Ambassador Perkins said at the time that his appointment as envoy to Monrovia represented "a change in ambassadors and not a change in the United States Government's policy toward the Government of Liberia."

He went on to say that he would try to strengthen the times of friendship between the two countries and to promote Liberia's growth.

These remarks, Massing testified had a very definite effect on people. "Certainly, the government's newspaper, New Liberian, picked up on them and stated in an editorial that the atmosphere of cordiality and civility which attended the ceremony was very heartening and encouraging."

Massing said, the Perkins controversy was unfolding at the time of a number of political upheavals, notably, the trial of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who would later become President, decades later.

Said Massing: All the while, the three individuals whose cases I looked in to continue to remain confined. The two journalists from Footprints, according to my latest information are still being tried in the military tribunal. They report they have been beaten, and the case of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as I think most people here know, has been resolved. It is interesting to note that while there, many people from the United States Embassy to members of her party to members of the Doe government, themselves indicated that probably, what would happen would be that she(Sirleaf) would be convicted, sentenced and then in a show of compassion be granted clemency. Well, five days ago, Mrs. Sirleaf was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Indications are she will be sent to Belle Yalla, a notorious maximum security facility, so remote in the interior of Liberia that prisoners must be transported there in airplanes. Visitors cannot make it there. Inmates work at hard labor seven days a week. This seems to give a true insight into what Liberian government considers compassion."

Congressman Wolpe was also interested in knowing how the opposition and other elements of the society felt about the use by the Doe government of American statements to bolster its own position.

Massing testified: "I think that the comments I got from the opposition people were more directed at the US government policy itself. I think that they seem to regard the Doe government as vainly trying to keep the United States on its side. For example, the announcement of the trip to Libya fairly ridiculed by the people because no one took it seriously. The main concern on the part of opposition people where US policy itself is going because there has been a mixture of signals. The recent US moves - these concerted statements and visits and so on, as I say, have had a real galvanizing effect on the opposition and I think they are looking for more."

"How about the issue of corruption? To what extent is that in focus in the discussiojns that you had in Liberia," Wolpe asked.

Mr. Massing replied: "I think the issue of corruption in a sense underlines almost all political discussions in the country because you have these two jarringly contrastingly state of affairs on the one hand, massive US aid, which is multiplied many times in the last five years, and on the other, an almost bankrupt government. My understanding from State Department is that Liberia, together with the Sudan, is the country closest to bankruptcy in the entire world, if define that in terms of ability to pay back arrears to the IMF and other international institutions. So, when you have the head of state writing personal checks for power stations and schools at a time when government people have not been paid for two or three months, it raises very serious questions."

On Doe's popularity, Wolpe asked Massing how he assessed in terms of the popularity of the Liberian head of state? "Does he have in your opinion, the ability to win the free and fair elections this time?"

Ambassador Blaney in 'Worst Place to be'

Massing testified: "It seems to me that Mr. Doe's popularity has been on the real decline in the last few years. Clearly, when he took power he was considered the man of the hour. He had ousted a narrow elite that had ruled the country for over a century, and people believed that he was going to return Liberia to civilian rules. He promised that he was going to hold free and fair elections. From that day in July 1984, when Mr. Doe announced that he was going to contest the election himself, suspicions multiplied that he was merely seeking to secure his own power, and everything both economic and political factors have combined to reduce his popularity to the point where he was merely seeking to secure his own power. At this point both economic and political factors have combined to reduce his popularity to the point where if the elections were indeed free and fair, I think there would probably be a new head of state in Liberia."

Ambassadorial appointments have also been aptly timed. In August 2002, it was John William Blaney, who was brought in just a year before former President Charles Taylor was forced into exile.

At the time, the Economist Magazine had labeled Liberia, "The worst place to be".

Blaney was central to the behind the scenes effort to remove Taylor from power.

The Economist trumpeted Blaney's effort as remarkable. "Without the time or resources for a highly structured war game, the small staff of the U.S. Embassy Monrovia did its best to think through in advance the steps they were about to take to negotiate peace. Ambassador Blaney encouraged open, critical, and horizontal analysis in a management situation that is normally hierarchical. Even passing through "no man's land" to end the war was not as outlandishly dangerous as originally perceived, because embassy staff had conceptualized a detailed and flexible risk mitigation plan. It included delegating the ability to abort the mission to the embassy's Defense Attaché, a plan which very nearly became necessary. The pre-planning also developed the concept that, once peace was secured, there must be an action plan in place to set the country on the road to recovery."

No Nonsense Booth

By the time Blaney's time came to an end, Donald E. Booth was brought in to usher in the transition from war to peace.

Booth never shied away from making critical interventions when he saw things going awry. In 2005, when outgoing officials of the National Transitional Government of Liberia(NTGL) voted to keep their official Jeep Cherokkee vehicles, he threatened to declare those officials persona non grata, if they tried to travel to the US, even though some where already targets of a UN travel ban. "The US considers these transfers unscrupulous, irresponsible and contrary to the public interest of the people of Liberia. The Liberian government resources are for the benefit of the Liberian people and should not be misappropriated for private use," Ambassador Booth said.

Assembly Speaker, George Koukou, dismissed the US threats declaring that Booth should "know his limitation as a diplomat".

Throughout history, the complications that have helped defined US-Liberia relations have also left a lot of unanswered questions and misconceived notions about the state of the relationship and the interpretations that have been left for Liberians to decipher.

Ambassador Bishop Had a Directive

Dr. Niels Hahn, author and a lecturer in political economy at the University of London, who worked in Liberia from August 2002 to June 2004, in his research, "US Covert and Overt Operations in Liberia, 1970s to 2003" writes that the Liberian elite, often referred to as Americo-Liberians, have acted with a combination of compliance and resistance to US influence. "The most significant era of compliance and alliance with the USG was that of William Tubman's ad- ministration from 1944 to 1971. As a result of the Open Door Policy, this period is often referred to as an era of economic growth and prosperity.7 However, the policy created wide income gaps between rich and poor, and repressive measures were used to counter any opposition to the Government of Liberia (GoL) through a comprehensive intelligence network connected to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)."

Even after the death of Tubman in 1971, Nahn says, Tubman's successor, William Tolbert, resumed resistance to US influence in Liberia. "Under his leadership, the GoL began to reorient the economic system from liberal capitalism towards state-led, planned economic systems, focusing on food self-sufficiency and industrialization. To gain support for this policy, Tolbert established relations with socialist-oriented coun- tries such as the USSR and the People's Republic of China. More than 30 state- owned enterprises were established, and the GoL began to set restrictions on the use of US military facilities in Liberia. Concession agreements with foreign companies were renegotiated, creating serious tensions--particularly with Firestone."

According to Nahn, the CIA reacted to Tolbert's policies by supporting Liberian civil society groups in opposition to the GoL, in particular the Progressive Alliance of Liberi- ans (PAL), headed by Baccus Matthews, who was in close contact with the CIA.15 The PAL often used Marxist rhetoric to denounce the GoL. "The most significant event took place after the GoL accelerated the national plan for food self- sufficiency by stimulating local rice production through an increased import tax on foreign-produced rice. The PAL claimed that this was a way to boost the profit of rice importers and promote Tolbert's own private rice production. It or- ganized a major demonstration in Monrovia on April 14, 1979, which became violent, with security forces opening fire on the crowds.The GoL saw the inci- dent, which became known as the "Rice Riot," as the work of foreign powers."

Dr. Nahn cites a confidential White House memorandum issued about six months later stating that the riot in Monrovia had severely damaged the GoL and that it was unlikely Tolbert would "survive until the end of his term in 1983. On 12 April 1980, a group of 17 armed men, noncommissioned soldiers in the Armed Forces of Liberia, entered the Executive Mansion shortly before midnight and shot President Tolbert.

Nahn writes that the US Embassy was instrumental in forming the PRC as a military junta immediately after the coup. All civilian communication was shut down in Liberia, and American advisers were assigned to Liberian key ministries.24 US chargé d'affaires Julius Walker states that US Soldiers were deployed in Monrovia and "got looters and shooters off the street." Doe "had not really expected to be where he was." He feared that "forces were coming from all corners to attack him and he wanted America to send him strong support."

According to Nahn, Ambassador James Keough Bishop, who served as ambassador to Liberia from 1987 to 1990, indicated that after the coup, the USG regained access to the seaport and airport, allowing the government to "send cargo to other parts of Africa with no questions asked."

US aid to Liberia, according to Nahn, increased significantly from below US $20 million in 1979 to above US $120 million in 1982. "By the end of 1985, the PRC had received around US $500 million in foreign aid from America, exceeding aid given to other sub-Saha- ran countries."

Bishop's directive when he was appointed, was to pay special attention to management of the relationship with the GoL so that the USG "could continue to have access to . . . strategic facilities."

The Why Theory

"Additionally, he was to protect US commercial interests, such as Firestone, American-owned banks, and the Liberian Maritime Registry, and to continue the original strategy of "civilizing" Doe by "providing him finan- cial assistance which would enable his government to organize and manage itself, while instructing Doe in political governance--essentially through ambassadorial tutorial." It was imperative, however, that Bishop ensure that the USG not be- come "anathema to a successor government by being perceived as too closely at- tached to the Doe regime."

Dr. Greenfield, who is also one of the longest-serving ambassadors, has been criticized for being too cozy to former President Sirleaf. Similarly, her successors, Malac and Elder have also come under fire for developing soft spots for Sirleaf and lately the current President George Manneh Weah.

This is why, with every change of Ambassador comes murmurs about the why. Why did Ambassador Elder have to leave so abruptly? Like Ambassador Swing, she was one of the longest-serving envoys to Liberia, yet her departure raised eyebrows. Why was Ambassador Perkins' tenure so short? Why did the US wait for more than a century to send a woman representation to Africa's oldest republic?

Now, the million-dollar question is, why is President Trump ending the women dominance after more than a decade?

Murmurs suggest, McCarthy is poised to bring some toughness to the Liberia mission. However, like Ambassador Perkins, the appointment by President Trump may simply be a nothing more than "a change in ambassadors and not a change in the United States Government's policy toward the Government of Liberia."

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