In our last post we wondered why Charles Taylor was not tried for his war crimes in Liberia. To answer this question, we first need to look at the history of Liberia.
The modern nation of Liberia was born in 1820 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as a home for freed and repatriated African slaves. In 1847 Liberia became independent of the ACS and the year 1877 saw the emergence of the True Whig Party (TWP) which would dominate politics until the coup of Samuel Doe in 1980. The TWP party was the political vehicle for the Americo-Liberians, the decedents of the freed slaves brought back to Africa by the ACS. In the 1960s the Americo-Liberians comprised about 3-5% of the population but completely dominated all of Liberia’s institutions.
The Americo-Liberians set themselves up as the elite ruling over — and exploiting — the indigenous Africans. They structured economic institutions to extract rents from the rest of society and political institutions to guarantee their monopoly of power. These economic institutions included slavery as late as the 1920s; even in the 1960s 1/4 of the labor force was coerced. In most economies, wage payments account for about 2/3 of national income. In Liberia, as a result of the severe repression of labor, in 1950, wage payments were less than 20% of national income, and in 1960, only about 27%.
As is the norm with extractive elites, the Americo-Liberian elite not only monopolized economic benefits but also political power in the society. For fear of losing political power, it actively blocked development in many ways.
In 1961 a team of social scientists comprising of Robert Clower, George Dalton, Mitchell Harwitz and Alan Walters was sent off by the USAID to construct the first national accounts in Liberia. Though they went off armed with standard models of underdevelopment, such as the ‘Big Push’ thesis we discussed here, they soon recognized that standard models of underdevelopment could not accurately capture Liberia’s problems. Eventually they wrote a seminal book on Liberian underdevelopment Growth without Development. The book’s main arguments were summarized by Dalton in a paper in the Journal of Economic History. Dalton observed (p. 581):
The economic backwardness of Liberia is not attributable to the lack of resources or to domination by foreign financial or political interests. The underlying difficulty is rather that the traditional Americo-Liberian rulers, who fear losing political control to the tribal people, have not allowed those changes to take place which are necessary to develop the national society and economy.
The nature of the elite is brought out by the next figure (taken from Growth without Development) which shows how the country was run in 1960 by the family of Presidency of William V.S. Tubman who ruled from 1944 to 1971. President Tubman’s brother was the Ambassador to the USA. His brother’s brother in law was Ambassador to Germany. President Tubman’s father was the President of the General Confederation of Labor, the main association of labor unions and his grandfather was the Vice-President of Liberia. His granduncle was the Senator of Monsanto County, which is the county where the capital Monrovia is. Another granduncle was the secretary of commerce, whose step brother was the president of the central bank. It was a family business embedded within the big family of the Americo-Liberians.
No wonder that Dalton also wrote of Liberian politics (p. 581):
To understand Liberian politics, knowledge of kinship connections is more useful than knowledge of the Liberian constitution.
The True Whig Party and along with it the dominance of the Americo-Liberians were thrown out of power in 1980 by a coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. Doe was a Krahn from the interior, not an Americo-Liberian. (And there was a reason that the coup had to be led by a Master Sergeant: senior officers were Americo-Liberians).
Doe’s coup was in a sense a rebellion of the exploited indigenous peoples of Liberia. But in a typical pattern of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, Doe’s regime was as extractive and vicious as the one it replaced. Doe, for example, duly executed most of the cabinet including President Tolbert.
One of the members of the cabinet who escaped was the Minister of Finance, a Harvard trained economist called Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Johnson Sirleaf was not an Americo-Liberian by ancestry but more because of her father’s adoption by an Americo-Liberian family. After the Doe coup, Johnson Sirleaf went into exile.
In 1989 when a civil war broke out with the invasion of the country by Charles Taylor, like most of the Americo-Liberian elite, she backed and supported Charles Taylor, going so far as raising money for him. Taylor, himself an Americo-Liberian, carried with him the hopes of many Americo-Liberians that he would manage to turn the tide and put them back in charge. He succeeded.
Last year Johnson Sirleaf ran for re-election against Winston Tubman, nephew of William Tubman. Liberian politics is all back in the Americo-Liberian family.
When the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its report about the civil war in June, Johnson Sirleaf was included in a list of 50 names of people that should be “specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty (30) years” for “being associated with former warring factions.” This ban was overturned by the Liberian Supreme Court.
So why wasn’t Charles Taylor brought to justice for his crimes in Liberia? The most plausible explanation seems that those in power, including above all Johnson Sirleaf, are afraid of the revelations that this would bring out — revelations both about their complicity in Liberia’s civil wars and war crimes and about how the Americo-Liberian elites are still ruling the country as they have done over almost the last two hundred years.