August 2011

On my first  Sunday afternoon in Monrovia, the capital city of the Republic of Liberia,  I received a call inquiring about my interest om going to the home of the former president,, Moses Blah. I was on an assessment visit to Liberia during which I tried to make arrangements for the students who would be arriving in the Fall 2011. The purpose of the assessment visit to Liberia was to making as many contacts on behalf of the African Democracy project as possible before the students arrive in  October for the presidential elections.  Illustrative of how accessible leaders and former leaders of Liberia really are was my visit late on a Sunday afternoon with Moses Zeh Blah, 23rd President of the Republic of Liberia . He had served as president for only a short period fro11 August 2003 – 14 October 2003 but he had been the notorious Charles Taylor’s vice president for roughly three years before that from July 2000 up until he took over from Taylor. A brief bio of the former president taken form Wikipedia is included below:

Moses Zeh Blah (born 18 April 1947) is a Liberian political figure. He served as Vice President under President Charles Taylor and became the 23rd President of Liberia on 11 August 2003, following Taylor’s resignation. He served as President for two months, until 14 October 2003, when a United Nations-backed transitional government, headed by Gyude Bryant, was sworn in.

Blah was born in Toweh Town, Liberia, a Gio-speaking hamlet in north-eastern Nimba County, close to the border with the Ivory Coast. He joined with Taylor because of a shared hatred of the current president, Samuel Doe, who had killed Blah’s wife along with hundreds of others in an ethnic-related massacre. He trained with Taylor in a Libyan guerrilla camp and served with him as a general during Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s. He held the post of ambassador to Libya and Tunisia after Taylor was elected in 1997. In July 2000 Blah was appointed as Vice President after the death of Enoch Dogolea who was rumoured to have been poisoned.  Blah was known as a quiet and unassuming man, driving his own jeep around town rather than using a motorcade and driver, and wearing flowing African robes instead of the normal olive green military uniform.  He was constantly annoyed about the bodyguards who followed him around.

 In June 2003, Taylor had left the country for peace talks in Ghana, and while there he was indicted by the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Blah was urged by the United States to take power from Taylor during his absence, but Blah made no such attempt. After Taylor’s return, Blah was held under house arrest for ten days, but was subsequently absolved and reinstated as Vice President. When Taylor resigned in August of that year, Blah briefly succeeded him as president. He was condemned by Liberian rebel groups for his close ties to Taylor; they charged that he would simply continue Taylor’s practices. Blah responded by calling the rebels “brothers” and saying “Let bygones be bygones. If there is power, we can share it.” He invited the rebels to negotiate in his own house. On 7 April 2008, Blah said that he had been sent a subpoena to testify at Taylor’s trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. He said that he would testify and “speak the truth”,[1] and he testified on 14 May 2008, describing child soldiers and the relationship between Taylor and Foday Sankoh. (Wikipedia, 2011.)

I asked the president to meet with the Democracy in Africa course when they arrive in Monrovia. That is when I learned at Mrs. Blah, the former first lady was an excellent cook. (President Blah said so.) I then struck a bargain that I would bring the delegation of approximately 20 to the former President’s home for meeting with him and if Mrs. Blah would prepare the meal, I would pay for it!  It was agreed! In summary, the class will be meeting the former president in his home over a meal prepared by the former first lady of the Republic!

Democracies can really be violent. Mozambique is a case in point; Botswana is not; and a more recent example is Liberia, a more recent and demonstrative case.

When I left Botswana in March this year after my second visit, I was still marveling over what a peaceful, civil place that country is. Botswana achieved independence without a civil war, revolution, insurgency, or anything like that. Independence without violence? Multi-party elections and known no violence to persuade the British to leave? What kind of democracy is that!

Actually, the Portuguese left Mozambique without so much as a fight, but then again there was that extraordinarily destructive civil war between the Frelimo and Renamo parties, a nasty brotherly fight that claimed the lives of more than a million people. They had a democracy, so they fought each other after the colonists left. (Okay, they started with one party rule by Frelimo, but who says that a democracy has to have two parties?) We see this story again and again and again: India and Pakistan, for example, were formed after indigenous groups really went after each other – kind of like opposing liberation groups in Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt today.

A colleague of mine at Wayne State University and I are now embarking on the third course in the Wayne State University African Democracy Project. We have chose Liberia. It is focused on national elections, as was the Mozambique course in 2009.

Why Liberia? There are many reasons. First, democracy is not new to Liberia. One might argue that Liberia has always been a democracy and one can just as easily argue that it was never a true colony in the tradition of British, Portuguese, French, and Dutch Africa. (Incidentally, Botswana was not a colony either. Technically, it was a protectorate of Britain. After diamonds were discovered, Britain really protected it!) Liberia was settled by freed slaves and other black free men from the United States who, on their own volition and at the urging of others, left the U.S. to find a place back in the homeland. Then there were other Africans who, on their way to the “free” world to become unfree, were liberated by the British from slave ships and dumped – not back in their homelands, but onto the nearest shoreline in what is now Liberia. This mixture of free and freed, liberated and castaway, formed what became collectively known as the Congo people of Liberia. They basically took over the free people of Liberia to create the first and only colony formed by people (not citizens) of the United States of America. (Of course, this depends somewhat on how you look at what Teddy Roosevelt did in Panama to get the canal. But let’s not go there.)

Why Liberia? Because the people are much like us and, furthermore, wanted to be like us. For heaven’s sake – they formed the True Whig Party! The Liberian flag – except for missing 49 stars and two stripes – looks exactly like ours.

Why Liberia? Among other reasons is the simple notion that it is there and is what it is. And the connection of Liberia to “us” is that we never let slavery and slaves get too far away from our shores, our minds, or our souls. There is a kind of spiritual kinship between Liberia and us. Charles Taylor, a latter-day freeman in an American jail, mysteriously escaped and went back to Liberia to wreak havoc on the country and its people, but that puts me way ahead in telling this story.

Let’s just go with the idea that Liberia, democracy, violence, and America are inseparable. Mary Moran’s book about Liberia, The Violence of Democracy, may help us to understand why these concepts are inextricably linked in Liberia.