Unraveling Liberia

Revolutionary Worker #1209, August 10, 2003, posted at rwor.org

Watching the devastating events unfold in Liberia over the past weeks has been hard. Continuous news accounts report civilian deaths and lack of water or food for the over 1 million people within the capital city of Monrovia.

Just before his trip to Africa, George Bush--self-appointed president of the world--arrogantly barked orders to the various forces battling for control of Liberia. As we go to press over 2,000 U.S. Marines are headed toward the Liberian coastline--where they are planning to sit offshore and back up the West African peace-keeping forces under Nigerian command. Charles Taylor, the present head of the Liberian government, has supposedly heeded international pressures to step down from power and leave the country, while armed forces from the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Defense)--opponents of Taylor--battle to overtake Monrovia. While the country struggles against spinning out of control, there are many questions left unanswered: Who are the forces involved in the conflict and why are they fighting? What is the role of the U.S. and the European imperialist powers in this region of western Africa? Why are some forces calling for the U.S. to send in troops? And, can the U.S. government do any good in Liberia?

Cold War Repercussions

In order to fully understand the present situation in Liberia, one has to look back to the Cold War period during the 1980s--when the rivalry between U.S. imperialism and Soviet social- imperialism on a global scale was intense and threats of a nuclear world war seemed very real. Liberia was then ruled by a U.S.-backed puppet named Samuel Doe. Doe, an indigenous Liberian, was a Master Sgt. in the Liberian army. He came to power in 1980 when he led a bloody coup that murdered the previous president and his cabinet. During his 10-year rule, Doe received hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to build up the military. Under Doe, Liberia served as a strategic outpost for U.S. interests in Africa. Doe's regime played a particular role in seeking to destabilize Soviet-influenced Libya to the north. The Doe government was known for corruption and human rights abuses. During the Doe years many rivalries were created. The Doe government was besieged by coup attempts, including by Charles Taylor, who led a group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPLF).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union was no longer shaping the cold calculations of the U.S. ruling class in Africa. The Doe regime fell apart as the U.S. no longer supplied millions to prop it up. Yet another rebel faction in the region eventually assassinated Doe in 1990. A power vacuum ensued with the absence of U.S. aid. Enter the Economic Communities of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS is one of the first subregional African organizations, drawn from many different neo-colonial countries in the region, but the military arm of ECOWAS--ECOWOG--is largely made up of Nigerian forces. ECOWAS established a temporary regime in Liberia to stabilize the country. Charles Taylor continued to push for power and led a civil war in Liberia from 1992 to 1997. Eventually, a cease-fire was reached and Taylor was negotiated into power.

It is clear reading press accounts that Taylor has pissed a lot of people off. But Taylor is indicative in many ways of the irony of imperialist "neglect." On one hand he has created problems for the U.S. imperialists. But in every way Taylor is a product of U.S. domination in Liberia--which has left the country one of the poorest in the world, where corruption and warlords thrive.

During the years of his rule Taylor has backed various armed forces in neighboring countries and the region has been destabilized. Taylor backed up and provided training to insurgent forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. Trading small arms for Sierra Leone diamonds, Taylor became a player in the West African diamond trade while at the same time destabilizing Sierra Leone. After gaining control of much of the country the RUF were integrated into the Sierra Leone government in an ECOWAS brokered peace deal. Taylor backed rebel forces in Guinea, a former French colony, to seize control of the diamond mines. Taylor was also involved in instigating the armed conflict that broke out in Ivory Coast--an important country in West Africa, which is dominated by French imperialism.

All this is creating a number of problems for the U.S., France and Britain who have predatory interests in West Africa--and in particular for the French imperialists who have vigorously pursued their domination in the region.

The LURD, the rebel group that has been encroaching on the Liberian capital of Monrovia in a bid to oust Taylor, derived from forces embittered by Taylor in Guinea. The government of Guinea, which is backed by both the U.S. and France, is supporting the LURD. Meanwhile, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo has intervened in the Liberia civil war by sponsoring yet another militia--the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, or MODEL.

One thing is certainly clear: none of the rival factions involved in the fighting are revolutionary. And in so many ways what stands out about the current conflict in Liberia is what is missing --and what is needed --a genuine revolutionary communist force, thoroughly opposed to imperialism, with a program to rely on the masses and transform the horrendous social, economic and political conditions ravaging the people of West Africa.

The Imperialist Interests

There has been much pressure put on the U.S. by international forces, including France, as well as some forces within the U.S. to send in troops. But the U.S. ruling class seems hesitant to get too directly involved in the current crisis. Some allege that this is because the U.S. rulers are "racist" and don't want to help the Liberians because they are black. But this does not even begin to capture the depths of national oppression practiced by the U.S. imperialists in Africa--or the cold calculations behind why the U.S. is reluctant in this case to intervene. Some hold on to a myth of a kinder gentler imperialism doing humanitarian work. But given the whole history of U.S. involvement in Liberia--and Africa generally--it is rather shocking that anyone who cares about the people of Liberia would wish the U.S. imperialists to "come to the rescue."

There are a number of reasons it appears the U.S. doesn't want to become too directly involved in the Liberian conflict. On one hand, as illuminated by Henry Kissinger, a long-time bourgeois ideologue and former secretary of state, "If the United States were to seek to quell the internal crises from Sudan to Congo by the policies used in the Balkans, a long period of outside supervision would follow a bloody conflict. It would be only a matter of time before a new charge of colonialism would be raised. The American debacle in Somalia in 1993 is illustrative." Hence, a long history of anti-colonial struggles makes the U.S. wary of direct intervention in Africa.

But also at this time, as the occupation of Iraq continues, Afghanistan simmers, and the U.S. eyes gaining larger control over the Middle East, West Africa at this point is not a priority for the U.S. government, but it is too important to ignore. So there is debate among the circles of the U.S. ruling class over the need to stabilize the region, which is rich in strategic minerals and oil. Colin Powell was quoted in the New York Times:"In Liberia, if you ask the question, `What is our strategic, vital interest?' it would be hard to define in that way," he told the newspaper. "But we do have an interest in making sure that West Africa doesn't simply come apart."

Thus, the U.S. government is attempting to secure its strategic domination in the region and its reputation as number one imperialist, without getting bogged down.

And there is talk of oil. Liberia sits near vast natural gas and oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea. While some U.S. companies are already investing in extraction of these natural resources, how the competition over them unfolds is yet to be seen.


Unraveling the present crisis and history of Liberia is painful. It is also liberating to understand that what is happening in Liberia is not just the result of one thug ruler or archaic fighting between rival factions. The present situation and history of Liberia is a living lesson in the deadly complexities of imperialist domination.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497