Liberia's Troubled Past—And Present
Any moment now American Marines may wade ashore in Liberia's port capital of Monrovia with orders to stabilize what has become a cruel civil war with devastating consequences for the nation's 3 million inhabitants.
A unified chorus of world leaders, including George W. Bush, has called upon Liberian President Charles Taylor to relinquish leadership of the war-torn nation. The world community is hopeful that Taylor's exile would open a window of opportunity to negotiate some measure of peace for a land that has known only intermittent calm during the last 15 years.
At first Liberia's conflict recalls the broken record of African intertribal violence. Then again, this West African coastal nation also boasts a unique and fascinating history of African-American oligarchic rule, syncretic secret societies, groundbreaking missionaries, and ill-fated gold mining ventures bankrolled by American televangelists. In order to understand what the Marines will encounter when they step ashore, a little context will explain why this conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars.
Liberia traces its official state history to 1822 when freed African-American slaves immigrated to the West African coastline. By 1847 they drafted a constitution and launched the first independent state in non-Arab Black Africa. The freedmen modeled their government on the United States and adopted the name Liberia, which is Latin for "place of freedom."
But civics wasn't all they learned during their years in North America. The Liberian founding fathers were composed of Protestant ministers who created their nation as a Christian state with laws explicitly crafted using Christian principles. However, the constitution also afforded protection for all other religions, which was particularly important for the vast majority of Liberia's population—native Africans who followed their traditional beliefs and practices.
Like the European explorers of North America, the freed slaves didn't settle uninhabited land. While excluding the original inhabitants in Liberia's national motto—"The love of liberty brought us here"—the settlers also created an unfair economic environment that concentrated wealth in the ruling class, known as Americo-Liberians, at the expense of the impoverished natives.
This fomented discontent among the native Africans. In 1873 a group of Christian converts attempted to secede from Liberia to create their own Christian state with a more biblical sense of human equality and justice. Yet even among these natives, admiration for America ran high. The secessionists proposed "In God we trust" as their motto.
Meanwhile a native Liberian Christian named William Wade Harris was jailed for inciting a failed revolution that would have turned Liberia over to Great Britain, which he believed would rule more justly than the Americo-Liberians. While in prison, Harris experienced a vision that told him to set out barefoot and baptize the masses in the name of Jesus Christ. And baptize he did.
Though he had little initial success in his home country, he set out for nearby Ivory Coast in 1913 and began preaching to the non-Christian native Africans. In just 18 months he baptized 120,000 converts on his way to becoming the most successful West African evangelist to date. Today his Harrist churches located throughout the continent form one of Africa's most influential denominations.
Harris, however, never found a receptive audience in Liberia. Liberians generally preferred to maintain their ties to overseas denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The country's biggest denomination is the Liberian Baptist Convention, which currently boasts nearly 100,000 adherents. Monrovia actually claims Africa's first Baptist congregation, which was planted by two African-American missionaries traveling in 1822 with the initial Americo-Liberian settlers.
Over the years the Americo-Liberians have maintained their affinity for Baptist churches. But their decades-long monopoly on power came to a crashing halt in 1980 when disgruntled military insurgents assassinated President W. R. Tolbert, an ordained Baptist minister, like so many of Liberia's founding leaders.
In 1985 Samuel Doe became Liberia's first indigenous president, thanks to a questionable election, and his rule brought only increased corruption and violent repression against his tribe's historic opponents. Five years later another group of rebels assassinated Doe, which led to a three-way civil war that continued until 1997 and resulted in 200,000 dead and 1 million refugees. President Taylor emerged as the nation's leader in an election some considered fraudulent but most viewed to be reasonably fair according to Liberian standards.
Taylor is an odd amalgam of the diverse elements that form the current crisis in Liberia. He was born in 1948 to an Americo-Liberian family and educated in the United States, but resented his country's political and economic disparities. Doe appointed him to a high government position, but Taylor ultimately attacked his regime. Taylor coveted Sierra Leone's diamond wealth so his armies sponsored a 10-year conflict there that left 10,000 dead. His armies also enlisted child fighters and committed numerous crimes against humanity, including rape and murder.
When the BBC accused him of such atrocities, he responded with, "Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time." Last year he reportedly told 65,000 Liberians gathered for prayer, "I am not your president. Jesus is!" And according to the Washington Post, four years ago Taylor negotiated an $8 million deal with Pat Robertson to mine for gold in Liberia.
As if Christianity in Liberia hasn't suffered enough from corruption both within and also outside the churches, syncretism has threatened biblical faith. Secret societies and ancestor veneration continue to influence the nation's psyche. According to Operation World, "Freemasonry imported by the early settlers fused with indigenous tribal secret societies to become a pervasive influence that has corrupted and compromised politics and nearly every denomination, whether mainline, evangelical, or Pentecostal."
According to African scholar Stephen Ellis, Liberians perceive the spiritual realm as the truest reality, which explains the predominance of cultic activity during current and past civil wars. Sometimes they sacrificed humans and hired "heartmen" to ritually remove and digest their opponents' organs.
Yet in the midst of spiritual terror, humanitarian squalor, and murderous rampages, hope remains for Liberia as the world community seeks to bring much-needed political stability and charitable aid. Additionally, Pentecostalism has gained a receptive hearing among the inland tribes, whose pervasive mysticism meshes well with Pentecostal visions of the spiritual world.
So while Marines prepare to fulfill their mission, they step into the stream of history that knows the perils of intervening in tribal warfare but also the idealistic memory of liberty that brought many of the Liberians there.
Collin Hansen is editorial resident of Christian History.
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