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There’s a statistic I hear tossed around in Monrovia’s expat circles. People say that within five years of a civil conflict, there’s a fifty percent likelihood that a country will fall back into war. When I ask for predictions, everyone balks: too soon. What they will wager on, though, are the Chinese fireworks. Recently, the Chinese ambassador boasted to a group of Harvard interns that the explosives would spell out peace, prosperity, and development in the night sky. The interns, never having seen fireworks spell out anything, were skeptical. But never having seen Chinese fireworks, no one could entirely dismiss the possibility. So, they coined their very own acronym—as if Monrovia were running low—and placed bets. If the sky over West Africa did read peace, prosperity, and development on the 26th of July, the PPD believers would owe the PPD cynics a case of Liberian beer.
There’s another way to read the chaos by even war ends and I try. I try to believe the Liberians who tell me Monrovia recently looked worse. Far worse. Very recently. They tell me about a capital where there was no commerce. This summer, shops are open—shops the size of tool sheds, painted the same six primary colors. HAPPY BUSINESS CENTER. DIVINE PERFECT SALOON. BIG DREAMS SUPERMARKET. Anyone who opened up my notebook would think I was brainstorming game pieces for a Milton Bradley board game called “Prosperity Land.” SHINE YOUR EYES BUSINESS CENTER. SUNSHINE WOOD WORKSHOP. I’m driven by wet trash heaps, over muddy craters, and there’s achiever’s arena: RAISING UNCOMMON ACHIEVERS. There’s new creation restaurant. GOOD GUYS TRADING CORP. WHAT NEXT ENTERPRISE.
Traffic slows and boys hawking Werther’s candy encircle the van. Ernest stares vacantly past the gold wrappers to the car ahead. Taxi drivers paint mottoes on their bumpers in white letters. Liberian bumpers say no man knows tomorrow, or the storm is over, or a long hope.
I’m in a foreign country, but feel more like a guest in a moment—the moment NGOers call post-conflict. Post-conflict, but developing. Past weighing, future pulling. The moment embassies reopen, but edge their fence tops with barbed wire coiling like giant slinkies. The moment one newspaper ad calls for war crimes testimonies, while beside it, the new steel mill seeks engineers with graduate degrees.
Ernest’s radio dial flits from ACON to talk of Sino-Liberian relations to Celine Dion to a warning that the sound of fireworks is not the war coming back. This is a moment without agreement on whether celebration is due.
Finally, traffic budges. We trail the cab ahead. Its bumper reads: THE MATTER OF TIME.
Liberia’s story does not fall into step with Africa’s. Not quite. While a wave of independence movements swept the continent in the sixties—in 1960 alone, seventeen African nations threw off colonial rule—the groundswell in Liberia took longer. It was not as evident that Liberia should rise up against its colonizer because the colonizer, in Liberia’s case, was Liberia. Or America-Liberia, as the tiny elite considered it. Less than five percent of the population, Americo-Liberians dominated all wealth and power for 133 years. President Tubman, who tinkered with the constitution to prolong his rule from 1944 to 1971, used one percent of the national budget for the maintenance of his private yacht.
When his successor, William Tolbert, took over in the seventies, all it took to destabilize the country was a price hike. In 1979, rice riots broke out. A year later, young soldiers, members of the Krahn, one of Liberia’s poorest ethnic groups, fought their way into the executive mansion. Their leader, Samuel K. Doe, was a twenty-eight-year-old with an eighth-grade education. To call Doe’s 1980 coup a turning point for Liberia would be to understate the tumult ahead for a nation which, though stratified enough to draw apartheid comparisons, had seen almost no violence since its odd first birthday in 1847.
Doe disemboweled the president and declared martial law. Thirteen of Tolbert’s ministers were stripped to their underwear, tied to wooden posts on the beach, and shot.
The Wall Street Journal reporter recommends I get credentialed. Press credentials can be bought for $25 USD from the Minister of Information. It feels fitting to call Gabriel Williams, a short man with a boxer’s build, Minister. He speaks of the New Liberia with evangelical zeal.
The Minister returned to Liberia just recently, after fleeing in 1993 when his work as a reporter brought him death threats. By 1993, Samuel Doe’s reign of terror had ended, but not without turning the country’s ethnic differences into ethnic rancor. Killings, under Doe, were localized, though massive. For example, when Doe’s men raided a community in Montserrado County, villagers sought asylum in a Lutheran Church. All 600 of them were burned inside.
Into this climate of terror, with ethnic boundaries now carved in blood, walked Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor, an Americo-Liberian with a degree from a New England college. Taylor recruited thousands of rebels from the interior and neighboring nations, many of them young boys who were taught to rape and loot with unthinkable ferocity. Taylor’s failed siege of Monrovia, in 1992, left 3,000 dead.
I ask the Minister to recommend a book that will make sense of this carnage, and he pulls one off the shelf: his. While biding his time in Sacramento, California, the Minister wrote a scathing, 456-page rant against Doe and Taylor. The preface reads, “This book is about how Liberia, which was founded to be a light in the then dark continent of Africa, fell from grace to become ‘The Heart of Darkness.’”
The Minister has a new project: the 26th. He’s in charge of crafting and controlling the public message. Last year, when Liberia turned 159, a fire erupted at the executive grounds. As though it weren’t ominous enough that the seat of the Liberian government leaked smoke—on Independence Day—the fire was in the president’s office, and so was the president. Since that 26th, the smoke-stained executive grounds have been boarded up and unused. This year, the Minister promises me, no one will set fire to the president. The official gala is taking place across the country, in Buchanan, Liberia’s second-largest city. The Minister has arranged for a caravan to transport the Liberian media cross-country. Handing over my press credentials, he invites me along.
Ernest halts beneath the traffic light at the corner of Broad and Lynch. It’s odd to wait for a light to change in Monrovia, because you almost never do. When this traffic light was hung in 1998, it was the first post-conflict traffic light—the only traffic light—in Liberia.
By then, one in seven Liberians had been killed in war. All infrastructure was obliterated, enabling Taylor to divvy up diamond-rich land into personal fiefdoms. Nonetheless, Liberians, tired of the bloodletting, assumed that their country’s best shot at peace was to vote the rebel leader into office. Taylor won the 1997 election in a landslide.
President Taylor hung the 1998 traffic light on the 26th of July, an ornament of minimal pomp for a country crawling out of war. But under Taylor, Liberia did not crawl out. Another rebel army formed, and five more years of fighting ensued. The worst was 2003, the summer Liberians call World War III, when mortar fell like rain and drugged soldiers raped in a haze. World War iii happened to coincide with Bush’s five-nation Africa tour. Liberia was not on the summer itinerary, but when mortar hit the refugee camp inside the U.S. Embassy and Liberians piled slender corpses at the ambassador’s gate, pressure mounted for a response from Bush.
Bush’s response: “We’re deeply concerned that the Liberian situation is getting worse, and worse, and worse.” On July 25th, he finally ordered three naval ships to the coast of West Africa, where they would bob at sea for two more weeks. Worse, and worse, and worse.