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ADIASPORA RETURNS: LIBERIA THEN AND NOW
by Robtel Neajai Pailey
Sankofa is an Akan word from Ghana which, when translated
literally, means: ‘We must go back and reclaim our past so we can
move forward; we must understand why and how we came
to be to know who we are today.’
Introduction
Standing at the apex of Ducor in central Monrovia, Liberia’s
capital, one can see why the country used to be a beacon of light
for the continent of Africa and its Diaspora. With lush green trees
standing in stark contrast to an artist’s vision of modern chromed
buildings, only the loss and destruction spurned by a fifteen-year
civil war now emanate from the country’s recovering edifice.
Liberia’s 160-year past is written in the history books as a tale of
tragedy, a reminder of political, economic and social upheavals, as
well as the failures of a system structured in dominance.
Nonetheless, there are signs of hope everywhere if you take a
second look: former child soldiers selling candles on the street;
market women in the hot sun bartering their wares; the planting
of poplar trees on Broad Street—a major thoroughfare in the
country; and the hustle-bustle grind of daily life that evokes a
sense of activity, movement, and progress. Another inkling of hope
seems to be the wave of Diaspora Liberians who are returning,
infused with the ‘Back to Africa’ ethos that buoyed up black
nationalists such as Paul Cuffee, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Marcus
Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois, all of whom saw Liberia as an outpost
for their aspirations of cross-continental migration. It follows suit
that Liberia’s history is a dialectical pattern of migration,
opposition, exile and return.
Liberia’s Tortuous History
Modern-day Liberia is infused with the parallel—and sometimes
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diametrically opposed—histories of its sixteen indigenous ethnic
groups and the descendants of freed American slaves, called
Americo-Liberians anecdotally and referred to as such hereafter,
who were settled in the country by the American Colonisation
Society (ACS),1aprivate organisation of white Americans who
initiated the repatriation of former slaves and free Blacks in the
early nineteenth century. The lowest level within the settler
grouping was occupied by the so-called ‘recaptives’, those Africans
who had been intercepted from slaving vessels by British and
American navies and deposited on the ‘Grain Coast’ to start a new
life.2Of course, the history of the region that is present-day
Liberia predates the settlement of repatriated slaves. In fact, the
sub-region was an already vibrant outpost of social and political
organisations as well as economic patterns of trade routes, coastal
ports, and inland posts for a budding commercial sector that had
existed for at least two centuries.3
After declaring Liberia’s independence on 26 July 1847, the
‘founding fathers’ painted their histories in the books for the
world to see. The country’s official seal proclaims boldly below
pictographs of a ship coming to shore: ‘The Love of Liberty
Brought Us Here.’4The extension of the political control of the
Americo-Liberians over indigenous groups was a long and
laborious process. From Joseph J. Roberts, the first president of
Liberia, to William Tubman and his successor William Tolbert, all
of the presidents of Liberia were descendants of Americo-Liberians
and members of the True Whig Party—which ruled Liberia for all
but six years between 1870 and 1980,5until an indigene master
sergeant by the name of Samuel K. Doe staged a coup that
assassinated President Tolbert and key ministers of his regime.
Tubman came to power in 1945. His regime was infused with
single-party chauvinism, and an oligarchic ‘cult of the president’.
Fanon chastised the single-party state as a concoction of the
landed and elite class: ‘The single party is the modern form of the
dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, unmasked, unpainted,
unscrupulous, and cynical.’6However, Tubman did make
attempts, arguably only cosmetic gestures, to integrate the
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
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hinterlands into his political jurisdiction with a Unification Policy
which, some argue, co-opted indigenous leaders in order to push
out European imperialist claims on the Liberian state. It was
during Tubman’s administration that non-Americo Liberian males
were finally granted suffrage by paying a hut tax, and provided
with one representative in the Liberian legislature for each of the
provinces into which the Liberian hinterland was divided.7At the
time, Tubman was seeking to increase the political participation of
the majority non-Americo Liberian populace, yet his pacification,
disguised as ‘openness’, would later rupture under the pressure of
increasing opposition. In a letter written to Tubman in 1951, the
Liberian pamphleteer, journalist and political activist, Albert
Porte, expressed his concern about an atmosphere of ‘benevolent’
suppression: ‘Unfortunately, the citizens of this country do not
feel free to express themselves upon vital questions affecting them,
but sit by and grumble “the people don't mean anything”. I am
afraid that even in the legislature there is a great reluctance if not
the absence of the free expression of thoughts and opinion,
especially where the president is concerned.’8Porte would later
cast himself as a prickly thorn in the side of Tubman’s regime, and
serve on the constitutional reform commission under Doe. This
particular recycling of loyalties and political affiliations represents
akey node in the structural formulation of the Liberian state and
its actors.
Though Tubman ruled for 27 years, his death in a London clinic
in 1971 would eventually sow the seeds of an enduring legacy of
political patronage and disenfranchisement. With his death the
internal contradictions of Liberia’s two-tiered society came to the
fore. Workers began to protest with heightened demands for fair
play; elements of the intelligentsia began to intensify their
demands and to organise in the name of radical political
governance; the general populace began to lose the little respect
they had for the political machinery; and even elements of the
political elite began to distance themselves from the Tubman era,
even though they had benefited to a large extent from True Whig
Party consolidation.9Tubman’s successor, Tolbert, inherited this
bubbling political cauldron. He promptly attempted to distinguish
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himself from his predecessor by adopting socialist philosophies,
speaking out against American paternalism, denouncing Israel as a
Zionist state and increasing the price of imported rice—Liberia’s
staple food—in order to encourage Liberians to develop their
agricultural productivity. His attempts at ingratiating himself with
an increasingly radicalised populace under groups like the
Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) would falter, while the
increase in the price of rice would lead to massive riots throughout
the country. Tolbert’s days were numbered. He and members of
his cabinet were assassinated during the coup, led by Samuel K.
Doe on 12 April 1980, which ended the True Whig dynasty for
good.
Throughout the country’s history—and especially with the advent
of True Whig Party entrenchment under presidents Tubman and
Tolbert—Liberia experienced a unique recycling of political
loyalties: dissenters under Tubman and Tolbert would later forge
loyalties with Doe; opponents of Doe would support Taylor; and
those opponents of Taylor would later support current President
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The cyclical patterns of Liberia’s political
landscape point to an inherent rupture and discontentment with
leadership. This rupture has encouraged Bayart to theorise about a
‘reciprocal assimilation of elites’,10 a process in which political
elites replicate themselves like fast wielding DNA until divergence,
as in the case of Doe in Liberia, throws a monkey wrench into the
system of domination. Those on the political margins are bound to
want to wield power. However, this is surely not unique to
Liberia—or to Africa, for that matter—even though commentators
like Bayart, Chabal and Daloz regard the phenomenon of political
elite replication as an African ‘peculiarity’.11 Indeed, this vision of
Africa as a monolithic political creature devoid of all the state
features that plague modern politics is problematic and has been
vigorously contested by radical Africanists such as Cooper:
‘African realities should not be contrasted to an idealised picture
of “democracy” elsewhere; there is not a polity on earth where
every member has an equal chance to have his or her political
opinion heard or where patronage and corruption are absent from
political life’.12
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Doe turned elite politics on its head, at least initially. During his
first broadcast to the nation after assuming power on 14 April
1980, Doe promised that ‘our government will actively encourage
the wise participation of the people from all parts of the country
in the making of decisions that affect them’.13He denounced a
century or so of Americo-Liberian hegemony, chastised corruption
and cronyism under the Tolbert regime and accused it of
deliberately miring the country in further underdevelopment. Doe
observed an air of disregard for the constitutional rights of
Liberians, and pledged himself ‘to build a new society in which
there is justice, human dignity, equal opportunities and fair
treatment for all before the law’.14 To the naked eye, it looked as
though Doe was committed to a reversal of political elitism. He
encouraged the return of exiles15 and preached national
reconciliation16 under a ‘National Unification Policy’,17 which
reformulated the Unification Policy of Tubman. The rhetoric of
change and reform was called into question. When Doe’s new
minister of finance, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, accused the new regime
of misallocation of resources,18Doe fired back with accusations of
his own, stating that it was under Sirleaf’s tutelage that Liberia
incurred astronomical debts. When elections were held in 1985,
Sirleaf’s former party, the Liberian Action Party (LAP), was slated
to win and to bring civilian rule to Liberia. But only ‘native’
members of the interior were allowed to run, giving Doe leverage
because of his political visibility.
These rigged elections provoked an attempted coup attempt by
Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa on 12 November
1985. It was foiled, and Doe now responded by silencing
opposition and politicising ethnic rivalries by filling his cabinet
with loyal members of his own indigenous group, the Krahn. This
has prompted a good deal of debate. While Aning argues that the
nature of policies implemented during Doe’s regime contributed to
the creation of a system in which the dynamics of power were
shaped by ethnic relations and rivalries, he cautions against this
‘mono-causal’ interpretation of the character of opposition during
Doe’s tenure, instead arguing that widespread discontentment
with the regime existed long before ethnicity was politically
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manipulated.19
Doe proclaimed himself winner of the 1985 polls, though his
legitimacy on the ballots was contested.20 Liberia began losing its
human and intellectual capital in droves. Doe’s hold on power was
so overwrought with economic stagnation and political repression
that his former political ally, Charles Taylor—now on trial for war
crimes committed in the Sierra Leone Civil War during his
presidency in Liberia—invaded the country in 1989 from the
Ivory Coast. The attack led to a fifteen-year civil war that would
ultimately provoke Taylor’s eventual ouster from the presidency in
2003.
The conflict within Liberia devastated one of West Africa’s most
prosperous nations, and destabilised an entire region. It also killed
an estimated 200,00021 of the standing three million population in
Liberia itself. In the first year of the war alone, as many as
700,00022 Liberians fled the country, many of them to
neighbouring Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Those who were
able to escape to further corners of the world scattered throughout
the Diaspora like germinating seeds, in the United States and
elsewhere, in what was a devastating blow to the intellectual
capacity of the country. In effect, ‘Nearly 30 percent of Liberians
with tertiary education left in 1990, and nearly 40 percent left in
2000, according to a World Bank study.23
Doe himself was devoid of an autonomous political philosophy,
‘other than the philosophy of clinging to power’ (as Huband
observes).24 In fact, in the heyday of Cold War politics he cast his
political opponents as ‘socialists’, and for that he gained
unyielding support from the U.S. president, Ronald Reagan. In
exchange for removing sympathisers of the dissident group MOJA
from the public eye, re-establishing political ties with the state of
Israel, denouncing socialist philosophies, and crushing political
opponents, Doe received a hefty aid package of $500 million
between 1980 and 1988,25 the largest American aid package in
sub-Saharan Africa in what some would call ‘foreign domination
by proxy’.26 Certainly, the Reagan administration used Liberia as a
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military base: satellite telecommunications installations and radio
relay stations were constructed in the country. By now it was all
too clear that Doe’s People’s Redemption Council (PRC) had
failed to fulfil initial promises of establishing a ‘new society’, based
on the evocation of inalienable rights for all Liberian citizens.27
Opposition increasingly coalesced in a new, broad-based coalition
of indigenous Liberians, exiled dissenters (Sirleaf now included),
and foreign insurgents under the title, the National Patriotic Front
of Liberia (NPFL). It was led by an Americo-Liberian descendant,
Charles Taylor.28
The pattern of Liberian politics was now conspicuous. It was
determined by a profound dialectic of repression and exile. It was
highly-personalised, oligarchic and exclusive. But it was also
striking that the Diaspora had begun to assert its role as legitimate
stakeholder and power-broker. Dissenters in America, mainly
Americo-Liberians, contacted each other through informal
networks and affirmed their support of Taylor as a messiah chosen
to lead their people out of the political slavery which Doe had
brought.29Sirleaf would be one of his ardent supporters, until a
disagreement severed their relationship. Indeed, Taylor continued
to lose the support of his broad-based network of loyalists as he
made his way, ascending to the Liberian throne by way of a brutal
civil war which led finally to his election in 1997. In this new
contest Sirleaf’s Unity Party had barely made an impact, securing
only 9.85% of the votes cast. It is interesting to note that Article
52 (c) of the Liberian Constitution stipulates that in order to be
eligible to run in elections for the positions of president and vice-
president, a Liberian national must have lived in the country for
10 years.30 If this clause had been enforced, neither Taylor nor
Sirleaf would have been eligible to contest the 1997 elections. As
such, the elections were deemed ‘special’, because of the nature of
the 1989-1996 war (a justification retrieved later, during the
elections in 2005). At all events, what followed now, according to
Gberie, brought about a warlord economy that further eroded
‘formal state institutions that were destroyed during the war he
started, destroying those still existing’.31
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When in 2003 a transitional government under the leadership of
Gyude Bryant took over in Taylor’s wake, there were small waves
of Diaspora returnees testing the waters, and evaluating the
country’s potential for resettlement. These ripples became a high
tide when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s first female
head of state, and Africa’s first woman president, in November
2005. Since then, anecdotal evidence has charted a movement
back across the Atlantic of those highly-skilled, able-bodied
Liberian nationals who had once left the country. This return
migration—a phenomenon gaining momentum in countries like
Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone32—has few antecedents
in research and even fewer statistical underpinnings, as post-
conflict governments like Liberia are so impoverished that they
barely have the capability or manpower to account for the number
of skilled professionals moving across borders and into Liberian
territory.
Methodological Underpinnings—A Diaspora Returns
During a one-month visit to Liberia in December 2006, I
conducted 35 interviews33 of Monrovia-based returnee Liberians
formerly residing in the Diaspora.34 The central question
underpinning my investigation into their motives of return was
simple: Why? Why give up a comfortable life abroad—mostly in
the United States, as Liberia has a long-standing relationship with
the Western superpower—to go back to a country whose
infrastructure is shattered, whose citizenry is suffering from post-
traumatic stress, whose judicial and legal systems are antiquated,
whose very existence has been essentially inert since 1989?
It must be said that finding reliable sources to trace Liberia’s
historical trajectories presents a major difficulty. But Dr. Carl
Patrick Burrowes, a celebrated Liberian historian and journalist, is
surely right to challenge readers of Liberian history to interrogate
the nature of secondary sources, which so often paint Liberia as a
nation muddled in dichotomies, without references to primary
sources about indigenous life.35 Rarely does Liberian history before
President Doe tell the story of non-settlers, and the dearth of
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primary sources—or even secondary sources—is problematic.36
Here, I have consulted newspaper articles—national and
international—documenting the return of Liberia’s highly skilled
expatriate nationals. The 35 interviews serve as the basis of my
evidence and analysis, though I have not used them to construct a
measurable scale of Diaspora return because the dearth of
quantitative data on the flow of movement in and out of Liberia’s
136 ports of entry is negligible.37Instead, they have encouraged
me to track patterns, trends, continuities and discontinuities in
the small movement of Liberian Diaspora migration that will
predictably swell in the next five years, if the current pattern is
anything to go by.
Replication of Diasporas into Liberia’s Political DNA:
Ol’ Ma’ Ellen Returns to Rule
As the United States celebrated its fallen civil rights martyr,
Martin Luther King, Jr. on 15 January 2006, Liberians across the
Atlantic Ocean were in high spirits, hailing the return of their
proverbial ‘Queen’, the newly elected head of state, Ellen Johnson
Sirleaf. In November 2005, this Harvard-educated, former World
Bank and United Nations technocrat had changed the course of
the country’s history by defeating soccer star turned humanitarian,
George Weah—the populist favourite among youth and among
those sceptical of elite politicians. Now an estimated 400 Liberian
Diaspora expatriates returned to the country—in some cases for
the first time—to witness the historic inauguration.38 Many of
them began searching for jobs and homes, intent on their own
permanent return to the country. Migration research stipulates
that one of the major reasons for return migration, as in the case
of Liberia, is the ‘perception that positive changes have occurred
in those situations in the home countries that brought about or
contributed to the original migration’.39 It comes as no surprise
that, as the chief architect of this Diaspora return, Sirleaf has
sought to create an enabling environment to reverse Liberia’s
‘brain drain’.
According to the World Bank, one of the major agendas for post-
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conflict social reconstruction is achieving a successful transition
from a war-torn state to one of peace,40 a shift which necessarily
involves political consolidation. Assessing the political
implications of Liberia’s return migration would be incomplete
without first evaluating one of the most prominent recent
returnees, Sirleaf herself, who was in exile during both Doe’s and
Taylor’s regimes. Sirleaf proceeded to appoint Diaspora returnees
in major ministries such as Commerce, Finance, Information,
Labour and Agriculture. Whether or not this has caused a tide of
resentment and political elitism is yet to be confirmed. But the
question is a sharp one. Could the returnees constitute a political
enclave, a new constituency not based on primordial ethnic or
sectarian affiliations, but based on their orientation as people who
lived abroad during the war, acquired certain skills, and now have
the capital and expertise with which to contribute to the country’s
political development?
ANew Political Dispensation under the ‘Iron Lady’
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has attempted to distinguish herself from the
lot of power-mongering Liberian leaders of the past. Whereas
Tubman and Tolbert ruled by virtue of political succession, and
Doe’s 1985 ascendancy to power was mired by accusations of a
‘fixed election’, in November 2005 Sirleaf’s Unity Party prevailed
over Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change with 59.4% of the
vote in what were deemed, by international observers and the
domestic electorate, free and fair elections. The Diaspora played a
major role in these elections: its three leading campaigners—
Sirleaf, Weah, Brumskine—were all Diaspora returnees.
Now Sirleaf’s political dispensation was integrated with former
warring faction leaders from the historical trajectories of Liberia’s
civil wars; figures like Sekou Konneh of the Liberians United for
Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD),41 and relics of recycled
political elites like Winston Tubman. Moreover, today the
Liberian president must contend with elected relics of the civil
war. She has in her cabinet Prince Johnson, a former ally of Taylor
who single-handedly maimed and tortured Doe before
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assassinating him. Also elected to her cabinet was Jewel Howard
Taylor, the wife of Charles Taylor. To this was attached a unique
band of political appointees, most notably internationally
recognised Diaspora technocrats. Because Sirleaf’s Unity Party still
does not have a majority in the House and Senate, it could be
intimated that her decision to hire Diaspora returnees is an
attempt to level her political base. If this is so, it certainly offers
another example of the forceful re-insertion of Diaspora politics in
Liberia. Whereas opposition parties were unheard of during the
Tubman regime, Sirleaf’s dispensation now appears to be more
tolerant of opposition parties, so much so that many of Weah’s
Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) supporters remain in the
country, among them a returnee who runs an import/export
business in Monrovia.42
Something must be said about why the Liberian populace has
chosen Sirleaf. Political centrists, and professed neutrals, like
Teakon Williams, the United Nations Development Programme
(UNDP) Small Arms Control administrator and recent returnee,
have observed clear signs of infrastructural development and
economic change within the last year of Sirleaf’s regime.43
Williams, and many others like him, returned to the country
because Sirleaf’s administration, along with the level of security in
the country brought about by the UN Mission in Liberia
(UNMIL), filled them with the confidence to come back home.
Not all remain buoyant, sensing that government is still far from
transparent. Patrick Cheah, a former stock broker in Washington,
D.C.’s Capitol Hill, returned in October 2006 to run an American
food security organisation. Cheah remarks, ‘We thought
government was ready for change, but they’re not ready to break
away from corruption.’44 In her turn, Sirleaf has responded to
these concerns by cutting government bureaucracy, introducing
legislation to limit presidential powers and strengthening a
stagnating legislature. And despite the criticisms of her detractors,
it is clear that she has created an enabling political environment
for Diaspora return. Many of the returnees, like Axel Addy and
Ezekiel Pajibo, had political ties with Liberia while abroad.
Pajibo,45 a former lobbyist and debt cancellation activist on behalf
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of Liberia, now serves as executive director of the Monrovia-based
Centre for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), where he attempts
to infuse the Liberian political landscape with abstract notions of
‘justice’, ‘fair play’ and ‘human rights’. Addy, now a businessman
in Liberia, was equally buoyed by the call to be a political ‘change
agent’ in his country because of his experiences lobbying on behalf
of Liberia while living in the United States:
While abroad I had worked with many community-
based organizations doing fundraisers, and promoting
awareness of the Liberian crisis. I served on the board of
the Waterside Collaborative, a non-profit organization
of young Liberian professionals engaged in education,
health and economic empowerment projects for
Liberians. I also worked with a group of young Liberians
and drafted the Petition for Liberia, an online petition
calling for U.S. intervention in the Liberian crisis. We
were able to collect over 4000 signatories to the petition
Aware of the importance of the elections of 2005, I,
along with my business partners, launched Liberia2005,
an election portal completely dedicated to the activities
of the national elections. We were also advocating
external voting for Liberians in the Diaspora.46
Migration research shows that generally Diaspora Africans like
Addy tend to be more pre-occupied with politics at home than in
their new countries, in which they participate in fund-raising
activities for the opposition, formulate exile political parties
themselves, or lobby Northern seats of power against dictatorships
and wayward governments.47 It comes as no surprise that a vast
majority of the recent returnees to Liberia, like Addy and Pajibo,
were former political ‘movers and shakers’ in the United States as
well as Sirleaf loyalists.
Moran, who has scrutinised the nature of Diaspora politics in
Liberia, and its continued entrenchment with the ousting of
Taylor and ascendancy of Sirleaf, finds that Liberians in the
Diaspora are far from passive observers of the political process on
the ground. Rather, they are proxy politicians who have chosen to
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15
momentarily ‘vote with their feet’, though they continue to vote
symbolically with their influences abroad.48 She describes how a
‘Liberia Peace and Democracy Workshop’ hosted 26 participants
of the Diaspora in Pennsylvania after Taylor agreed to step down
from office in August 2003. Working from a draft of the
comprehensive peace agreement between representatives of the
Taylor government and the two armed factions, then on the table
at the talks in Accra, it was the stated intention of the
Philadelphia workshop to ‘make recommendations to help the
National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) effectively
to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in a manner
that will lead to and ensure the speedy achievement of sustainable
national peace, reconciliation, rehabilitation, solidarity,
reconstruction, and unity as well as the socio-economic and
democratic political development of postwar Liberia’.49 A follow-
up meeting was held in the United States, and, true to the
trajectory of Liberian Diaspora influences on politics at home, key
organizers and participants from both meetings later traveled to
Liberia to join or advise the new government. These included a
former University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Al-Hassan
Conteh, who has now become president of the University of
Liberia (LU).50
At large, from Senegal to Mozambique to Rwanda, Diaspora
communities all over the continent of Africa constantly work
themselves into the political structures of their homelands, and
governments are beginning to take note of this increasingly
powerful political base. Sirleaf has made this presence explicit, and
legitimate. She continues to create political incentives for those
contemplating a return to Liberia. A programme called the
‘Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals’ (otherwise
known as TOKTEN) is a part of a UNDP/Government of Liberia
‘capacity development initiative’, intended to facilitate the
recruitment of at least 20 expatriate national professionals. LU
president Conteh has been an administrator, and, sporadically, a
TOKTEN returnee since 1995. Professionals like Conteh are
expected to support the Government reconstruction and
development agenda and to help alleviate the impact of the ‘brain
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
16
drain’. Although the TOKTEN programme recruits Liberian
nationals from across the Diaspora for short-term posts—like
advisor to the Minister of Finance Mr. Barko Freeman—many of
them end up staying.
It was an earlier President of Liberia in the 1920s, Charles D. B.
King, who said in his first inaugural address: ‘…there can be no
doubt as to the desirability of adding to our Americo-Liberian
population, settlers from America, who want to come here, and
who, if carefully selected and properly aided would help us to
build up the country…we need not hesitate to send out to our race
in foreign lands the Macedonian cry: “Come over and help us”.’51
Sirleaf will most likely be remembered for re-inscribing the politics
of migration into the trajectory of Liberian politics, just as her
twentieth-century predecessors had with Americo-Liberian settlers.
The question is whether or not her political dispensation will be
an exact replica of her predecessors. While it is too soon to tell
whether or not Sirleaf herself is capable of replacing the old
Americo-Liberian hegemony with a new returnee hegemony, all
the signs now point to a complex web of negotiations. In many
respects, the Sirleaf era is not conforming to Fanon’s prophetic, if
over-simplified, prognosis of a nation dominated by a bourgeois
political elite driven by a manifest goal of domination,
suppression, and exclusion. To begin with, whereas governments
of the past have been mired in patriarchal fisticuffs over power,
Sirleaf mitigated the masculine nature of Liberian politics by
plucking two female returnees from their former strongholds and
placing them in high level government positions: Dr. Antoinette
Sayeh, formerly of the World Bank, is currently Finance Minister
and Olubanke King-Akerele, formerly of UNDP, serves as Sirleaf’s
Minister of Foreign Affairs. This feminisation of higher politics
parallels an increasingly active female electorate in Liberia, many
of whom brought Sirleaf to the presidency by campaigning in local
markets and influencing their children to vote for the
affectionately dubbed ‘Ol’ Ma’. This prominence is not quite new:
Ruth Sando Perry served as the first African woman head of state
when she was appointed Council Chairman of Liberia’s ad hoc
government during the Abuja Accords immediately before Charles
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17
Taylor’s election in 1997.52 But it is suggestive. Meanwhile, rather
than maintaining political continuities, Sirleaf has placed
bureaucratic neophytes in her cabinet, figures who are not tainted
with the violence of Liberia’s torturous past. This is not
characteristic of modern African political history, in which changes
of government are so often attended by patterns of continuity. At
large, the Sirleaf era is defined by the task of nation-building, and
any nation-building exercise will be null and void without
changing the political landscape to facilitate peace.
The Returnees and Post-Conflict Economic Recovery
In January 2006, the effects of a century or more of economic
fluctuations, civil strife, and, finally, a sputtering halt under
Charles Taylor, left Liberia in muddy waters. The Liberian
treasury was empty, government vehicles had been lifted, and
economic morale was deflated. The World Bank noted that in
Liberia decades of cumulative investment had been wasted, people
had been displaced and large numbers of able-bodied males had
been de-skilled and forced to bear arms. Sirleaf inherited an 85%
unemployment rate. More than 75% of Liberians were living on
less than a dollar a day. A ballooning $3.7 external debt53
represented almost eight times the country’s annual GDP.
According to the World Bank, if all of this was to be salvaged an
effective reconstruction strategy must embrace six principles:
‘jumpstarting’ the national economy; decentralising community-
based investments; repairing key transport and communication
networks; ‘de-mining’ (where relevant and where linked to other
priority investments); demobilising and retraining ex-combatants;
and reintegrating displaced populations.54 What the World Bank
did not do was to place a high premium on the micro-level
attempts by individual citizens to boost their country’s economy.
To a returnee entrepreneur like Yoquai Lavala,55 this might have
seemed obvious. Lavala believes that Liberian Diaspora returnees
became more industrious while living abroad, and that they have
come back to Liberia to revitalize a ‘virgin economy’ that could
someday rival its West African counterparts.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
18
Lavala’s presumed revitalization follows a contextual pattern.
Historically, Liberia’s contemporary economic quagmire had been
defined by a two-tiered (and sometimes three-tiered) socio-
economic superstructure. The newly arrived Americo-Liberians of
the nineteenth century had opted for careers in trading and
politics, leaving agricultural production to those indigenous to the
land.56 Decades later, at the turn of the twentieth century, Liberia
had experienced a sustained economic crisis, ended only by
President Tubman’s ‘Open Door Policy’, which was instituted to
attract foreign investment. Thereafter, the governments of Tolbert,
Doe and Taylor, and then the transitional government of Gyude
Bryant, brought the economy to its knees through
mismanagement and kleptocratic rule. During the years of civil
war, the Liberian GDP nose-dived by 85% and agricultural
production fell by two-thirds.57
This might well have declared that Sirleaf had very little on which
to build. But there was a historical glimmer. From the mid-1960s
to the mid-1970s Liberia had been purported to be one of the few
fiscal successes among the least developed countries because of its
ability to generate revenue from broad-based economic ventures
that significantly exceeded expenditures.58 Yet, as Liebenow has
observed, while Liberia during these years experienced a ‘dramatic
rate of economic growth’,59 the country still experienced ‘growth
without development’,60 in which the basic institutions and
infrastructures needed for sustainable development remained
stagnant. Nonetheless, Liebenow fails to recognize the obvious
changes that took place, however small. Under their Open Door
approach in this period, Liberian leaders had solicited foreign
capital and expertise for the development of the country’s mineral
and agricultural resources, leading to unprecedented
improvements in education and healthcare.61 Iron ore mining from
rich deposits in several parts of the country had been an early
priority and, as a result, a new iron ore mine in Nimba County
began work under the aegis of the Liberian American-Swedish
Minerals Company (LAMCO).62 This, in turn, led to the
construction of a 165-mile railway63 and a new port in
Buchanan—which became Liberia’s second largest port, rivalling
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
19
the Freeport of Monrovia—to transport iron ore from the Nimba
mine. The open gates of the Freeport of Monrovia became a
symbol of Tubman’s Open Door Policy, as it was the primary port
of entry for the import and export of goods between Liberia and
its economic partners.64
The erection of roads, bridges, and other infrastructural
enterprises brought the inhabitants of the Liberian hinterland into
direct contact with their counterparts on the coast and in
Monrovia for the first time. But, according to Liebenow, it proved
adouble edged sword. Taxes were levied on the indigenous
population, labourers and soldiers were recruited involuntarily,
and a systematic land acquisition by elites replaced the communal
nature of land ownership that had been preserved by inhabitants
of the hinterland.65At the same time, the free flow of goods and
services accompanied the free flow of migratory talent from the
coast, and small waves of teachers, medical technicians, and
agricultural instructors poured into the interior. Whereas people
of the interior had been wedded to a subsistence existence, the
new wealth and opportunities of the Open Door Policy introduced
to the interior the material trappings of ‘modernity’.66 Tubman’s
successors maintained this. Under Tolbert’s watchful eye, the
policy diversified trading relationships as well as sources of foreign
direct investment and personnel. It lowered Liberia’s reliance on
the whims of U.S. interests and multi-national corporations such
as Firestone,Goodrich,and other American-owned rubber firms. Doe
also embraced the Open Door Policy,67 but after inheriting a
crippling debt of $700 million.68
Far from owning this tradition, Sirleaf has publicly distanced
herself from the world of the Open Door policy. In a speech in
Washington, D.C., she alluded to Tubman’s economic recovery
machinery only very briefly, asserting that ‘unlike the periods of
the past when we had growth without development, this time it's
growth for development'. Strapped with budgetary constraints that
rely on the whims of donor aid and the setting of political/
economic conditions, Sirleaf has devised a post-conflict fiscal
agenda based on four basic pillars which echo not the policies of
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
20
her predecessors but the six major elements of reconstruction
stipulated by the World Bank: enhancing peace and security;
revitalising the economy; strengthening governance and the rule of
law, and rehabilitating infrastructure and delivering basic
services.70Just as the World Bank places a high premium on
fostering relationships between newly elected post-conflict
governments, donors and international organisations, Sirleaf, in
her capacity as head of state and former World Bank technocrat,
conforms strictly to its conditional recommendations for post-
conflict economic recovery.71
It is now stipulated that the Open Door Policy collapsed because
it failed to exploit Liberia’s diversity in natural resources; its
industrial diamonds, timber, cocoa and coffee. Accordingly, the
Sirleaf administration is busily signing new concession agreements
with corporations in these extractive industries and agricultural
sectors. Once United Nations timber and diamond sanctions on
Liberia had been lifted in 2006 and 2007 respectively, the
government sought to focus on developing its logging and mining
sectors. These had been severely eroded by Taylor’s ‘warlordism’
in Liberia and Sierra Leone – an expression, if ever there was one,
of what Bayart and others have described as the ‘criminalisation of
politics in Africa’.72 While some may view Sirleaf’s weddedness to
international financial institutions and international donor
regimes as a shrewd attempt to bolster Liberia’s economy, others
may see these multi-national corporations and donors as
malevolent bedfellows for a vulnerable post-conflict government.
Fanon, for instance, is harshly indignant, deploring a national
middle class that has simply taken up the torch of the old Western
empires, thereby setting up its country ‘as a brothel of Europe’,
and an extension of Western enterprises.73 Sirleaf herself clearly
does have neo-liberal leanings by virtue of having worked at two of
the most entrenched international institutions in the world—the
World Bank and United Nations. But she and her cabinet of
legislators are far from puppets of the West. This much is shown
by a series of renegotiated concession agreements by which her
government has attempted to broker in the first two years of her
administration.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
21
Throughout its economic history, Liberia has relied mainly on the
export of iron ore and natural rubber, timber, and produce such as
coffee. This provided much of the government revenue generated
in the form of customs duties, consular fees, royalties, and other
taxes or fees paid by corporations.74In the late 1980s, however,
Liberia’s major sources of foreign exchange—iron ore and rubber—
nosedived dramatically because of declining world economic
conditions. These caused a drop in the country’s hard currency
earnings and a correlated shortfall in the country’s government
revenue.75 During the intervening war years, this rate of decline
would almost double. Under Sirleaf’s tutelage, Liberia has now
begun to recover its iron ore production.An agreement between
the government and the world’s largest iron ore producer, Arcelor
Mittal Steel,was ratified in April 2007 for a major iron ore
concession that will provide investments of $1 billion over seven
years (though a confidentiality clause does not make it possible for
Liberian citizens to monitor revenue flows to the government).76
The Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Energy, headed by former
African Development Bank (ADB) technocrat and recent returnee
Eugene Shannon, was responsible for brokering the major
concession.77
Meanwhile, Liberian Minister of Labour Samuel Kofi Woods, a
human rights activist who fled to Sierra Leone during Taylor’s
regime, has been renegotiating a series of concession agreements
between the government of Liberia and the Firestone Tire and
Rubber Company,the country’s largest employer to date. Firestone
was the first major concession in the country’s history, and in
1926 it signed a one million acre agreement with the Liberian
government to lease six cents per acre for a period of 99 years78 in
exchange for a $5 million soft-loan to pay off Liberia’s balance of
payment deficits.79 The immediate outcry against the
asymmetrical nature of this agreement fell on deaf ears. Woods
has argued that Firestone’s entrenchment has not boded well for
Liberia’s economic vitality: ‘Firestone is part of our social, political
and economic evolution…it is clear that it represents a symbol of
the historic pillage and denial of the Liberian people over the years
As a government, we have an obligation to guarantee the
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
22
highest national interests of the Liberian people.’80 To hold
Firestone accountable, Woods is using a government concession
about adequate social benefits—of wages, conditions of housing,
medical care—which, in turn, will help to increase the domestic
productivity of employees on the sprawling million acre plantation
in Harbel. Furthermore, Woods is also trying to right the wrongs
of a 37-year renewed agreement signed during the 2004-2005
transitional government of Gyude Bryant. At the time, the
Firestone debate re-surfaced in political life when plantation
workers protested vociferously, holding countless strikes and
boycotts. By that time, Firestone’s estimated net profit from
Liberia’s raw latex alone was $81, 242, 190,81 though workers on
the plantation were receiving less than $4 a day for tapping a
quota of over 750 trees. Diaspora activists like Emira Woods, who
served as a catalyst for the Stop Firestone Campaign,argued that the
merciless exploitation of Liberia’s people and natural resources by
the company was directly linked to the nation’s impoverishment,
as the raw materials produced in Liberia are sent elsewhere for
processing, thereby shutting out the possibility of adding value to
Liberia’s endowment of resources. Given Firestone’s economic
entrenchment in Liberia, the Sirleaf administration will need to
refashion its dealings with Liberian workers, not least to improve
their earnings.82
Beside these immense operations, Liberian returnees are doing
much to influence micro-level economic change. Fred Kollie, a
businessman who has hired over 200 Liberian employees to build
the country’s first major resort, observes that the pioneering spirit
of Liberian returnees propels the economy like a roving
locomotive. In this context, small business entrepreneurs, like a
returnee professional caterer (of the Tolbert lineage), are
challenging Sirleaf to show local venture capitalists as much
concern as she does to international donors by revamping a
‘Liberianisation Policy’ which gave priority to Liberian business
owners in government contracts. Evidently, this has not yielded
any tangible results not least because of competition from
Lebanese entrepreneurs who have been coming to Liberia for
decades.83 Today, despite the difficulties of operating a business in
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
23
asociety still reviving from conflict,84 Diaspora returnees account
for the largest sector of GDP growth, after foreign direct
investment. Liberia’s GDP increased by 8% last year,85 and much
of that increase can be attributed to post-conflict reconstruction
economic wheeling and dealing by recent returnees. The youngest
of my returnee interviewees, Eda Henries,86 farms acres of her
family’s 150-acre forest property of cassava, hot peppers, and
potato greens, a Liberian staple. Her business will produce,
package, and ship hard-to-get food products to Africans now living
in the United States. In addition to such small but significant
strides, the National Investment Commission in Monrovia is
attempting to match that growth with foreign direct investment
and sustained capital to support Liberian businesses now working
under the aegis of former Wall Street big-wig Richard Tolbert—
another member of William Tolbert’s dynasty. Tolbert himself has
remarked, ‘We have seen a dramatic increase in the perception of
this country, and foreign investors are willing to do business with
us more than they ever have.’87
Attracting Diaspora wage earners and investors is a similar
phenomenon taking place in Sierra Leone, which is attempting to
entice its entrepreneurial Diaspora classes—primarily from the
United Kingdom—to return in order to absorb the masses of
unemployed and underemployed non-returnee citizens.88 As
Liberia and Sierra Leone both share similar histories, it is no
wonder that Sirleaf, in the former, and Kabbah, in the latter, have
adopted comparable reconstruction schemes. One need not search
far, however, to observe that their post-war economic agendas are
increasingly donor-centred and do not emanate from the bowels of
apurely autonomous state. Could Liberia and Sierra Leone be
bartering a history of tyranny to one of international economic
hegemony?
Aprice for perceived economic gains is obvious. The overemphasis
of foreign and ‘external’ economics represents a unique feature of
the Liberian economic superstructure, and it has, in turn, carved a
gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In a letter of December
14, 2006, published in The Analyst,one of Liberia’s premier
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
24
newspapers, Augustus Daikai Jones of Haywood Mission Chapel
pleads with Sirleaf to refrain from perpetuating the uneven
distribution of economic wealth because ‘economic difference did
characterise our seven years of civil war’. More than this, he
criticizes Sirleaf’s appointment of returnee Agriculture Minister
Chris Toe (formerly President of Strayer University in
Washington, D.C.), by asking, ‘Has he owned a farm? How large
is that farm? What has he produced? The people need food. The
people need production.’ Jones’s public letter provides two key
insights into the current Liberian state. First, its very publication
suggests that, unlike regimes such as Taylor’s, the Sirleaf
administration has created an environment in which a free press
may thrive. But second, and most important, it exposes the reality
of compartmentalised classes and social groups in contemporary
Liberia. With the ‘Back to Liberia’ movement gaining momentum,
such disparities could rupture. At all events, in the years to come
Sirleaf will have to reconcile competing loyalties—loyalties to her
donors, loyalties to returnee entrepreneurs, and loyalties to the
vast majority of non-returnees.
The Sociology of Liberian Return Migration
It is a Friday night on Tubman Boulevard in Liberia’s capital
Monrovia and the champagne chutes are filled to the rim in a
tucked away restaurant—recent returnee Barkue Tubman’s new
hot-spot—just outside a massive white compound. Garrulous
voices bounce to the cadence of their own tunes, and there is an
atmosphere of movement, gaiety and privileged talk. The Second
International First Fridays of 2007 has ushered in Liberia’s young
professional class, smartly dressed in suits, sporting African print
material, yet speaking with eclectic lilts acquired elsewhere. An air
of belonging fills the air as the organiser, Gama Roberts (formerly
an Atlanta, Georgia-based telecommunications design engineer)
thanks everybody for attending. The picture offers a microcosm of
achanging nation and its intersecting social forces—the ‘new
Liberia’, infused by a wave of foreign-educated, trained and highly
skilled Diaspora returnees who are filled with the same ‘Back to
Africa’ ethos that inspired their predecessors centuries before.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
25
Last names, religious affiliations, and ethnicities—broadly
defined—are no longer the major pillars of Liberian social
relationships, though they play an important role by virtue of their
inherent reference to status. What has replaced the familial
names, religion and the social structures set down in the
nineteenth century is a new fusion of legitimacy, defined by the
experience of life abroad—schools attended, associational
affiliations, accents, and networks/alliances in the Diaspora. How
are we to understand the possible fissures in the Liberian fabric
which this return migration engenders?
Burrowes is surely right to criticize Western political theorists who
erroneously conflate ethnicity and class in the Liberian context.89
But in this article I have chosen to define the returnees as a
heterogeneous social entity, rather than a homogenous class
wielding power without an identifiable source. I evoke an age-old
category of ‘the civilised’, to describe how Liberians, past and
present, have defined social hierarchies.90Ialso discuss how the
West African ‘trans-national ethos’ has enabled some Liberian
returnees to re-integrate into society, while others seem to be
barely keeping their heads above water. This leads into an
acknowledgement, and a discussion, of the resentment which has
accompanied this extraordinary return migration.
Nineteenth century Americo-Liberian settlers perhaps proved to
be one of the most mutable of migratory groups, and their twenty-
first century returnee counterparts are just as complex in naming.
Neither groups can truly be defined as ethnically homogenous, nor
a‘class’ in the neo-Marxist sense of the term, though some authors
would argue that they are. The term ‘elites’, though somewhat
accurate, leaves a bitter taste on the palate because of its
imprecision. But when one stumbles upon a re-inscribed notion of
the term ‘civilised’, the picture becomes crystal clear. It is Brown
who restores a debate about the term ‘civilised’ or kwi (meaning
‘Western’) to the historical-social lexicon of Liberian relations,
arguing that it not only carries moral worth, but also signifies
‘social differentiation’.91 Sklar asserts that ‘the civilised’ in a
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
26
Liberian context derives from fundamental features, such as high
status occupation, high income, superior education, and the
ownership, or control, of business enterprises.92 While the
politician George Weah could boast of the support of three out of
the four makers of ‘the civilised’ during the elections of 2005, his
inability to counter Sirleaf’s Harvard degree was a thorn in the
side of most people in the country—returnee and non-returnee
alike. For in Liberia, education is a fundamental marker of being
‘civilised’. Samuel K. Doe, for instance, was always slighted not
only as a young man, but a young man with only a fifth grade
education in Liberian political palaver huts. If Doe’s coup in 1980
can be described as a violent rupture of the ‘civilising mission’
precipitated by Americo-Liberian domination, one could argue
that Sirleaf’s presidency and administration represents a
restoration of that ‘civilising mission’—this time a monopoly of
Diaspora returnee political and social manoeuvring.
In the case of returnee migration, the terms ‘civilised’ and
‘uncivilised’ may be the least problematic words to describe how
Liberians define constantly changing social relationships. There is
mobility in the notion of the ‘civilised’; it is neither fixed,
hereditary, nor linear. During Tubman’s regime, members of poor
families would send their children to wealthy homes to work as
apprentices, in exchange for board and schooling. These
‘houseboys’ and ‘housegirls’ would sometimes be included in the
social milieu of ‘the civilised’, and eventually gain the political,
economic, and social positions to rise above their meagre
beginnings. A similar paradigm shift is happening even within
returnee circles, where returnees who would not have been
considered ‘civilised’ are now infiltrating Liberia’s social hierarchy
because of their experiences abroad, academic skills and a
Diaspora ethos marked by a distinctive worldliness. Bayart’s
argument that elites assimilate reciprocally applies here too, even
in the social sphere. People who wield political power replicate
their privilege in the economic realm, which in turn, reinforces
their social position.
Contemporary Liberia has been transformed into a
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
27
‘deterritorialised nation-state’,93 in which boundaries have come to
be defined in social rather than geographic terms. The returnees
have maintained a trans-national ethos; they have not severed ties
with the countries to which they were exiled. Return has enabled
people like UNDP Governance Officer Chipo Nyambuya94to
redefine her old place in Liberia’s stratified society. Having lived
in the United States for almost a quarter of a century, Nyambuya
remarks that she now has a different appreciation for working
class Liberians, and no longer feels the need to inhabit an insular
realm of privilege.
While some returnees have deliberately differentiated themselves
from their Diaspora counterparts by fully integrating into Liberia’s
established social structures, others eat primarily at restaurants
frequented by returnees, attend events sponsored by other
returnees, or socialise with other returnees. It is hardly surprising.
In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the
Cafeteria?,95 African-American educator and current President of
Spelman College in Atlanta, Beverly Daniel Tatum makes
comparisons with the development of American racial minority
identity in the United States. She observes that when a minority
group—or a social group in the case of Liberian Diaspora
returnees—is placed in an environment of polarised difference,
they tend to huddle in familiar spaces, commiserate over familiar
experiences and cling to each other for sustenance when they are
in the midst of the majority. But in many respects return
migration is about being trans-national in orientation while re-
discovering social identities. One returnee, a member of the
Bostonian Society of Liberia,96 admits to feeling like a ‘doubly-
inscribed’ alien: ‘Home suddenly feels new again…Sometimes I
have to relearn what being a Liberian means.’97
Although some Liberian returnees may make concerted efforts to
re-position themselves in the social milieu, they are still marked
out as people who did not endure the dredges of war. This stifles
the promise of full engagement with those who remained because
the experience of war altered Liberian social patterns. A similar
trend is taking shape in Liberia’s neighbor, Sierra Leone, where
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
28
non-returnees regard the ‘JC’ (the ‘jus’ cam’ in Krio) ‘with a
mixture of exasperation and bemusement, sometimes bordering on
irritation and outright hostility’.98 Across the border in present-day
Liberia, the same observations can be made about Diaspora
returnees— the ‘Johnny Just Come’ people. Experiences of
resentment are no different from the resentment that rural
migrants throughout West Africa have experienced when
relocating to urban centres. Today, Liberia’s twenty-first century
migrants fear that this resentment is leaning towards expressions
of the occult. In his book The Mask of Anarchy,Ellis extrapolates on
this notion that sorcery and witchcraft are commonplace in
Liberian social relations: ‘These are philosophical traditions in
which deeper truths about the destiny of individuals and the
course of events are considered to be ambiguous, ruled by forces
which have their origin in the invisible world of God and spiritual
beings.’99 One returnee100 desists from eating food offered by
strangers and unfamiliar relatives in case it has been poisoned.
But the returnees themselves are also seen as the incubators of the
occult. In his ethnographic account of Mozambican rural life,
Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique,West
describes sorcery as a cultural trope that enables ordinary
Muedans to make sense of the world around them, riddled with
competing forces of power. He perceives that the sorcery of
destruction—attributed to colonial administrators, Catholic
missionaries, nationalist guerrillas, socialist planners, and neo-
liberal economic exploiters—is synonymous with an unwanted
imposition of power.101 Liberian returnees might well be suspected
of inhabiting an invisible realm that enables them to impose
power through witchcraft. To most Liberians—returnees and non-
returnees alike—the social machinations of sorcery and witchcraft
can only be subverted through organised religion, particularly
Christianity. Indeed, Churches have continued to serve as a vital
social institution in Liberia because they facilitated the
repatriation of former slaves in the nineteenth century102 and are
doing the same for twenty-first century Diaspora returnees. It is no
wonder that most Liberian presidents have been infused with
religiosity, and have often used the church as a social register of
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
29
power.103
Conclusion: Towards Liberia’s Post Conflict Reconstruction
As there is a dearth of secondary sources on the effect of cyclical
migration and its influence on the modern Liberian state, I have
set out here to inscribe an analysis of the structural features of
Diaspora influence on Liberia’s political, economic and social
histories that requires reading between the lines of standard
sources.
In this article I have formulated a theory about how the Liberian
state functions, based on historical trajectories of Diaspora
opposition, exile and return. Whatever the case for Sirleaf’s
political consolidation,104 she has inherited a divided nation based
on historically entrenched loyalties, past grievances against
political elites, and a ruptured political history often influenced by
Diaspora agendas. In her new dispensation it will be important to
remember that it was the vast majority of non-returnees who
elected the ‘Iron Lady’, and as such, the polity deserves the same
amount of support, leverage, and access to the political pie.
Similarly, the country’s economic recovery agenda should not
serve as a mere replication of Tubman’s ‘Open Door Policy’, but
rather an attempt at leveraging aid and investment to meet not
only the material needs of the Liberian populace, but also the
future needs of the country’s successor government. An over-
reliance on donor aid and external funding—especially from the
U.S. government—is all too clearly inter-laced with conflicting
loyalties. Indeed, as the site of the entrenchment of Diaspora
politics and the geographical pinnacle of Liberia’s historical
trajectory of opposition, exile and return, the United States must
be kept at arms length. If Liberia is to prosper and to revolutionise
its own history, it cannot do so as a little Black satellite105 of the
United States.
The term ‘reconstruction’, as used in the heavily politicised
phrase, ‘post-conflict reconstruction’, must be put in context
before a meaningful discussion of its merits can be attempted.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
30
‘Reconstructing’ denotes a return to something that existed before.
But in many respects, conditions in countries which have been
mired in conflict often begin to deteriorate precisely because their
old institutions were ill-equipped to sustain the societies in which
they operate. If they are to endure, these institutions need to be
fashioned to meet the realities, be they ethnic, religious, or socio-
economic, that fuelled the conflicts in the first place. In the case of
Liberia, a post-conflict ‘reconstruction’ agenda would be null and
void if it did not address the disenfranchisement of non-Americo-
Liberians of the past and, perhaps, contemporary Liberians who
stayed behind during the civil war. The primary goal must be to
re-knit the fabric of a society that has been stretched, tattered, and
shredded with each ensuing outbreak of violence. If Liberia is
indeed to recover from its past and reclaim a future free from
protracted conflict, there must be a concerted effort to reconcile a
long history of internal contradictions based on the privileges of a
few and the disenfranchising of the masses.
The Sankofa bird is a symbolic representation of what
contemporary Liberia would do well to replicate. With a long neck
and legs pointed like stilts, its beak rotates in a contorted, counter-
clockwise movement backwards, as if looking into some far away,
past reality. Sankofa is an Akan word from Ghana which, when
translated literally, means: ‘We must go back and reclaim our past
so we can move forward; we must understand why and how we
came to be to know who we are today.’ If the Liberian state, as we
know it, does indeed function in a constant pattern of dialectic
change and replication, as Bayart argues,106 then reading its civil
war through historical lenses may be the only way to curb further
political, economic, and social upheaval. For inequality gives birth
to inequality and they are yokes of the same egg. Nothing in
Liberia exists in a vacuum. Today, Sesay prophesies that unless
fundamental changes occur in the ‘attitudes, institutions,
perceptions, and directions that characterised Liberian politics and
society in the past, the nightmare of a war-fragmented nation is
likely to haunt the inhabitants.”107 I would press that observation
even further. If Liberia does not reconcile the inherent fissures in
its spotted past, future eruptions of war are simply inevitable. It is
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
31
now the task of a new generation to see that the replications of a
long, dysfunctional history are finally ended.
Notes
1S. Horton and P. Augustu, Liberia’s Underdevelopment- In Spite of the Struggle: A
Personal Analysis of the underlying Reasons for Liberia’s Underdevelopment (Lanham,
Maryland 1994), p. ix.
2J. Gus Liebenow, Liberia: The Quest for Democracy (Bloomington, 1987), p. 19.
3Shelly Dick, ‘Liberians in Ghana: Living without Humanitarian Assistance’,
New Issues in Refugee Research,Working Paper no. 57, United Nations High
Commission for Refugees (Geneva, 2002), pp. 10-11.
4Ibid., p. 88.
5Ibid., p. 64.
6Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, 1963), p. 132.
7Monday B. Akpan, ‘The Practice of Indirect Rule in Liberia: The Laying of the
Foundations, 1822-1915’, in Eckhard Hinzen and Robert Kappel (eds.),
Dependence, Underdevelopment and Persistent Conflict: On the Political Economy of
Liberia (Bremen, 1980), p. 347.
8Tuan Wreh, The Love of Liberty: The Rule of President William V.S. Tubman in
Liberia (London, 1976), p. 22.
9Dew Tuan-Wleh Mayson, ‘Rice and Rights: The Struggle for Economic
Development and Political Freedom in Liberia’, in Hinzen and Kappel (eds.),
ibid., p. 383
10 Jean-François Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London,
1993), p. 150.
11 If political elite reproduction were an African peculiarity, figures in the United
States—purported to be one of the oldest living Western democracies in the
world, and a nation whose political features are replicated in the Liberian
Constitution—with the names Bush and Clinton, representative of two last
administrations of the twentieth century, would not have resonance in early
twenty-first century American politics.
12 (Cooper, 2002:160)
13 William A. Givens, Liberia: The Road to Democracy (London, 1986), p. 15.
14 Ibid., p. 17.
15 Ibid., p. 61.
16 Ibid., p. 64.
17 Ibid., p. 463.
18 Ibid, p. 94.
19 Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, The International Dimensions of Internal Conflict: The
Case of Liberia and West Africa (Centre for Development Research Working
Papers, No. 97 (Copenhagen, 1997), p. 4.
20 (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1986: 118)
21 Jonathan Saul, ‘Refugees in Israel face Deportation’, in The Liberian Analyst, 2
April 2007.
22 Lansana Gberie, ‘Liberia’s War and Peace Process: A Historical Overview’, in
Festus B. Aboagye and Alhaji MS Bah, ATortuous Road to Peace: The Dynamics
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
32
of Regional, U.N. and International Humanitarian Interventions in Liberia (Pretoria,
2005)
23 Matthew Clark, ‘Liberia’s Elites leave American Comforts for War-torn
Home’, in The Christian Science Monitor, 5 October 2006.
24 Mark Huband, The Liberian Civil War (London, 1998), p. 36.
25 Ibid., p. 35.
26 Richard Sklar, ’The Nature of Class domination in Africa’, in Journal of
Modern African Studies, 17 (1979), p. 531.
27 Aning, Ibid., p. 2.
28 Taylor’s invasion of the country from neighbouring Ivory Coast was foisted by
the support of former dissenters of the Doe regime, particularly those loyal to
Quiwonkpa, as well as the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas
(ULAA), which illustrates the recurring pattern of recycled loyalties.
29 Huband, ibid., p. 47.
30 Max Ahmadu Sesay, ‘Politics and Society in Post-war Liberia’, in the Journal of
Modern African Studies,34 (1996), p. 412.
31 Gberie, Ibid., p. 62.
32 Adekeye Adepoju, Liberia’s Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG and Regional Security
in West Africa (Boulder, 2000), p. 393.
33 The thirty-five returnees I consulted for this study were as diverse in
orientation as any sample demographic set. Due to time constraints on
compiling a more scientific demographic study, I focused on established
trends, patterns, and continuities. Most of the returnees were young
professional entrepreneurs between 23 and 40 who had returned within the
past four years from the United States. Compiled in its entirety, the
educational skills level ranged from college educated to Ph.D. holders, though
the average returnee had at least one college degree. Most returnees reported
that they had left Liberia between 1990 and 1995, and at 23 men
overwhelmingly outnumbered women. This comes as no surprise, though, as
the trend for returnee migration tends to show men often leave families in the
Diaspora to pursue a returnee dream, be it professional, personal or
psychological. The returnees listed infrastructural deficiencies, the slow pace of
life, pressures from Liberian non-returnee family members, and a lack of work
ethic as major challenges to their re-integration into the Liberian political,
economic and social milieu.
34 My research does not include repatriated refugees or internally displaced
Liberians. As a Liberian myself, I recognise that the interviewees’ responses
and contributions may have been swayed by my orientation as a national of
the country, though I attempted to maintain a neutral stance as an
independent researcher.
35 Carl Patrick Burrowes, ‘The Americo-Liberian Ruling Class and other Myths:
ACritique of Scholarship on Liberia’, Institute of African and African American
Affairs Occasional Working Paper Series,No. 3 (Philadelphia, 1989), p. 59.
36 In light of this, I read each secondary source on Liberia’s history, the nature of
class construction, Diaspora identity, and trans-national migratory returnees
‘along’ and ‘against’ the grain.
37 Dissertation interview with Bureau of Immigration personnel in Monrovia,
Liberia, December 2006.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
33
38 (Crilly, 2006: sec. A. http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2006-02-05-liberia-
expatriates_x.htm)
39 Savina Ammassari and Richard Black, ‘Harnessing the Potential of Migration
and Return to Promote Development: Applying Concepts to West Africa’,
Sussex Migration Working Papers,No. 3 (Sussex, 2001), p. 22.
40 (Holtzman, 1996: 4)
41 LURD was one of the warring factions calling for the removal of Taylor in
2003. They began an offensive against Taylor’s army in 2000.
42 Oxford Dissertation Interview, January 2007.
43 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.
47 Paul T. Zeleza, ‘Contemporary African Migrations in a Global Context:
Towards Building the Black Atlanitc’, an essay written for the tenth
CODESRIA General Assembly, Kampala, 8-12 December 2002, p. 12.
48 Mary H. Moran, ‘Time and Place in the Anthropology of Events: A Diaspora
perspective on the Liberian Transition’, in the Anthropological Quarterly, 78.2
(2005), p. 459.
49 Ibid., p. 459.
50 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
51 F.P.M. van der Kraaij, The Open Door Policy of Liberia: An Economi History of
Modern Liberia (Bremer Africa Archives,1983), p. 534.
52 Sesay, Ibid., p. 405.
53 AfricaFocus Bulletin (070209): 2007
54 Steven Holtzman, Post Conflict Reconstruction (Social Policy and
Resettlement Division, Washington, 1996), p. ii.
55 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
56 Van der Kraaij, Ibid., p. 17.
57 May 2007 interview with advisor to Liberia’s Ministry of Finance.
58 J. Gus Liebenow, Ibid., p. 1.
59 Ibid.
60 Ibid., p. 2.
61 Ibid., p. 5.
62 Givens, Ibid., p. 210.
63 Ibid., p. 211.
64 Ibid., p. 213.
65 Liebenow, Ibid., p. 60.
66 Ibid., p. 62.
67 Ibid., p. 199.
68 Ibid., p. 147.
69 ‘Liberia’s Progress, Potential, and Challenges for the Future’, speech made by
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on 20 March, 2006 in Washington D.C.
70 ‘The New Liberia: From Conflict to Recovery’, speech given by President Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf on 12 February 2007 at the Centre for Global Development in
Washington, D.C.
71 In February 2007 alone, hundreds of international investors, corporations,
expatriate Liberians, economists, and policy analysts flocked to Washington,
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
34
D.C. for Liberia’s Donor Conference, which garnered promises for investment
packages. Furthermore, countries such as China, Japan, Canada, Germany and
the U.S. have strengthened ties with Liberia because of strategic interests in
accessing the country’s endowed mineral wealth. Germany and the U.S. have
even made public pronouncements to cancel their share of Liberia’s
astronomical debts.
72 Jean François Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Béatrice Hibou, The Criminalisation of
the State in Africa (Oxford, 1999), p. 31.
73 Fanon, Ibid., p. 123.
74 Givens, Ibid., p. 143.
75 Ibid., p. 147.
76 ‘Liberia: Global Witness Lauds Mittal Steel, Warns Firestone’, in The Inquirer
(Monrovia), 25 May 2007.
77 The Mittal Steel contract is expected to create mining contract employment in
Buchanan—Liberia’s second largest port city and where Mittal’s headquarters
will be stationed—as well as develop mining, railway, and port infrastructures.
78 Van der Kraaij, Ibid., p. ii.
79 Ibid., p. iv.
80 Podcast Interview on Pambazuka News Podcasts, April 2007
81 Zadie Smith, ‘Letter from Liberia’, in the Daily Observer,29 April 2007,
Dispatches.
82 Robtel Neajai Pailey, ‘Slavery Ain’t Dead, It’s Manufactured in Liberia’s
Rubber’, in Pambazuka News,25 April 2007, News and Analysis. See http://
www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/40998
83 Elwood D. Dunn and Svend E. Holsoe, Historical Dictionary of Liberia
(Metuchen, New Jersey, 1985), p. 109.
84 Infrastructural deficiencies such as the lack of lights, water, and roads were
listed in this study’s questionnaire as major impediments.
85 May 2007 interview with advisor to Liberia’s Ministry of Finance.
86 Oxford Dissertation Interview, January 2007.
87 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
88 See Chikezie and Daramy, ibid., p. 6.
89 See Burrowes, Ibid., p. 24.
90 I have accounted for the stark differences between the Americo-Liberian
settlers at the turn of the nineteenth century and the Diaspora Liberian
returnees of the twenty-first century in terms of historical trajectories, scale in
migration, and identity politics. One example of this difference is the Americo-
Liberian settlers who, for the most part, had no prior sensory experience of
Liberia or contextual knowledge of the country. Returnees, on the other hand,
had spent their formative years in the country and developed a Liberian ethos.
91 David Brown, ‘On the category of “Civilised” in Liberia and Elsewhere’, in the
Journal of Modern African Studies,20 (1982), p. 283.
92 See Sklar, Ibid., p. 533.
93 (Glick Schiller, Linda Basch and Szanton Blanc, ‘From Immigrant to
Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration’, in the Anthropological
Quarterly,68 (1995), p. 58.
94 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
95 Tatum, ibid., p. 55.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
35
96 The Bostonian Society could represent a twenty-first century concoction with
historical roots in secret societies of elite power brokers such as the
Freemasons, or the Poro and Sande secret societies whose exclusively held
indigenous member-base began to change with the infiltration of political
elites such as Tubman.
97 Ibid.
98 See Chikezie and Daramy, Ibid., p. 16.
99 See Stephen Ellis, The Mask of Anarchy: The Desyruction of Liberia and the
Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (London, 1999), p. 13.
100 Oxford Dissertation Interview, December 2006.
101 Harry G. West, Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique
(London, 2005), p. 7.
102 See Liebenow, ibid., p. 20.
103 Though Sirleaf does not politicise religion, her background as a United
Methodist has legitimised her in a country that appears to be reverently
charged, yet seething with socio-religious discord.
104 Newspapers such as the Daily Observer,Liberian Express,New Democrat,and The
Liberian Analyst serve as both a watchdog for the Sirleaf government as well as
aplatform for highlighting challenges to the new political dispensation under
Sirleaf.
105 Charles Morrow Wilson, Liberia: Black Africa in Microcosm (New York, 1971),
p. 231.
106 Bayart observe, ‘the linking and telescoping within the longre duree of systems
of inequality and domination can be seen in a historical trajectory.’ See
Bayart, The State in Africa,p. 104.
107 See Sesay, Ibid., p. 395.
Pailey, A Diaspora Returns
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