The Washington Diplomat / August 2004
Liberia, the world's only nation established by freed black American slaves, is proud of its U.S. roots. The capital, Monrovia, is named after President James Monroe, its constitution is patterned after the U.S. Constitution and its official language is English. The Ohio-sized country even has a Maryland County, names in honor of early 19th-century black settlers from the Baltimore area.
But that's where the similarities stop.
Liberia is one of Africa's poorest countries, ravaged by a civil war that took an estimated 200,000 lives and destroyed the national economy for years to come.
Charles A. Minor, who last month [July 15] presented his credentials as Liberia's ambassador in Washington, concedes his job won't be easy.
"First and foremost, I see my role as concentrating on Liberia's greater needs, to the extent to which we can let our people forget about the war and think about a united Liberia," said Minor, wearing black pants and a collarless black shirt during an interview last month at the Liberian Embassy on Sixteenth Street.
"Liberia has had a period of considerable difficulty, in which we have seen our young people take up arms and destroy the country and its civil society. So many of our people have had to go into exile. The whole infrastructure has been ruined, and many of us who were abroad lived in shame, praying for the opportunity to return."
Minor said that opportunity came last year, when the United States, the UN, the European Union, the African Union and ECOWAS [Economic Organization of West African States] brokered a peace treaty.
"We must make sure that young people who have taken up arms can turn those arms in and be re-introduced into civil society, and helped to develop skills to make them gainfully employed. We need to spend a lot of effort to rebuild our infrastructure."
It will also take a lot of money, he said — at least $2 billion over a 10-year period.
"The most difficult part is the dehumanization of our people. They have lost a sense of civil life, of belonging to a caring society. Liberians have always been a people with extended family connections and respect for their elders. Much of that has broken down."
Minor, 60, comes from an area of Liberia known as Sinoe. He studied economics and industrial relations at Michigan State University, then returned to Liberia to teach at the University of Monrovia. He eventually went into business, becoming acting manager of Liberian Produce Marketing Corp., which had exclusive rights to export all of Liberia's coffee, cocoa and palm oil products.
"At that time, we were producing 6,000 to 10,000 tons of fresh coffee beans a year for export," he said. "We spent considerable amount of resources assisting farmers to increase their production," he said. But in 1972, the country's president, William R. Tolbert Jr., was deposed in a military coup led by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, who suspended Liberia's constitution and imposed martial law.
"I left LPNC and was replaced by a soldier," said Minor, who went into the banking industry for a time. "But the situation was getting terrible, so I left the country in 1983 and spent two years studying in the Boston area."
Minor became a consultant for Arthur D. Little and in 1993 joined an Amsterdam-based agency, African Management Services Co., which is responsible for training African managers. By the time he was appointed as ambassador in Washington a decade later, Minor had 120 clients in 25 African countries.
"We want to concentrate on education, health care and getting people back to work on their farms, and opening up mineral resources," said Minor, who has three children including a daughter who just graduated from Northeastern University.
Liberia's ties to the United States go back to 1816, the year Congress granted a charter to the American Colonization Society, which was responsible for helping repatriate former black slaves who wished to return to West Africa. After arduous negotiations with indigenous tribes, the first settlers landed in 1822, at the town that was later to become Monrovia (in honor of President James Monroe).
Interestingly, a freed slave from Petersburg, Va., by the name of Joseph Jenkins Roberts became Liberia's first president upon the country's declaration of independence in 1847. But it wasn't until 1862 that the United States — by then in the throes of its own civil war — recognized the new nation, which today has 3.2 million inhabitants.
As hard as his job is, Minor says it'll be smooth sailing compared to that of his predecessor, William V.S. Bull, a protege of former President Charles Taylor.
"It was more difficult for Bull to sell Liberia because he was working for a government that didn't promote human rights, and that was alleged to have been using the natural resources of the country to promote terror," he told us. "I've come at a much better time, and I represent a government that believes in peace and will be more accountable to the people."
Taylor was once imprisoned by the U.S. government for misappropriating Liberian government funds, but escaped from a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts under mysterious circumstances. Now considered a war criminal by the United Nations, he fled to Nigeria last year after Monrovia came under siege by rebel forces.
On Jun. 21, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Nigeria to surrender Taylor to a UN-backed court for war crimes in the neighboring African nation of Sierra Leone. That tribunal, established in 2000, has indicted Taylor on 17 counts of war crimes, atrocities and crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war.
The Nigerian Embassy wouldn't comment on Taylor. An embassy spokesman who refused to give his name said the embassy had "no information about the case."
Asked if he thought Taylor is in fact a war criminal, Minor hesitated.
"One has to prove that. I don't have enough facts at my command to make that declaration," he said. On the other hand, Minor did say: "Here is a Liberian who could have used his talents and skills to improve the lives of our people. But he did more harm than good. It was a lost opportunity, and now he is history."
Minor, who says he's met Taylor but doesn't know him well, told the Washington Diplomat that his government "is of the view that the removal of Taylor is part of the peace accord," though a recent peace accord reached in Ghana "does not not include this government taking action against Mr. Taylor per se. It is expected that the new elected government will have the mandate to do that."
He added: "The other critical problem is the fact that Taylor still has many loyalists in Liberia. Many of them are still armed, or until recently have had arms. Care should be taken not to flare up a situation in which they feel they need to defend their hero."
Minor said his most important objective is to improve the once-shaky bilateral relationship between Washington and Monrovia, and encourage Liberians living in the United States to go back and invest in their country.
"At a recent donor conference, we received $520 million in offers for funding," he said. "Unfortunately, the donors haven't made good on those pledges, and part of my job is to encourage the U.S. government to motivate donors to pay up."