The Washington Diplomat / June 2001
By Larry Luxner
Liberia's flag resembles the Stars and Stripes, its capital city is named after an American president, its constitution is patterned after the U.S. constitution and its official language is English. The Ohio-sized African nation even has a Maryland County, named in honor of early 19th-century black settlers from the Baltimore area.
With so much history linking the United States and Liberia, why, then, are bilateral relations on the rocks?
The answer, says Ambassador William V.S. Bull, is simple: bad press.
"We do not enjoy a close relationship with the U.S. as in the past," Bull told us in a lengthy interview in mid-April. "We have been preoccupied with explaining what the government of Liberia is trying to achieve. There's been a lot of unfavorable publicity because of the situation in Sierra Leone. We've been accused of aiding the RUF [Revolutionary United Front]. Everything bad that's happened in Sierra Leone has been attributed to Liberia."
Bull, 54, is a career diplomat who began his foreign service in 1972, one year after the death of Liberia's longtime president, William V.S. Tubman, who had successfully guided the country through the postwar age of African nationalism and decolonization. Tubman was succeeded by William R. Tolbert Jr., but only eight years later Tolbert was deposed in a military coup led by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe.
The new leader suspended Liberia's constitution and imposed martial law. In 1976, he sent Bull to Washington to serve as deputy chief of mission, a post he held for the next four years. But the October 1985 elections that solified Doe's hold on power were never universally accepted -- even though his National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) got 80% of the vote -- and resentment grew, especially among poorer Liberians.
In 1989, about 150 anti-government guerrillas of the National Patriotic Forces of Liberia (NPFL), led by Taylor, crossed into Liberia from Cote d'Ivoire, and the ensuing bloodshed degenerated into tribal warfare.
The following year, Bull was sent to New York as Liberia's ambassador to the United Nations. But Doe was killed in September 1990, and from then until 1992 Taylor solidified his hold on the country despite the establishment of a government by the Economic Community of West African States. Taylor did not formally become president until the 1997 elections, which he won by a landslide.
Bull remained in his UN post until 1998 -- a period that corresponded with some of the worst fighting Liberia has ever known; as many as 200,000 people are believed to have been killed.
"No Liberian can boast of not having experienced some loss," said Bull, adding that two sisters died as a result of the hardship imposed by the war. One of his nephews, a police officer, was shot and killed by unknown assailants.
Last June, the diplomat came to Washington as Liberia's ambassador to the United States, presenting his credentials to President Clinton in June. Only three months later, he presided -- along with Foreign Affairs Minister Monie R. Captan -- over the inauguration of the newly rebuilt Liberian Embassy on Sixteenth Street. A fire 11 years earlier had destroyed the building, but because of the country's long civil war, renovations were delayed, during which time the embassy was forced to operate out of a building half a block away, on Colorado Avenue. The $950,000 job was finally completed last year.
"We believe the fire was caused by arson, but the police were never able to determine who set it," Bull said. "There's some speculation that Liberians opposed to the Doe government may have been responsible."
Bull, who like any good diplomat chooses his words carefully, has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Liberia, and a master's degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. During our interview, sounds of splashing fish and pounding waves emanate from his computer's screen-saver. A large portrait of President Taylor, now 53, hangs over the fireplace, while an aging photograph of Bull with then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller dominates another wall of the ambassador's office.
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.
"Liberia was founded as a result of American philanthropy," said Bull. According to a recent issue of the Liberian Studies Journal, total U.S. assistance to Liberia between 1847 and 1980 amounted to $400 million in current dollar terms, with another $500 million given to the African nation since 1980.
Yet these days, Liberia -- with a population of just over three million -- is virtually bankrupt. Its per-capita income stagnates at $400, about the same as before the civil war.
"We would hope that after years of civil strife in Liberia, with the [July 1997] election of a government that got 75% of the vote, that people would prevail," said Bull. "But recent events suggest that we still have not been able to solve our differences."
As if to underscore his point, midway through our interview, the ambassador was interrupted by a 30-minute phone call from Monrovia concerning the ambush the day before of a helicopter carrying humanitarian supplies to Lofa, Liberia's northernmost county. On board was Liberia's labor minister, who was killed in the attack, which Bull says "could have been carried out by Liberian dissidents, with the help of Guinea and Sierra Leone."
Last November, The Washington Diplomat published an interview with Sierra Leone's ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, in which Leigh angrily accused Taylor of aiding RUF leader Foday Sankoh in anti-government attacks. In the article, Leigh described the Liberian leader as a "criminal" and blaming Taylor for large-scale atrocities against the people of Sierra Leone. Taylor's goal, he said, is to take over Sierra Leone and its rich diamond mines, as well as Guinea, which borders both countries on the north.
Bull says those charges are, well, a lot of bull.
"At no time did you ever hear about Liberian soldiers amputating the limbs of Liberian people, so why would we do such things to our neighbors?" he asked defensively. "We have not been involved in the commission of these atrocities. The're using Liberia as a convenient scapegoat. Once these charges are made, it's a tremendous challenge for this embassy to change that negative image, which is not based on facts. Sierra Leone has to take responsibility for the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone."
Bull says he doesn't appreciate the airing of such accusations against his country by a fellow ambassador in Washington.
"It's unfortunate that some of our colleagues in the diplomatic community have not been very mindful of the need for envoys to take a more dispassionate and objective view about developments in our region," he said, adding that "President Taylor has no vested interest in fomenting trouble. We are united by our common culture and history."
As far as Taylor's ties to Sankoh, all Bull would say is that "Taylor knows the former RUF leader very well. They both had training together in Libya."
According to The New York Times and other sources, Taylor backs the RUF in return for control of their illegal diamond trade, skimming as much as 90% of the profit.
In March, the president of Guinea, Lansana Conte, said he would "press for the immediate application of sanctions against Liberia" because of human-rights violations. A few weeks ago, Guinea got its wish, when on May 7 the UN Security Council finally decided to impose a 12-month prohibition against the export of diamonds from Liberia. It has also banned senior Liberian officials from traveling abroad.
Bull said the sanctions would have a "tremendous impact" on the Liberian economy.
"Our country already has about 85% unemployment, and at least 80% of the population lives in absolute poverty. The mining sector provided a livelihood for thousands of Liberians. So it means they'll have to discontinue working, because whatever diamonds they're able to mine cannot be sold."
"We are bringing this matter to the attention of Congress, to point out what we believe to be a premeditated attempt by the Security Council to impose sanctions," he said, adding that "the decision was not based on any verifiable evidence of Liberia's non-compliance."
For 130 years, noted Bull, Liberia had enjoyed relative peace and stability, yet since 1980, the country has been racked by ethnic and social strife.
"Why?" he asks. "You've had an attempt by the people of Liberia to adjust inequities in society. From its inception in 1847, Liberia was ruled by descendants of African-Americans who constitute only 5% of the population."
Curiously, Bull defends the violent 1989 uprising led by Taylor by saying "he and his supporters felt there was a need for change, and that if elections were held, they would be stolen as was the case in 1985. So they had no other recourse but to use force of arms to bring down the government."
Bull has the dubious distinction of being the only ambassador in Washington whose country is led by a man once imprisoned by the U.S. government -- but who escaped from jail under mysterious circumstances. The diplomat defends that, too.
"Taylor, who was in the United States at the time, was accused of misappropriating government funds," he explained. "The Liberian government asked for his extradiction. He was arrested and imprisoned in Massachusetts pending his extradition, and was able to escape from prison. Mr. Taylor feared for his life. He would have been killed, so he had no other choice but to flee."
Asked how Taylor managed to break out of a high-security U.S. prison, Bull responded: "I'm not going to speculate, but it's clear that the United States was disillusioned with Doe's leadership."
He points out that "Taylor was not convicted of any crime," that the Doe government's accusations of fraud at the time were "trumped-up" and that "the U.S. government has since dropped charges against him. They had no reason to want to press charges."
He adds: "We think it's blatantly unfair for the leader of a country to be accused of crimes where no proof exists whatsoever. This is morally wrong. At the end of the day, the sanctions isolate Liberia at a time when we have just recovered from seven years of civil crisis and we're trying to rebuild our wounds and become fully engaged as a responsible member of the international community."
What concerns Bull most now is jump-starting the Liberian economy -- a particularly difficult task given the charges against Taylor.
"In 1998, a donors' conference was held in Paris, at which the international community pledged over $225 million to assist with the reconstruction efforts. Regrettably, this support was not provided, even though pledges were made," he says. "Investors have not come in, and those who had investments in Liberia have not restarted their factories. Schools were damaged. We have a problem, and we need international assistance."
The only real overseas investor in Liberia is Firestone, which established a rubber plantation in 1926 that still ranks as the largest in the world. Some minor U.S. companies are involved in gold exploration, but that's about it. Total trade between Washington and Monrovia comes to less than $100 million a year -- a pittance in today's globalized economy.
"All the African success stories like Ghana and Botswana received massive assistance from the international community, either through the IMF or World Bank, or from friendly governments. This is what we'd like to see in Liberia as well," said Bull. But it won't happen, he complains, "because of our negative image."
The ambassador, whose wife Cecilia is president of the African Ambassadors Spouses Association, estimates that over 100,000 Liberians live in the United States, with concentrations in Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.
A bill being sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) would grant permanent residency status to about 15,000 Liberians who have arrived in this country since 1990 and are here on temporary protected status. The effort is backed by the Liberian Community Association.
"The government of Liberia supports this," Bull says. "We have just undergone seven years of civil war. We would not be able to absorb all these people" if they're deported back to Liberia, adding that many of them are professionals and are gainfully employed in the United States.
"We encourage any assistance to Liberians in the context of the historical ties which bind our two countries, and we're hopeful that this new administration will take a fresh look at US-Liberian relations," says the ambassador, "because without the support of the United States, it will be difficult for us to make progress."