In his book Journey Without Maps, an account of his travels in Liberia in the 1930s, the English writer Graham Greene recorded that ‘Liberian politics were like a crap game played with loaded dice’. It was a game that Liberia’s ruling elite – the descendants of some 300 black settler families from the United States who set up an independent republic in 1847 – played among themselves with considerable relish. For more than 100 years – from 1877 to 1980 – Liberia was governed under a one-party system in which the same party, the True Whig Party, controlled by the same elite group, held office continuously, dispensing patronage, deciding on public appointments and retaining a monopoly on power – a record equalled by no other political party anywhere in the world. Elections were nevertheless taken seriously, if only to determine which family – the Barclays, the Kings, the Tubmans – emerged on top. ‘The curious thing about a Liberian election campaign,’ wrote Greene, ‘is that, although the result is always a foregone conclusion, everyone behaves as if the votes and the speeches and the pamphlets matter.’ However, he added, the system was more complicated than it seemed. ‘It may be all a question of cash and printing presses and armed police, but things have to be done with an air. Crudity as far as possible is avoided.’
As members of a ruling aristocracy, the Americo-Liberians, as they called themselves, were immensely proud of their American heritage. They developed a lifestyle reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and masonic lodges. They built houses with pillared porches, gabled roofs and dormer windows resembling the nineteenth-century architectural styles of Georgia, Maryland and the Carolinas. They chose as a national flag a replica of the American Stars and Stripes, with a single star, and used the American dollar as legal tender.
Just like white settlers in Africa, the Americo-Liberians constructed a colonial system subjugating the indigenous population to rigid control and concentrating wealth and privilege in their own hands. Despite their origins as descendants of slaves from the Deep South, they regarded black Liberians as an inferior race, fit only for exploitation. The nadir of Americo-Liberian rule came in 1931 when an international commission found senior government officials guilty of involvement in organised slavery.
When other West African states shed colonial rule in the 1960s, the Liberian system stayed much the same. Liberian law stipulated that only property owners were entitled to the vote, so the vast majority of indigenous Africans were effectively left without one. Small numbers were assimilated into the ranks of the ruling elite: ‘country boys’ adopted by coastal families; girls selected as wives or concubines; ambitious ‘hinterlanders’ climbing the ladder. During the 1970s a few were co-opted into government. Local administration in the ‘hinterland’ was largely run by indigenous officials. But essentially Liberia remained an oligarchy where 1 per cent of the population controlled the rest – some 2 million people.
The last of the line of Americo-Liberian presidents was William Tolbert, the grandson of freed South Carolina slaves who had served as vice-president for twenty years. A Baptist minister, he attempted a series of cautious reforms, abandoning the top hat and tail-coat traditions favoured by his predecessor, William Tubman, selling the presidential yacht and abolishing a compulsory ‘tithe’ of 10 per cent of every government employee’s salary that went to the True Whig Party. But much of Tolbert’s efforts were also devoted to amassing a personal fortune and promoting the interests of family members in the traditional manner. One brother was appointed minister of finance; another was chosen as president of the senate; a son-in-law served as minister of defence; other relatives filled posts as ministers, ambassadors and presidential aides. The crap game of Liberian politics was as highly profitable in the 1970s as in the 1930s.
Economic development in the 1960s and 1970s helped underpin the system, as well as provide new opportunities for the elite’s self-enrichment. The mainstay of the economy had initially been rubber. In 1926 the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company leased a million acres for ninety-nine years at six cents an acre to meet the American demand for car tyres. But iron ore exports from massive, high-grade deposits in the Bomi hills then overtook rubber as the major source of foreign investment and government income. By 1970 Firestone and the Liberian Iron Mining Company were providing the government with 50 per cent of greatly increased revenues. A third source of income came from registration fees from the world’s largest ghost fleet of ships: Liberia possessed only two ships of its own, but allowed more than 2,500 vessels plying the seas to fly Liberia’s flag of convenience without the bother of inspection, for a suitable fee.
Liberia ‘s economic advances, however, served only to highlight the growing disparity between the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich elite and the overwhelming majority of impoverished tribal Africans. In 1979 – the same year that Tolbert spent an amount equivalent to half the national budget while acting as host to an OAU heads of state conference – demonstrators took to the streets in protest against a 50 per cent increase in the price of rice, the staple food of most Liberians. The price increase had been authorised by Tolbert in the hope of encouraging local production. But since one of the chief beneficiaries was the president’s cousin, Daniel Tolbert, who owned the country’s largest rice-importing firm, it was seen as another move to enrich the elite. On Tolbert’s orders armed police and troops opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens of them.
In the following months Tolbert struggled to contain a rising tide of discontent, colliding not just with the poor but with a new generation of the educated elite. He allowed the formation of an opposition party, but when opposition politicians called for a general strike, he had them arrested on charges of treason and sedition and banned the party.
On the night of 12 April 1980 a group of seventeen dissident soldiers led by a 28-year-old master sergeant named Samuel Doe, scaled the iron gate of the president’s seven-storey Executive Mansion, overpowered the guards and found Tolbert in his pyjamas in an upstairs bedroom. They fired three bullets into his head, gouged out his right eye and disembowelled him. His body was dumped in a mass grave along with twenty-seven others who died defending the palace. Ministers and officials were rounded up, taken before a military tribunal and sentenced to death.
Amid much jubilation, watched by a crowd of thousands laughing and jeering and filmed by camera crews, thirteen high-ranking officials were tied to telephone poles on a beach in Monrovia and executed by a squad of drunken soldiers, firing volley after volley at them. A great shout arose from the mob. ‘Freedom! We got our freedom at last!’ The soldiers rushed forward to kick and pummel the corpses.
Thus the old order ended.
Thus begins the chapter entitled “Blood Diamonds,” in which the barbarism only gets worse and worse. Few societies have solved the problem of how to overthrow recalcitrant aristocrats without descending into a period of barbarism that only serves to unduly enhance nostalgia for prerevolutionary times, as Theodore Dalrymple observes in his retrospective on Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The Russian satirical writer Vladimir Voinovich satirized Solzhenitsyn’s Russian nationalism by depicting someone resembling him having his employees flogged in Vermont. This satirical scene, in fact, made a profound criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s political thought. Voinovich was alluding to the fact that, were it not for the horrors of Bolshevism, the pre-revolutionary Russian political tradition would be regarded as so brutal that no sensitive person of good will could be a Russian nationalist. As it was, the Bolsheviks regularly killed in a few minutes more people than the Romanovs managed in a century, giving pre-revolutionary Russian history the retrospective luster of decency, wisdom, and compassion that it did not in the least deserve. For Voinovich—and the distinguished historian of Russia Richard Pipes—Leninism had its roots in the Russian tradition as well as the Marxist one. This meant that Solzhenitsyn, while absolutely right in his uncompromising attitude to Marxist-Leninism and all its works, belonged in the category of Dostoevsky: a brilliant seer who would nevertheless have made a very bad guide.