Franklin D. Roosevelt visits Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia, January 1943. (Official Navy Photo from Office of War Information)
Liberia's history should be understood as that of a colony, the first U.S. overseas colony.
For those who are concerned about the US interference and its debilitating colonial and neocolonial impact on Africa, the study of Liberia is instructive. As professor Niels Hahn argues in his book, Two Centuries of US Military Operations in Liberia, Challenges of Resistance and Compliance:
“Liberia is the country in Africa where the United States has the most extended history of military engagement, and each intervention is layered on the experience of previous interventions. Over the years, the interventions have become more comprehensive and sophisticated, and Liberia can be considered an essential case for the general study of US military interventions in Africa.” (Hahn 2019, vi)
Contrary to popular belief, Liberia was the USA’s first overseas colony by way of war conquest. Many people and some authors like Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, The Grand Chessboard, say that the Spanish -American war of 1898 was America’s first overseas war of conquest. As we may know that the Spanish American war led to several overseas conquests like the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba etc. However as it turns out this is proven false. Research shows that the colonization of Liberia preceded the US colonization of Hawaii and even the Mexican – American war which resulted in the annexation of California.
In 1816 the Society for the Colonization of free people of Color of America, commonly known as the American Colonization Society (ACS) was established to deal with the problems of slavery. Its objective was to execute a plan to repatriate free people of color (which included formerly enslaved Africans and the mixed race offspring of slave masters) with their ‘consent’ back to Africa or another place thought most expedient by congress, (like Haiti or Mexico where slavery had been abolished.) This choice was not always an easy one for some freed African- Americans since it could mean leaving some family members behind who were still enslaved. In some cases they were emancipated only if they agreed to emigrate.
Although the ACS was presented as a philanthropic humanitarian freedom project for formerly enslaved Africans, reports from leading members of the ACS show that the real motivations were based on concern for the security of their own slave plantations. Most of the members of the ACS were white plantation owners in the South and they were increasingly aware of the Haitian revolution which started in 1791 (to 1803) and the Gabriel conspiracy in Virginia which was discovered in 1800. The British banned the slave trade not slavery in 1807 and the Americans followed suit in 1808. So one may not easily imagine that there was a connection between the Haitian Revolution, the Gabriel conspiracy and the colonization of Liberia but research shows otherwise. Slave owners understood that if the number and proportion of slaves to whites and free Africans was not balanced there was a chance of a big rebellion. So the best way to secure their property was to encourage freed Africans to emigrate for fear that they would encourage a rebellion. The fact that the Maryland legislators passed laws to financially assist colonists in expeditiously removing Black people after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 is further a demonstration that their motive was not philanthropy but fear of Black rebellion. (Hahn 2019,16). We also have to keep in mind that Britain had colonized Sierra Leone a few years earlier, likely for similar reasons.
The ASC sent its first ship to Sierra Leone, from there they went to a neighboring island called Sherbo island in February 1820 with 88 formerly enslaved African Americans and three white members of ACS. The ship was escorted by a US navy ship. They arrived at Sherbo island they tried to negotiate and unsuccessfully tried to buy some land but they were not welcomed by the indigenous Africans, and 22 formerly enslaved African Americans and all three whites died of malaria and the remaining 66 sought refuge in Sierra Leone.
The ASC sent a second ship the following year and, this time, the US government assisted the ACS with more military power. Again they tried to negotiate land purchase with the local chief Zolu Duma aka King Peter, when the chief refused negotiate on sale of the land ACS members threatened to kill him with their superior weaponry and thereby forced him to sign a document stating that he had sold the land for some shoes, tobacco, beads, cooking pots which they reportedly never received.
The formal possession of Cape Mesurado happened in May 1822. ACS Colonial agent Dr. Eli Ayers was appointed the first US government agent and he employed formerly enslaved African Americans as laborers and as soldiers to protect the colony and they formed a militia. Six months later several indigenous African ethnic groups united and launched several armed attacks trying to expel the colonists. This anti-colonial war was unsuccessful only due to the US colonist superior weaponry.
So we are clear! This was a war of colonial land dispossession and conquest! And not as some try to portray it that indigenous Liberians just agreed to welcome the white colonizers with their African American employees to share the land. Or that Liberia was an African country never colonized. After that the ACS continued to send ship loads of ‘settlers’ to Liberia, some included Africans intercepted from other illegally trafficked enslaved Africans from other parts of the African coast line these Africans were called Congos.
The colony expanded under the pretext of suppressing the slave trade and at the same time justify the expansion of the US military on the West African coast. In July 1847 Liberia was declared independent and thus evolved from the first US colony (outside continental US) to the first neo-colony. Emigration back to Africa via the ACS was encouraged by some early African nationalist like Edward Wilmot Blyden. Although Blyden challenged the political rule of the Black and mulatto settlers he was unable to make any changes in the exploitative relationship. The small ruling elite known as Americo -Liberians discriminated against the indigenous Africans (who were not considered citizens until 1904 when the constitution was changed.) The Americo-Liberians for the most part served as neo-colonial agents of US imperialism.
The Anti-Colonial period
Liberia has had twenty five presidents including the current one and all, with the exception of president William R. Tolbert Jr., Liberia’s twenty second president, have been staunch US neocolonialists. If these compradors even thought of going into a different political direction they were quickly defeated by the hidden hand of US imperialism to which he also finally fell victim. Ironically, Tolbert was overthrown and replaced by Samuel Doe, the first indigenous African leader turned president in the service of US imperialism. The lesson here being: it is ideology and principles that are most important not ethnicity, gender or place of origin. US Imperialism doesn’t hesitate to co opt and exploit any contradiction in its favor.
It was during the reign of Tolbert’s predecessor, president Tubman, that “Liberia became a frontline country for the USG in the fight against socialism in Africa” and reportedly the CIA had its largest African base in Liberia at the time. Pan Africanist are familiar with the history of the conservative Monrovia group established in 1961 as a neocolonial response to the Casablanca group which advocated immediate independence, socialism, unity, support for liberation movements, and anti-zionism. As obedient compradors do, Tubman denounced the Casablanca group and warned that no one should join them. Tolberts’ presidency, however, shows the influence of socialist Pan-Africanism.
William R. Tolbert Jr. was president from June 1972 until he was murdered in a bloody coup in April 1980. He was influenced by the socialist Pan-African trend of Nkrumah, Touré, and Cabral. Months before he was elected president, Tolbert was one of the pallbearers of Nkrumah’s coffin at his funeral in Guinea. In a speech he gave in Guinea he said Nkrumah was the most renowned politician of Africa. He also participated in the Silver Jubilee of the Democratic Party of Guinea, where he praised president Sékou Touré for rejecting the French commonwealth. A review of his foreign policy positions clearly demonstrate a radical shift towards socialist internationalism. From establishing friendly diplomatic relations with the USSR, Cuba, and calling for increased support for the freedom fighters in Mozambique, Namibia, Angola and Guinea Bissau. He said Liberia would be willing to send troops to Southern Africa if requested by the OAU. He established the Liberia fund for the Liberation of Southern Africa in February 1977 and handed over a check for $600,000 to the OAU chair for said purpose. Tolbert also broke diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973 and made a statement in solidarity with the Palestinian People at the UN General Assembly where he stated:
“We must equally insist on full recognition and respect for the national rights of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, especially their right to self-determination and a state of their own. Israel must withdraw from all occupied Arab territories.”
If that didn’t upset the US colonial masters enough, Tolbert had one more policy shift that must have been unsettling to them. He had inherited a policy from Tubman’s government that recognized the Republic of China in Taiwan as the government of China and the GOL had sent students to Taiwan for training in the sugar industry. Consistent with president Tolberts’ alliances with socialist countries, he began to reach out to the People's Republic of China (PRC) and when Chairman Mao Zedong passed in 1976, he sent a message of condolences and described Mao as “one of the greatest statesmen of the contemporary world”. Not long after he received the first PRC delegation and a historic relationship of bilateral relations and economic cooperation began in 1977. Despite some interruptions after Tolbert’s administration, this relationship resumed in 2003, and has become a major development partner with a big impact on national development to date.
Tolberts’ demonstrated affinity for socialist Pan-Africanists created a climate that was favorable for the birth of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) just short of two years after his election in 1971. MOJA was founded at the University of Liberia, was inspired by Nkrumah’s ideas and supported liberation movements in all of Africa. Although not one of the founders, Tolbert was supportive of MOJA. Within a few years MOJA grew and became a Pan-African movement with branches in Ghana, Nigeria, Mauritius and representatives in east, central and southern Africa.
Although one could say that Tolbert made a 180 degree turn in his foreign policy from his predecessor, his domestic policies can be described as center – left. At a national conference on development objectives and strategy in 1973 it was suggested that the economic “open door “policy should be redefined and this became a policy known as “Humanistic Capitalism”.Although Tolbert linked it to African Socialism and a “Christian ethic”, in an interview with German TV he explained that the objective of humanistic capitalism was that “the profit generated from the exploitation of natural resources by industrialized countries” should be “equitably shared with the country of origin of those resources.”
Tolbert promoted what he called the policy of Liberianization, which did not mean nationalization of any enterprise or industry , but a more significant participation and distribution going to Liberians. All foreign concession agreements were renegotiated to increase taxes from foreign investors. The negotiation with Firestone was the biggest accomplishment because Firestone lost its “special tax privileges.”The progressive tax system resulted in funds to finance social services, education and health care. Primary and secondary education were free and University fees were reduced by 50%. One of the main objectives of the Tolbert government was the plan to become self-sufficient in rice production by 1980. It was in the course of this effort that the government likely committed his biggest error when in an effort to stimulate local rice farmers he announced an increase in the price of imported rice. Some argued that this would selfishly benefit Tolbert himself since he owned a number of private rice farms. . This was unpopular since most people still depended on imported rice. The result was in the infamous demonstration known as the rice riot of April 14, 1979 in which 41 demonstrators were killed and many were injured. Although the government ultimately did not raise the price of rice, the damage had been done.
Generally speaking it is the US governments’ objective is to keep countries dependent on financial aid and US military ‘protection’ and Liberia is no exception to that. Therefore Tolbert’s positions that sought to make Liberia less economically dependent on foreign corporations and encourage industrialization were enough to upset Firestone and the US government such that they conspired to have him removed. Considering the errors made and contradictions of his domestic rice policy, this facilitated a climate of instability and one which the US government never hesitates to manipulate. To insure his governments’ security Tolbert had his most trusted supporters in key government positions. However he did not trust the military since the US government had substantial influence on the Liberian military relating to loan agreements. He therefore sought and signed a mutual defense pact with Guinea where Liberia would have access to Guinean troops if necessary. The 1979 rice riot prompted Guinea, based on the mutual defense pact, to send troops to its neighbor. Although this military intervention was unpopular among Liberians it was suspected that the leader of the protest, Gabriel Baccus Matthews, also the leader of a pseudo Marxist organization called Progressive Alliance of Liberia, was linked to the CIA.
The US strategy to completely dominate and control Liberia politically, economically and militarily is of interest because the US empire has used many if not all of the same strategy and tactics in other countries not only in Africa but the whole global south.
The US weapons of hybrid war in Liberia
As Steve Biko taught us; “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” In other words, Imperialism relies on controlling the battle of ideas.
Dr. Togba Na Tipoteh, co- founder of MOJA, in an interview last year (2022) speaking about flag day and the government of Liberia stated:
“Unfortunately we have a flag that looks like the flag of USA but with one star. It’s unfortunate primarily because this country continues to be moved by persons who are into the Americanization of Liberia. … it has to do with the American mentality, the support for the slave master, because you wait for the command of the slave master, the command from the former colonial power before you act.”
US imperialism always combines its ideological /cultural power (AKA “soft power”) closely backed with its vast economic power, which translates into an economic colonialism which includes the tools of the world bank /IMF known to increase poverty and hardship resulting in low quality of life and dependency. It also selectively uses economic coercive measures also known as sanctions for governments that resist cooperating with its hegemonic policies. Lastly, its immense military power is on a mission to dominate the world and at the same time ensure massive profits for the ‘defense’ contractors.
Even the historical distortion of the colonization of Liberia is an example of the ideological power of imperialism. The ideological propaganda went from the philanthropic notion of the ACS “white man’s burden” to philanthropic colonialism to “humanitarian imperialism.” The result is that some people erroneously believe that Liberia was never colonized.
It is remarkable that Marcus Garvey’s UNIA had established a cooperative relationship for several years with the Liberian government. However, when Firestone arrived in 1924, with the support of WEB Du Bois who had been a special representative of US president Calvin Coolidge, the UNIA was suddenly expelled. The government of Liberia made an agreement with Firestone that gave the company the rights to exploit the mount Barclay plantation for 99 years at a rent of $1 per acre the first year and after that at a fixed rate of $6000 per year.
This was clearly a one sided ‘deal’ but George Padmore (1972, 45) argued that the government of Liberia did not have much choice because since the Berlin conference of 1884 - 1885, there was hardly any land in Africa that had not been colonized and Britain and France both had already annexed parts of Liberia to Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast respectively.
In the early years of the twentieth century, France invaded Liberia and the government of Liberia appealed to the US government for protection. The US government guaranteed protection on condition that the Liberian government agree to grant a rubber concession to Firestone. Some Liberians felt that the Firestone deal would ensure US protection into the future since they would not want their investment to be taken over by other colonizers.
Firestone was trying to dominate the world rubber market and they realized that they would need a huge indigenous labor supply. In Liberia, Firestone developed a system of forced labor akin to slavery. Firestone used the local chiefs to supply the forced labor because they profited as well. Firestone’s sinister behavior also extended into Liberia’s food security. As we know rice is a traditional part of the Liberian diet and they have a long history of cultivating rice. Firestone told the government that the Liberian rice farmers should come to work for Firestone to harvest rubber and that Firestone would import cheaper subsidized rice under the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID). This is how Firestone also made Liberia dependent on imported rice thereby destroying its own rice economy and self-sufficiency and food security in the country.
Liberia has had two civil wars, and since its founding, there has been no war in Liberia where the USG was not indirectly involved.
Further examples of US ideological power are demonstrated when the leadership, like former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, published an article in 2007 titled “AFRICOM can help governments willing to help themselves.”Here she says that AFRICOM can develop a stable environment in which civil society can flourish and the quality of life for Africans can be improved.”
We have to wonder, after what NATO/AFRICOM did to Libya in 2011, how many Liberians really believe the former president Sirleafs’ statements about AFRICOM? With recent reports of the presence of Al Qaeda and Hezbolah in their country, will Liberians feel like they are forced to seek protection from the (former) colonizer just as they did in the early twentieth century? Or will they follow the path of Mali and Burkina Faso who ended up expelling their former colonizer?
In 2008, a year after the founding of AFRICOM the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African affairs, Theresa Whelan, gave Liberia as a model stating that it “represents an African country where AFRICOM provides the ‘foundation’ on which the three pillars of Economy, Governance & rule of law, and Social development are based.” The US inter-agencies are responsible for the implementation of these pillars, while African nation states, regional organizations and the AU are responsible for the stability, symbolized as the roof.” Some of these orgs include; UN integrated mission in Liberia (UNMIL), ECOWAS, and numerous NGO’s. Hahn points out that the UNMIL was one of the first to implement the concept of a UN integrated mission in 2003 which involves a multidimensional operation involving political, military, civilian police, criminal justice, civil affairs, human rights, gender – child protection, disarmament demobilization, public information and support components. Further examples of the ideological soft power is the theoretical basis of the UNMIL, which advocates the notion of “liberal peace” which promotes the lie that liberal capitalist democracy is actually peaceful (like the US and EU countries). Even their term ‘good governance’ is a term that describes a government friendly to neo-liberalism and an environment attractive to private sector investment.
As stated by The Black Alliance for Peace in its 2022 press release on AFRICOM:
“Despite its rhetoric, the purpose of AFRICOM is to use U.S. military power to impose U.S. control on African land, resources and labor to service the needs of U.S. multinational corporations and the wealthy in the United States. It also serves as a major boon to ‘defense’ contractors.”
Liberia, like many African countries, suffers from devastating poverty as a result of a history of colonialism and neocolonialism. According to the UN development reports Liberia ranks in the bottom half of the low category of the Human Development Classification. Additionally, its Debt to GDP is 57.08 % in 2023. This means that the government spends that percentage of its GDP on debt servicing, forcing it to reduce public spending on health and education and other public needs due to austerity measures. An Oxfam report showed that Liberia is among other west African countries that spend more on debt servicing than a whole year spent on education.
Part of resisting neocolonialism means developing what Thomas Sankara called an “Addis Ababa United Front against debt.” In his Speech on Foreign Debt At The OAU, July 1987. He stated:
“Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mr. President, they played, they lost. That’s the rule of the game, and life goes on. We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so. We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt…
It is our duty to create an Addis Adeba’s unified front against debt. That is the only way to assert that refusing to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth.”
In October this year Liberia is scheduled to have elections, it is our hope that they will be free and fair and that the people draw on some of the lessons of their own heroic anti-imperialist Pan-African history for future direction.
- Hahn, Niels. Two Centuries Of US Military Operations in Liberia. Challenges of Resistance and Compliance. Alabama: Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 2019
- Padmore, George. Pan -Africanism or Communism. New York 1972 Anchor Books
Hahn 2019, 14
Hahn 2019, 56
 W.Tolbert 1972 as cited in Hahn 2019, 79
 W.Tolbert 1972 as cited in Hahn 2019, 79
 W.Tolbert 1976 as cited in Hahn 2019, 86
 W.Tolbert 1977 as cited in Hahn 2019, 87
 Bright 2002 as cited in Hahn 2019,84
 W. Tolbert 1971,1975, as cited in Hahn 2019,88
 W. Tolbert 1978 ,as cited in Hahn 2019,89
 Kpei 1979 as cited in Hahn 2019,94
 Sankawulo 1977,as cited in Hahn 2019,82
 Executive mansion 1978 as cited in Hahn 2091,82
 W. Tolbert 1972 ,as cited in Hahn 2019,82
 W. Tolbert 1978 as cited in Hahn 2019,89
 Dahn 2009 and Tipoteh 2009 as cited in Hahn 2019,97,98
Karpeh 2009; Wallace 2009 as cited in Hahn 2019, 93
Bowier 2009; Fahnbulleh 2009; Guannu 2008; Tar 2009; Tokpa 2010 in Hahn 2019, 96
Brown 1941 as cited in Hahn 2019, 38
Buell 1947 as cited in Hahn 2019, 39
Buell1928; Sundiata 1974 as cited in Hahn 2019, 40
USAID 2004, Logan 2009 in Hahn 2019, 52
Hahn 2019, 212
 Hahn 2019, Appendix A
Hahn 2019, 224
Djibo Sobukwe is on the Research and Political Education Team of the Black Alliance for Peace. He is also a former Central Committee member of the All African People’s Revolutionary Party who worked with Kwame Ture on the political Education Committee. He can be contacted at [email protected].