The definition of a Failed State

During the past week – while enjoying holidays in the quiet and attractive north-western part of Denmark, Jutland – I read the newspapers brought to our Liberia-get-together (see my July 6 posting). I found it both pleasant and frustrating to read them. It was comforting to hear from my friends that they shared my feelings.

We found it very impressive that a large number of newspapers are being published today and were surprised by the freedom of the press! More than ten are now sold in the Liberian streets; in an hap-hazard order: The New Democrat (from ‘old-timer’ journalist Tom Kamara), the Business Journal, The News, The Analyst, The Inquirer, The Informer, The Star, Monrovia Tidings, National Chronicle, Daily Observer, Plain Truth, Heritage.

The freedom of press, thus demonstrated, is absolutely an asset. For this reason we want to congratulate the Sirleaf-Administration. We have witnessed different times.

Furthermore, it was remarkable and also surprising to read these newspapers. It led us to two comments. One is that some of these newspapers were presenting ‘news’ and ‘opinions’ hardly based on facts and with no base. Nevertheless, these newspapers at times took a strong position, generally against the present government. Responsible journalism is not a nature-born gift. It needs proper attention of law makers and law enforcement officers.

Secondly, reading the newspapers one could not escape from the impression that ‘little had changed’- compared to thirty years ago when the daily and weekly newspapers were The Liberian Star, The Liberian Age, The Bentol Times, the Liberian Inaugural, Scope, The Sunday People, The Sunday Express, and The New Liberian.

I read with growing amazement and interest articles like ‘Gov’t Launches Campaign Against Hunger’, ‘More Transport Buses To Arrive Soon’, ‘Bong Range Iron Ore Deposits High Contested’, ‘Firestone: The Folly of a Nation Within’, ‘Three Men Arrested For Selling Human Parts’, ‘Trinity UMC Crowns Father of the Year 2008/2009’.

The first thought that came to my mind, however, was that little had changed over the past 30 years… I have the same articles in my archives from The Liberian Star, The Bentol Times, the Liberian Inaugural and other newspapers from the late 1970s.

Given the fact that a fourteen-year cruel and devasting war led to 250,000 deaths, a million refugees, another million people deplaced internally, the swelling of Monrovia to a more than one million people’s capital, the departure of most foreign investors and the virtual destruction of the modern economy, it is amazing to notice that Liberians have picked up life as it was before Doe’s dictatorship, 1980 – 1990, and the civil war (1989- 2003), fed by the unscrupulous warlords’ greed for power and wealth, leading to anarchy and destruction.

Liberians are an amazing people. Many people seem to agree that Liberia is a ‘failed state’ but I wonder what the definition is of a ‘failed state’ – to say the least. After all, we in Europe are closely following events in Belgium because of the split between Dutch speaking and French speaking Belgians, and the almost inevitable break-up of the country – sooner or later. But none of the Liberian warlords – Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson, George Boley, Sekou Konneh, Charles Taylor, Prince Yormi Johnson, General ‘Peanut Butter’, General ‘Butt Naked’ – ever claimed a portion of the country. Separatism was not a driving force.

It was a crazy and cruel war. Greed, insanity and wickedness were its main ingredients. Liberia certainly is underdeveloped, but a failed state?

Sunday, July 6

A life altering experience

Today is a special day. The annual meeting of our Dutch organization Friends of Liberia is convening this year in Denmark. It is exceptional. Usually we meet in one of our members’ home towns in the Netherlands, but last year we accepted the invitation of our Danish friend to meet at her place in a small village in the north-western part of Denmark.

So here we are, twenty-seven people: twenty-four from Holland, two from Denmark and one from Finland. We were living in Liberia in the late 1970s, working at various places – most of us in Monrovia or nearby places. A few lived and worked ‘up country’. One was a medical doctor in Cape Mount, another worked in a Sanniquellie-based FAO project aiming at reducing post-harvest losses, yet another worked in Gbarnga for a humanitarian organization, two others worked for the Mano River Union and made frequent travels between Monrovia and Freetown over the then recently constructed Mano River bridge. Most of us worked in Monrovia: with the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, the West Africa Rice Development Organization WARDA, the School of Business and Public Adminstration of the University of Liberia, the Royal Netherlands Embassy. The great majority of us – about ten people – were agriculturalists, teaching and researching at Fendall, where since the mid-1970s the Agricultural School of the University of Liberia was located.

We then were all in our late twenties, early thirties, and our experience in Liberia was life altering. Some of us returned to the Netherlands after their stay in Liberia, others continued in a great variety of countries – Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Tunesia, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Iraq, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, the Fiji Islands, the United States, etc.. However, the Liberian experience was felt as the most impressive. It changed our lives and bound us together.

Liberia and the Liberian people captivated us. This tiny land, with it’s weird history – US free-born blacks, freed slaves and mulattoes who created Africa’s first republic in the mid-19th century and for more than a century ruled over twenty or more tribes although they numbered less then 50,000 (in the 1970s), and who seized over 90% of the nations’s national product – and with its fascinating culture, impressive nature, not to speak of its exhaustive climate – we all agreed: this ‘land of liberty’ had changed our lives.

Some of us are now retired – thought still active with voluntary work, often in the tropics. Others are educational and medical specialists, diplomats, public servants, or working in the private sector.

Inevitably, our thoughts and discussions were about the present state of affairs in Liberia. The devastating civil war, the actual reconstruction efforts, and the ‘Iron Ladies’. Most of us had seen this documentary film. But the comparison between what was and nowadays is, was saddening. Due to the civil war, the WARDA organization has been relocated from Monrovia to Ivory Coast – where another civil war intervened with its activities. The Mano River Union was paralysed because of the two civil wars: in Liberia and in Sierra Leone. Internationally-spondered projects (FAO, UNDP) were halted because of the war. The University of Liberia was ransacked, like many other buildings; the national health system was brought to a stand-still – to choose a polite formulation.

Now, all has to be rebuilt. Recently it was announced that China will give a US $ 22 million aid to restart Fendall, the agricultural branch of the Univerity of Liberia. Also, the Mano River Union is being revived (see my posting dated April 3, 2008). Virtually everything has to be rebuilt or re-started.

But our discussions were not negative or cynical. We all expressed hope and demonstrated great belief in the rebuilding of Liberia. One of us had brought a bundle of Liberian newspapers, recently acquired through his son-in-law, now working for an international organization in Monrovia. The large number of different newspapers, more than ten, was striking.

Our annual get-together is not unique in the Netherlands. There also exists the ‘Weaverbirds Club’. Generally, Weaverbird club members have worked with one of the numerous plantations in Liberia, or the iron ore mines. After all, it should not be forgotten that at one time, in the late 1960s, about 2,000 Dutchmen were working in Liberia, occupying various positions of responsibility in agricultural, mining, logging and trading organizations. The Dutch have a long history of relations with Liberia.

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