Commemorating 200 Years of U.S.-Liberia Ties: Moving Forward Together
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
31 March 2022
Abraham Denmark, Wilson Center Vice-President for Programs and Director of Studies
Welcome, everyone — whether you’re in the United States or Liberia — to the Wilson Center’s special program today commemorating 200 years of ties between the Republic of Liberia and the United States. I’m Abe Denmark, the Wilson Center’s Vice-President for Programs and Director of Studies. The Wilson Center President and CEO. Ambassador Mark Green, sends his regrets that he is unable to be here this afternoon.
Today’s program, which had originally been scheduled for February 24th but was postponed due to the crisis in Ukraine, is a joint effort by the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program and its Africa Program to consider the recent history of U.S. relations with Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic. In fact, the United States and Liberia are together two of the oldest continuous republics in the world and we share a unique history and common democratic values.
As Liberia commemorates the bicentennial of its founding in 2022, we have the unusual opportunity to speak with five former U.S. ambassadors to Liberia, women and men who represented the United States in Liberia during the last two decades since the country has emerged from civil war, a period during which it has held multiple free and fair elections, elected the first woman president of an African country as well as the first international football/soccer star, survived a deadly Ebola epidemic, sent peacekeepers to Mali, Sudan and South Sudan, and embarked on the long process of recovery and reconciliation.
At the Wilson Center, we’ve hosted numerous U.S. ambassadors, both for programs like this one and as resident scholars, who conduct research and writing projects reflecting on foreign affairs topics. Reading the bios of the individuals on our panel, it is striking how many have held very senior diplomatic posts in the United States and abroad following their assignments in Liberia. I appreciate their willingness to join us today to discuss their experiences in Liberia and the foreign policy lessons we can apply going forward.
We’re fortunate to lead off with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, our current Ambassador to the United Nations. The Wilson Center was proud to present Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield –or LTG as she is sometimes known, especially on Twitter — with our annual Global Public Service Award last September given her commitment and contributions to the U.S. role in promoting international peace, security and development. It is a testament to her dedication to Liberia, her first ambassadorial post, that she joins us today, given the current weighty matters before the United Nations. Following Ambassador Thomas Greenfield’s opening remarks, and if she has time, a question or two, we will move on to our panel, which includes Ambassador John Blaney. Ambassador Donald Booth, Ambassador Deborah Malac, and Ambassador Christine Elder. I want to thank our panel moderator, Elias Shoniyin, managing director of African Development Management Associates, who was a 2019 Yale World Fellow and a former deputy foreign minister. We’re also very pleased to have the current U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, with us to offer closing remarks.
But before we begin, I wanted to recognize my friends and colleagues: Dr. Christian Osterman from the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program, and Dr. Monde Muyangwa, who currently serves as Director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program, for their exceptional leadership.
And I especially want to thank Alyson Grunder, the Africa Program’s associate director and a senior diplomatic fellow at the Wilson Center, detailed from the State Department, whose previous posting was DCM and chargé at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, and whose hard work has made today’s event possible. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, it is my pleasure to welcome you to this virtual forum and back to the Wilson Center. Thank you for being with us and for sharing your time and perspective. Over to you.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Thank you so much, Abe, and thank you for welcoming all of us here today. I’m really honored to be among this esteemed group. And it’s also an honor for me to kick off this panel marking the 200 year commemoration of U.S. Liberia ties. I don’t want to go any further without acknowledging our outstanding panelists, including many of my fellow former U.S. Ambassadors to Liberia, Ambassadors Blaney, Booth, Elder, and Malac, as well as our current Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy.
Again, I feel so honored to be among this esteemed group. And Ambassador McCarthy, you know I planned to be in Liberia in February. And I can tell you, I was so excited about getting back there and I was so disappointed that I couldn’t make it. But it’s still on my agenda. I will look for an excuse to get back to Liberia at some point and look forward to meeting you there.
Let me also thank Yale World Fellow and former Deputy Foreign Minister Elias Shoniyin for moderating this esteemed group. So, on the 200th commemoration of U.S. Liberian ties, we’re marking a specific moment, a moment when free black men, women and children from the United States arrived on Providence Island. It’s important to remember the context that brought them here. They were leaving behind a country where slavery was legalized, but they were also pushed out.
And I remind people all the time about that history. They were pushed out and pushed abroad, in part by the American Colonization Society, a racist organization with the express project of removing free black people from America. But more importantly, they came also because they sought freedom. It was a hard journey. And we should not romanticize it. People died on this trip. Others perished after arriving. And yet the ACS kept sending more free black people away. When they arrived, they encountered the indigenous people of the land, which sometimes led to more conflicts with some new arrivals even inflicting some of the racist attitudes they had learned in the United States onto the indigenous people, population, that they met. But racism wasn’t the only reason they left America, nor the only driver of their new life.
The first people also made the arduous journey across the Atlantic for a reason memorialized on Liberia’s coat of arms: the love of liberty. “The love of liberty brought us here.” I can’t imagine what it felt like for those people arriving to establish Monrovia. But I suspect that I had a taste of that feeling when I first went to Liberia some 44 years ago.
That was in 1978. I was a student then, and sometimes people think that I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I wish I had been a Peace Corps volunteer. I was not. I was a student then. I came to study in Liberia and it was my first time ever leaving the United States. And I remember looking out of the window of my Pan Am flight — for those of you old enough to remember Pan Am — and seeing the astonishingly beautiful coast, the rolling waves, the white sands. You still see that when you arrive in Liberia. I felt an immediate connection to Liberia and that continues for me today. I felt I was returning to the continent of my ancestors and I was landing in a country with deep, strong historical ties to my own country. The very ties we are here today to reflect upon and to commemorate.
Immediately when I reached the ground, the first thing I remember was the heat. But the heat was also surrounded by warmth and kindness that I was greeted with from the Liberian people. Traits that I’ve found to be characteristic of Liberian people even today. I really felt like it was a homecoming for me.
And 30 years after that first homecoming, I returned with exactly the same feeling of love, of connection, of determination. I was arriving the next time as the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, the first ever female ambassador to Liberia. And I’m proud that they have had two since my being here. I really felt a sense of purpose.
Liberia was coming out of 14 years of civil war. Hope was in the air. Ambassador Blaney brought us there and Ambassador Booth carried us across the water to that election. And I sensed the real hope. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said to me as I was leaving, she said to me that I was there to help Liberia succeed. And from that day till I left Liberia, I felt that my job was to help Liberia succeed And succeed it did.
It held, as you heard, the first ever general election. It elected the first female head of state, not just for Liberia, but for all of Africa. And that’s something that we’re still working on here in the United States. Liberia went on to have a peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected president to another. And that’s an important milestone at a moment when we’re seeing democratic backsliding and dangerous coups across West Africa.
In my role as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I’m particularly thankful for the ways that Liberia works with us in the multilateral space. We’re grateful for how often we see Liberia vocally advancing peace, prosperity, human rights and democratic norms and serving as an upstanding member in the U.N. fora.
Here’s a fact that stands out for me. Liberia needed a U.N. peacekeeping mission and that mission was there until 2018. And I remember because I helped to wind it down. And Deb, you brought it to a successful conclusion. Now, today, Liberia is an active contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions. And they just sent more troops to the U.N. mission in Mali. And this is simply remarkable. At the same time, of course, Liberia, like the United States, is far from perfect, especially now.
And for Liberians listening, I say this as a trusted friend of Liberia. And Liberians know me for being that friend. Liberia has a serious problem right now, and that’s taking on a number of issues. Foremost among them, is the issue of corruption. And this is an issue that we are seeing across the board, not just in Liberia, but in other places.
And for me, corruption is an act of robbery, plain and simple. It’s a cancer in our societies. It is government stealing from the people of Liberia, from the mouths of children. It takes away access to health care. It denies citizens their right to public safety. It stops young people of Liberia from getting the education they deserve. It takes the future away from them. It prevents this country from having the healthy business environment that it needs to lift Liberia out of poverty. It has denied Liberia its place in history, a successful and prosperous country with so many resources to contribute to its people’s wellbeing. Corruption is a democracy killer, and we cannot have that in a place like Liberia, which we’re counting on as a bulwark for Africa’s democracy.
To me, this is the most pressing, it’s the most forward-looking challenge facing Liberia today. And it is, frankly, one that we need to work on. And it’s frankly up to the leadership of Liberia to fix. Only Liberia’s leaders with the backing of and pressure from the people of Liberia, can create the environment of transparency and accountability the country needs.
I do believe Liberia has a bright future. I am an absolute fan of Liberia. I believe that because it is a country founded upon the ideas of hope and freedom, the same ideas we celebrate today, that future can be bright. I believe that because it is a country with a rock solid partner in the United States, that future can be bright.
Our 200-year partnership is as strong as it is deep. And I know that Liberia’s future is bright because I have come to know the people of Liberia, and I know that the people of Liberia know me. They know me to be someone who will speak truth to power. They know me to be someone who can be self-critical but also criticize my friends in the spirit of being a constructive advisor.
So not just do the leaders of Liberia know me, but the people in the markets, the people on the streets, the everyday Liberians who are determined to improve their lives and their future. All know that I am speaking truth right now. So together we must take on corruption. We have to defend democracy and push for a better future for the Liberian people.
We cannot continue down the path that Liberia is on right now. It is time for Liberia to live up to its principles, to live up to its foundation and be the leader on the continent of Africa that we know Liberia can be. It’s a small country, it’s mighty. Your resources make you that.
So let me end there by thanking all of you, and I’ll turn the floor back over to the moderator. And I will look forward to questions. And I also look forward to the panel discussion. Thank you very much.
It looks like we’re having some technical issues over there in Monrovia. Maybe we can ask Alyson Grunder to step in while they’re figuring out the microphone issues.
Wilson Center Senior Diplomatic Fellow Alyson Grunder
So, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, thank you so much for your remarks opening this discussion. I’m Alyson Grunder, Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Wilson Center. Elias had prepared a question for you and I’m going to read it for him.
During your assignment in Liberia, many Liberians knew you as the roving ambassador because your presence was almost ubiquitous, profoundly deepening the United States influence across the country. You played a pivotal role on the steering committee of Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy from 2008 to 2011, which consolidated peace and security and the overall recovery of Liberia. Over the period of your service in Liberia, what did you find unique about Liberia-U.S. relations relative to U.S. relations with other countries across Africa, particularly within the context of U.S. policy for Africa?
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Thank you, Alison. And thank you, Elias, for that question. And it’s an important question because the relationship between the United States and Liberia that we acknowledge has stretched 200 years is a very unique relationship. I mean, we share so many values, so many values of democracy. It’s not just that Liberia established a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence that was similar to ours and named many of the cities after US personalities but it was also because of the connections, not just of the roughly 16,000 African Americans who emigrated, and many of them stayed connected with their relatives in the United States, but it was what the Liberians who came found in this country.
They found 15 very unique ethnic groups. They found a dynamic Liberian culture, and we’ve seen them able to blend that culture into one. You hear Liberians refer to themselves as Liberians. Sometimes I’m in other countries, and people always refer to themselves by their ethnic group. Liberians are Liberians, no matter where Liberians are.
But Liberians acknowledge their differences. And while I was ambassador there, I wanted to experience those differences. So the reason people saw me all over the country is I wanted to make sure that I got into Pelle Land or I went to Bassa Country, and I would spend time in Lofa County because the Lofans claim me, having lived and worked in Lofa County in the 1970s when I was a student and I was given the name Sia and as the firstborn and I’ve kept that name Sia since I left but I made sure that there was no corner of Liberia that I didn’t visit and no people were you know, people that I couldn’t engage with. So I did go into the marketplace and sit with market women and go to the coffee shops and sit with the young students and drink tai, just to hear what they were thinking. For me the most important title that I ever got in Liberia was not roving ambassador, it was the people’s ambassador because I felt it important that I engage with people every single day.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Okay. Thank you very much for those insights, Madam Ambassador. We do appreciate your willingness to make time for one more question from a Liberian journalist, Mae Azango. Ms. Azango, please go ahead.
Journalist Mae Azango
Thank you. It’s good to see you again, Ambassador Thomas Greenfield. Okay, I have one quick question. Ambassador McCarthy has voiced his anger with corruption and mismanagement in the Liberian government. Is the U.S. going to further impose sanctions on the administration figures?
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Again, thank you for that question. And as you saw, prominent in my own remarks were my concerns about corruption and I know that Ambassador McCarthy has been raising these concerns directly with government officials as all of the previous ambassadors, regardless of when they were in Liberia. This is not a new problem for Liberia, but it is a problem that I think is more prominent now because of the impact that is having on the country given that you have just gone through the pandemic and we’re dealing with all of the consequences of even the Ebola crisis that set the country back so far. So I won’t preview what we are thinking and how we will deal with this issue as we relate to Liberia but I know that Ambassador McCarthy has this at the top of his agenda and every meeting that he has with government officials, it is something that, as I noted, the leadership has to address. If Liberia is going to have a future, Liberians have to have confidence in their government and have confidence that their government is doing right by the people. And at this moment, there are some questions about that.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you very much, Madam Ambassador, for your presence here today, even as you have very important business at the U.N. Your continuing interest in Liberia means a lot here in this discussion today, and I’m aware that you have to depart now and wish you all the best in your efforts in New York. Thank you.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Good. Thank you very much. And I’m actually sorry I can’t listen to the panel discussion, but for all my former ambassador friends, I’d love to be in touch and catch up with you. You always have a place in my heart and I look forward to us engaging together on what’s happening in Liberia as well as what’s happening around the continent of Africa.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you very much. Okay. I will now turn to our panel of four former U.S. Ambassadors to Liberia, the first time, to my knowledge, that there has ever been such a gathering, albeit virtually. As I ask a broad question of each of them, I will go in chronological order of their service in Liberia, beginning with Ambassador Blaney. Ambassador Blaney, the United States’s initial reticence for direct intervention from the inception of Liberia’s civil crisis in 1989 caused many Liberians to question the commitment of the United States to its historic ties with Liberia.
You served as the United States Ambassador in Liberia at a very critical period during the U.S. decisive intervention, which brought about effective end to the second wave of Liberia’s 14 year crisis in 2003. And now as the United States ambassador to Liberia at that critical period, how difficult do you think it was for the United States to arrive at that defining decision for direct intervention in Liberia’s violent conflict?
And then an addendum to that question would be how do you think that decision has shaped U.S.-Liberia ties in subsequent years and moving forward?
Ambassador John W. Blaney
Well, first of all, let me thank the organizers for inviting me here today. It’s an honor, and I’m very pleased to help in this commemoration. I also want to make clear that I’m not trying to be cool up here and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger although the resemblance is, of course, there. Just kidding. But I have had some eye operations so I’m obliged to wear these. But moving on, let me try to address that multipart question.
To get a better answer that I’m going to give you, because it would take too long, I would like to commend to you this book, which is a book by Dante Paradiso entitled The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy. It’s really the definitive treatise on what happened then and who did what and why the Embassy did what it did.
But let me move on to give it to you in shorthand. So let’s go back together, if we can, to 2003 almost 20 years ago. It was a desperate time. It was a terrible time. It was a time when more than 250,000 people had lost their lives. The country was devastated. Two rebel armies were marching on the capital, Monrovia.
And really the larger rebel army, the LURD, was besieging the capital. And where was John Blaney at this moment? Well, John Blaney was there but moved on to the peace negotiations which were actually held in Ghana, not in Liberia. And I was there helping to write the comprehensive peace agreement when we came on to a major a set of problems that really came from the fact that the ceasefires that we had negotiated were not being honored.
They were being broken over and over again. And the whole process was in grave danger. So after consultations with General Abubakar, the head of the peace process, I decided I would go back to Monrovia and see what I could do on the ground. And when I got there and before, I realized there were really three interrelated objectives that I had to accomplish. And a fourth one that I’ll mention later, since you added on that question.
The first one was that President Charles Taylor was still in power, and he was there despite the pleas of many heads of state, of many groups that wanted him out of power. I knew and both rebel armies had stated and lots of others had stated that his stepping down and leaving Liberia was a prerequisite for peace.
A prerequisite for peace. And so that is what I had to do. And this comes directly to your point about the timing of the intervention. You know, if the international community had intervened, as it was requested to do before he left power — that would have been a shield for him to remain in power. And that would not have satisfied the combatant parties whose primary objective was to oust him.
So we knew that. And we also were cognizant of earlier interventions. You’re going to have to take your Wayback Machine here. But back in the 1990s, there was an international intervention called ECOMOG, which moved in. And the idea was that ECOMOG would be peacekeepers, but they ended up combatants. And the whole thing was really a mess.
So we had that experience in mind. We didn’t want our peacekeepers to become combatants, and we wanted there to be a clear path to peace. And that could only happen if Charles Taylor stepped down and left. So that was the first objective. And my job on that was to facilitate his departure and in doing so, among other things, I made it clear that our view was that his side, the government side, was losing the war. And I also made it clear that the international community was not prepared to intervene prior to his departure.
So while that was going on, I also had to be thinking about the second objective, which was that there be no power vacuum after he stepped down. This was a very serious concern because, you know, remember that there were over a million displaced persons jammed into Monrovia running from the fighting at that period of time, plus, of course, the population of Monrovia.
And we didn’t want to see any power struggle, any massacre, the fighting moving downtown amongst them. So with that in mind, I decided to risk — even before Charles Taylor left power — battlefield negotiations and to push a proposal that I put on radio and television that the primary rebel army, the LURD, pull back from Bushrod Island, that was it occupying back to the Po River, and that international peacekeepers be allowed to come in between government forces and the LURD and serve as a buffer and thereby stop the fighting.
I’ll talk about that again in a minute. But meanwhile, let me move on to the third objective, which was Washington’s role in this. How did we get to the point of intervention? As is made clear in Dante Paradiso’s book, there were there was a schism in Washington about what to do. To be sure, the Embassy and its personnel were under bombardment. There was grave risk. But in order to understand why that reluctance to become involved at all was there, you have to remember what else was going on in 2003. What else was happening? Well, 2003 was the same year that the United States became deeply involved in Iraq. And if you’ll recall, President Bush was on an aircraft carrier with a big sign that said Mission Accomplished and it wasn’t accomplished.
And so what happened was we became more and more involved in that situation. Plus, of course, we were already fighting a war in Afghanistan. So the Department of Defense was understandably worried about the risk of the personnel in the Embassy, but also didn’t want to open up another front in Liberia. Fortunately, while I was arguing to stay, give me more time to work this equation, to deal with it and to try to force the peace, I had on my side Colin Powell, who was then Secretary of State. And Colin Powell and I argued that, you know, first of all, we had this very grave humanitarian problem where if we withdrew — because we were the only Embassy left there, all the others had had left — there would be all these people put directly at risk in the middle of a continuing war. We also argued that we had this strong historic relationship with Liberia, one that we should honor, in Liberia’s darkest hour. So we shouldn’t pull out. And we also argued that if we did pull out, there was a good chance that the nation state of Liberia would disintegrate and all the problems that would create.
So this argument went three times to the President of the United States himself. And it was quite acrimonious, as Dante’s book points out. And Rumsfeld was the individual arguing for us to pull out. And I don’t mean draw down. I mean pull out completely. And Secretary of State Powell was arguing for us to stay and give me more time to work the equation for peace.
And the decision by President Bush came down to saying that I would decide, the person on the ground would decide whether to stay or leave. That gave me the opportunity to stay and see what I could do. And that’s when we took those little convoys across No-Man’s Land to try to force the end of the fighting. I should add that with me on that small little convoy were a lot of heroic people, but also General Okonkwo, the head of ECOMIL, was right beside me.
And so was General Turner, the head of Joint Task Force Liberia. This was a flotilla that contained a lot of Marines that was off shore but out of sight and did not have any instructions at that point. But nevertheless, General Turner volunteered to go with me, to go through No Man’s Land and meet with General Cobra, the commanding general of the LURD. There were spirited negotiations, and after those negotiations concluded, the proposals that I made to separate the armies and LURD to withdraw were incorporated in LURD’s unilateral declaration and essentially the ECOMIL peacekeepers did serve in that buffer area and the fighting came to an end. I did the same sort of drill later on with MODEL in the South, putting peacekeepers in between them and government forces. But it worked. I mean, we had done all this without instructions, so I got a few phone calls, but it did work. I should mention that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement then was reinvigorated and it came to fruition and was finally completed a couple of weeks later.
So, you know, generally, without U.S. presence on the ground, I don’t think any of this would have happened. But let me talk about the fourth objective that came later on. Which was, after war the fighting had stopped. After we had the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there were still major, major problems. And the first among them was to keep the war from restarting. And that was a major task that continued for a long time.
But that was only one of many tasks, because you see everything in Liberia was destroyed. The economy was flat lined. We had a huge humanitarian crisis. We had tens of thousands of combatants from all sides going around the streets carrying their automatic weapons. It was really quite challenging. And fortunately to deal with all this, we had later on UNMIL.
UNMIL was the group of peacekeepers from the United Nations that swelled to 15,000 that remained for years. And it absorbed ECOMIL, the original West African peacekeeping force. And, you know, Jacques Klein, who was the first commander of UNMIL, did a great job and we did things together like disarmament of over 100,000 combatants, demobilization, repatriation, and reconstruction.
And we also had a program of security sector reform. And the United States took the lead on that of rebuilding a new Liberian army, a smaller one, had to be from scratch. And also working to have a better police force. So these are just some of the problems that we faced. I’m sure Don is going to have much more to say about that since I left for him a lot to do.
But to answer your question, in general, what would have happened had the United States pulled out? Well, I think the war would have clearly continued indefinitely. I think there would have been a large loss of life, likely the disintegration of the country, perhaps to a Somalia West type of situation. And I believe the whole region would have been much more destabilized than it is.
But, you know, in sum, this was a victory for everybody. That’s what I want to stress. Liberians, the international community, NGOs who worked on this problem, the United States, of course, all the combatant parties, everybody won with this outcome. And I’m very proud of it, obviously.
And I just want to, however, note that I grieve for the many who lost their lives during the long years of the war. And I want to pay a special tribute to those people on Embassy grounds, including members of my staff, Liberians who lost their lives during the bombardment and the other fire that we took on the compound.
And lastly, I want to commend all of my heroic staff who volunteered to stay there with me and help made this happen. You did a fabulous job and you’ll stay in my thoughts forever. Thank you.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you very much, Ambassador Blaney, for those very inspiring insights and for your enormous contribution to ending a very dark chapter in Liberia’s history. I will now turn to Ambassador Donald E. Booth. Ambassador Booth, during your tenure in Liberia, saw you coordinate the United States effort in ensuring a monumental transition through peaceful, free and democratic elections, which ended over a decade of violent civil war in Liberia and brought about the first elected female president in Africa.
How confident were you during that period that the 2005 general and presidential elections would have laid the basis for durable peace, democratic transformation, and economic recovery in Liberia, particularly with the new administration historically been led by a female president. And my follow up to that question would be, can the overall U.S. support for an intervention in those processes be a model for the United States engagement on the continent of Africa?
Ambassador Donald E. Booth
Thank you very much, Elias, and thank you to all of the Wilson Center for organizing this event.
You’ve raised a very interesting question there. The 2005 election when I arrived in August of 2005 was scheduled to be held in October. But the fact that it would be held was nowhere near certain. In fact, I would say by September, when there were challenges by people, one person in particular whose name was not put on the ballot with the other 22 candidates managed to get the then Supreme Court of the transitional government to order a delay in the elections.
And I think everyone agreed that a delay was simply a way to keep the transitional authorities in power. And the transitional authorities had degenerated into a level of corruption that was so severe that an idea that had been originated with Ambassador Blaney, we took forward with support of the entire International Contact Group for Liberia, including particularly the Nigerian and Ghanaian partners, ECOWAS, and the African Union to create the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program to try to stem the theft, as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield put it, of the state resources by those in positions of power.
In order to make sure that the election actually occurred. We did have to call again on the great peace mediator, General Abubakar, from Nigeria, to come up and have some very frank discussions behind closed doors which resulted in a reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision and the election did go forward in October. Before that election, I spent my first two months there meeting with 21 of the 22 presidential candidates for very lengthy discussions. And a key point that I made to all of them was the expectation of the United States that they would respect the outcome of what we felt was being organized as a free and fair election.
And indeed, we did get that commitment from all of them. When George Weah did not prevail in the second round, even though he had come out with the plurality of votes in the first round, we had a very interesting demonstration demanding the United States reverse the election. Of course, we refused to do that. We met with now-President Weah, then George Weah, the candidate, and over the course of about five hours of discussion, brought him around to the idea that he would indeed accept the results of the election. We then helped to organize a meeting between him and President-elect Sirleaf so that they could smooth over some of the differences that they had. And ultimately, George Weah appeared at her inauguration in January of 2006.
Laying the foundation for durable peace. There were many aspects involved in that. Ambassador Blaney has mentioned the role of the UN peacekeeping force UNMIL which was absolutely essential, I think, in keeping the peace in Liberia. There were many times that there were large demonstrations in Monrovia at that time, which the UN was able to keep from spiraling out of control. But I think in general the Liberian people by 2005 were genuinely tired of war and were ready to move on and give something else a try. And I think that was absolutely even more critical than the presence of the 15,000 UN peacekeepers.
The security situation. You had a country where you had a hundred thousand combatants demobilized, very disjointed reintegration programs, some getting stipends to go to school, others going into training programs. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to put that into a coherent program.
You had no armed forces; the AFL was completely demobilized. And indeed I spent most of my three years there very much focused on the rebuilding of the 2000-man, new Liberian armed forces. There was a lot of debate about whether a 2000 man force was sufficient, whether it was even worthwhile. It was certainly worthwhile, I think, for the national pride and for the national budget.
Just to insert a bit of context: Liberia, being a dollar economy, had to function on a cash basis. And in 2005 when I arrived, the National Budget was $80 million. I think by 2007, we’d been able to increase the revenues up to about $130 million. So a 2000-man force was already a great strain on this budget, even though the U.S. was funding the training and equipping and development of the bases, etc. for that army. The police was left to the United Nations to try to reform and strengthen. And again, this was a very much a very difficult task. It was felt that you could not completely demobilize the police and start from scratch because somebody had to be there to try to maintain law and order other than international peacekeepers. The result was a very corrupt police force, which eventually the United Nations asked the United States to step in and help create some semblance of a more effective force. And the United States trained and equipped a rapid response force, which I think became the nucleus of the revitalized Liberian police force.
Economic recovery. Again, we pursued the GEMAP program. When President Sirleaf took office, she agreed to form an economic governance steering committee, which had the major partner countries from Europe, the United States and Africa, as well as the UN, to try to help with the rebuilding of the country.
Literally, everything had been destroyed during the Taylor time. And so just rebuilding structures where government operations could occur out in the counties was a major focus, the Liberia infrastructure program. The rebuilding of the school system, of a health system. One of the things that I’m very proud of is that I managed in my tenure there to convince Peace Corps to come back to Liberia, and they agreed to come back to go to the teacher training institutes, which USAID had rehabilitated and reestablished, but economic recovery really depended upon getting some Liberian access to its natural resources, rubber and iron ore. And at the time, we did have then the expansion of Firestone’s investments. We had the arrival of ArcelorMittal to try to revitalize the old LAMCO mines. But these were long-term projects. And so the economic recovery was inevitably going to be slow, but it was on the right track. I think infrastructure began to be rebuilt. The World Bank came in, did some a major road project first in Monrovia and then outside of Monrovia. This was all very important.
The democratic transformation of Liberia was also not assured by the 2005 election. The country remained very divided. Some people say it’s Americo versus indigenous. I found that it was much more of a “book, no book” divide. It was more of a coastal, up-country divide. And you know, the celebration now of 200 years of the settlers arriving and the formation of modern Liberia is indeed something to be celebrated.
But I think it still does rankle a lot of indigenous Liberians. I remember the great debate over the seal itself. “The love of liberty brought us here.” The image of the ships arriving and suddenly, you know, as though this was empty land that Liberia was created on was quite controversial. And I think that that continues. I think it’s something that will be a work in progress. But because I think the real divide is “book, no book,” that education in Liberia is going to be a key to success of nation building.
I think the significance of President Sirleaf being the first female elected leader in Africa gave her a great advantage in that as a woman, she was able to overcome the “book, no book” divide. She could connect with women throughout Liberia. And I saw this very clearly on one trip I took with her to Fishtown, a place that was neither a town nor had any fish but it was a county capital, one of the artificial counties created by Charles Taylor.
And the elders were all there and the women were sitting behind them. And one of the women got up and presented President Sirleaf with a goat and she made it very clear that this was a billy goat. This was a male. “And you as president, you’re the female. You were the boss of this billy goat.” I understand there were a few repercussions after the delegation left for some of the women, but the point was made that she had empowered the women of Liberia.
Her connection with the market women in Monrovia was also well known. So that, I think, really helped her in terms of the initial healing in nation building and bridging this divide. And I think was very important.
In terms of can this U.S. support and engagement in Liberia be a model elsewhere in Africa? I’m a bit skeptical. When I was serving as ambassador in Ethiopia, my late colleague, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who was the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan at the time, came to see me and ask about the application of the GEMAP model to South Sudan, which was also at the time mired in corruption as a newly independent state.
And it was quite clear that only in Liberia was there the willingness to partner with the United States in a way to go beyond what any other sovereign state really was willing to do. So I think this would be a very hard relationship to replicate. And I think this is what really is unique about the U.S.-Liberia relationship, is this sense of a feeling on both sides, but particularly on the Liberian side of a desire to work together. As Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said her mission was to help Liberia succeed. That was certainly my mission when I was there. And it really was one of the pinnacles of my career was to serve as the U.S. ambassador and to help Liberia through a very difficult transition period. Thank you.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you very much, Ambassador, both for your analysis and for your service in Liberia. And later in Zambia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Sudan. I will now turn to Ambassador Deborah Malac. Ambassador Malac, Liberia considers you as one of its Ebola heroes. You facilitated the unprecedented United States response, which assisted Liberia to defeat Ebola from 2014 and 2015. This effort involved multiple U.S. agencies on the Operation United Assistance, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Response Team, along with many other U.S. agencies already resident in country. At the end of your tenure, you also facilitated the signing of a compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation and commenced the U.S.- Liberia Partnership dialogue. Ambassador Malac, what do you think was the motivation behind the unprecedented response of the United States to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, in West Africa, at the time? A follow up to that question, do you believe that that stunning U.S. response has impacted the future of U.S.-Liberia talks and U.S. response to infectious diseases globally?
Ambassador Deborah R. Malac
Thank you, Elias. And let me just say again, thanks to the organizers and the opportunity to be here among such a distinguished group of people. What folks need to realize first is that because Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield came after Don Booth, we had had a few years to build on the work that John Blaney and Ambassador Booth had done and that Linda did as well.
So there was progress in many areas. And when I arrived in Liberia in late 2012, and working through that first year, in 2013, we were working with the government to continue to make progress in all of these different streams. And we all anticipate it that 2014 would be a very different year than it proved to be.
There were a number of seminal projects that were on the threshold to be launched. There were efforts underway on the economic side to diversify the economy, to try to make some progress in strengthening private sector activity. And then Ebola struck. And so, you know, as an ambassador it was hardly what I would have anticipated was going to be my life’s work in Liberia would be to fight a disease like Ebola. But obviously you deal with what you’re what comes to you.
But you know, the U.S. government was involved from the beginning. We did everything we could, starting in March when the first cases arrived in Liberia to do what we could to strengthen the government’s capacity to respond to the disease. We brought in CDC, we brought in the lab expertise. We set up testing possibilities. We worked with other partners and with the government to do what we what we could to help beat back the disease. And in those early months, we were relatively successful. And the government of Liberia, President Sirleaf, was quite appreciative of the work that we did. But it was clear to all of us when Ebola hit Monrovia, which was the first time this disease had appeared in an urban area anywhere in the world, given the packed conditions, when things exploded, it was clear that what we were doing was not nearly sufficient and we needed to do more.
But what we got initially from Washington was resistance — not because we didn’t want to be helpful — but it was very difficult to imagine how the U.S. government responds on a crisis footing to a disease outbreak. That was something very different than we had ever done. And so we looked for assistance through the traditional mechanisms, you know, a USAID disaster response team. I was asking for that very early in the year. It took several months before we were able to get approval and a decision that this was absolutely needed because that was not the way we approached disease fighting. We had a crisis response for humanitarian disaster, and we had crisis response for natural disasters, but for diseases, it was not something that we did.
So just getting the U.S. government to the point of understanding how small scale and traditional responses were not going to be sufficient given the scope of the problem that was confronting us, not just in Liberia, obviously, but throughout the three most heavily affected countries, took a lot of work, but ultimately, one of the key deciding factors was obviously the relationship with 200 years of history that we have with Liberia. The understanding that we had also, in the wake of the civil war, invested a large amount of U.S. resources into helping stabilize the country, helping to rebuild the country, helping Liberians to build a path to a brighter future. We could not put that investment at risk.
It would have taken things in such a backward direction that there was never any question that the U.S. government would do something and would figure out what to do. But it took time to figure out what that would look like. So we always knew something would be coming and something more would be coming. But it took a lot of work on the part of our embassy and working with President Sirleaf to persuade the US government that we needed to do things differently. You can quibble about the scope of the response, whether it was the most cost effective way to do things. There were a lot of lessons that we learned from it, but it has created now a model or mechanism whereby the U.S. government can better respond to disease outbreaks overseas going forward.
And certainly we saw some of that working with the Zika virus with its spread around the globe. That was the sort of second disease outbreak following Ebola in West Africa and then with COVID of course, it’s sort of, you know, trebled or quadrupled. It’s a much larger response. But some of the things that we did that we found out would work, are being utilized even now.
One of the key points that we need reinforced is this understanding that having capacity to fight disease in countries, in every single country, is absolutely critical. Waiting to build that capacity, as we had to do in Liberia, basically starting from scratch, in the middle of a crisis while you are fighting a disease is not the best and most effective way to do things. And so continuing to find ways to invest consistently, working with host governments to build their own capacity to respond, is going to be critical. And that you have to maintain a level of investment.
You know, I can’t say enough about the Liberian partners that we had during the fight against Ebola. The government, of course, was all in in terms of figuring out what needed to happen and making people available. And we found an incredible number of very talented Liberians who were able to come together and create that public health capacity that continues today and has given the Liberian ability to respond to COVID in a way that they would not have been able to do five or six or eight years ago or ten years ago.
And so that capacity has continued. The challenge is how you keep that going forward. But absolutely, a lesson learned from all of this is that the value of investments in public health are absolutely critical because they’re in our interests as the U.S., but they’re in every country’s interests because we’ve seen now with COVID how quickly these things can spread around the world and waiting until it’s already a problem doesn’t help.
But I think the other take-away, of course, is that all of this progress that started with Ambassador Blaney as he helped move the process out of war through Ambassador Booth, through Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s work, was all put at risk by this disease. And I think it was only in 2015, as we got to zero, we were declared Ebola free, that we were able to look back and see how close the country came to complete economic collapse. I can remember a briefing that all the ambassadors went to that was given by the finance minister, sometime in the first half of 2015, and the numbers that were put on the board. As Ambassador Booth said, it was a very small economy in the first place. But when you saw the numbers and how close to zero everything came as people were desperately moving money around within the budget to support the activities that were needed to make sure there were adequate supplies. It was a very stark picture. And so there we sat in 2015 with a country that was only 13, 14 years out of crisis, out of war, still trying to rebuild and suddenly a huge setback on the economic side.
So figuring out how do you how do you come back from that and continue to make progress was extremely difficult. Obviously, we were thrilled that we had the opportunity to get the MCC Compact. Ultimately that helped deliver electricity, power, because a number of power projects that had been poised to come online in 2014 didn’t happen until many, many years later because of Ebola so it’s the kind of thing that people don’t always think about the economic impact of a disease outbreak. But it was real and we lived through it during the course of the Ebola outbreak. I think I’ll stop there but thank you again for the opportunity.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you Ambassador Malac for your response today and your robust support of Liberia during the Ebola crisis. Thank you. I will now turn to Ambassador Elder. Ambassador Elder, during your assignment in Liberia, the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, ended its 15-year mission in 2018 and you also oversaw U.S. support for the successful 2017 general and presidential elections in Liberia which allowed for the historic democratic transition in 2018 from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to President George Weah. As the most senior U.S. official on the ground in Monrovia at that time, providing support and working to ensure a free, transparent and democratic electoral process in Liberia’s 2017 general elections, what were the concerns in Washington during the elections considering the significant investments of the United States in restoring and consolidating peace and security in Liberia from 2003 to 2017. A follow up to that question would be, what are some positive lessons Liberians should take from that experience?
Ambassador Christine A. Elder
It is an honor to be with all of you today, and particularly with my colleagues, and hearing the stories and connecting the dots. It really does take you back and certainly no diplomat, whether ambassador or anybody on our team, no diplomat goes to Liberia seeking a Monday through Friday, 40-hour week. It’s always hard work but it’s always very rewarding work. I really commend, hearing these truly extraordinary times that that our colleagues and our teams worked through, what has been achieved.
Yes, I arrived in 2016 so the year before those elections and there was still the Ebola hangover — probably not the right word — but some Ebola cases were still popping up. The economic impact was still very much felt. Recovery is not flipping a switch from something that devastating. The recovery was starting, but, really only just.
And at the same time, UNMIL — which had been extended to help provide some of the logistical underpinnings for that Ebola effort that Ambassador Malac talked about — they were scheduled to leave. It was about a year before the election and this had been long-decided. Peacekeeping operations are very much in demand around the world. And they can’t flip on a switch either. They were already planned to go; those resources were planned already for another crisis.
But, they had provided such support in Liberia, not just logistically but psychologically. It just didn’t make sense after all of this investment — and not just by the United States, but by all of our partners and by the U.N. and by the Liberians and the African Union and ECOWAS and all of the regional partners — to have [UNMIL] them leave, months essentially before the election, which could have been and turned out to be the first political transition, democratic political transition, in Liberia’s history.
So even though the decision had already been made for them to leave, there was real debate about reversing that and giving one more extension because there were consequences. There are always consequences, particularly when decisions are made on a short string. And with a lot of debate in New York and in capitals and on the ground in Liberia, there was a unanimous consensus among the permanent five members to extend the UNMIL mission, but just through the election and inauguration and then to wrap it up. And even though at that point it was a very, very minimal presence, just a psychological impact, too, of seeing the blue helmets, particularly in Monrovia, and in the more urban areas where unrest would have been more likely definitely had a calming effect. And perhaps more importantly, the engagement also of the very experienced SRSG and the U.N. agencies, that helped with that.
But certainly, 2017 is a milestone that I think the Liberian people should be very proud of. It’s never easy. Elections are often messy and difficult. And this was certainly no exception to that. Like Ambassador Booth, I offered to meet with all of the candidates at that time and met with most, except, of course, warlords, and some other folks for various reasons, but I think over 20 in the end. And yes, the U.S. investment was considerable, but not just at the election point, over many years, working with the National Elections Commission, with women, teaching them how to be candidates and to be representing their communities as well. This is something that you undertake over years and in close coordination with our other development partners there. And we try to make sure to stretch our investments as much as we can by taking different pieces of it, so that it really did add up to a stronger infrastructure, not just for elections per se, but all of the important pieces that go into that.
And that was one of the great joys for me professionally — how harmoniously and strategically all of the development partners work together and with the Liberians, both at the government level, but with NGOs and with local communities. It was just a really strong cross-section of society and many different elements of the U.S. government coming together as well. It was really one of the most productive examples of collaboration that that I’ve ever been involved in. As Linda Thomas-Greenfield said so eloquently, our job was to help the Liberians succeed. And the fact that there were free and fair elections, that’s success — and with very, very minimal violence. And it was an election that the all international observers, you know, stood behind.
You asked about concern in Washington leading up to the elections. And, of course, there is always concern and there certainly was concern. I was communicating early and often with a number of different stakeholders and also getting input and communicating the developments on the ground. That was part of how — again starting early on — and this is how we got support for an extension of the peacekeeping mission.
And there were times where the United States — sometimes on our own, sometimes in a sequence with our development partners — felt that we needed to speak out and deliver some messages to make sure that the process continued on a positive trajectory. There were some times at which the process itself seemed to get in the way. When there were disputes — which again, that in and of itself was not any kind of problem — but the process of the disputes and the appeals to the appeals of the appeals of the disputes, at some point, there was the math of that timeline. Liberians started running out of runway to land the plane of the election and the final results in time to meet their constitutional deadlines for when an inauguration needs to happen. So ultimately, the broader concerns were to avoid a constitutional crisis as well, which is for no country, a place you want to land with a national election.
And so ultimately, it was a little messy at times, but the rule of law prevailed and Liberia worked through its processes and worked it out. And I really do commend everybody who was involved but particularly, at the local levels. If your other question was about lessons learned, carrying it forward, sometimes looking forward, progress doesn’t always mean “high tech.”
One of the lessons that really was very, very clear to me in going around to election precincts to observe the voting was that it’s a small country — probably a little bit over 2 million voters, something like that. There’s always a temptation to want to go after high-tech, electronic voting machines, but in a country like Liberia, you must consider the ability to maintain such things or to train people on them, putting aside the issue of affording the machines. The old fashioned way works in a place like Liberia. That every single party was allowed to be in every single room in every single precinct was important.
When the votes were cast and when the votes were tallied, people were permitted to take a cell phone picture of this. And when this is happening everywhere, it was virtually impossible for the end results, to come out differently or significantly differently than what this all added up to because there was all of this evidence already established.
And so I think going forward, one lesson I would say is to resist the temptation to try to fix a piece of this that isn’t broken and that is to do voting in the way that lends the most transparency and integrity to the process. And that was a piece that actually did work very well and gave people confidence that the votes were being counted and that the process was solid because the room was packed with every single party or they had the opportunity to be there at least. So I think that’s one of the big lessons is transparency and integrity of the elections. And in this case, I think the way Liberia has done that piece of it, with support, of course for the observers and for being able to help those people to get into the rooms, was a key part of the success there.
And then the other thing I think is just remembering you have to protect progress. And it’s so easy, particularly in the heat of elections and campaigning, it’s easy to get people fired up. It’s easy to pour fuel on these fires. But you can lose in a day, progress that takes decades to build. And if it is destroyed with foolishness versus natural disaster or something else, the ability for partners to come in and help rebuild is diminished significantly, if that does happen. So, just always keep in the front of mind, protect the progress. It takes so long to build and it’s so hard to not let that fall victim in elections. Protect your roads, protect Mount Coffee, maintain these valuable elements of your infrastructure, invest in the education of your kids.
You know, I think one of Dr. Sawyer’s — who many Liberians are thinking of this week — one of his lasting contributions will be the civics book series that he was working on and trying to teach kids at another way to be responsible citizens and to think about these things a little bit more. Protect the progress.
Moderator B. Elias Shoniyin
Thank you very, very much, Ambassador Elder, for those compelling thoughts and for your dedicated service in Liberia. We wish you very well and best wishes in your new assignment in Australia down under. Thank you. Okay. I wish we had more time but I’m very glad we were able to hear from each one of you who have had such a profound impact on U.S.-Liberia relations.
It has been a pleasure to moderate this program. I’m now turning over to Honorable Ambassador Michael A. McCarthy, the current U.S. Ambassador in Liberia, for his closing remarks. Thank you again.
Ambassador Michael A. McCarthy
Elias, thank you so much for your agile moderation of this fascinating discussion today. Thank you also to Alyson Grunder and the Wilson Center for hosting and to our very distinguished panel of former ambassadors to Liberia for sharing their experiences and reflections, as well as their hopes for the U.S.- Liberia partnership moving forward. And it is moving to think of the generations of U.S. diplomats who’ve served in Liberia since 1864 and who’ve helped build our productive, warm, and enduring partnership.
Last year, Secretary Blinken honored the legacy of Moses Hopkins, who was born into enslavement, but was appointed in 1885 as minister and head of legation to Liberia. In 2020, we lost Ambassador Edward Perkins, who was ambassador to Liberia before going on to become the first African-American ambassador to South Africa. And in 2021, we also lost Bill Swing, whose tour in Monrovia was his second of six ambassadorial postings. So I was struck as I was listening to my predecessors — on whose shoulders I now stand — at the depth and genuineness of their feelings for Liberia and for the tireless effort they have invested in this amazing country which is so closely tied to our own.
In February, we had both a presidential and a congressional delegation visit Liberia and take part in the commemorations of the bicentennial year, which, as you know, is also the 175th anniversary of Liberia’s independence to be celebrated in July. And these high level visits and this forum today demonstrate the importance we place on the close and enduring U.S.-Liberia relationship which binds together two of the oldest continuous republics in the world. In the meantime, and in closing, let me stress how much we cherish our shared hard-won values of multicultural diversity and democratic freedoms.
Inspired by the insights expressed today, we will continue to work with our Liberian partners to foster peace and security and advance economic prosperity and development. Thank you, and good evening from Monrovia. And I am now officially closing this program. Thank you very much. Bye now.