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Understanding America's Obligations in Africa's Newest Trouble Zone:
The Representations the U.S. Made, and How Liberia Relied on Them


Thursday, Jul. 24, 2003

This week, after 14 years of civil war, a rebel army composed primarily of teenagers with outdated rifles attacked Monrovia, Liberia's seaside capital. The fighting has killed hundreds of civilians, filled refugee camps and led to an outbreak of disease. It has also pushed hundreds of thousands of civilians into Monrovia, swelling the normal population of 1 million. The rebels seized the main port and airport and now control food, water and fuel coming into the country. Looting is widespread. Bodies are scattered throughout the streets.

Despite a cease-fire and ongoing peace talks in neighboring Ghana, Liberia seems to be descending into chaos. The main rebel group behind the attacks, Liberians United for Reconstruction and Democracy (LURD), alternates between calling for a halt in the attacks, and saying that it will fight any interfering peacekeeping forces.

Ominously, the insurgents seem to be concentrating their attacks on the U.S. embassy compound, where thousands of terrified civilians have gathered. Frenzied and desperate Liberians piled mutilated corpses in front of the embassy's shuttered gates. The situation grows worse by the hour.

Many have called upon the U.S. to intervene, citing its "special relationship" with Liberia - which was founded by freed U.S. slaves. Few accounts have detailed, however, precisely what the nature of this "special relationship" has been and why, from a moral perspective, it imposes obligations on the U.S..

In this column, I will use a legal concept drawn from contract law to explain the basis for the U.S.'s responsibility toward Liberia. The concept is "detrimental reliance." A contract is an exchange of promises. When one party breaks its promise, and the other has relied on that promise and suffers as a consequence, the latter party is said to have "detrimentally relied."

Liberia detrimentally relied on a number of promises and representations - explicit and implicit - made by the U.S. over the past century and a half. Historically, the United States has acted in such a way as to represent that it will provide for Liberia's economic well being and security. But over history, it has often let Liberia down - at no time more conspicuously than now.

In a contract case in which detrimental reliance is shown, the remedy is damages. In this human rights crisis, the proper remedy is aid; humanitarian intervention; and the U.S.'s sending troops immediately to stabilize Liberia and protect innocent persons there from further atrocities.

The "Special Relationship" Between Liberia and the U.S. : Lengthy and Deep

As a review of Liberian-U.S. ties will show, America's special relationship is based on its using Liberia's resources to advance its security interests, and for economic gain.

In the early 19th century, Paul Cuffe, a wealthy African-American merchant from Massachusetts, became convinced that the only way that American blacks could become self-governing was to emigrate to Africa. To this end, he created a transportation company called the American Colonization Society. With the U.S. government's approval, the Society began to resettle free American blacks in Liberia.

Those pioneers were the original Americo-Liberians. In the small tropical nation, they quickly became the ruling group, assuming all positions of power and influence. Soon they constituted a U.S.-friendly elite. (It was also an elite whose skin color was typically lighter than that of the original Liberians. Sadly, then, the Americo-Liberians created a hierarchy that, in this respect, mirrored the racial hierarchy they had endured in the U.S..)

In the 1920's - in large part because of the presence of this friendly elite, and that of a considerable U.S. naval fleet just offshore - the U.S.-based Firestone Tire and Rubber Company founded the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia. The company installed Americo-Liberians in positions of power, and the small elite rose to economic prominence.

Subsequently, Liberia's president, William Tubman - who ruled from 1944 to 1971 - allowed the CIA to build the largest spy station in all of Africa within his borders. During the Cold War, the U.S. sank billions of dollars into developing surveillance equipment in Liberia. Liberia also functioned as a U.S. outpost from which the U.S. sought to undermine national liberation movements throughout the continent.

After Tubman's death, his successor, President William Tolbert, angered the U.S. by courting favor with China and Cuba. Tolbert also angered most Liberians by showering privileges on his fellow Americo-Liberians. The ethnic and class conflicts between the Americo-Liberians and the darker Liberians grew.

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered by Samuel Doe - an illiterate warlord trained by the U.S. Green Berets. Doe became the first "true" Liberian to rule the country. Doe assassinated most of the former cabinet members as well as his fellow insurgents, and unleashed a wave of ethnic-based terror.

Doe also exploited America's Cold War fears concerning Africa. Famously, President Reagan - who handed Liberia more than $5 billion during the early 1980s - invited Doe to the White House, addressing him as "Chairman Moe."

Charles Taylor's Ascension to the Presidency

Around the same time, Charles Taylor - an Americo-Liberian who had graduated from Bentley College in Massachusetts, and was in prison there on charges of embezzling part of the Liberian national budget - escaped, and returned to Liberia.

Taylor quickly became Doe's main adversary. He led a group of boy soldiers who for years hounded Doe's army and the civilian population from their countryside hideouts. By the mid-1990s, that protracted civil war had claimed more than 200,000 lives. In 1997 - as a result of national presidential elections that international observers concluded were essentially open and fair - Taylor won, garnering more than 75 % of the vote of the war-weary population.

Taylor used his new power to foment instability in neighboring Sierra Leone, in large part so he could mine diamonds there to fund other regional military insurgencies. Indeed, over the past decade, Liberia has been at the center of a complex web of regional battles in West Africa -one that has also consumed Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria - that has involved not only such diamonds, but also illegal arms sales, massive refugee flows, the use of child soldiers and unspeakable human rights abuses.

When the world became aware of the problems of "conflict diamonds" - illegally mined and traded diamonds that could fund arms trade and terrorism - Taylor diversified his business interests, in ominous ways.

Recently, the Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the links between illegal harvesting of Liberia's tropical rain forests and illegal arms smuggling in the area. The report noted that U.S. consumers are buying large volumes of wood products from Liberia - though it has been repeatedly sanctioned by the UN because of these sales. The report also noted that, unlike many other countries, the U.S. has failed to ban the import of Liberian wood, and thus to comply with the UN sanctions.

The Al Qaeda Link: The U.S.'s Continuing Interest in Liberia

Currently, the United States is particularly interested in the arms/wood trade in Liberia because Al Qaeda has been funding many of its activities through income sources such as diamonds and timber. Accordingly, Liberian intelligence may offer some help in tracking the financial dealings of Al Qaeda.

In addition, the U.S. fears that a destabilized Liberia could become a training ground for other terrorist groups. Its porous borders, excellent natural wealth and lack of any sort of government or other control make Liberia, in some ways, a perfect base of operations for terrorists. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice recently told the Washington Post that the September 11 attacks showed that such failed states can spawn "so much instability that you begin to see greater sources of terrorism."

The Recent Crisis in Liberia

Though Liberia has been troubled for a long time, the source of its current crisis is surprisingly recent. Seven weeks ago, on June 4, a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone charged Taylor with "bearing the greatest responsibility" for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Shortly thereafter, Taylor promised to leave office.

As a result, a cease-fire among rebel groups was signed, and representatives of the surrounding countries started to plan for a new Liberian government. But when Taylor refused to set a date for his departure, the fighting quickly resumed.

A few weeks ago, Taylor accepted an offer of asylum from the President of Nigeria - who said he would shield Taylor from war crimes charges, but only if Taylor stayed out of Liberian politics. Although Taylor stated in a Wednesday New York Times article that he would step down within 10 days, none of the major rebel groups had been informed of this announcement. Moreover, his claim, coming on the heels of numerous broken promises about his departure, is not convincing.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional security body meeting in Dakar, Senegal, agreed on Wednesday to send in 1,000 peacekeeping troops. But so far, no troops have arrived - nor has a specific date been set for their future arrival. Unfortunately, ECOWAS has indicated that it will only send troops after the fighting stops.

For its own part, the U.S. has demanded that Taylor leave Liberia before it will decide on the deployment of even a limited number of troops for a temporary mission. However, Taylor has refused to leave until peacekeepers arrive - ironically contending that if he did, Liberia would descend into chaos and "total destruction." The result is a stalemate during which Liberians and possibly Americans will continue to die.

A tiny force of 41 Marines arrived Wednesday, July 23, to reinforce security at the American Embassy. This brings the U.S. presence to somewhere between 70 and 100 troops who are primarily there to evacuate Americans and journalists there. The action is so minimal - and so plainly geared towards protecting the Western civilians holed up at the embassy, while at the same time leaving innocent Liberian civilians unprotected - that it is almost insulting.

Unsurprisingly, without a credible threat that troops will soon arrive, the LURD and other rebel groups are pressing ahead with their attacks. Yet the African regional security body and the UN are hesitant to respond - and again, the main culprit seems to be the U.S.'s mixed signals.

For all these reasons, it seems plain that even if the rebels call for a temporary cease-fire, the bombs will continue to fall in Monrovia. It also seems plain that the U.S. is largely to blame for that fact.

Liberia's Detrimental Reliance on U.S. Support

The sources of the U.S.'s responsibility to intervene in Liberia are twofold.

First, throughout Liberia's history, its enduring relationship with the U.S. has brought Liberians to count on the United States for financial support and security. And that is only fair; the U.S. has not only interfered in Liberian politics, but has enhanced its own finances and security greatly as a result of its relationship with Liberia.

Under similar circumstances, France and Britain stepped in and established peace when their former colonies, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, were in turmoil. The U.S. should do the same.

Second, right now Liberians - as well as other West African nations, and the UN itself - are relying to their detriment on the U.S.'s specific promises to send troops - promises that have yet to be fulfilled. Every day this reliance creates greater damage - damage measured in human lives.

It is high time for the U.S. to intervene to help a country that has so long relied on its reciprocal relationship with the U.S., and on U.S. promises. If the U.S. fails to do so, the rapidly growing chaos in Liberia may well develop into a national disaster. And that disaster could further develop into a regional human rights catastrophe.

Indeed, it is important to recall that it was only a decade ago, in Rwanda, that civil unrest led to one of the worse human rights disasters of this century. There, the darker-skinned, subordinate Hutus suddenly, brutally slaughtered the light-skinned minority Tutsis with machetes and other weapons. The U.S. not only failed to intervene at an early stage when it could have stopped the fighting - it also gave mixed signals to the U.N. and African security bodies, further delaying any possible intervention by those bodies. That conflict left half a million dead and scattered a million refugees across the continent. The U.S. owes it to Liberia to prevent a similar outcome there.

As I noted above, a basic principle of U.S. contract law holds that if one makes a promise to someone who is hurt by relying on it, one must account for the damage one has caused. This simple legal -and moral - principle explains why the U.S. is responsible for stopping the Liberian crisis before it becomes even worse.

Noah Leavitt, an attorney, practiced refugee law in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be contacted at

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