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2m 49sec


Portrait of a Failed State.
By John-Peter Pham. Reed Press.
252 pp. $24.95

Liberia aspired at its birth to be a beacon of light and progress for all of Africa, but ended up sliding into absolute anarchy a century and a half later. A civil war starting in 1989 lasted more than a decade, killed five percent of the population and displaced two-thirds, destroyed the fragile infrastructure of the state, and made criminality the only means of economic survival. Liberia is now a byword for bizarre atrocities, committed by soldiers high on drugs and dressed in all manner of strange gear, including blond wigs and women’s clothes.

John-Peter Pham was a diplomat in East Africa during the latter phases of the civil war, which ultimately engulfed the whole region. Both personal experience and wide reading qualify him admirably to explain Liberia’s descent from high aspiration to nightmare. He is concise as well as fair-minded: The sound of grinding axes cannot be heard in these pages.

Pham traces the origin of Liberia’s catas­trophe to the very founding of the state in the 1820s by a small group of expatriated black Americans, an act that was inherently contradictory insofar as the Americo-Liberians achieved liberty at the cost of subordinating the indigenous inhabitants. The Americo-Liberians became, in effect, a colonial elite, and were at least as convinced of their civilizing mission as any European colonial official. Small in number—never more than three percent of the population of the territory to which they laid claim—they had great difficulty imposing their rule and resorted to unscrupulous and sometimes brutal methods. They craved the respect of the outside world, and looked to America for inspiration and protection: a regard that was never reciprocated.

The old order was formally overthrown in 1980, but it had been modified over previous decades to incorporate an increasing number of indigenous people into the fast-expanding economy. (Astonishing though it may seem now, for several years in the 1950s Liberia had the world’s highest rate of economic growth.)

But authoritarian systems are most vulnerable when, having lost confidence in their own divine right, they reform themselves, a truth borne out by the Liberian case.

Hatred of an old regime is not necessarily sufficient to unite the population in an alternative project, and Liberia soon became a playground of personal and ethnic ambition. In 1980, the master-sergeant-turned-five-star-general, Samuel Doe, replaced the Americo-Liberians as the elite with his own ethnic group, the Krahn, who made up approximately the same small proportion of the population. As they used to say in Portuguese Africa, the struggle continues.

Pham does not draw sufficient attention to a factor I believe to have been crucial in the debacle not only of Liberia but of all postcolonial Africa: the disjunction in the educated classes between abstract, rhetorical universal principles and innermost desires for personal advancement. Thus, old regimes such as the Americo-Liberian are criticized from the standpoint of an ideal by people with limited, or deliberately concealed, self-knowledge—they speak of social justice but dream of Mercedes cars. Nevertheless, Pham’s book is the best short guide to the Liberian imbroglio, and serves as a timely warning to those who think weak and disintegrating states can be led by outside intervention to the paths of peace and wisdom.

—Theodore Dalrymple

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