Liberia marks bicentennial of African-American arrivals, eyes US investment

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 14 February 2022 17:37

Liberia's President George Weah
Liberia's President George Weah REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

On Monday, Liberia formally kicks off a year-long commemoration of the bicentennial of its ties to the US with its focus on deepening ties with Washington and the diaspora.

President Joe Biden’s senior director for Africa, Dana Banks, is leading a US delegation to mark 200 years since the first freed American slaves landed on Dazoe (now Providence) Island in January 1822. Initially, America’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former envoy to Liberia, had been scheduled to lead the delegation, but had to cancel at the last minute to focus on the crisis with Russia over Ukraine.

For the West African nation, the anniversary offers a unique chance to celebrate a rich history and move beyond its past, which is marked by back-to-back civil wars that killed some 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003.

“We are in reconstruction now,” Liberian Ambassador to the US George Patten tells The Africa Report in a phone interview from Liberia, where he is helping welcome visiting dignitaries. “A lot has been happening in this country.”

President George Weah’s government, Patten says, is hoping to leverage the anniversary to deepen ties with the Biden administration and attract more US investment, notably from the African-American community.

“We hope the United States will understand the effort we’re making to continue to build this relationship,” Patten says. “We are hoping that at the end of the day this unique relationship will flourish.”

Born of adversity

Liberia is pulling out all the stops to achieve that goal.

Visiting dignitaries – including several African heads of state – are expected at the event, which will feature commemorative speeches and a military parade at the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Stadium in the Monrovia suburbs, Patten says. In the evening, President Weah will host a state dinner at the newly reopened Executive Mansion, which was gutted by fire in 2006.

The US delegation will also include American ambassador Michael McCarthy, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie Bunch, and the Rev. Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, who chairs the governing board of the National Council of Churches in the United States. Patten says a major US contribution to the Liberian health sector is scheduled to be announced on Monday. Additionally, more visits by American state and local officials are expected to follow throughout the year.

More than a celebration, the commemoration is also an occasion to reflect on the tragic history linking Africa and America, and the determination to move beyond that adversity.

The first freed slaves were ferried back across the Atlantic by the American Colonisation Society, a group of white Americans who sought to send African-Americans back to Africa at a time when the debate over slavery was still raging. They would go on to found the nation of Liberia in 1847.

For us, as much as the story was sad … from slavery, and then being rejected and put on ships, the good thing is they came back to Africa, they came home…

“For 400 years, Africans were ferried across the Atlantic Ocean into various parts of the world as slaves, and after those many centuries folks decided, ‘look, it’s time to send people back home’,” Patten says. “As much as they were rejected from the country some of them called their home, for us it was Africans coming home to the continent and bringing some level of knowledge and being able to lead.”

Liberia, he says, is an “experiment to see whether people who had been slaves for so many years could come here, and set up a country, and run it efficiently, and after 200 years what they set up is still thriving”.

In recent months, Weah’s government has been spending a small fortune to bring this message to American audiences.

Back to Africa

Back in August, Monrovia hired three US lobbying and public relations firms for a total of $660,000 per year to deepen relations with the US government and business community. These include CNN analyst Bakari Sellers’ Strom Public Affairs in Columbia, South Carolina, a state that saw the only mass migration movement organised by African-Americans to Liberia in the violent post-civil war era.

The Weah government is particularly keen on tapping the Liberian-American community, estimated to be around 250,000 to 500,000 strong. The embassy works closely with the diaspora and organised two forums in 2019 and 2021 with potential investors, according to Patten.

“We encourage our people – particularly the diaspora, those in America and beyond the United States – to invest in Liberia, to form corporations to invest in their country,” he says.

The country’s efforts to boost investment include plans to open a tourism centre for American visitors, he says, notably African-Americans who have extended family in the country. They are also encouraged to build homes and businesses following President Weah’s signing of a land reform law allowing foreigners to own property in 2018.

Last year, a delegation led by Finance Minister Samuel Tweah stopped by the state and met with African-American religious and business leaders. Paul Kennedy, the former director for Environmental and Social Performance (ESP) with the Millennium Challenge Account Liberia, accompanied the delegation. They went on to hire a lobby group – on behalf of private Liberian citizens – to help create a documentary on Liberia’s origins in the US and organise a South Carolina business and investor delegation to the country.

“What we are trying to do is reconnect with our relatives and family members in the United States who did not relocate to Liberia,” Kennedy says. “Of course this will bring economic benefits as well.”

Lingering issues

The Weah government is also keen to reassure the US government and investors of the country’s commitment to the rule of law ahead of elections in 2023.

Since last summer, a US lobbying firm has been working – on behalf of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), an alliance of the four major opposition political parties – to raise the alarm on lingering corruption in Liberia and press for the establishment of a War Crimes and Economic Crimes Court. The lobbying has had an impact on Congress, where last week, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs advanced a resolution that noted the deep ties between the US and Liberia while calling on the Weah government to redouble its efforts to “counter corruption, advance the causes of human rights, and implement critical economic reforms”.

The most important thing is that on the celebration of our bicentennial, Congress has deemed it necessary to remember Liberia.

“The US Congress is sending a powerful message to the Weah administration about the ongoing corruption issues and they will continue to seek and support continued targeted sanctions of this engaged in corruption,” says Alan White of the BW Global Group, a former chief investigator for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone who helped put former Liberian President Charles Taylor away.

Two months earlier, in December, the Biden administration sanctioned former warlord turned senator Prince Johnson, a Weah ally, as part of a bevy of actions to mark International Anti-Corruption Day.

Ambassador Patten says Monrovia welcomed the congressional action. “The most important thing is that on the celebration of our bicentennial, Congress has deemed it necessary to remember Liberia,” he says. “We’ll continue to work with Congress and the US government to address some of the issues that were raised in that resolution.”

He says the country had made tremendous progress on a number of fronts under President Weah and has kept the peace since the departure of UN peacekeepers in March 2018. “We are proud of our credentials for democracy,” Patten says. “We stand out as one of the countries in our sub-region” on that front.

The bicentennial, he says, is a chance to continue to move the bilateral relationship forward. “For us, as much as the story was sad … from slavery, and then being rejected and put on ships, the good thing is they came back to Africa, they came home and felt like this was a place that they need to be free.”

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