Liberia-The 'Big Scapegoat': Larry Luxner Interviews Liberia's Ambassador in Washington. (the Interview)
Luxner, Larry, New African
Liberia's flag resembles the Stars and Stripes of USA, its capital city is named after an American president, its constitution is patterned after the U.S. constitution and its official language is English (with an American accent of course).
The Ohio-sized African nation even has a Maryland County, named in honour of early 19th-century black settlers from the Baltimore area. With so much history linking the US and Liberia, why, then, are bilateral relations on the rocks?
The answer, says Liberia's ambassador, William V.S. Bull, is simple: bad press.
"We do not enjoy a close relationship with the US as in the past," Bull told New African.
"We have been preoccupied with explaining what the government of Liberia is trying to achieve. There's been a lot of unfavourable publicity because of the situation in Sierra Leone. We've been accused of aiding the RUF [Revolutionary United Front]. Everything bad that's happened in Sierra Leone has been attributed to Liberia."
Bull, 54, is a career diplomat who began his foreign service in 1972. In 1990, he was sent to New York as Liberia's ambassador to the United Nations, and remained in the post until 1998 -- a period that corresponded with some of the worst fighting Liberia has ever known.
"No Liberian can boast of not having experienced some loss," says Bull, adding that two of his sisters died as a result of the hardship imposed by the war. One of his nephews, a police officer, was shot and killed by unknown assailants. Last June, Bull came to Washington as Liberia's ambassador to the United States, presenting his credentials to President Clinton. Only three months later, he presided -- along with his foreign minister, Monie R Captan -- over the opening of the newly rebuilt Liberian embassy in 16th Street.
A fire 11 years earlier had destroyed the building, but because of the country's long civil war, renovations were delayed, during which time the embassy was forced to operate out of a building half a block away. The $950,000 job was finally completed last year.
"We believe the fire was caused by arson, but the police were never able to determine who set it," Bull tells New African. "There's some speculation that Liberians opposed to the Doe government may have been responsible."
Bull, who like any good diplomat chooses his words carefully, has a Bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Liberia, and a Master's degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.
In his office, a large portrait of President Charles Taylor, now 53, hangs over the fireplace, while an ageing photograph of Bull with then US vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, dominates another wall.
Liberia's ties to the US go back to 1816, the year Congress granted a charter to the American Colonisation Society, which was responsible for helping repatriate former black slaves who wished to return to West Africa. After arduous negotiations with the indigenous people of the land now called Liberia, the first settlers landed in 1822, at the town that was later to become Monrovia (in honour of the US president, James Monroe, 1758-1831).
Interestingly, a freed slave from Petersburg, Virginia, by the name of Joseph Jenkins Roberts became Liberia's first president upon the country's declaration of independence in 1847. But it wasn't until 1862 that the US -- by then in the throes of its own civil war -- recognised the new nation.
"Liberia was founded as a result of American philanthropy," says Bull. According to a recent issue of the Liberian Studies Journal, total US aid to Liberia between 1847 and 1980 amounted to $400m in current dollar terms, with another $500m since 1980.
Yet these days, Liberia -- with a population of just over three million -- is virtually bankrupt. Its per-capita income stagnates at $400, about the same as before the civil war in 1989. …