Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Liberia: Remember Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor?

Greetings from my hotel at Mamba Point near the US Embassy and the US Government-owned Greystone Compound in Monrovia, Liberia.  This area has a very tragic history which I will go into later.

This is my second trip to Monrovia.  I spent a month here in 2004 while working on a contract for USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) following a cessation of civil war when a 15,000 man UN Peacekeeping Force was there to protect the population from more bloodshed.  At that time Liberia was a completely failed state without a functioning government, public electricity, water or other infrastructure.  The US Embassy, UN organizations and other humanitarian agencies were getting all of their power from gas-run generators and water was pumped into large rubber bladders from nearby rivers and delivered to their compounds by truck.  For those who could afford it, drinking water was obtained from distillers or or was brought in in bottles by boat or plane.  In 2004 my job was to help set up an office at Greystone and to come up with some housing for a long-term OFDA contingent that was being assigned to Monrovia.  (By way of background: OFDA is an international first-responder organization with a mission much like that of FEMA in the US.  For example, OFDA staff and its contractors were the US Government's first humanitarian presence in Haiti following the recent earthquake.  I also worked for OFDA in Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq War when we were prepositioning supplies to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis.)

You will recall from your history classes that Liberia is a very unique African country founded in the1820s by freed American slaves. I won't bore you by discussing this history in detail but will instead refer you to the following links on Liberia, Doe and Taylor.  Sargent Doe, who overthrew the old elitist regime of the Tubmans and Tolmans, is still viewed by many Liberians as a national hero: on my way into town from the airport I noticed that the national soccer stadium carries his name.

At the beginning of this discourse, I mentioned Mamba Point and the Greystone Compound.  My reason for doing so is that these locations were major killing fields during at least two episodes of the long Liberian Civil War (most of the building in the area testify to this fact because they are still ruins) In one instance, hundreds of Liberians took refuge at Greystone to protect themselves from the waring factions, thinking they would be safe on US Government property.  Soldiers then climbed the walls and fired machine guns into the crowds, killing many. I mentioned Greystone to the hotel maid this morning.  She told me that she and her family had sought refuge there when she was a child and that an uncle died.  The following websites contain interactive maps of the area as well as descriptions and pictures of the tragedy that took place there.

Here is a poorly written quote from the first link:

"The Greystone Compound is next to the Embassy compound. The Greystone compound is not part of the secured perimeter of the US Embassy. The Greystone Compound is an annex of the embassy, located about 100 to 150 yards (meters) away from the main US compound. Located about a four or five minutes' walk from the Embassy, the housing compound goes by the name of the Greystone Compound.

The fighting in early 1996 displaced at least 80,000 people in the Monrovia area, with over 20,000 now seeking shelter in the Greystone compound of the US Embassy since fighting began again on April 29. Intermittent fighting in the Mamba Point area disrupted the daily delivery of chlorinated drinking water to Greystone. In addition, the water supply for all of Monrovia was insufficient due to a mechanical breakdown at the White Plains water facility. On 17 May 1996, WFP delivered 63 metric tons (MT) of food to the Mamba Point area for distribution to the Greystone compound. By June 1996 a large majority of those made homeless by the fighting had returned to their homes, although many whose homes were destroyed remain in displaced persons centers, including about 4,500 persons in the Embassy's Greystone Compound.

In July 2003 as many as 25 people were killed when mortar shells fell on the nearby Greystone compound, a residential annex to the embassy, where thousands of displaced people had sought refuge. In another incident, two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Greystone compound across from the US Embassy, killing several Liberians." end of quote

Today Monrovia is fairly calm although there are still some UN Peacekeepers and serious ethnic divisions in the country.  Many diplomatic and UN missions also enforce a late night curfew for their personnel. Although Monrovia still isn't generating much power nor pumping public water, Liberia seems to be making progress under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard Graduate and the first freely elected female president of an African country ( She intends to run for reelection next year.  The US Government seems to have confidence in Ms Sirleaf and in the future stability of the country as it is building a new embassy in the Graystone Compound (

Update: 29 Nov 2010:
 Attached is a recent newspaper article from a Liberian newspaper on the latest happenings at Greystone:

Grey Stone 11.29.10.pdfGrey Stone 11.29.10.pdf

Addendum: 26 Feb 2013:
I'm back in Monrovia for a few days where I've been working in the new American Embassy at the Greystone Compound.  On my ride into Monrovia from Roberts Field, I asked the driver what he thought of the new chancery.  He said without any hesitation that is by far the nicest building in all of Liberia. Constructing a new chancery in a country that as been as unstable as Liberia for the past couple of decades would seem to be a US endorsement of the path Prime Minister Eleanor Sirleaf Johnson is on. She has twice been chosen as Prime Minister in free elections and as I previously indicated, she is the only female prime minister in all of Africa.  
On the surface, life seems to be improving in Monrovia under her leadership. However from discussions with Liberians and expats, I surmise that expectations of the government aren't being met and that many fear that followers of former president Charles Taylor may try to retake power.  The recent discovery of oil off the coast of Liberia is also a two-edged sword: it offers hope for major growth in the Liberian economy but it could spawn even more corruption and provide an incentive for anti-goverment forces to attempt a coup d'etat.   

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