From one colonial situation to another: politics, universalism and the crisis of the African intellectual.

Author:Flemming, Tracy Keith
Position:Essay
 
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Colonialism tried to control the memory of the colonized ... Put another way, the colonizing presence sought to induce historical amnesia on the colonized by mutilating the memory of the colonized; and where that failed, it dismembered it, and then tried to re-member it to the colonizer's memory--to his way of defining the world, including his take on the nature of the relations between colonizer and colonized. ... This relation was primarily economic. The colonized as worker, as peasant, produces for another. His land and his labor benefit another. This arrangement was, of course, effected through power, political power, but it was also accomplished through cultural subjugation--for instance, through control of the education system. The ultimate goal was to establish psychic dominance on the part of the colonizer and psychic subservience on the part of the colonized. ... But cultural subjugation is more dangerous, because it is more subtle and its effects longer lasting.

--Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1)

As the oldest independent Republic in Africa with long historical ties to the United States of America, which was instrumental in the founding of Liberia, it is the sincere desire of the Government of Liberia to engage and work closely with the United States Government and US Congress in addressing issues of common concern.

--William V.S. Bull, Liberian Ambassador to the Unites States of America (2)

If settlers enslaved Nigerians, Ghanaians, Dahomeans, and Congolese in the 18th Century; if those black imperialists felt and still think they are more American than African, then the indigenous majority--like other African countries--should declare political and economic liberty from the clutches of Americo-Liberianism at once ... The political idiom of the 21st Century is centered on technological proactivity, not dogged political subjugation and exploitation of one group by the other. No man in Liberia should ever be reduced to an indentured servant in the next millennium.

--Bodioh Siapoe, Chair and Cofounder of the Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (3)

Introduction: The Other Colonialism

In the opening years of the twenty-first century and upon perusal of the official websites (4) of the Embassy of the Republic of Liberia (Washington, District of Columbia) and the Coalition of Progressive Liberians in the Americas (COPLA), one quickly noticed differing discourses on America. COPLA Chair and Cofounder Bodioh Siapoe's vehement denunciation of then President Charles Taylor's (President, August 2, 1997--August 11, 2003) Americo-centric, strong-arm rule of Liberia was in stark contrast to Ambassador William V.S. Bull's "open letter" in opposition to pressure from the United States House Subcommittee on Africa regarding charges of Liberian state trafficking of "blood diamonds." Siapoe's contention was that there was a despicable continuity between President Taylor's rule and Liberia's historical domination by "alien African[s]." However, according to Siapoe,

[T]he fateful coup of April 12, 1980 ... gave Liberia her first African Liberian president: Samuel Kanyon Doe. After 133 years of True Whig Party (TWP) subjugation, Doe nearly delivered freedom to his people. (5) It should be noted that Siapoe's suggestion that the 1980 military coup and President Samuel Doe's subsequent rule that "nearly delivered freedom to his people" was also a rule in which "he slaughtered 13 former TWP government functionaries in South Beach, Monrovia"--an occurrence that, to Siapoe, fueled future Americo-Liberian "revenge" tactics led by President Charles Taylor. (6) Siapoe's opinion somewhat captures the observations of Professor Amos Sawyer, former head of the provisional government (1990-1994) following Doe's assassination in 1990. Sawyer maintains that not only did Doe's ascension signal "a close to more than a century and a half of settler hegemonic control in the region known as Liberia," but it "proved ... to be essentially a reconstitution of autocracy with a heavier reliance on the threat and use of military force." (7) Nevertheless, this is a phenomenon that COPLA hailed. But this aberration in Liberia's history proved short-lived--a significant aberration indeed, to Siapoe, it would seem, for he argued that "[c]oastal natives would have thrown the Americos into the sea, but American, British and other alien forces prevented that" from happening. According to him, President Taylor--with the assistance of "Americos" and "their former ... [American] Slave masters," as well as "ethnic dunces, clearly unaware of black imperialism in their backyard"--played a critical role in the reestablishment of an "Americo-Liberian aristocracy." (8)

Ambassador Bull's appeal to the Subcommittee to "help ... identify and establish goals which the international community could pursue under the United States leadership [in the] building of democratic institutions and in the promotion of peace, stability and economic development in West Africa and elsewhere on the continent" was precisely what COPLA was purportedly engaged in struggle against--the cohort of Liberians who acted in their own American colonial interests, to the peril of colonized African-Liberians. Indeed, some Liberians contended that it was not until the 1980 military coup that resulted in an African-Liberian's victory that Liberia's indigenous African population experienced any semblance of decolonization. Of course, according to Ambassador Bull, Liberia is Africa's "oldest independent Republic." But to Siapoe and COPLA, an important question remained:

Are they Africans or Americans? If they accept their Africanness, then "Americos" should act like Africans; but if they cherish their dark history as slaves in North America, then they should be encouraged to pack up and return home. Meanwhile, African-Liberians should learn how to be themselves. Being what they are not would further exacerbate and prolong the conflict. (9) The ideological conflicts between descendants of both Americo-Liberians and indigenous groups were fueled by the specter of violence in Liberia during the decades preceding and following the turn of the twenty-first century. (10) Liberia's recent history is often described as a melancholy one that was marred by civil war and its chaotic effects. With large numbers of migrants in search of economic opportunity and political exiles leaving Liberia--especially with significant numbers traveling to the United States--these circum-Atlantic dynamics remain important phenomena.

Due to the Taylor government's restriction of freedom of speech, organizations such as the one led by Siapoe, as well as academic scholars, created alternative information sites to disseminate knowledge--practices and information that escaped the censorship of the Liberian state. (11) Contemporary relationships between Americo-Liberians, African-Liberians, African Americans, and other African people in the United States and in the Atlantic world are interlaced in a conundrum whose origins can be traced back to the nineteenth-century formation of the Liberian colony (est. 1822) and the Liberia state (est. 1847). (12)

Even after this recent political crisis and ensuing human carnage in Liberia, discourses on coloniality continue to emerge from conflicts between factions vying for power in a country reeling from the effects of global capitalism and underdevelopment. (13) These discourses are prefaced on contemporary assumptions about nineteenth-century Liberia, which was as one of the two countries that remained relatively independent of Western European partition (14) and formal colonization of the continent following the Berlin Conference (1884-1885). Liberia was a source of pride for many African Americans and other Atlantic and indigenous figures in West Africa. But the "repatriation" of African Atlantic figures to West Africa also caused heated debates in North America, and it was at the root of African American Christian settler versus indigenous African conflicts since the establishment of the Liberian colony by the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color (American Colonization Society) and thereafter. Liberia's history remains highly contested within contemporary imaginaries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as many Liberians, in efforts to escape the immediate dangers of the recent civil conflict and violence, relocated to the United States. From Americo-Liberians' insistence that they, too, are Liberians to the descendants of indigenous groups' condemnation of Americo-Liberian modes of colonization, popular concerns about Liberia continue to be very much informed by imaginings of the past.

The historical certainties, inaccuracies, and erasures entailed in the rhetorical strategies of descendants of both Americo-Liberians and the indigenous populations clearly attest to the necessity of re-envisioning nineteenth-century Liberian politics, universalism, and the crisis of the African intellectual. According to Ngugi wa Thiong'o, "There is no region, no culture, no nation today that has not been affected by colonialism and its aftermath. Indeed, modernity can be considered a product of colonialism" (15) Of course, a significant number of historians have already chronicled varying aspects of this period in Atlantic history, usually focusing on the North American episode and then on the subsequent adjustments to West Africa by formerly enslaved African Americans in Liberia; moreover, analyses of emigrationism, African nationalism, and Pan Africanism have also figured largely within the most authoritative studies. The historians Yekutiel Gershoni and Monday B. Akpan argued that Americo-Liberians were essentially colonizers or imperialists, respectively. (16) Yet, a void within the widely acknowledged ambivalence of transplanted African Americans and their negotiations of African realities, remains--namely over the subject of American baggage. Assessments of...

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