The UN Security Council has voted Friday to lift the four year embargo on Liberian diamond exports. The move is a welcome none for one of the world’s poorest countries and a recognition that Liberia is making progress after emerging from 14 years of war which claimed the lives of almost ten per cent of the population and displaced half of its three million residents. The British president of the Security Council Emyr Jones Parry said the vote recognised the progress made under current Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and a reflection of the high regard for Johnson-Sirleaf herself who has ruled the country since elections in 2006.
This is the second recent international vote of confidence in Johnson-Sirleaf’s leadership with the UN lifting the embargo on Liberian timber in June 2006. The diamond export ban dates back to 2003 and was meant to stop the flow of “blood diamonds” which were responsible for fuelling conflicts across West Africa. Now that the ban has been lifted, Liberia can now sign up to the Kimberley Process which is an international diamond certification scheme to track the origins of the precious gem in world markets.
Liberian UN ambassador Nathaniel Barnes told reporters Liberia filed an application to sign up to the Process in March and it had now been accepted. The new UN resolution "means a lot to the people of Liberia," he said. The Monrovia government had "the political will ... (to) make good things happen within the diamond industry so that we can move forward." Liberia needs all the help it can get; the country currently has a staggering 85% unemployment rate with former civil war fighters accounting for much of that number.
Diamonds have been at the centre of Liberia’s problems in last two decades. They were discovered in Liberia just before World War I, but it was not until 1925 that the giant British-owned Consolidated African Selection Trust (CAST) sent in prospectors. Liberia was then in a unique position for an African country. It was ruled neither by a European colonial power or a local African people. It had been settled in the early 1800s by freed American slaves.
Its genesis as a nation goes back to 1816 and the formation of a Quaker organisation known as the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was set up with the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa and bringing Christianity with them. Although many blacks and abolitionists opposed the scheme, in 1822 the ACS succeeded in raising funds to land 86 emigrants in Africa on the Grain Coast at Cape Montserrado. Governed by a few accompanying white agents, the colony did it tough in the early days but eventually prospered.
In 1824 they named their settlement Monrovia after American president (and ACS member) James Monroe. They named the new colony itself, Liberia (freedom). England and France recognised Liberia as an independent country in 1847 but the US refused to follow suit to avoid the sight of a black ambassador in Washington. Eventually Lincoln extended official recognition in 1862 in the middle of the Civil War.
When the impoverished ACS could no longer support Liberia, the country turned to private industry to help. They leased large areas of land to American companies such as Firestone, which operated the largest rubber plantation in the world near the city of Harbel. In 1930 the League of Nations accused Liberia and Firestone of colluding to create near slave labour conditions. Firestone still operates there today and the same problems persist today. Local labourers brought a lawsuit in 2005 against Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire for subjecting workers to slavery and using child labour.
The post World War II regimes of William Tubman and William Tolbert were authoritarian, pro-foreign investment and pro-American. But the gap between rich and poor widened. In 1980, the army staged a coup, formed a ruling council and ended 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination. Lowly ranked 28 year old Master Sergeant Samuel Doe became head of state. But his regime was dogged by a succession of failed coups. At the end of the 1980s, a new group the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) emerged led by Charles Taylor.
Taylor had a colourful past. In 1979 he escaped Liberia after being accused of stealing almost a million dollars. Five years later he was arrested in the US on charges of embezzling $922,000 of government funds. Taylor escaped from prison and fled from the US. He ended up in Libya where he received military training from Gaddafy. There he met Sierra Leonean Foday Sankoh. Sankoh went home to fight the Sierra Leone government with his infamous Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Taylor’s NPFL worked closely with the RUF to dominate the diamond trade in their countries. In 1989 the NPFL invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast and soon laid siege to the capital. Taylor eventually stormed Monrovia, and overthrew Doe before torturing him to death a year later. Doe’s death caused Liberia to splinter into several factions. Eventually five neighbour nations sent in an Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to restore order. All the Liberian parties except Taylor agreed to a national government who continued the fight. The war dragged on for most of the 1990s.
Finally under pressure from the UN, Taylor agreed to a ceasefire. In elections in 1996, Charles Taylor won the presidency with a landslide 75% of the vote. Most people voted for him because they knew he would resume the war if he lost. In 1999 a new rebellion broke out. A group calling itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), backed by neighbouring Guinea launched attacks in northern Liberia. Then a second group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) attacked in the south backed by Ivory Coast.
By 2003, the game was up for Taylor. The UN charged him with war crimes dating back from his involvement with RUF rebels in Sierra Leone. LURD besieged Monrovia as President Bush became involved urging Taylor to leave Liberia. A new African military force led by Nigeria sent troops into Liberia. Nigeria offered Taylor asylum if he agreed to stay out of Liberian politics. He resigned and flew to Nigeria. There he faced increasing international pressure to face trial. Taylor was finally arrested after he tried to cross into Cameroon in 2006. He now awaits trial in Sierra Leone.
Liberia is still trying to pick up the pieces after Taylor. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World banker and finance minister won a high profile election in 2005 against football hero George Weah. She became Africa’s first female president in the process. Her background gives her good credentials to rebuild Liberia’s shattered economy. She also pledged "to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency" as a way of healing the wounds of war. This week’s diamond decision will go a long way to help.