US-Liberian relations grounded in trust of American institutions
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What does the unconventional Trump presidency look like to Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic? It is a country founded by freed American slaves, the capital of which, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, and which democratically elected the first women to lead an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005.

How is Donald J. Trump viewed as media reports predict a cut of as much as 30 percent to U.S. foreign assistance, with a disproportionate share impacting Africa’s health, education and development programs?

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The answers from Liberians might surprise you. They surprised me.

 

“I get ‘America First,’” said Papa, a 35-year old businessman who holds American and Liberian citizenship. Papa served in the U.S. Army in Iraq before returning to his country of birth, Liberia, to help his history-making president restore the country after more than three decades of conflict.

“The U.S. spent billions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the states, our bridges, ports and roads are crumbling,” Papa told me. “That is unfathomable to most Americans.”

Of the expected cuts to foreign assistance, Papa expressed a view that I had recently heard from several Africans, including former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. “Foreign assistance can make you lazy," Papa said. "People come to expect others to do for them, rather than doing for themselves,” he said.

“We have a young population,” Papa told me, “we are rich in natural resources. Liberia has a fertile soil, a proud history. Maybe it’s time for us to make our own way. As we’d say in the military, ‘grab yourself by the balls, and go get shit done’.”

Marc, who heads an international NGO and is a father to three school-age children, told me with conviction, “The American system cannot be broken. Its institutions are too strong. Trump may shake things up, but he can’t crack the foundation.”

He continued, “The guy is a businessman. I think Trump should be given the opportunity to deliver a return on investment.”

Elaine, a teacher and school administrator, explained to me that she saw Trump as a disrupter of the status-quo in the U.S., and was not yet ready to call it a failed experiment of the American electorate. “I want to give him time to settle down. To settle in,” Elaine said to me.

“President Trump will come to appreciate the U.S.’ special relationship with Liberia. All American presidents do,” she continued.

“I understand the support of Trump,” says William, a driver who has been shuttling visitors around the country since the return of peace in 2003, first with a Lebanese firm, and today, for a Liberian-owned company. “Look at Ghana and Gambia, they both just kicked out incumbent presidents. People want change.”

I closed out my interviews visiting a friend, C.S., a lawyer in his mid-sixties, who has witnessed the full trajectory of Liberia’s tragic and triumphant history.

“Liberia and Africa can withstand a U.S. presidency that turns inward to fix its problems at home,” he told me. “The continent can face up to a reduction in foreign assistance, with or without, we must put our resources to better use.”  

"But what we cannot recover from is a withdrawal of America’s value-driven policy in support of democracy, human rights and good governance.”

“Look at from where we have come in West Africa,” he emphasized. “Last year, Gambia’s people turned out to vote in record numbers. In a country where the vote was public, a majority lined up behind opposition leader Adama Barrow, despite a threat from the sitting president of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, that everyone who voted for Barrow would be killed. That is the thirst of the African people for democracy!”

“And then when Jammeh refused to step down after his loss, the regional leaders of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pressured him to accept his electoral defeat, the 15 ECOWAS countries, all democracies, led by Liberia, barely a decade out of conflict, and with a woman as president.”

“While Africans are taking their destiny into their own hands, it is fair to say that Africa’s quest to rid itself of its authoritarian past, to move towards democracy, respect for human rights, and entrepreneurship, is in America’s image,” he closed out passionately.

We both paused after that monologue.

I have been working in Liberia for nearly two decades, and came into these interviews with a different set of assumptions, thinking that Liberians would be fearful of the Trump presidency, and its implications for Liberia’s foreign aid. Or, alternately, express remorse that Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem campaign arm slams Heller, Flake on healthcare votes Co-founder of firm tied to Trump dossier agrees to speak to Senate panel Trump won’t say if he’ll fire Sessions MORE, Liberia’s long-time friend, was not setting policy at the White House, and that Americans had not voted in their first woman president, making history like Liberia did.

I trust that those feelings do exist but, for the most part, I encountered people unshaken in their belief in America and more focused on their own upcoming presidential elections in October of 2017, when political power will be transferred democratically from one president to another, for the first time since 1944.

I found Liberians doing what they have always done, through decades of conflict, and more recently, during the fight against Ebola, persevering, looking for the bright side, and rolling with the punches.

Before I departed, I asked C.S. if he still remained as hopeful.

He hesitated, removed his glasses, wiped his eyes, and then replied. “The children in Liberia’s schools today are the first generation in 30 years who have not known war or conflict. How can we not be?”

“America will be just fine,” he said as he escorted me to the door, “and so will Liberia. The values and ties that bind us will withstand.”

K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016).


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