Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, looks to its future, not Trump's comments

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, looks to its future, not Trump's comments
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While negotiating with congressional leaders at the White House on U.S. immigration policy earlier this month, President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE reportedly labeled Haiti, and the entire African continent of 54 unique nations, as “s---hole(s).”

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The derogatory comment was heard around the world, and sparked outrage from Capitol Hill, to Europe, and of course, in Haiti and Africa. Later, Trump sought to diminish his alleged “take them out” statement regarding Haiti, but not so with Africa.

Within 24 hours, the African Union mission to the United States expressed its:

Infuriation, disappointment and outrage over the unfortunate comment made by Mr. Donald Trump, the President of the United States of America, which remarks dishonor the celebrated American creed and respect for diversity and human dignity

Seventy eight former U.S. ambassadors serving in Africa rebuked the U.S. president in a formal letter saying:

We hope that you will reassess your views on Africa and its citizens, and recognize the important contributions Africans and African Americans have made and continue to make to our country, our history, and the enduring bonds that will always link Africa and the United States.

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE tried to contain the damage, saying that “nothing had changed” in U.S.-Africa relations, and that, “the U.S. continues to look to strengthen the relationship with the continent.” But to no avail. From Ghana, to Namibia, to South Africa, and Senegal, African heads of states called in U.S. ambassadors to explain the unexplainable.

Did the U.S. president really say that? What does it mean for U.S. engagement with the continent? Will he apologize? The acting U.S. diplomatic corps on the continent had no idea how to respond, as the White House didn’t own up to the statement.

Liberia shakes it off

I arrived in Liberia the Sunday after Trump’s remarks, as the West African nation was in frenzied preparation for the country’s first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another in 74 years.

Monday, January 22, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first women democratically elected to lead an Africa nation will turn power over to George Weah. From slum dweller, to soccer star, to leader of the opposition, to graduate student, to senator, to president — a political tryout that some say could only happen in Liberia.  

“We are a country of firsts,” says Ruth, a housekeeper at one of Liberia’s hotels, proudly.

Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves, has a special relationship with the United States. The capital city of Monrovia is named after President James Monroe, and its flag of red, white and blue, resembles the U.S. flag.

The country, barely a decade away from 30 years of conflict and war, and just now recovering from the deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus disease, has a poverty rate of 54 percent. Most Liberians live on less than two dollars a day. The Global Poverty Index ranks, Liberia 131st out of 149 nations.  

Amidst all of the preparations for the inauguration — the painting of the buildings; sweeping of the sidewalks and streets; the hanging of banners, flags, and posters; the rehearsals of the youth chorus; the showcasing of Liberia’s nascent fashion industry; and the blaring of the newly-crafted hip-hop songs in honor of the new president — I asked Liberians what they felt about the U.S. president’s words.

After Liberia’s very divisive political campaign season, where social media often trafficked in anger and hurtful political attacks, I anticipated the same to be reflected at the U.S. president.

But the Liberian people surprised me. Of the dozen or so people I reached out to, for the most part, they didn’t give a hoot.

I asked Gabriel, a taxi driver in Monrovia, if he heard about what Donald Trump said about Africa. “Of course,” he said.

He was dismissive, not hurt. “Trump is Trump. America is America.” He continued, “The man can say what he wants, but he won’t change my affection for your country.”

I caught up with Barkue, an entrepreneur and event planner, who was serving as the informal show-runner for much of the inaugural activities. In between answering three cell phones, she rolled her eyes at my question and all but lectured me.

The Liberian people have withstood wars, hunger, poverty, and disease, some of the harshest blows to mankind. We are resilient. And if we can surmount such tragedy, and now achieve this historic political milestone, certainly we can rise above Trump’s words.”

As she ran to her next meeting, Barkue remarked, “I know he is the president, but I do not believe he represents the views of the American people.”

I went to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia and was informed that the Liberian government did not formally protest Trump’s remarks.

The embassy’s Facebook page was illustrative of Liberia’s broader reactions. A popular post by Mulbah Willie seems to have resonated with many. He writes:

You can be disappointed in an individual but not in an entire country. Trump said what he said or maybe not. But interestingly, he will leave office but America will remain. I am disappointed too but we have to Make Africa Great Again.”

Liberians are doing what they always have done, through decades of conflict and during the fight against Ebola: persevering, finding the bright side, and rolling with the punches.

And, besides, on January 22, Liberians will inaugurate their 24th president, and again make history. It is time to celebrate!

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