As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Why Can't You Send Soap To Liberia?

Christmas is on the horizon: a tastefully decorated tree has replaced the field of remembrance on North Green and in my neck of the woods it’s time for Operation Christmas Child – a charity that packs presents into shoeboxes and ships them across the world to some of the poorest communities so that children who would otherwise have no presents will have something to open on Christmas morning. Therefore, last Friday, whilst I was overseeing the outbreak of war in Europe (I have no idea what’s going on, but don’t give the independent state of Portugal good odds of survival), and whilst I was later keeping an eye on students studying in the library (an excellent decision that bodes well for future success), my wife and daughter were in Tonbridge sorting through shoeboxes to be packed off to Liberia. One of their most important and most perplexing jobs was to remove any soap from the packages because for some reason you can’t send soap to Liberia.

I tell you this because today’s assembly is a whistlestop tour of Liberian history and you might wonder why I’d chosen this particular country to focus on, might wonder which of the characters are heroes, what we should learn from the villains, and what I’ve found is that Liberian history is messy – everyone is complicated and human and neither a hero nor a villain. I’ve also found that I’m not sure what lessons I want you to draw out of it – this morning I tell you a story because I learned it (inspired by those shoeboxes) and because learning is amazing.

Liberia is the thirty-ninth largest country in Africa, about the size of Bulgaria; it has an incredibly diverse population – the largest ethnic group are the Kpelle people who make up about 20% of the population; and it lies in West Africa, on what the Europeans called the pepper or grain coast because they found that they could trade for meleguetta pepper – a spice also known as grains of paradise. Its modern history begins in 1822 when the American Colonisation Society (the ACS) began sending people of colour from America to the Grain Coast to create a colony. The ACS believed that there was more chance of liberation from slavery and a free and equal existence in Africa than in the USA (which shows a remarkable lack of confidence in their own country).

Those first settlers did not find it an easy place to live. Mortality from tropical diseases was well over 50% and relationships with the native west-Africans were not easy. Local chiefs objected to their land being taken by settlers and the Americo-Liberians formed a separate community with western dress-styles and an attitude to slavery taken from the American South from which they largely came. Plantations were formed with African slaves providing the labour and an Americo-Liberian elite benefiting from the production. In 1847 the settlers established the independent Republic of Liberia, the first modern republic in Africa. With a constitution based on that of the USA it was quickly recognised by the UK and was unusually not swept up in the 19th century colonisation of Africa, remaining free of European rule. Before we get too excited, however, we should remark that the government was dominated by the True Whig party of Americo-Liberians (who made up about 5% of the population), that it prohibited direct international trade with the native African tribes, and that indigenous tribespeople did not enjoy birthright citizenship in their own land until 1904. Abraham Lincoln in 1862 described it a success only “in a certain sense…”

The True Whig party maintained its dominance of the government throughout the 20th century (the 1927 elections were an impressive achievement in this regard with the opposition party gaining 60% of the votes but being comfortably beaten into second place by the True Whigs who, in a resounding affirmation of their governing style, gained fifteen times as many votes as there were actually voters. This still stands as one of the most rigged elections of all time). Under President William Tubman, Liberia helped found the United Nations, supported the independence of other African nations, criticised South African apartheid, and had one of the quickest growing economies in the world.

In 1980 a military coup led by Samuel Doe deposed the government of Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, and killed most senior members of the government, including Tolbert himself (who deserves better than getting killed in the same sentence as he appears – unfortunately I don’t have time to do him justice today). One of the few ministers to escape execution was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a native African by birth but considered Americo-Liberian due to her western education. Initially she accepted a post in Doe’s new government but was dissatisfied with the way they ran the country and fled to Washington DC after voicing this criticism.

Meanwhile, Doe’s government got significant support from the American despite its obvious corruption and undemocratic seizure of power – Liberia was an important ally in the Cold War and the US felt its interests were served better by helping than criticising. Unfortunately, corruption and rigged elections don’t lead to peaceful stability and in 1989 a former minister, Charles Taylor, financially supported by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, launched a rebellion that led to a civil war that ran until 1997. Doe himself was captured, tortured and killed in 1990 but the war continued until it had killed 200,000 Liberians – one in 17 – had destroyed the economy, and destabilised the region. Quite horribly, child soldiers were used freely by both sides.

By 1997, Sirleaf had parted ways with Taylor, opposing his handling of the war and his treatment of rival opposition leaders (which was not pleasant). She stood against him in the 1997 elections which were again rigged and resulted in Taylor becoming president. As president he formed a militia group to fight in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s civil war. This militia was funded by a trade in blood diamonds and was notorious for committing atrocities, leaving people murdered, mutilated and tortured. Actually – I think I may have found a real villain here. Taylor’s government in Liberia was unstable and in 1999 war broke out again with two more dissident groups fighting to wrest control. This second civil war again used child soldiers on both sides and in large numbers. The UN sent peacekeepers to try to stop the war and a group called the Women of Liberia, led by Leymah Gbowee and including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf organised non-violent protests and continued to apply pressure for peace.

Eventually a ceasefire was signed in July 2003, Charles Taylor fled to Nigeria from which he was extradited to The Hague to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2021 he was found guilty of all eleven charges with the presiding judge saying that he had been responsible for some of the most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history.

In Liberia an election was held in 2005 which was considered by external observers to be the fairest in the country’s history, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stood again, amid complaints that her support for Taylor’s regime should make her ineligible. Despite this, Sirleaf was elected the president, the first female elected head of state of an African country – a post she held until 2018, being re-elected in 2011. In 2006, her government set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission to investigate the crimes and hurts of the civil war. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 in recognition of her work involving women in the peace-keeping process (the coincidence of the prize and the election caused objections from the opposition parties who claimed it was outside influence in the democratic process). In 2018 a free, fair and peaceful transition of power occurred – the first in Liberia’s history.

Liberia is now democratic, with over 20 political parties, and is governed by George Weah – a footballer of prodigious talent. It has a justice system that operates in much of the country – although there are still areas where trial by ordeal is used. It is less corrupt than it was – in 2007 it came 150th out of 178 countries for fairness; it is now 87th, and it lacks many of the equalities and liberties we are used to: homosexuality is illegal and a third of marriages are polygamous despite a law that theoretically forbids the practice.

My whistle has stopped – and I’m left wondering what to take from this tour. Maybe we should reflect that the idea of heroes and villains is too simplistic: it might work for Charles Taylor but where does it leave Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? Maybe we should conclude that corruption, slavery and cruelty are wrong whoever does it and that it takes a society a long time to heal from that kind of past. I think we should remind ourselves that being kind to those who deserve it is not enough, we need to be kind, be honest, be just, do the right thing for those we dislike and disagree with too. Perhaps we can learn from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that perseverance isn’t easy, that things don’t progress in straight lines and so it isn’t always as straight forward as pushing through the difficulties, that you can’t always expect to make the right judgments, that we all get it wrong sometimes. There’s something to learn too about being thankful for what we have, for not taking peace and freedom and health and democracy for granted. There’s a lot to think about in the history of Liberia.

But I still don’t know why you can’t send them soap.