Ties between the US and Libyan governments are about cut-and-dry as relations can get, but in Liberia there is a lot more grey area in relations with Libya.
During the civil war, Charles Taylor and his supporters trained in Libya, joining fighters from countries including Indonesia, Burkina Faso, and Guinea in a boot camp for international insurgents. Qaddafi also provided guns for Taylor’s forces. With their Libyan training and funding, Taylor’s fighters wreaked havoc in Liberia for more than a decade.
But in post-war Liberia, Libya has been a major investor in infrastructure projects. Libya funded the construction of the massive UN headquarters, which command a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Monrovia’s main road. Qaddafi entered into a number of joint ventures with the Liberian government to reconstruct roads, and he pledged USD 30 million to rebuild the Ducor Hotel, a concrete skeleton in downtown Monrovia that was once one of Africa’s poshest hotels.
From London, where she is currently on a state visit, President Sirleaf announced today that Liberia is following in the footsteps of Senegal and the Gambia and cutting ties with Libya. Sirleaf explained that while the situation is not as clear as that in the Ivory Coast, in which Liberia took a decisive and early stance to support the opposition leader, Qaddafi has been killing too many of his own citizens, and it is time for Liberia to stand with the people. She also commented that she hopes other sub-Saharan African countries will do the same.
Yet not all Liberians are so eager to sacrifice tangible investment for more abstract international solidarity. Bill, one of The Daily Talk’s reporters, was in the car with me when BBC’s Focus on Africa radio show broadcast the news. “I don’t know,” he mused. “Libya does a lot in Liberia. But it might have been hard to keep ties with Libya, since the US government doesn’t like them, and the US is our biggest supporter here in Liberia. We need them to help us, and maybe they wouldn’t if we kept our relations with Libya.”
He continued: “But Liberia is a sovereign nation. The US might not like us to keep ties with Libya, but we have the right to keep ties with whoever we want. The US doesn’t like China, but they invest a lot in Liberia, so we welcome them here, no matter what the US thinks. So maybe we should have kept relations with Libya.”
It is a sentiment that captures part of Liberia’s thought process as it rebuilds after the war – that the US is unfairly pressuring them to turn down investments from countries on poor terms with the US. Liberians view the US as their number one partner; it seems that nearly every Liberian has a relative or friend in the US, and Americans are greeted with wide grins and friendly words here. However, while a number of people have told me that “everything is based off of America here,” referencing everything from pop culture to training for the new military, there is a widespread opinion that the US is failing to adequately fund Liberian reconstruction – and that until it does, the US has no right to tell Liberia with which countries it should and should not maintain ties.