Monrovia, then and now.


Why are we so indifferent to the suffering of Liberians?

This came to mind reading Helene Cooper’s piece today in the Times. It is of little surprise that the Sirleaf government is looking to the U.S. to come to Liberia’s aid during this crisis. Liberian leaders have always looked to their U.S. counterparts to see them through moments of national peril. And the U.S. calculus has always relied on a reading of our (few) national interests in Liberia to guide our actions.

The question of when and how to intervene in Liberia has dogged every U.S. administration for the last quarter century. The first Bush administration faced the unsavory option of intervening in the midst of a chaotic civil war that seemed scarcely connected to any American interests. President Clinton, stung by his inaction in Rwanda, saw Liberia through the lens of Sierra Leone and sought to, as one diplomat put it, “stop the bleeding” there by putting pressure on Charles Taylor. For the second Bush administration, Taylor was a prime candidate for regime change—though, the U.S. adopted a more covert approach to that objective than it had in Iraq. Now for the Obama administration, the question is urgent: does the U.S. have a national interest in stemming the Ebola crisis in Liberia?

One abiding theme is the tolerance for the suffering of the Liberian people. That doesn’t seem to figure strongly into our government’s policy decisions. I offer the photo montage above as a bit of superficial evidence. The first photo was taken outside of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 2003, where frustrated Liberian citizens stacked their dead as U.S.-by-way-of-Guinean-backed rebels pounded the capital with mortars. The second a photo by John Moore taken last month in West Point, a poor community in Monrovia. These pictures are remarkable for their absence: they appear to offer evidence that no one is doing anything to help the Liberian people. This, of course, is not true. NGOs, the U.S. military, and even Bill Gates have rallied to offer some support, but as President Sirleaf’s plea makes clear it is not enough. 

The truth is the U.S. will never intervene in Liberia unless it feels the effort will serve our national interest and that we will be able to extract ourselves from the situation relatively unscathed. I imagine that there could be an intelligent debate on what constitutes a more direct threat to our national security: ISIL or Ebola. But even as combat-weary as our society is, it is politically easier to wage war from above than it is to put American lives on the line in the name of global health. If the Obama administration is indeed underestimating the lethality of Ebola—and de-prioritizing it to other threats—Liberia could be his Rwanda. The significant difference being that what happens in the coming weeks and months won’t only be a stain on our national conscience, but could give new life to a virus that once only lived in the shadows.


A bit of a preview…a few months out, but American Warlord has a cover (and is on Amazon!)

A bit of a preview…a few months out, but American Warlord has a cover (and is on Amazon!)

Ebola & The Body Politic

Last night I received a call from a friend in Monrovia. He sounded weary and I immediately worried that he had fallen sick. He was fine, he told me, but he never calls me just to say hello. “The death rate in Monrovia is too high,” he said.

This friend was typically unflappable. He had survived all the different phases of fighting during the civil war—he’d never thrown in with any of the rebel groups, simply focused on making some money to raise his kids and send them to school, while supporting a large extended family. Politics didn’t interest him at all.  

He told me planned to leave his home in Red Light, on the outskirts of the capital, to return to his ancestral village in Bong County as soon as possible. He felt that his family would be safer there. He and his wife were taking the necessary precautions, he said. But he worried that was not enough to keep them safe. “The children are difficult to control,” he explained.

That loss of control appears to stretch far beyond my friend’s community. The courageous reporting in Liberia right now is chronicling the unique nature of the Ebola crisis in Liberia. The virus has moved through Liberia much the same way Taylor’s revolution did in 1989, starting in the rainforest along the border in the winter then making its way toward the capital to arrive before the summer rains. It has been catalyzed by the dispossessed. Like the fighting two decades ago, Ebola is ravaging the capitol now. In many ways these parallel trajectories have been enabled by the U.S. government—which did little to rein the worst instincts of the Doe regime and continued to support the Sirleaf government despite internal misgivings about the quality governance. If the virus continues on the same course—and if history is any guide—Liberia will survive the outbreak, but this government may not.

Ebola is not only laying bare the failures of the Sirleaf government, but the divisions that define the society. Citizens there inhabit “two different Liberias,” as a leaked USAID report put it, where the haves and have-nots coexist in a fragile equilibrium. Inequality is fundamental to the Liberian identity. It is an artifact of the nation’s roots in American slavery. It was also the catalyst for the coup in 1980 and the 1989-2003 civil war that led to the country’s collapse. This same inequality makes Liberia the perfect host for the Ebola virus. I don’t know what prompted the looting of an Ebola clinic in West Point over the weekend but there’s nothing surprising about the anger in one of Monrovia’s poorest communities. 

The equilibrium in Liberia has been propped up by the international community for more than a decade. While President Sirleaf has been applauded as a reformer and celebrated for fostering Liberia’s economic growth the truth is less triumphant. Her administration is just one plece in the patchwork of power structures that have kept Liberia from the brink of collapse—including UNMIL, the massive United Nations peacekeeping mission, and the legion of NGOs like Medecin Sans Frontieres and Samaritan’s Purse that have stepped in to provide basic healthcare services. As of 2011, the equivalent of 70% of Liberia’s gross national income came from donor nations—including the United States which as topped the list year over year, totaling over $4 billion from 2002 to that date. During that period, Liberia has reopened for business enjoying double-digit growth from the extractive industries (timber, palm oil) that Charles Taylor used to bankroll his government.

All the while, the nation has only ticked up the developmental scale in nearly imperceptible increments.

I put this question to President Sirleaf when I interviewed her last fall:

FP: Turning to Liberia, you’ve enjoyed explosive economic growth since your government has taken the reins over the economy, but development has lagged behind. Spending on education hasn’t grown in proportion to GDP. There’s only been a modest increase in public expenditures on the health system. How do you balance this economic growth with the job of providing services to the citizens of Liberia? EJS: Perhaps you’re not fully informed. First of all, when one mobilizes resources for investment, given the scarcity of our own domestic resources while we try to build the economy, there is a time lag between when you mobilize investments and when those investments create jobs and that improve the infrastructure. However, we have indeed begun to deliver basic services. We’ve been working on our roads. We’ve been working on our schools and our hospitals. We’ve been expanding the services that we render through our health institutions, our educational institutions. We’ve increased civil service pay because of that. The period we’re now entering is the period when the benefits from the $16 billion in foreign direct investment which we mobilized will begin to be felt. There’s no shortcut to the processes of development.

The numbers are significant, particularly in a country that is run by an economist. The Ministry of Health responded reasonably swiftly to the CDC’s first announcement of the outbreak on March 25, 2014. The government—and ECOWAS—almost immediately appealed for international support. Money came slowly: China provided $162,000 in March and April. The government of Liberia followed soon after with $250,000; then UNDP with four vehicles to assist in burial and contact tracing. The U.S. followed with 50 experts from the CDC. Eventually, three months after the CDC’s first announcement, President Sirleaf declared a national emergency. Then one month later—four months into the outbreak—her administration announces a $20 million "national action plan" back by $5 million from government funds. 

If you look at Liberia’s “Budget Call Circular” for 2014-2015, a sort of guide for ministries planning their budgets published in March, the signs of trouble were apparent then:


* PSIP (Public Sector Investment Project)

Aside from the obvious question—why didn’t the remaining $5 million get disbursed?—you see that last year that the government only spent about $.20 per citizen on improving the public health care investments. Before Ebola, Liberia’s needs were many: roads and airport infrastructure, water and electrical capacity, education; the health care system was just one line item in the national budget. That system has buckled in the face of Ebola. 

Liberia is hardly alone in the paucity of national resources devoted to health care. Looking at the Ebola-affected nations, you see some common trends. 

Today, Liberian authorities are searching Monrovia for patients removed from the West Point clinic—each a potential carrier of the virus. Each a potential threat to the health of their communities. 

"This is not a thing for politicians," President Sirleaf said after Liberia’s senate voted to close the border with Guinea in April in hopes of stemming Ebola. She is right. This outbreak doesn’t need politicians: it needs leaders.

On Torture

This afternoon President Obama said four words that should matter:"we tortured some folks."

His candor is consistent with the position he has taken on waterboarding in the past. But it unequivocally acknowledges that American citizens—either employees of the CIA or contractors working for the agency—broke the law. Specifically: the federal anti-torture statute. Congress passed this law in 1994 after the U.S. became a signatory of the Convention Against Torture. In 2008, the Department of Justice obtained its first conviction under the law in the Chucky Taylor case, which I covered at the time and write about in my book.

The fact that Taylor’s case was the first prosecution under the law, particularly at a moment when the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes raised the specter that agency employees had committed crimes worthy of covering up, appeared to send a message: what happens under regimes we don’t like in Africa is torture; what Americans do is something fundamentally—and legally—different.* That, of course, is untrue. It was long before President Obama acknowledged it.

But, will DOJ step up to the plate? In the past the Obama administration has made it clear that it had no appetite for bringing American torturers to account. Yet after revelations this week that the CIA spied on Congressional investigators looking into the enhanced interrogation program—a violation of federal law—and even filed a false complaint to federal prosecutors about the conduct of the investigators, there’s the distinct appearance that the CIA does not take federal law seriously. Or they see DOJ as toothless on the issue of torture. I imagine there are a few AUSA’s in the Northern District of Virginia or elsewhere interested in proving them wrong—provided they could get the nod from their superiors. A vigorous investigation of American human rights and domestic surveillance crimes would send a clear message about rule of law and prosecutorial independence in the United States. That’s probably not the message the White House would like to send before midterms.

The president’s words wont represent progress if there is no action. Otherwise, his opinion on the issue of whether the enhanced interrogation program constituted torture is just that: an opinion. The opinion I’m more interested in hearing isn’t in the White House, though. It’s in the jury box. 

* It bears mentioning that the person most enervated by this is Chucky Taylor. This is completely understandable. DHS and DOJ brought to bear considerable resources to ensure that he never see the light of day again—pursuing crimes that involved no U.S. citizens, other than himself and required travel throughout West Africa, Europe and the United States to gather evidence. During the trial, witnesses for both the prosecution and defense were paroled in and housed in Miami at considerable expense—and some risk—to the U.S. taxpayer. Considerably less effort could be spent meeting witnesses in northern Virginia, Tampa and elsewhere in the U.S. to assess the viability of an “enhanced interrogation” torture prosecution.

I’m going to withhold comment on Chucky Taylor’s “apology” that aired this past Saturday on Al Jerome’s TMZ Liberia show.  Primarily, because it appears that Taylor is not done apologizing. Because he is incarcerated Taylor could only spend a limited the amount of time on the phone, which—if you listen to the interview—he spent much of discussing his current theory on the prosecution that resulted in his conviction for torture and related crimes. He was sentenced to 97 years in 2009. 

Why is the story of Chucky Taylor relevant to Liberia and the United States? A few reasons:

My book American Warlord, which comes out next Spring on Knopf, looks into Taylor’s personal story as a collision course with history. He was the American-born son of Liberia’s most powerful warlord, a position that held particular resonance in a nation created on behalf of freed African-American slaves. His coming of age and fall from power mirrored the collapse of Liberia and the destruction of its relationship to the United States. Taylor’s conviction in 2008 stands alone as an act of justice in the darkest chapter of Liberia’s history. (His father was convicted of crimes against humanity related to the war in Sierra Leone.)

I’ll follow-up with more once Taylor has concluded his “apology.”

Round Two: Liberia Stakeholder Survey

Occasionally, a USAID-funded contractor fashions simple, yet profound prose. See p. 27 of the Liberia Stakeholder Survey:

This from Frontpage Africa which continues to publish the USAID-contracted report on Liberia’s political economy. This is but one of many insights tracked in the survey. But, it kind of cuts to the core of what development folks euphemistically refer to as “capacity” problems. (USAID is throwing around $20 million each year at education in Liberia, for the taxpayers reading this.)

The selection released today focuses on government payrolls, which as described in the report operates as something of an unofficial subsidy, propping up an entire economic and political class and securing a degree of political stability. 

It also creates, as the report highlights, “two Liberias”:

And the scope of President Sirleaf’s power:

The persistent damage of the civil war:

But, it’s not all bad news:

There is a sober assessment of what President Sirleaf can/will do on payroll reform:

The payroll issue goes back to the Doe government—these were conversations that the State Department was having in Monrovia in 1987. Real progress, in diplomacy, is elusive. If not, impossible.

"Urban elites privileged by colonial circumstance continue to control nearly all aspects of political and economic decision-making, excluding the mostly uneducated, rural indigenous population from economic and political power.” 

For any student of Liberian history, this recent assessment apparently from a USAID contracted research firm (made public by Frontpage Africa today) is a chilling suggestion that Liberia has progressed little in terms of social justice since settlers made landfall in 1822.

The report, the Liberian Governance Stakeholder Survey, will be published in pieces by FPA, but has begun appearing on their site (as well as, within the footnotes of World Bank minutes.) It sets the scene with a grim outlook:

It also identifies a troubling trend, familiar to unstable states:

And restates a common observation on Liberia:

Before connecting it to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:

And making an assessment of her power:

Also, pointing out that though Liberia has passed significant reforms, these have not been enacted:

I’m eager to read the remainder of the report—while nothing shocking has emerged from it so far, the candor is appreciated. 

An interesting note from Canadian Overseas Petroleum’s Q3 Report—they failed to repay $7.2 million to ExxonMobil related to closing payments paid to Liberia and lost 3% of the 20% stake they held in LB-13, the Liberian offshore block. 

It begs the question: what value does a company bring to a something tricky like offshore oil exploration in a post-conflict state when they don’t contribute significant amounts of cash and little operational capability?

I’ve tried reaching COPL and will update as I hear.

An ExxonMobil spokesman responded: “ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Liberia Limited (ExxonMobil) and Canadian Overseas Petroleum (Bermuda) Limited (COPBL) have restructured their equity holdings in their recently acquired PSC covering Liberia Block 13. The holding are now COPBL 17% and ExxonMobil 83%. This restructuring is subject to the approval of the National Oil Company of Liberia.”

This confuses an already confusing transaction—the involves several parties: ExxonMobil, COPL, the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) and Peppercoast, the original “owner” of the exploration block, LB-13. LB-13 was linked to bribes paid to Liberian legislators and legislative employees to secure ratification of the original production contract.

To look back, this is a long, winding story :

2007 - Peppercoast Petroleum, an Isle of Man-based, entity with little experience, acquires 100% rights to explore offshore block LB-13

2011 - April - Liberia’s General Auditing Commission recommends the Peppercoast contract be nullified out of concern that its legislative passage was secured through illicit payments.

2011 - May - COPL announces that it will buy LB-13 from Peppercoast

2011 - November - COPL & ExxonMobil announce that they will partner on LB-13 for a 30/70% split on LB-13

2013 - March - Deal structure is announced. And it’s hard to follow.

  • COPL will buy LB-13 from Peppercoast in a transaction funded by the Liberian national oil company, NOCAL.
  • Where is NOCAL getting this money? Well, once ratifying a new contract with ExxonMobil and COPL they’ll get $50 million dollars.
  • Once in possession of LB-13, COPL will partner with ExxonMobil at a 20/80% split. ExxonMobil pays approximately $120 million for its 80%. (Not stated publicly at the time, COPL borrows at least $7.2 million of it’s portion of the $50 million payment due to NOCAL.)

2013 - April - COPL & ExxonMobil acquire LB-13 ; Peppercoast identifies the buyer as COPL only—the price: $83.5 million. 

2013 - June - Canadian strengthens its signature anti-corruption law, the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act.

2013 - June (approx.) - COPL doesn’t pay the $7.2 million to ExxonMobil.

2013 - October - COPL reports that it intends to seek listing on the London Stock Exchange.

2013 - December - Having just sold their sole holding, Peppercoast calls it day—as a member of the management described enters into “Members Voluntary Liquidation as request by the acquirer.” The members walk away with $18.8 million in cash. What happened to the remaining $65 million? The former managing director, Edward Dawson, responded, “For me Peppercoast is firmly in the past. I have no desire nor need to enter into a dialogue on the matter.”

If you’re confused after reading this, you’re not the only one. While the attenuated nature of this transaction may serve specific business purposes, it creates a very clear perception: that ExxonMobil has used COPL to construct a legal firewall between itself and the corruption charges marring Peppercoast’s original ratification deal.

Liberia has a framework to account for this transaction—the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Both Canada and the United States have laws and, presumably, the resources to determine whether either COPL or ExxonMobil has or will benefit from the corruption identified by Liberian investigators at the root of this transaction. 

The important thing to remember is that for all of this money changing hands—and keep in mind a majority of those hands are not Liberian—not a single drop of commercial oil has been produced in Liberia.

Liberia’s oil potential—like the nation’s political future—remains uncertain. But that hasn’t stopped the foreign investors from speculating.

Case in point, Arthur Millholland, CEO of Canadian Overseas Petroleum partnered with Exxon Mobil on offshore exploration in Liberia: 

"Our independent evaluator, you know, has given a probability of finding between a 90% probability to a 10% probability between 1.8 billion and 4.2 billion barrels of potential recoverable oil," on the chances of a discovery there.

To attempt a translation of that, there’s either a 90% chance they’ll at least find 1.8 billion barrels in their block and and a 10% chance it could be as much as 4.2 billion barrels. (Alternately, there’s around a 50% chance they’ll hit 3 billion barrels.) 

That would put it on par with Ghana’s Jubilee oilfield.

And, keep in mind, the COPL/Exxon Mobil holds one of 17 exploration blocks located off of the Liberian coast. 

But, as Anadarko’s experience in Liberia showed, the oil in the Liberian basin may not be of commercial quality. Bob Daniels, the company’s SVP of exploration, didn’t sound as optimistic as Milholland when mentioning Liberia last February, indicating only that the company would “probably” continue drilling exploration wells there this year.  

African Petroleum similarly did not make a commercial discovery off of Liberia, but believes it has found "significant oil potential" based on its drilling to date.

As long as this uncertainty endures—and it may push past the 2017 presidential election—the only thing Liberia is guaranteed to reap from its nascent oil industry is the contentious politics that seem to go hand in hand with the prospect of oil riches.

I’ll be posting some follow-ups to this interview over the next few days, but wanted to post the link early for both of my readers. H.E. President Sirleaf was kind to give me her time last Friday in the midst of a very busy week at the United Nations General Assembly. The interview is here.

I’ll be posting some follow-ups to this interview over the next few days, but wanted to post the link early for both of my readers. H.E. President Sirleaf was kind to give me her time last Friday in the midst of a very busy week at the United Nations General Assembly. The interview is here.

A diversion as I race to the finish line with my book.
This is what I call the Sixth Borough phenomena. While Manhattanites raise the most money for mayoral candidates, the second highest totals come from donors outside of the city. Here’s snapshot of how out-of-towners are funding the current NYC Mayoral Race (click to zoom).
Everyone else may be chasing the more prurient aspects of this election cycle, but I’m currently obsessed with what data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board says about how we make our mayors. Assembled this snapshot with the help of Google Refine and Tableau. More to come. Stay tuned. 

A diversion as I race to the finish line with my book.

This is what I call the Sixth Borough phenomena. While Manhattanites raise the most money for mayoral candidates, the second highest totals come from donors outside of the city. Here’s snapshot of how out-of-towners are funding the current NYC Mayoral Race (click to zoom).

Everyone else may be chasing the more prurient aspects of this election cycle, but I’m currently obsessed with what data from the New York City Campaign Finance Board says about how we make our mayors. Assembled this snapshot with the help of Google Refine and Tableau. More to come. Stay tuned. 

Kevin Slavin with the single greatest moment at Eyeo this year.

We also need to make sure that mineral wealth in developing countries becomes a blessing, not a curse. It is to the shame of the whole world that a lack of transparency allowed the illicit diamond trade to fuel appalling conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Today, we have a duty to make sure that resource wealth does not fuel conflict, corruption and crime.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron in The Wall Street Journal. You have to wonder if he’s ever heard of Peppercoast Petroleum?

Rebel Diplomacy and the Long Memory of Broken Promises

ABC’s Luis Martinez has a great scoop on U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s journey across the Syria border to meet with “opposition leader.”

A bit of precedent to this, though one that didn’t pan out so well for the Americans—or the civilians backing this particular rebel leader.

In early 1990, U.S. Ambassador to Ivory Coast Kenneth Brown met with Charles Taylor in Liberia, far behind rebel lines. I touched on this in my piece for Rolling Stone on Taylor’s son:

It turns out that the Americans weren’t someone Taylor could work with. George Bush Sr. forced his diplomats to break a promise that they would remove President Samuel Doe (and presumably allow Taylor to seize power). This led to the disintegration of the relationship with Taylor and his rebels and likely a much longer, more miserable war for the Liberian people and those in Sierra Leone.

Syria is a very different environment and situation. I think the only lesson learned is that whatever promises Ford made—if any—Obama should consider the long memory of someone on the end of a broken one.