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My Liberian Connection

“This international group would help run the country, backed by American dollars and foreign soldiers recruited from across the world, until Liberia proves capable of running itself …” So says a New York Times report on the United Nations’ plan to save the penniless and starving country. This is the good news. Even better news is that pigs might fly.

Helping Liberia build a viable government sounds awfully good on paper; making it happen is a different matter altogether. Most African countries are kleptocracies run by brutal thugs and corrupt elites who manage to remain in power through systematic murder and mutilation of civilians. Some of them, like Angola, are oil-rich, yet the people are starving as all the wealth is siphoned off by crooks like Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s president. Countries like the Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone are killing fields despite great diamond and mineral wealth.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 killed some 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days, putting Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to shame. Tanzania is decaying, Kenya is moribund, Mozambique stagnant and ebbing away. In South Africa, the only viable African nation, there is a rape every 23 seconds and 55 murders each day. In Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of the continent, the deranged psychopath Robert Mugabe’s policies are starving half his people. Total anarchy reigns in Somalia. AIDS, starvation, unspeakable atrocities, and the ravages of war are the norm in Africa.

Last time Nigerian forces were sent to Liberia as peacekeepers during the mid-’90s, they not only engaged in systematic looting, they also trafficked in narcotics and forced hundreds of ten-year-old girls into prostitution. So much for African solidarity. The present bunch of homicidal crooks make Idi Amin, the Ugandan buffoon who just left us, seem a benevolent dictator by comparison. At least Amin was a figure of fun, taking absurd titles like Conqueror of the British Empire and King of Scotland. Charles Taylor’s only talent was in plundering state coffers and being a cold-blooded killer. These are the facts—not that anyone at the UN or in the U.S. Congress will admit them. Political correctness precludes any criticism of African leaders, no matter how corrupt and brutal.Wishful thinking and UN plans aside, there is no hope for Africa as long as the so-called international community handles African kleptocracies with kid gloves. The idea that an ex-leader of Yugoslavia is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity while homicidal psychopaths like Mengistu, Taylor, and Mugabe are walking around free is ludicrous and absurd. Africa is the heart of darkness and despair, and no amount of good will by bleeding hearts will make the slightest difference. A trillion dollars per annum for Africa will only make trillionaires of African leaders. Clinton and Bush can bang on about helping Africa combat AIDS, but all they’re doing is lining the pockets of the ruling thieves. The only thing to do against such a gross lack of humanity and greed is to stay away, however cynical and cruel it sounds. My friend Radek Payac, a Pole, warned me of this a very long time ago.

It was 1958, and my father had just built the largest textile factory in Africa, in Khartoum. Five thousand workers worked three shifts in air-conditioned comfort in a then state-of-the-art textile mill. The Sudanese president, General Abboud, was a man the American first lady, Jackie Kennedy, later called “one of the most interesting leaders [she had] ever met.” I knew Abboud well. Once a week I had to go to the presidential palace and hand him a fistful of British pounds. (That didn’t bother me as much as his habit of always picking his nose prior to shaking hands with me.) Payac was our foreman and always in trouble with the fuzz, which kept insisting on bribes. An honest man, he one day had enough and quit. “This country will never improve. Your father’s wasting his time,” he told me on the way to the airport. “I will leave first class, you will probably have to swim for it.” Sure enough his predictions came true. Abboud was overthrown by a descendant of the Mahdi; my father had to send a private plane to get me out while Muslim hordes were yelling, “Let’s get the big man’s son.” Eight years later, while on my way down to Kenya (ironically with Prince Radziwill, whose wife was Jackie Kennedy’s sister), I drove to the factory site only to find a burnt-out wreck.

Just about the time the Sudanese mobs were making sure 5,000 of their fellow citizens lost their air-conditioned jobs, the Congo got its independence, as did many other African nations. In no time, the world’s most expensive prep school, Le Rosey in Gstaad, Switzerland, began to receive the scions of African leaders. The young Kasavubu I remember well. His father was head of the Congo less than a year when the kid arrived in Gstaad covered in gold with five flunkeys living in the Palace Hotel, attending to all his needs. Soon after, his successor, Mobutu (after a coup, of course), began buying Swiss real estate in the tens of millions, eventually impoverishing his rich country and depositing it all in Swiss banks. When one of his drivers ran over a child while drunk, it was immediately hushed up in case the Congolese buffoon withdrew his moolah. My friend Freddy Burundi, exiled King of Rwanda Burundi, then decided it was time to go home. Freddy was a very good-looking young man with a beautiful blonde German girlfriend. We warned him about Africa, but the only one who listened was the German. Freddy was murdered upon his return and then eaten.

My Liberian connection was the funniest, however. My father owned some Liberian-flagged ships, Liberia being a flag of convenience. One day around 1968, I was visited by a Liberian diplomat who asked me whether I knew anyone who for a price could supply Liberia with an air force. I knew just the person. Peter West was a Harold-Wilson look-alike, an upper class ne’er do well always in debt and prone to commit horrendous swindles. Westy was a great charmer, and his father had been Air Marshal West between the wars. The Liberians were very impressed. “You’ve come to the right man,” said Westy full of self-importance. The Liberians handed him £40,000 and expected a rather complete air force in return. The day of delivery, President Tubman stood in top hat and tails on a podium with Westy somewhere behind him. As the band struck the national anthem the sound of an approaching airplane was heard. Then disaster. An ancient and beat-up DC 3 yawing massively to the left just missed Tubman and other top-hatted dignitaries and crashed in full view. During the confusion Westy beat a hasty retreat into the bush never to be seen again by the enraged Liberians. Once back in London, he dined out on the story.

West is no longer with us, nor is Tubman or his successor William Tolbert. The latter was a Baptist minister who was to be disemboweled in his bed. The semi-literate Sergeant Doe was next in line, and eventually had both his ears cut off by one Prince Johnson, with cameras rolling, before he was mercifully put to death. He was followed by American-educated Charles Taylor who left 200,000 dead and totally devastated the country.

The horrible irony is that under the leadership of Tubman (he died in 1971) Liberia enjoyed for some years the highest growth rate of any country in the world. At that time it was almost a fiefdom of the Firestone Rubber Company, Harvey Firestone having planted one million acres of Liberia with rubber during the ’20s. But African pride did away with foreign private investment and replaced it with an almost biblical devastation.

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