Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State; The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia

In This Review

Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State

By John-Peter Pham
Reed, 2004
208 pp. $24.95

The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia

By Claude A. Clegg III
University of North Carolina Press, 2004
344 pp. $55.00

Readers looking for a general introduction to Liberian politics and the events that led to civil war in the 1990s will appreciate Pham's book, which starts with a history of the country's founding, covers the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in three competent chapters, and then provides an excellent description of the country's collapse into warlordism during the last ten years. Pham skillfully untangles the ethnic divisions within Liberia and shows how they interacted with regional dynamics to turn the conflict into a regional conflagration. Little new ground is broken, but the author has provided a balanced account that will be much appreciated as an overview.

One of Pham's themes is the close historical linkages between the United States and Liberia. From its origin as a refuge for ex-slaves from the U.S. South, the country was a virtual U.S. colony, reliant on military and financial assistance to retain its nominal independence from the European colonial powers. Clegg's remarkable volume offers much useful insight on these links by detailing the conditions under which the country was founded. Focusing on the emigration of some 2,000 African Americans from North Carolina over the course of the nineteenth century, he analyzes the motivations for the emigration movement, the organizations that sponsored it, and their complicated involvement in U.S. racial politics both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. He also describes the extraordinarily difficult lives the settlers endured once they arrived, beset by endemic malaria and conflict with hostile indigenous groups and often woefully unprepared for local conditions. Elegantly written and extensively documented with Liberian and North Carolinian archival materials, Clegg offers a fascinating view of the origins of Liberia as well as some intriguing clues to its current dilemmas.

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