Last week, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes at the Hague, bringing mixed reactions. Human rights activists applauded the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) decision to hold Taylor accountable for ordering rapes and homicides in adjacent country Sierra Leone while Taylor supporters considered the verdict to be a “blue eyes” Westerner decision motivated by political interests. The guilty verdict, concluding five years of trial, is seen to give some measure of closure to countless Sierra Leoneans devastated by Taylor’s actions. However, an estimated 250,000 Liberians were also killed in bloody civil wars between 1989 and 2003, and their deaths fall outside the court’s mandate.
“Charles Taylor’s verdict forces us to ask deeper questions about what we expect from judicial processes,” writes Paul Seils, Vice President of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “It does not–and nor was it intended to–address his countless victims in Liberia.”
Some of those “deeper questions” will necessarily probe into the stories the country has told when sanctioning such gross acts of violence. Among the answers, education plays a leading role. According to the history curriculum taught up to the First Civil War, Liberian history officially begins in 1839. African-American slaves sailed to the west coast of Africa that year and established a free Christian nation to uphold the ideals of the American Revolution. Since then, schoolchildren have learned, Liberia has prospered in peace.
Unfortunately, the usage of this story represents a willful ignorance of the past and present. The lesson’s source, A. Doris Banks Henries’ The Liberian Nation: A Short History (published in 1954), was strongly influenced by Henries’ missionary views. What’s omitted from the history is that Americo-Liberian founders of the new country subjugated and denied citizenship to thousands of Africans who were already settled in the land. Even as they promulgated American sayings with their national motto–”The love of liberty brought us here”–they perpetuated the dark practices on which America was founded.
In an essay about one of the myth-promoting national holidays, Siahyonkron Nyanseor reflects on the revisionism in Liberian history. When the government adopts a textbook account that denies the existence of previous Liberian histories, is it any surprise that a warlord should come to power who denies universal human rights? The Daily Beast reports that to this day, the only addition to the Henries’ narrative is a summary of the civil wars highlighting that “it shouldn’t be this way.” Even though the country is moving forward with the help of a visioning project countering the decades of revisionist narrative, perhaps the greatest lesson of Taylor’s trial is a historical, not political, one.
Creative Commons Love: Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games on Flickr.com