a silent witness to african conflict

ACCRA, Ghana The afternoon was hot and I wanted ice cream. They sell it at Frankie’s, a popular joint in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where…

ACCRA, Ghana

The afternoon was hot and I wanted ice cream.

They sell it at Frankie’s, a popular joint in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, where foreigners and locals alike hang out.

There was a decadent selection: Cookies and Cream and Tutti Frutti. I sat down on the outdoor patio, overlooking the main drag and a group of Ghanaians repairing a diesel generator, to work on two scoops of green mint in a waffle cone as I scanned my city map.

I didn’t see him coming.

One moment there was an empty chair beside me; the next a man’s voice was speaking softly, almost whispering, into my left ear.

He was small, ragged and bearded, wearing a corduroy cap. His shirt, pants and overcoat were streaked with dirt and tattered, black skin peaked through the larger holes. But he was smiling, friendly, and he spoke clear English.

His didn’t have much time, he said. The security guard here at Frankie’s had stepped away for a moment but he would return and chase my sudden companion away.

“Maybe he will beat me, I don’t know.”

He’d watched me go inside Frankie’s and come back out. With the security guard absent he took a chance to “appeal to (my) nature.”

“I am not a beggar; I am a Liberian,” he said.

My instinctive barrier against tramps, applicable the world over, was already rising, but I quelled it.

The title ‘Liberian’ carries mixed connotation in West Africa.

Liberia, about 1,200 kilometres down the Atlantic coastline from where we sat in Accra, has been more thoroughly ravaged by coups d’état, civil war and strife in recent history than any other country in what is perhaps the world’s most politically volatile region.

It is a nation of 3.3 million with a unique and bizarre contemporary history spawned by anti-slavery liberalism gone awry.

In 1821, on the cusp of the trans-Atlantic slave trade’s abolition, an expedition from the American Colonization Society — white folks devoted to returning freed slaves from plantations in the southern US to the native African soil of their ancestors — forced the indigenous population of what would become Liberia to sell some coastal real estate for a new settlement.

The settlement became Monrovia, the current Liberian capital, and the freed slaves, called Americo-Liberians, seized power immediately by establishing the only social hierarchy they had ever known.

They enslaved the locals and instituted minority rule, a sort of black-on-black apartheid that reserved citizenship in the new state solely for Americo-Liberians.

Liberia ‘s indigenous people — constituting 99 per cent of the population — didn’t overthrow their masters until 1980 when a group of soldiers, led by a 28-year-old semi-literate sergeant from the large Krahn tribe, seized power in Monrovia and executed the Americo-Liberian leadership.

The new Krahn president, Samuel Doe, ruled in a corrupt fashion for almost 10 years, plunging Liberia in to debt, crippling its economy, inciting pogroms and, eventually, civil war.

Doe was deposed and executed in 1990 by one of two military factions that splintered from the army to stage simultaneous and competing coups.

Other warlords and West African peacekeeping forces intervened.

From the chaos Charles Taylor emerged as ‘elected’ president in 1997, only to be forced into exile six years later. Taylor is currently slated for a June trial in The Hauge, Netherlands, for war crimes.

Former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won Liberia ‘s 2005 election, becoming Africa’s first elected female president.

I studied the man who claimed to be a refugee from this implausible nation. He needed 32,000 cedis — about four Canadian dollars — to buy transport to a refugee camp in Ghana, 50 kilometres outside Accra, he said.

I wondered if he truly was Liberian, and if so, was he one of the Krahn who seized power from the Americo-Liberians?

Or was he a descendent of the slaves-turned-slave-masters?

Or, more likely, was he one of the unfortunates caught in the crossfire?

Before I could ask him anything the Frankie’s security guard returned and bounced him.

He protested. “I am only having a conversation.”

But the guard grabbed him by the arm and shoved him off the patio amid the jeers of the Ghanaians working on the generator.

“You see this guy?” one of the workers called to me. “He is not Ghanaian; he is a Liberian,” he said, pronouncing the word like a curse, devoid of sympathy.

He made an eating gesture towards his mouth. “We are Ghanaians, we are working for our chop.”

The Liberian stared at them balefully from the street. He glanced at me and turned and walked away.

The Ghanaians kept jabbering in their dialect but looked over at me knowingly, as though we shared a common understanding. He was a dirty Liberian and they were happy to get rid of him for me.

I kept my face impassive, gave no response. A passing taxicab stopped and I stood, walked past the Ghanaians and got in.

I scanned the street as we drove away but I did not see the Liberian again.

I never learned his name. I never even said a word.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.