The White Coward Complex: Firestones Response to Civil War in Liberia
Frontline’s ‘Firestone and the Warlord,’ is an 83-minutes exposé chronicling the development of the multinational corporation (Firestone) in Liberia. We traveled back in time to the late 1980s and early 1990s, to discuss Firestone’s involvement in Taylor’s rise to power, and its provision of jobs for 8,000 locals, on their plantation. I applaud the production team and score them a 4.2 out of 5. The sound effects (including gun fires and melancholic tunes) synced perfectly with the interviewee’s words. However, they could have gone a step further; using subtle lighting effects for war scenes. The cinematography earns full marks. One example of their creativity was when Herman Cohen spoke about Taylor’s narcissistic regime. The camera then pans over to his car sticker that read: “Charles in Charge” (PBS Frontline, 2014, 48:40 – 49:59). This paper will establish that Firestone squandered its influence, and is guilty of complicity, in Liberia’s civil war. This trajectory can be accomplished by exploring the corporation’s singular aim of profit, its interactions with the warlord, and finally its portrayal of falsified hopelessness.
“Firestone intent was to make money. Always has and always will” (Rota, 2014). These were the bold and unapologetic words of Brad Pettit – a Firestone plantation controller – during his interview in the film. I asseverate that Firestone, like many Multinational Corporations (MNCs), was in it for the money. Their interests were not with the plantation’s rubber tappers, or the locals. A contrasting view might be that Firestone provided for Liberians: 8,000 plus jobs, health care benefits (minimal), and wages in dollars. In a country as poor as Liberia, with distressed citizens stemming from national unrest, this was a sweet deal. Yet, the evidence from the film states otherwise. The narrator clarified that it was “entire families that worked for a few dollars a day.” From further research, I discovered that paying workers’ salaries in U.S dollars was a decree by Taylor. It makes sense, as he wanted to circulate foreign exchange that would help provide his government with needed liquid currency. Arthur Welwean (Firestone accountant) complained, “This hard work was demeaning, and the pay was very small. But people just lived with it” (PBS Frontline, 2014, 19:00 – 19:15). During the time Firestone was in the country, 17% of their workers lost their lives to Charles’ antics. “No longer did we feel the coup would be swift.” The Firestone manager; Ken Gerhart confessed. This is odd. It was only when the company’s dollar was on the line that they felt bothered. 17% of their labor force had been cut down. But there is some good news though, the company returned after the first phase of the violent coup. A bloody coup. That saw young soldiers cut open wombs of pregnant women, to settle the dispute: “what sex is the baby?” (PBS Frontline, 2014, 44:20 – 44:40). But I digress, this is what one of the controllers had to say, “We didn’t go back because we felt sorry for the people there. We wanted to get an investment earning money again.” (Rota, 2014). The locals were however dependent on these foreigners. The dependency theory plays a huge role in this entire story – as the peripheral Liberia, needs the help of the core America. Their reliance is so great. When the masters abandoned the people, they still did not revolt. Most of them surely lost loved ones. What can they do? Bite the hand that feeds them? Firestone new this full well. Yet, they toyed with their influence.
The company’s lust for money was but one way it failed Liberia. There is more to be unearthed by observing the subtle (and glaringly obvious) interactions that Firestone had with Charles Taylor. They contributed heavily to his insurrection. The proof of this is also worth further commendation to the film makers. I was both excited and worried, much like the former head of state of Liberia [Amos Sawyer]. Completely enraged, he demanded Firestone explain themselves. “This is complicity,” he repeated. Even the U.S officials that served in Monrovia in the 90’s, Ambassador Twaddell being one of them, were also dumbfounded. If Firestone became Taylor’s “bankrollers as a deliberate sort of corporate decision, that’s pretty disturbing,” Twaddell said (Rota, 2014). Previously, Firestone claimed that they were “forced” to adhere to Taylor’s demands. What if indeed they had no choice? But they did though. They chose to exploit workers for their benefit. They chose to abandon the thousands of employees when they needed help. They chose to do business with a criminal. At Taylor’s trial he openly admitted that Firestone was necessary for the establishment of his reign. The dealings with Firestone were estimated around 1 to 2 million USD, every 6 months. This was used for medicine, food, and others (weaponry?) (Rota, 2014). Let us now look into social interactions. Taylor was seen often in the Firestone clubhouse. He would deliver long-winded speeches on democracy and the future of Liberia. “We called him Mr. President. He was a gentleman.” Petit said. Remember that these are the masters of several Liberians. These Liberians thought the atrocities would lessen when this “gentleman” becomes president. So, they voted Taylor. I have a theory; what if they were coerced by the friends of Taylor (their masters), to vote for the criminal as well. “The atrocities will stop. I guarantee it,” they would say.
A set of laws to govern trade in developing countries is much needed. The famous book: ‘Why Nations Fail’ highlights “inclusive economic institutions.” (Acemoglu, 2015). Conversely, exclusive institutions (like in Liberia) breed corruption and foster poverty. I think African policymakers must learn to protect themselves. Ghanaian President Nana Addo believes that aid in itself is not bad. “The French are welcome,” (Africa Web TV, 2013) he states, “but we must work on our mentality.” The popular debater [George Ayittey] also agrees that the solutions to African problems are within Africa. He supports foreign aid also (albeit conditionally). “We welcome aid. But we need transparency when doing business.” China, despite looking out for its interests, has helped invest in infrastructure for Africa. In 10 years, trade between Africa-China increased from 10 to 100 billion dollars (Intelligence Squared, 2011). The problem is with policies and institutions in Africa. Firestone’s verbal and non-verbal interactions with Taylor accelerated bloodshed in Liberia, as they were covert and evasive.
Instead of trying to find a way to stop the bloodshed, they pretended like they were bleeding themselves (internally perhaps, as it sure did not show). They played the part of a hopeless assistant to the “vicious warlord.” The chief of mission in Liberia described him as, “not threatening or overbearing, but a slick salesman that you would not trust.” But Firestone did. Could it be that they were persuaded by Taylor’s slick persona? Maybe. Perhaps. That does not excuse them from turning a blind eye. This reminds me of the unfortunate case of Kevin Carter. He photographed a starving Sudanese girl, and a vulture waiting intently for her to die. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo but committed suicide later (Geurts, 2015). He too came under heavy criticism. The two situations are dissimilar. He was legitimately bound by government officials not to touch the children he took pictures of. Firestone was not contracted or obligated to continue to feed the hungry war criminal. Firestones’ attorney Gerald Padmore stated, “There is nothing in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that says you can’t pay warlords.” The law “in essence says you cannot bribe.” I feel empathy for the young photographer, but not for Firestone. A term was birthed in my mind: the White Coward Complex. Dhouha Djerbe, Gender and Sustainable Development expert, explained that White Savior Complex seeks to portray the truth that foreign aid, is not as selfless as it appears to be (Djerbe, 2021). Take for example, an inexperienced volunteer wants to be a heroine. She administers vaccines wrongly and this accelerates death for the victims. Unquestionably she benefits, and still manages to place the program onto her resume, at the expense of the people in need. I believe the insincere White masters of the plantation, played the part of a victim this time around. They advanced their goals and kept away from a stressful situation, leaving the problems to fall on the true, desperate victims. It seems like whatever part they play, as saviors or cowards (seemingly), they always win.
In brief, I truly believe that Firestone bears secondary responsibility for the atrocities that emanated from the Liberian civil war. This was done by: focusing solely on profit and ignoring workers’ well-being. Secondly, Firestone conducted hidden exchanges with the warlord that hurt the Liberian people. I save the worst for last. They acted as part of the hopeless Liberian victims (a state I have term as: White Coward Complex). But in truth, they had so much freedom – at least enough to refuse support to the man who would doom 6,424 people to death, 820 to be kidnapped, and 631 to be raped (Rota, 2014). Firestone and the Warlord teaches Africa that: “We are who we have been waiting for.” We cannot look to international corporations to have mercy upon us. After all, was it not a Liberian’s [Leymah Gbowee] efforts that helped hasten peace in her own country? Africa may receive the West’s “thoughtful” aid (service or investments), but there must be transparency and accountability. The film was not harsh to the MNC, it stated facts. It unbiasedly represented the happenings in Liberia. It is up to the viewer to evaluate and conclude.
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https://www.pbs.org/video/frontline-firestone-and-warlord/ (Accessed: October 11, 2021)
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