Sunday, October 20, 2013

New German Ambassador presents Letters of Credence

In early September, the headline read, "President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has received the Letters of Credence of the new Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Germany to Liberia, His Excellency Ralph Timmermann."

It is surprisingly common to read articles in the local press with this grandiose sentence as the title or lede, "President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has received the Letters of Credence of the new Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of..." As there are actually quite a number of countries which have formal diplomatic relations with Liberia. However, as mentioned in a previous post from earlier this week, the majority of these diplomats are stationed in Abidjan (for most Francophone countries) or Accra (for many Anglophone countries) or even as far away as Abuja (for many non-African countries). 

Not so for Germany, however. I am not sure if Germany ever officially or permanently closed their embassy at any point during the war, which would make it the only country besides the US, and the only European country, with such a dedicated diplomatic presence in Liberia. 

This is not a recent development, either. It is an astonishing fact to contemplate that Liberia technically is older than Germany as a modern country. There is no better illustration of this fascinating anachronism than to realize that the diplomatic ties between the Republic of Liberia and a German-speaking government was not arranged with Berlin or even Bonn, but the official recognition of Liberia's independence by the Free and Hanseatic Cities of Hamburg, Bremen, and L├╝beck, which today are only constituent states of the Bundesrepublik, but in the mid-19th century more directly resembled the medieval  free states of the Hanseatic league. 

Amazingly, this official diplomatic recognition, dating to 1855, predates Liberia's formal recognition by the United States by seven years, when in President Lincoln's administration, the tiny republic was recognized by America. Apparently the thought of a black diplomat in Washington was one of the main sticking points, and the recognition of both Haiti and Liberia was formalized on the same day, in the absence of objecting southern politicians. 

The German ports' entreaty was not entirely one of enlightened liberialism, however. The trading states were jostling for control of the burgeoning sea trade along the West African coast against other European powers. Not too give too much history in a single post, but this commercial trade, especially from German and Dutch merchants, was vital to the early survival of the fledgling Liberian republic. 

In the early-to-mid 20th century, the largest non-African populations in Liberia were northern European merchants, and Monrovia was a regular stop on the Bremen-Afrika merchant line, which also extended as far south as the Belgian Congo. Germany's commercial might in Liberia would continue through the golden era of Liberia's Open Door boom, as the German-operated Bong Mines iron ore operation was a cornerstone of Liberia's export-driven economy from its first development in 1958. 

The importance of Liberia to Germany is perhaps best reflected in the Federal Republic's sprawling, gorgeous embassy campus in Congo Town, which includes a series of handsome modernist blocks and residential villas among landscaped grounds stretching down to the ocean. I've been a few times for parties and other occasions but never asked to take photographs inside to add to the architectural tour. 


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