A year in Liberia, West Africa

Friday, August 05, 2005

A short history of Liberia

source: Wikipedia
map: (c) lonely planet

The African Background
The inland rain forests of present-day Liberia had been very sparsely populated until the first waves of peoples seeking refuge from the upheavals that affected the great Sudanic kingdoms of the upper Niger River began moving into the region, mainly from the north and east, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although these kingdoms-Songhay, Ghana, and Mali among them-extended their control into neighboring territories, none encompassed any part of present-day Liberia. The arrival of the new groups and their dispersal throughout the region continued into the early nineteenth century, when the first Americans settlers landed on the coast. In competition for living space, the strong grew stronger and occupied the choice areas; the weak were either absorbed or driven into the deeper recesses of the rain forest.

Early European Contacts
Portuguese explorers established contacts with the land later known as "Liberia" as early as 1461 and named the area the Grain Coast because of the abundance of grains of malegueta pepper. In 1663 the British installed trading posts on the Grain Coast, but the Dutch destroyed these posts a year later. No further known "European" settlements occurred along the Grain Coast until the arrival of freed American slaves after 1817.

Founding of Liberia
Liberia, which means "Land of the Free", was founded by freed slaves from the United States under the supervision of the American Colonization Society in 1820. They settled first on Sherbro Island, but in April, 1822, abandoned this site for the more promising location at Cape Mesurado, between Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. These Americo-Liberians established a settlement in Christopolis, soon renamed Monrovia, after U.S. president James Monroe, president of the Society, on February 6, 1820. This group of 86 immigrants formed the nucleus of the settler population of what became known as the "Republic of Liberia". Lt. Robert F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that led to the founding of new country.
The idea of resettling free slaves in
Africa was nurtured by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that governed the Commonwealth of Liberia until independence. Between 1817 and 1867, 13,000 freed slaves arrived with the help of the Society, leading to the formation of more settlements and culminating on July 26, 1847 in a declaration of independence of the Republic of Liberia. The style of government and constitution was said to be fashioned on that of the United States. The new Republic of Liberia adopted other American styles of life, including southern plantation-style houses with deep verandahs, and established thriving trade links with other West Africans. The Americo-Liberians distinguished themselves from the local people, characterized as 'natives,' by the universal appelation of "Mr."
The formation of the Republic of Liberia did not occur altogether without difficulty. Almost from the beginning, the settlers periodically encountered stiff opposition from local tribesmen, usually resulting in bloody battles. On the other hand, colonial expansionists encroached on the newly-independent Liberia and took over much of the original territory of independent Liberia by force.
The first Americo-Liberian leader to emerge was Mr.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was born and raised in America. He became Liberia's first President and served several terms. The Americo-Liberians have never constituted above five percent of the population of Liberia; however, for over one hundred years, the Americo-Liberians reserved within the group all political and economic leadership. Under the name of the True Whig Party, the Americo-Liberians subdued indigenous tribes in Liberia and permitted no organized political opposition.

Liberia until 1980
Liberia's history until 1980 was largely peaceful. For 133 years after independence, the Republic of Liberia was a one-party state ruled by the Americo-Liberian-dominated True Whig Party (TWP). In 1930, a report by the League of Nations implicated many government officials in the selling of contract labor, leading to the resignation of President Charles D.B. King and a threat by the League of Nations to establish a trusteeship over Liberia unless reforms were carried out. King was replaced by Edwin Barclay, who remained President until 1944, when a charismatic politician named William Tubman became president. Tubman ruled for seven terms until he died in 1971, permitting no political parties except the True Whigs, but he maintained a reputation for honesty. He was succeeded by his vice-president, William R. Tolbert, Jr.. Tolbert relaxed some of the semi-authoritarian policies of his predecessor, but was unable to handle economic problems and widespread corruption in his government. By 1979 irrepressible press reports (from outside Liberia) were circulating to the effect that the Tolbert family controlled a monopoly of rice imports.
The beginning of the end came in 1978 when a young Liberian,
Gabriel B. Matthews announced the formation of an opposition political party in the country. Violent protests also erupted when the Tolbert government proposed price increases on rice, a staple food. This situation led to the rice riots of 1979, suppressed by the government with a toll of fifty dead.

The Road to Civil War
The True Whig Party dominated all sectors of Liberia from independence until April 12, 1980 when indigenous Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, from the Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a coup d'état. Doe's forces executed President Tolbert and several officials of his government, mostly of Americo-Liberian descent. As a result, 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination ended with the formation of the People's Redemption Council (PRC). Doe quickly developed good relations with the United States and encouraged the US Government to send economic and military aid. In turn he developed hostile policies against Communist nations and other nations that were hostile to the US, fully engaging in the Cold War during the 1980's. Doe attempted to legitimize his regime with a new constitution in 1984 and ostensibly free elections in 1985, but opposition to his rule only increased. In 1985, a coup against Doe was crushed. Doe then initiated crackdowns against rival tribes such as the Gios and Mano, where most of the coup plotters came from and where opposition to Doe was already widespread.

The Liberian Civil Wars 1989-2003
On December 24, 1989, one of his former allies, Charles Taylor crossed the border from the Côte d'Ivoire and initiated a rebellion which became the Liberian Civil War. This rebellion was successful in ending Doe's regime in September of 1990, but by then the rebels had already begun to fracture into warring factions based on political and tribal differences.
The UN estimates that 150,000 people died during the conflict with 850,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The years of fighting, coupled with the flight of most businesses, had disrupted formal economic activity.
Seven years of civil strife came to an end in
1996 with the holding of free and open presidential and legislative elections. After his election in 1997, President Charles Taylor held strong executive power with little political opposition.
Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 when a rebel group backed by the government of neighboring Guinea, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), emerged in northern Liberia. In early 2003, a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, emerged in the south, and by the summer of 2003, Taylor's government controlled only a third of the country. The capital Monrovia was besieged by LURD, and that group's shelling of the city resulted in the deaths of many civilians. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict.
United States of America sent a small number of troops to bolster security around their embassy in Monrovia, which had come under attack. The U.S. also stationed a Marine expeditionary unit with 2300 Marines offshore while Nigeria sent in peacekeepers as part of a Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force. President Taylor resigned on August 11, 2003 as part of a peace agreement and was flown into exile in Nigeria. An arrest warrant for Taylor for war crimes committed by his rebel allies in Sierra Leone was later issued by Interpol but Nigeria has since refused to deport him unless they receive a specific request from Liberia. Vice-President Moses Blah replaced Taylor prior to the installation of a transitional government on October 14, 2003. However, the transitional government exercises no real authority in the country, 80% of which is controlled by the rebel groups.
On October 1, United Nations peacekeepers (
UNMIL) replaced the ECOWAS force, although some of the personnel were the same. During three days of riots in Monrovia in October 2004, nearly 400 people were wounded and 15 killed. The UN has 5500 personnel in the country by November and is working to disarm the various factions, however instability in neighboring countries, an incomplete disarmament process, and general discontent threatens Liberia’s fragile peace.

Further reading:
Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia, Amos Sawyer, 2005
Voices of Protest: Liberia on the Edge 1978-1980, Boima Fahnbulleh, 2005
History of Liberia, JHT McPherson, 2004
Liberia, Portrait of a Failed State, John-Peter Pham, 2004
The African America Presidents: The Founding Fathers of Liberia, 1848-1904, David jr.Smith, 2004
Collective Insecurity - The Liberian Crisis, Unilateralism & Global Order, Ikechi Mgbeoji, 2003
Forged from Chaos: Stories and Reflections from Liberia at War, Richard Lane Striker III, 2003
The Role of ECOWAS, Conflict Management in Liberia, Amos Mohammed "Deluxe" Sirleaf, 2003
Building Peace in West Africa - Liberia, Sierra Leonne & Guinea-Bissau, Adekeye Adebajo, 2002
The Mask of Anarchy: The Roots of Liberia's Civil War, Stephen Ellis, 1999
The Liberian Civil War, Mark Huband, 1998
Religion, Commerce, and the Integration of the Mandingo in Liberia, Augustine Konneh, 1996

To Liberia: Destiny's Timing, Victoria Lang, 2004
Mother Liberia, Jonathan Harris, 2004
You Cannot Unsneeze a Sneeze and Other Tales from Liberia, Esther Warner Dendel, 1995
Journey without Maps, Graham Greene, 1936


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the this beautiful reminder of Liberia. I am a Liberian in the USA who has not been home for some years now and your blog has given me a look at the home land away from home. Thank you.

Monday, September 19, 2005


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