Liberia – The Beginning
Liberia was founded in 1821 by the American Colonization Society, and for several years following, the United States populated the new colony with free blacks. During the next 20 years, Liberia continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, primarily due to British pressures, the legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state, and the American-Liberian minority took control of the country’s politics. In the following years, attempts to modernize the economy led to a rise in foreign debt and dissension amongst Liberia’s citizens. That, along with constitutional issues, led to the overthrow of the government in 1871. By 1909, Liberia was bankrupt.
In 1930, the League of Nations charged that the Liberian government had engaged in slave trading resulting in the resignation of President King. International control of the republic was proposed. However, Liberia avoided such control under its next two Presidents: Edwin Barclay (1930-44) and William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971). Under Tubman, new policies to open the country to international investment and to allow the indigenous people a greater say in Liberian affairs were undertaken. The country’s mineral wealth began to be exploited and there was an improvement in roads, schools and health standards. Following Tubman’s death in 1971, President Tolbert was elected president. Despite efforts to cultivate and maintain a democratic climate, organized opposition emerged early in his regime. In 1979, in an attempt to encourage local production, Tolbert proposed to increase the price of imported rice. As a staple in the Liberian diet, this was interpreted negatively and demonstrations turned violent. The following year, sympathizing with demonstrators, 28-year-old, Master Sergeant, Samuel K. Doe led a group of enlisted men into the presidential mansion and assassinated Tolbert. Shortly afterwards, 13 members of the Cabinet were publicly executed.
Doe – The Turbulent Years
As an indigenous Liberian, many civilians welcomed Doe’s takeover as a shift favoring the majority which had been previously excluded from power. In 1984, Doe’s government instituted a series of constitutional reforms, which included shortening the presidential terms and outlawing the formation of a one-party state. Doe fraudulently won the 1985 presidential election and his regime became infamous for corruption and human-rights violations. Doe systematically eliminated council members who challenged his authority. Paranoid about the possibility of a counter-coup, Doe began to favor people of his own ethnic background, the Krahns. During this time, thousands of refugees fled to neighboring countries and many of them into the waiting hands of Charles Taylor.
Civil War (1989-1997)
In late 1989, the intense desire to regain control of the government from the repressive nature of Samuel Doe led to a national power struggle. Two distinctly opposed rebel forces emerged, both of whom had previously aligned themselves with Doe. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor and another rebel faction led by Prince Yormie Johnson. The underlying catalyst of this split was to reestablish American-Liberian control of the government. However, as the fighting became more violent, tribal lines were drawn. Khran members remained loyal to Doe, Manos members with Taylor and Gios with Johnson. The bloody three-way civil war undid much of what Liberia had struggled so hard to achieve. Most of the country’s infrastructure and public buildings were destroyed. Rebels, some of them still children, committed unspeakable acts of rape and murder in what became one of the world’s worst episodes of ethnic cleansing. It is estimated that up to 200,000 lives were lost, 800,000 citizens were displaced within Liberia and another 700,000 became refugees in neighboring countries.
Charles Taylor Comes into Power
It took seven years of inter-tribal warfare and of repeatedly broken cease-fires, for the combined efforts of neighboring African countries and of the UN to impose a settlement and to organize democratic elections. In July 1997, in hopes of ending the turmoil and bloodshed, the Liberian people elected Charles Taylor, with both indigenous and American-Liberian ancestry, to the presidency. However, aspirations for peace and prosperity were short lived as the country continued to flounder in economic devastation while Charles Taylor looted Liberia’s resources. To further compromise the stability of Liberia, Taylor, a long time ally of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, supplied rebels with arms in exchange for diamonds. The United Nations responded with diamond sanctions imposed on both Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2000 and 2001 respectively. In 2003, the United Nations went a step further and placed an arms embargo on Liberia. It was during this same time that anti-Taylor rebels gained momentum and started taking control of regions in northern Liberia. By the middle of 2003, they controlled two thirds of the country and were encroaching on Monrovia.
Calls were sent for Taylor to step down and for the United States, as a nation with historical ties to Liberia, to send peacekeeping forces. In August, 2003, Taylor resigned and went into exile and several thousand West African peacekeepers arrived. In Oct, the West African force was settled under UN command and was reinforced with troops from other nations. By the end of 2004, 100,000 Liberian soldiers had been disarmed, a peace agreement had been signed between the former government and rebel forces, and initiatives to reintegrate the fighters back into society was well underway. Requests, however, to lift the embargo on diamonds and timber were denied until the country could prove stable.
A New Era
In November, 2004, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, was elected the first female president of any African nation with 60% of the votes.
- In March of 2006, under intense international pressure, Sirleaf requested that Nigeria extradite Charles Taylor to stand trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone.
- In 2006, The United Nations ended its embargo on Liberian timber, its number 1 export, but not diamonds.
- The Liberian people are slowly recovering from the economic, social, political, and psychological trauma of the war. Many youths remain traumatized and are still addicted to drugs.
- Hundreds of thousands of Liberians are displaced and still in refugee status.