A Brief History of Liberia

 A brief, pictorial history of Liberia, one of two African countries never to have been colonized by Europeans during the Scramble for Africa.

1
About Liberia

Flag of Liberia
Liberian Flag. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG / Getty Images

Capital: Monrovia
Government: Republic
Official Language: English
Largest Ethnic Group: Kpelle

Date of Independence: July 26,1847

Flag: the flag is based on the United States of America's flag.  The eleven stripes represent the eleven men who signed the Liberian Declaration of Independence. 

About Liberia: Liberia is often described as one of two African countries to have remained independent during the European Scramble for Africa, but this is misleading, as the country was founded by African-Americans in the 1820s. These Americo-Liberians governed the country until 1989, when they were overthrown in a coup. Liberia was governed by a military dictatorship until the 1990s, and then suffered two lengthy civil wars. In 2003, the women of Liberia helped bring an end to the Second Civil War, and in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia.

2
Kru Country

'Kroomen', 19th century, shown with muskets and what appears to be a fishing net.
Kru men, or "Kroomen" shown in a 19th century image of present-day Liberia. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

While several distinct ethnic groups have inhabited what is today Liberia for at least a thousand years, no large kingdoms arose there on the lines of those found further east along the coast, like Dahomey, Asante, or the Benin Empire.

Histories of the region, therefore, generally begin with the arrival of the Portuguese traders in the mid-1400s, and the rise of the trans-Atlantic trade. Coastal groups traded several goods with Europeans, but the area became known as the Grain Coast, because of its rich supply malaguetta pepper grains.

Navigating the coastline was not that easy, though, particularly for the large ocean-going Portuguese vessels, and the European traders relied on Kru sailors, who became the primary middlemen in the trade. Due to their sailing and navigation skills, the Kru began working on European ships, including slave trading ships. Their importance was such that Europeans began referring to the coast as Kru Country, despite the fact that the Kru were one of the smaller ethnic groups, amounting to only 7% of Liberia's population today.

3
African-American Colonization

James M. Priest, Vice president of Liberia in 1864 and in 1867 president in 1867, member of the American Colonization Society corp, photo Augustus Washington 1860;
James M. Priest, Vice-President of Liberia,1864-1868, and former slave in the United States of America. Apic / Getty Images

In 1816, the future of Kru Country took a dramatic turn due to an event that took place thousands of miles away: the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS wanted to find a place to re-settle free-born black Americans and freed slaves, and they chose the Grain Coast.

In 1822, the ACS founded Liberia as a colony of the United States of America.  Over the next few decades 19,900 African-American men and women migrated to the colony. By this time, the United States and Britain had also outlawed the slave trade (though not slavery), and when the American navy captured slave-trading ships, they liberated the slaves on board and settled them in Liberia.  Approximately 5,000 African 're-captured' slaves were settled in Liberia.

On July 26, 1847, Liberia declared its independence from America, making it the first post-colonial state in Africa.  Interestingly, the United States refused to acknowledge Liberia's independence until 1862, when the US federal government abolished slavery during the American Civil War

4
True Whigs: Americo-Liberian Dominance

Black and white image of Kru-Town, describing it as the
National Geographic, 1922, image of Kru-Town, a so-called "native" district in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. By Harry A. McBride (Photographer) - Digitalisat Internet Archive, Open Library (Book contributor:University of Michigan), Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 The oft-stated claim, though, that after the Scramble for Africa, Liberia was one of two independent African states is misleading, because the indigenous African societies had little economic or political power in the new republic.

All power was concentrated in the hand of the African-American settlers and their descendants, who became known as Americo-Liberians.  In 1931, an international commission revealed that several prominent Americo-Liberians had slaves.

The Americo-Liberians constituted less than 2% of Liberia's population, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they made up nearly 100% of qualified voters. For over one hundred years, from its formation in the 1860s until 1980, the Americo-Liberian True Whig Party dominated Liberian politics, in what was essentially a one-party state. 

5
Samuel Doe and the United States

Samuel Doe and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger walking in front of Liberian and American military officers
Commander-in-Chief of Liberia, Samuel K. Doe greeted with full honors by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger in Washington, D.C., August 18, 1982. By FRANK HALL - http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil/, HD-SC-98-07558, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=749807

 The Americo-Liberian hold over politics (but not American dominance!) was broken April 12, 1980, when Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe and less than 20 soldiers overthrew the President, William Tolbert. The coup was welcomed by the Liberian people, who greeted it as liberation from Americo-Liberian domination.

Samuel Doe's government soon proved itself no better for the Liberian people than its predecessors. Doe promoted many members of his own ethnic group, the Krahn, but otherwise Americo-Liberians retained control over much of the country's wealth.

Doe's was a military dictatorship. He permitted elections in 1985, but external reports decried his victory as entirely fraudulent. A coup attempt followed, and Doe responded with brutal atrocities against suspected conspirators and their bases of support.

The United States, however, had long used Liberia an an important base of operations in Africa, and during the Cold War, the Americans were more interested in Liberia's loyalty than its leadership. They offered millions of dollars in aid that helped prop up Doe's increasingly unpopular regime.   

6
Foreign-Backed Civil Wars and Blood Diamonds

Uniformed troops in formation, Liberia.
Troops in drill formation during the civil war, Liberia, 1992. Scott Peterson / Getty Images

 In 1989, with the end of the Cold War, the United States stopped its support of Doe, and Liberia was soon torn in half by rival factions.

In 1989, an Americo-Liberian and former official, Charles Taylor,  invaded Liberia with his National Patriotic Front. Backed by Libya, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast, Taylor soon controlled much of the eastern part of Liberia, but he couldn't take the capital.  It was a splinter group, led by Prince Johnson, who assassinated Doe in September 1990. 

No one had sufficient control of Liberia to declare victory, however, and the fighting continued. ECOWAS sent in a peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, to try and restore order, but for the next five years, Liberia was divided up between the competing warlords, who made millions exporting the country's resources to foreign buyers. 

During these years, Charles Taylor also backed a rebel group in Sierra Leone in order to gain control of that country's lucrative diamond mines. The ten year Sierra Leonean civil war that followed, became internationally notorious for the atrocities committed to gain control of what became known as 'blood diamonds.'

7
President Charles Taylor and Liberia's Second Civil War

Charles Taylor sitting in front of the flag of Liberia
Charles Taylor, then head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, speaks in Gbargna, Liberia, 1992. Scott Peterson / Getty Images

 In 1996, Liberia's warlords signed a peace agreement, and began converting their militias into political parties.

In the 1997 elections, Charles Taylor, head of the National Patrotic Party, won, having run with the infamous slogan, "he killed my ma, he killed my pa, but still I will vote for him." Scholars agree, people voted for him not because they supported him, but because they were desperate for peace.

That peace, however, was not to last. In 1999, another rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) challenged Taylor's rule. LURD reportedly gained support from Guinea, while Taylor continued to support rebel groups in Sierra Leone.  

By 2001, Liberia was fully embroiled in a three-way civil war, between Taylor's government forces, LURD, and a third rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL).

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Liberian Women's Mass Action for Peace

A woman crying, Monrovia, Liberia.
A woman cries during a prayer for peace July 21, 2003 in Monrovia, Liberia. Women in th Mass Action for Peace dressed in all white, with no make-up, as a sign of peace and their commitment to the cause. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

 In 2002, a group of women, led by social worker Leymah Gbowee, formed the a women's peacekeeping network in an effort to bring an end to the Civil War. 

The peacekeeping network led to the formation of Women of Liberia, Mass Action for Peace, a cross-religious organization, that brought Muslim and Christian women together to pray for peace. They held sit-ins in the capital, but the network spread far into the rural areas of Liberia and the growing refugee camps, filled with the internally displaced Liberians fleeing the effects of the war.

As public pressure grew, Charles Taylor agreed to attend a peace summit in Ghana, along with delegates from LURD and MODEL. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace also sent its own delegates, and when the peace talks stalled (and war continued to reign in Liberia) the women's actions are credited with galvanizing the talks and bringing about an peace agreement in 2003.

9
E.J. Sirleaf: Liberia's First Female President

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, © Claire Soares/IRIN
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. Claire Soares/IRIN

As part of the agreement, Charles Taylor agreed to step down. At first he lived well in Nigeria, but he was later found guilty of war crimes at the International Court of Justice and sentenced to 50 years in jail, which he is serving in England.

In 2005, elections were held in Liberia, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had once been arrested by Samuel Doe and lost to Charles Taylor in the 1997 elections, was elected President of Liberia. She was Africa's first female head of state. 

There have been some critiques of her rule, but Liberia has been stable and made significant economic progress. In 2011, President Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Leymah Gbowee of the Mass Action for Peace and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, who also championed women's rights and peacebuilding.

Sources:

Richard M. Juang, Noelle Morrissette, eds. "Liberia," Africa and the Americas, Culture Politics and History (ABC-Clio, 2008)

Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker, DVD (2008).