“”If we don’t hold perpetrators accountable, we will have another war. People fought the war because of corruption, nepotism and greed. These things are happening again.
|—Rustonlyn Dennis, a Liberian legislator, on the legacy of Liberia's brutal civil war.|
The Republic of Liberia is a country in West Africa founded in one of the most bizarre cases of colonialism ever. The country began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), an anti-slavery organization which sought to send black African-Americans to Africa based on the idea that free black people could never successfully integrate into United States culture. Liberia's name derives from the Latin word for "free". The capital of Liberia, Monrovia, was named after the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, an ACS supporter who was in office at the time of the colony's founding.
During its time as an American colony, Liberia became home to tens of thousands of freed black slaves from the United States and the Caribbean. As anyone with a brain knows, all black people aren't the same just because they're black. The "Americo-Liberians", as they became known, immediately clashed with the natives of the region. The natives considered them invaders and raided the colonial settlements, and when the Americos managed to solidify their power, they established themselves as an elite minority who held all of Liberia's political power. You can probably see the problems with that.
Liberia declared independence from the US in 1847, although the US didn't acknowledge that fact until the American Civil War. Alongside Ethiopia (until the 1940s) and Dervish state, Liberia was one of the only nations in Africa that eluded the Scramble for Africa. During World War II, Liberia backed the Allies, and the Allies rewarded them with significant amounts of foreign investment.
In 1980, tensions between indigenous Liberians and Americo-Liberians exploded when an indigenous-backed coup deposed President William R. Tolbert and replaced him with an extremely unstable military dictatorship led by Samuel Doe. The dictatorship limped along until 1986, when the half-Americo political exile Charles Taylor returned and sparked an uprising against Doe's regime. The resulting Liberian Civil War lasted from 1989 until 2003. It killed about 250,000 people (~8% of the country's population) and shrank Liberia's economy by 90%. All sides committed atrocities, and the country's infrastructure was left in ruins.
Ever since, Liberia has been in a slow, agonizing recovery. As of 2019, 85% of the population lives below the international poverty line, 16% of the population is experiencing urgent food insecurity, and its economic recovery has been stalled by the aftermath of the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.
Liberia is theoretically a democratic republic, but it is a highly dysfunctional one. The country is crippled by catastrophic levels of governmental corruption, and its citizens are constantly threatened by an avaricious and violent police force.
American Colonization Society
The American Colonization Society (ACS) was a United States organization founded in 1816 by mostly white people; it had the goal of returning black people to Africa after freeing them from the bonds of slavery. The idea was that black people, even after being freed, would never be able to adapt to life in the United States due to inevitable discrimination as well as the ACS' racist conception that black people were just too naturally inferior to work it out. The ACS was also joined by a small number of black nationalists who agreed with them that blacks could only fulfill their potential if returned to Africa.
The ACS started shipping black people to Liberia in 1822. They were sent over in atrocious conditions and experienced a staggeringly high mortality rate—of the 4,571 emigrants who arrived in Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819 were alive in 1843. Despite this great tragedy, ACS persisted and redoubled its efforts. By 1867, the ACS had managed to successfully send 13,000 black people from the United States to Liberia.
The incoming blacks from the United States did not get along with the indigenous Liberians, among whom were the the Kru and Grebo ethnic groups. The indigenous Liberians, who viewed the African-Americans as hostile invaders, frequently raided colonial settlements, and the colonists retaliated harshly. Liberian professors Benjamin Dennis and Anita Dennis noted that the Americo-Liberians built their new society based on the only model they had: the Antebellum US South. The professors write that,
“”Racism inevitably reproduces itself in the minds of the oppressed in order to rise... [V]ictim becomes victimizer, the Americo-Liberians saw the natives the way whites saw them. Now that the Americo-Liberians were rulers, they mimicked white rule. They justified their exploitation of the natives on the basis of cultural inferiority just as whites used racism to justify slavery. In America, race trumped all other considerations. In Liberia, culture trumped race as the classification of inferiority.
The Americo-Liberians created a social structure disturbingly similar to segregation in the United States, or apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, what they did was directly inspired by the white power structures from which they had escaped. Indigenous Liberians could not vote, could not speak to an Americo unless spoken to, and could not enter through a building's front door. Liberian buildings were even modeled after US cotton plantations.
As in the US South, this kind of institutional discrimination held Liberia's development back by a great amount.
After creating a government and becoming confident that they could go their own way, the Americo-Liberians declared their colony's independence in 1847. The British Empire quickly recognized the new nation's independence, becoming the first country to do so. Liberia became a one-party dictatorship under the rule of the conservative True Whig Party.
Financial dependence and exploitation
“”To the little Republic of Liberia, Firestone has brought a new day of hope and advancement. It has been a gratifying thought to us that by means of commercial progress we have been of service to mankind.
|—Bullshit PR statement from the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.|
Liberia remained an isolationist country. Or at least, that was the plan. Although Liberia had a thriving agricultural sector, it entirely lacked industry. Thus, the country started running into financial troubles by the 1860s as it became harder and harder to compete with industrial powers and mechanized agriculture around the world. In order to address that situation, Liberia had to start accepting high-interest loans from both the United States and various powers in Europe. Unfortunately, that financial dependence meant that Liberia was vulnerable to influence and demands from those great powers.
Serious problems started during World War I. In order to appease threats from the United States, Liberia followed the US in declaring war against the German Empire in 1917. The Germans had been one of Liberia's most important trading partners, and the loss of that trade wrecked Liberia's economy. Even worse, the Germans parked a U-Boat off Liberia's shoreline and bombed the shit out of Monrovia.
In 1920, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. arrived in Liberia, hoping to find a source of natural rubber free of European domination. Firestone found Liberia to be debt-ridden and desperate for any kind of business. The company got one of the most ridiculous deals in the history of business. Firestone leased 10% of Liberia's land at a rate of six cents-per-acre for 99 years. That lease came with the right for Firestone to do whatever they wanted with the raw materials on that land. Not just rubber, but minerals, other plant-based resources, anything. That deal became a scandal when the League of Nations sent investigators into the region and found that Firestone and the Liberian government were collaborating to force the natives to work effectively as slaves for Firestone's resource extraction. Firestone responded with a public relations campaign basically amounting to the same old "Mission to Civilize" rhetoric. The company also bribed Liberia's leadership by giving them control of huge and profitable rubber plantations. The whole country of Liberia was basically owned by a private American corporation.
Later, Liberia decided to provide much-needed rubber resources to the Allies during World War Two. After that, Liberia joined the United Nations and began accepting foreign aid from the West. The US built an air and naval base near Monrovia and started supplying Liberia with cash and weapons, especially once the Cold War kicked off. In exchange for these services, Liberia could be counted on to be staunchly anti-communist and to vote alongside the US whenever a controversial matter came before the United Nations. This relationship ensured that the US had an outpost in Africa even as the rest of the continent threw off its colonial bonds.
This cozy relationship chilled when William R. Tolbert assumed the presidency of Liberia in 1971. Tolbert, for some bizarre reason, was under the impression that Liberia was a sovereign country. Like a fucking idiot, he started to take diplomatic actions independently of US interests, like cutting relations with Israel and accepting diplomats from China and the Soviet Union. Worst of all, Tolbert insisted on raising taxes on Firestone and requiring that the company hire more Liberians.
The US was presumably about to break out the pimp hand at this point, but Tolbert suddenly died of non-natural causes in 1980. Welcome to the rest of the story.
We've already established that life sucked for indigenous Liberians. Well, those indigenous Liberians had finally had enough. Samuel Doe, a member of the Krahn tribe, led an attack by a group of Krahn soldiers on the Liberian executive mansion, killing President William R. Tolbert. Doe then had most of Tolbert's allies in government summarily tried and executed. With all opposition brushed aside, Doe became Liberia's new dictator.
One of the first things Doe did as dictator was once again renegotiate the Firestone deal, offering the company generous tax breaks once more. As you can imagine, the US fucking loved Samuel Doe. Between 1980 and 1990, the US poured about $500 million into Liberia's coffers. In return, Doe opened Liberia's ports and bases to US troops, banned Soviet diplomats, and reestablished diplomatic ties with Israel.
For the US, it didn't matter that Doe's dictatorship was becoming increasingly violent and repressive. Doe's regime banned political opposition, closed down all newspapers, misused foreign aid, and abused civilians. Americans who were aware of these crimes were outraged, but the Ronald Reagan administration still viewed Samuel Doe as an important Cold War ally. Those dominoes don't prop themselves up, y'know.
Unfortunately for Doe, the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, and the US stopped giving a shit about Liberia. Shit hit the fan just about a year later.
Liberian Civil War
“”He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.
|—Charming slogan from Charles Taylor's presidential campaign, 1997.|
During Samuel Doe's reign, he forced politician Charles Taylor into foreign exile for corruption. It didn't help things that Taylor was half-Americo through his father's side. In 1989, Taylor came back alongside an armed militia called the National Patriotic Liberation Front (NPLF). That kicked off Liberia's civil war. However, although Taylor was the one who began the end of Samuel Doe's reign, he didn't get the honor of killing Doe himself. A rival warlord, Prince Yormie Johnson, was the one who captured Doe. What happened next was a gut-wrenching tale of cruelty.
Prince Johnson and his men took Doe to a compound where they filmed the former dictator's bloody torture and murder. They stripped Doe naked, beat the shit out of him, cut his ears off, then finally shot him. Parts of the video are still available on the internet.
Guess what, Doe's messy execution didn't bring peace. Who woulda thought? With Doe out of the way, Johnson and Taylor immediately turned on each other, plunging Liberia into more civil war. Other warlords and rebel groups got in on the fun too.
The war became a horrifying stew of violence and war crimes. Warlord and part-time preacher Charles Taylor recruited a bunch of child soldiers who called him "Pappy Taylor" and unleashed them on Liberia's civilians. The other factions also recruited child soldiers and committed crimes. Atrocities included such pleasant subjects as war rape, sexual slavery, ethnic cleansing, torture of civilian non-combatants, and fucking cannibalism.
After tearing up the country for seven years, the rebel groups agreed to a cease-fire in 1997. During that cease-fire, Liberia held elections under heavy threat from all of the armed rebel groups. Charles Taylor won the election with 75% of the vote. See that horrible section quote just above? Yeah, that was an actual campaign slogan used by Charles Taylor. Tells you the kind of guy he was.
Taylor's election failed to halt the violence, and the fighting began again in 1999. To prop up his government during the hostilities, Taylor ordered the selling of blood diamonds and also started doing trade deals with armed factions in the similarly brutal Sierra Leone Civil War. Liberia became an international pariah.
The second phase of the civil war pitted Taylor's government against two new rebel groups: the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), and the the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). The problem was that LURD and MODEL had different ethnic memberships, meaning that they were hostile to each other too. Taylor's government didn't fare very well against two different enemies. By 2003, LURD had besieged Monrovia, and they bombarded the city with artillery and killed about 1,000 people.
Having been defeated, the warring parties finally agreed to the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in late 2003. It essentially stipulated that Liberians shouldn't kill each other over racial issues anymore. Sounds like a good idea. It also set the date for new elections in 2005.
From terrible to just bad (this is progress)
Liberia's main focus has been rebuilding itself after that devastating civil war. Despite making a flamboyant show of being a good Christian preacher, Taylor failed to prevent the UN from finding him guilty of a litany of war crimes and sentencing him to at least 50 years in prison. Taylor is currently serving his prison sentence in the UK.
Other war criminals are slowly being found and prosecuted in international courts for their heinous acts. As for Prince Johnson, the murderous warlord who tortured and murdered Samuel Doe? He's currently serving in the Liberian Senate.
The 2005 elections were regarded by international observers as the most free and fair in Liberia's history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and former Minister of Finance, was elected as the first female president in Africa. She was responsible for sending Taylor to the Hague for trial.
In 2006, Liberia established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to further investigate war crimes. In 2018, George Weah, a famous football player, won Liberia's presidency. This was Liberia's first peaceful transfer of power in 74 years.
Liberia is notorious for being one of the countries that provide "flags of convenience": As the regulations applying to a ship and its crew depend on the country it's registered in, Liberia's lax ship registry allows (allowed?) ship owners to get away with things that would be impossible in more developed countries. The tanker that caused the first major tanker-caused oil spill in 1967, Torrey Canyon, was sailing under a Liberian flag.
Sadly, Liberia suffered from the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and still struggles with the aftermath of the civil war.
- 'Be afraid': one woman’s fight to hold Liberia’s warlords to account. The Guardian.
- American Colonization Society (ACS). Black Past.
- Monrovia, Liberia. Black Past.
- Gordon, Andrew. "Time after Time in the Horn of Africa." Journal of Military History 74.1 (2010).
- Praise for the woman who put Liberia back on its feet. The Economist.
- Liberia. World Food Programme.
- World Report 2014: Liberia. Human Rights Watch.
- Maggie Montesinos Sale (1997). The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity, Duke University Press, 1997, p. 264. ISBN 0-8223-1992-6
- Shick, Tom W. (January 1971). "A quantitative analysis of Liberian colonization from 1820 to 1843 with special reference to mortality". The Journal of African History. 12 (1): 45–59. doi:10.1017/S0021853700000062. JSTOR 180566.
- Shick, Tom W. (1980). Behold the Promised Land: A History of Afro-American Settler Society in Nineteenth-century Liberia. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801823091.
- Global Impacts of White Racism: Americo-Liberians. Racism Review. Archived.
- Adekeye Adebajo (2002). Liberia's Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG, and Regional Security in West Africa. International Peace Academy. p. 21. ISBN 1588260526.
- See the Wikipedia article on True Whig Party.
- II. A Century of Blood, Sweat and Profits. ProPublica.
- Liberia and the United States: A Complex Relationship. PBS.
- See the Wikipedia article on Liberia in World War II.
- Samuel K. Doe. Britannica.
- War in Liberia. The Guardian.
- Liberian rebels play the last hours of President Doe. Mark Huband.
- 1990: Samuel K. Doe. Executed Today. [CAUTION: THE NSFL VIDEO IS AVAILABLE THROUGH THIS LINK].
- 'He killed my ma, he killed my pa, he gets my vote'. Independent.
- Liberia’s Civil War Atrocities Confronted in a Philadelphia Courtroom. Just Security.
- Arrest warrant for Liberian leader. BBC News.
- See the Wikipedia article on Siege of Monrovia.
- See the Wikipedia article on Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
- Charles Taylor: Preacher, warlord, president. BBC News.
- Charles Taylor sentenced to 50 years for war crimes. CNN.
- Ex-Liberia President Charles Taylor to stay in UK prison. BBC News.
- Switzerland indicts Liberian over war crimes. France24.
- Liberia: Slain Ex-Minister’s Son Calls for Prince Johnson’s Prosecution as He Avenges His Father’s Death. Front Page Africa.
- Freedom in the World 2011 - Liberia. UN Refugee Agency.
- See the Wikipedia article on Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Liberia).
- George Weah sworn in as Liberia's president. BBC News.