There are three main linguistic groups in Liberia: the Mande, Kwa, and Mel. Two thirds of the population is Christian, one seventh is Muslim, and one fifth hold traditional beliefs, though many people honor beliefs originating in more than one religious tradition.
Before the country fell back into civil war in 1989, Liberia’s market economy relied heavily on agriculture and iron ore exports. Rubber, coffee, and cacao were the principle cash crops. Timber and mining were also important to the country’s economy.
Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. It was founded in 1822 by a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun. The American Colonization Society, as an attempt at abolition of slavery in the United States, sent over 11,000 African Americans between the years of 1822 and 1862, in order to settle the region and create a republic in West Africa. The men, women, and children who were repatriated to Liberia were mostly free Blacks from the North. Some were also slaves who were emancipated and sent to Liberia. The journey was a welcome opportunity for many African Americans. It was a promising endeavor for many whites as well. Many slave owners felt African Americans could never amalgamate to civil white society in the United States due to their supposed ethnic limitations. White evangelists also supported the ACS as a means to abolish the "peculiar institution" of slavery and return the freed slaves back "home", no matter that the great majority of African Americans could no longer trace their ancestries back to West Africa.
The settlers of Liberia brought with them their cultures and customs and set up a government and society much like that of the United States. The settlers eventually began to refer to themselves as Americo-Liberians and approached indigenous peoples in the region much like African Americans had been treated in the United States. Americo-Liberians continued to control the politics and society until 1980.
Liberia’s first Black governor, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, claimed independence in 1847. Independence was not formally recognized by the United States until 1862, the year slavery was abolished.
1943 signified the beginning of the end for the Americo-Liberian hegemony. William Tubman was elected President of Liberia. He held this position until his death in 1971. History regards Tubman as a relatively democratic leader who made inroads into greater indigenous participation in the state government. William R. Tolbert, Tubman’s Vice President, succeeded him in 1971. He spoke Kpelle, and was the first Liberian President to speak an indigenous language fluently. He preferred African dress over the western styles most government officials wore at that time. Corruption and the silencing of opposition soon took over, and Tolbert’s administration became a threat to the Liberian people.
In 1980, Samuel Doe led a coup to overthrow Tolbert’s administration. The rebel leaders accused the Tolbert government of political corruption and complacent reliance on traditional power relations in Liberian governmental systems based on the blatant exclusion of indigenous Liberian groups. They executed Tolbert and members of his cabinet on a beach in Monrovia. Doe declared himself the country’s leader and was the first ruler descended from the Khran peoples, an indigenous group from the eastern region. In 1981, he promoted himself to general. In 1985, he dissolved the military government and was elected president after an allegedly fixed election. He had no political experience and little formal education.
Allegations of corruption and poor economic policies led to the
formation of a rebel group known as the National Patriotic Front
of Liberia (NPFL) led by current president Charles Taylor. This
organization sought to overthrow the government and assassinated
Doe. After entering Liberia from neighboring Sierra Leone in 1989,
the NPFL quickly won support from the Gio and Mano peoples who were
continually being attacked and killed by government forces. By September
1990, Taylor controlled most of Liberia but had not been able to
take the capital, Monrovia, where President Doe held out in the
executive palace. Samuel Doe was ultimately captured, tortured and
killed on September 9, 1990 by Prince Johnson, leader of the faction
of the NPFL known as the Independent National Patriotic Front of
Between 1997 and 1999, Liberia enjoyed a period of relative calm. Weapons from previous civil wars were destroyed and the country received international aid to rebuild. Much of this aid, however, was quietly funneled into Taylor and his cabinet's personal accounts. Minor skirmishes during this period along the Sierra Leone border as well as the occasional hostage situation revealed, however, underlying tensions.
In 1999, leaders in Ghana and Nigeria accused Taylor of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone. Between 2000 and 2003, rebel factions began advancing through Liberia, resulting in mass starvation, exile, rape, and other war-related atrocities. During this period, two major rebel groups emerged. The LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) were led by Sehon Damate Conneh Jr. and supposedly backed with funds and arms from Guinea. LURD drew most of its support from old enemies of Taylor from the civil war. The second rebel faction, MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia), was also formed by old enemies of Taylor and was primarily composed of ethnic Khrans.
Between 2001 and 2003, various embargoes and sanctions left Liberia isolated from the international community. UN peacekeepers also avoided the country. Other West African nations, frustrated by the conflict and the constant flow of Liberian refugees, called for ceasefire agreements and peace-talks. Meanwhile, Taylor slowly curtailed individual rights within the nation, first banning certain broadcasts, then political rallies.
In June 2, 2003, a United Nations tribunal indicted Taylor for crimes against humanity. That same month, Taylor signed a ceasefire in Ghana in which he promised to resign in return for ending all rebel activity. Taylor, however, delayed leaving the country despite promised asylum in Nigeria. Heightened fighting drew LURD forces into Monrovia.In August, 2003, Taylor officially stepped down. LURD and MODEL combined controlled two-thirds of the country. Vice President Moses Blah took over briefly in lieu of the appointment of an interim president. A peace deal is struck by the interim government, LURD and MODEL. Gyude Bryant, a businessman without political ties, is named interim President. He inherited a country suffering from mass starvation, a lack of infrastructure, and continued rebel factionalism. New elections are scheduled for 2005.
The current situation is changing daily. Please visit the following websites for updates.
Direct questions or comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Liberian Collections Project is part of the Archive of Traditional Music at Indiana University
Copyright Trustees of Indiana University
Last Modified: Thursday, March 11, 2004 20:27