Liberia Since 1980
A successful military coup d´etat intervened on April 12, 1980, when a few enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia stormed the Executive Mansion, assassinated President Tolbert and declared that their seizure of power was in order to end governmental mismanagement characterized by "rampant corruption, misuse of public office and violation of human rights." A military junta composed of 17 men was constituted as the People's Redemption Council, and chaired by Master-Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, who also became head of state and commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).
Following the public execution of 13 former officials 10 days after the coup, hundreds of civil servants fled into exile, depriving the government of a significant pool of bureaucratic skills, traditions and information. The replacement of an executive presidency with a 17-member People´s Redemption Council escalated the corrosion of the state through the formation of cliques around each council member, which fueled deadly fissiparous rivalries among council members. By 1985, the regime had executed 80 persons for political reasons and detained over 600 without trial, usually in connection with one alleged coup plot or another. In August 1984, an army attack on student protesters at the University of Liberia left several dead, many raped and over 100 injured.
These atrocities notwithstanding, the United States supplied more aid to Liberia during the tenure of the military government than to all of the previous civilian governments combined. American aid, which had never exceeded $20 million per annum prior to 1980, topped $91 million in 1985, with military aid increasing from $1.4 million to $14 million annually.
After years of protests and pressure, Liberians went to the polls on October 15, 1985, to choose a president, as well as 90 legislators. There were four candidates in the presidential race, including Samuel Doe. An election-night vote count, made in the presence of representatives of various parties, gave 63 percent of the vote to Jackson F. Doe (no relation to Samuel Doe), standard bearer of the Liberia Action Party. That count was nullified by the government, and tabulation was turned over to a 50-member committee, which awarded the election to Samuel K. Doe.
After the rigging of the 1985 elections, many in the opposition movement became convinced that the regime was immune to peaceful, purely local pressures and turned covertly to mobilizing military support from neighboring governments, culminating in a 1985 attempted coup led by General Thomas G. Quiwonkpa, with the financial and logistical support of civilian opposition leaders. The coup was successfully suppressed, followed by a purging of the army as well as massive retaliatory violence against allies, clients and ethnic affiliates of Quiwonkpa.
The Liberian Civil War began on December 24, 1989, when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which came to be led by Charles Taylor and other civilian allies of Quiwonkpa, launched a raid into Nimba County from its base in Cote d´Ivoire aimed at igniting a rebellion against the Doe government. The Front was backed by a formidable but improbable assortment of foreign supporters, united by their antipathy for Doe, including the governments of Burkina Faso, Cote d´Ivoire, Libya and possibly France. Within seven months, the NPFL held 95 percent of the country and was poised to seize Monrovia.
From December 1989 to July 1997, Liberia was embroiled in an intractable and devastating civil war that exacerbated tensions between Francophone countries and Anglophone West African states, fueled the overthrow of a civilian government in The Gambia by junior officers, and helped to spark a civil war in Sierra Leone. More than 200,000 of the country´s 2.6 million people were killed. At the height of the war, there were approximately 800,000 displaced within the country, most of whom settled in camps near Monrovia, the capital, with another 700,000 as refugees in neighboring countries. In addition, fighting destroyed many public buildings and significantly damaged the infrastructure, including the water and electrical systems.
The rapid advance of NPFL forces, coupled with evidence of autocratic tendencies, precipitated a series of interconnected efforts by Liberian civilian politicians, West African heads of states and the United States government designed to forestall a military victory by the insurgent group. In June 1990, regional leaders through the framework of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organized a mediation committee, with support from the Liberian Inter-Faith Mediation Committee. The mediation committee established a multinational military monitoring group, known as ECOMOG, which landed in Monrovia on August 24, 1990. Under the auspices of ECOWAS, an Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was formed by civilian politicians at a conference in Banjul, The Gambia, on August 26-September 1, 1990, with Amos C. Sawyer as president.
As ECOMOG maneuvered to install the Interim Government in Monrovia, it won support from a faction of the NPFL that had broken away under the leadership of Prince Yormie Johnson. Johnson´s Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) had maintained a base at Caldwell, a suburb of the capital. On September 9, Samuel K. Doe was abducted by the INPFL and later tortured to death by Johnson. By April 1991, two other anti-NPFL militias had emerged: Movement for the Redemption of Liberian Muslims (MRM), which was formed by Mandingo supporters of the late Samuel K. Doe, based in Guinea and headed by Doe´s former information minister Alhaji G. V. Kromah, along with Liberian United Democratic Front (LUDF), which was formed in Sierra Leone by former members of the AFL. By October 1991, MRM and LUDF had fused into the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO).
On October 20, 1992, the NPFL launched "Operation Octopus," an all-out effort to capture Monrovia, which brought large-scale destruction and death to the capital for the first time since the war began. ECOMOG's repulsion of the NPFL created a vacuum that a number of groups sought to fill. Several small militias emerged, including the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), Nimba Defense Force (NDF), Lofa Defense Force (LDF) and Bong Defense Front (BDF), while a permanent split developed within ULIMO, between ULIMO-J, headed by Roosevelt Johnson, and ULIMO-K, led by Kromah. By the end of 1994, the various military factions reportedly held the following territories: LPC along the coastal regions of Grand Kru, Since and River Cess; NPFL with northern Grand Gedeh and parts of Bong, Nimba, Margibi and Maryland; ULIMO-J in Grand Cape Mount, Bomi and lower Lofa; ULIMO-K in upper Lofa and western Bong.
In the course of the war, several international conferences were convened in an attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict. These included meetings in Freetown, Sierra Leone, June 1990; Banjul, Gambia, August 26-September 1, 1990; Bamako, Mali, November 28, 1990; Lome, Togo, February 12, 1991; Yamoussoukro, Cote d'Ivoire, July-September 1991; Geneva, Switzerland, July 16, 1993; Cotonou, Benin, July 25, 1993; Akosombo, Ghana, September 12, 1994; Accra, Ghana, December 21, 1994; Abuja, Nigeria, July and August 1995. The second meeting at Abuja, which proved to be decisive, produced a timetable and plan of action for demobilizing and disarming some 60,000 armed combatants by January 1997; use of force by ECOMOG, if necessary, to enforce compliance; international sanctions against those leaders of military factions who did not comply, including trial for crimes against humanity; elections by May 1997, with the resulting government to be inaugurated in July.
A caretaker Transitional Government was formed, headed by Ruth S. F. Perry, the first female head of state in modern Africa. The elections, which were held July 19, 1997, drew 90 percent of the approximately one million registered voters. The presidency was won by Charles Taylor of the NPFL, with 75 percent of the votes. The majority of seats in the 25-member Senate and 64-seat House of Representatives went to the NPFL, on the basis of proportional representation. Although factional fighting practically ceased after the new government was installed on August 2, 1997, fallout from the Liberian crisis continues in the form of a lingering civil war in Sierra Leone. While a peace accord involving the parties to the conflict was concluded in late 1999, implementation remained a challenge as the year ended. And this had implications for the postconflict situation in Liberia given extensive international reportage of Liberian government hands in the Sierra Leone war.
For Liberia itself, the first few years of the Taylor presidency have received mixed reviews. On the one hand the government and its supporters point to the restoration of a reunified country after seven years of civil war as a worthy accomplishment, while on the other hand many point to the need for the prevalence of deeds over words if an enduring measure of achievement is to be established. Where words are many, the deeds seem difficult to discern. Instead, highlights of misdeeds seem to match the barrage of government pronouncements. President Taylor himself joined the critics in acknowledging his first year in office a failure. For the second year he added that the responsibility for the failure was the unwillingness of the international community to aid his government's reconstruction efforts.
Meanwhile, the events that marked the years since the August 2, 1997, installation of the elected government were not ones of comfort-unresolved allegations of human rights abuse (the Samuel Dokie and other murders); the government's September 2, 1998, announcement of a coup plot; the Camp Johnson road incident of September 18-19, 1998, involving former faction leader Roosevelt Johnson and government forces; and the spillover of this incident into a row between the Taylor government and the United States.
The economic situation was also far from encouraging. A Panafrican News Agency report of November 23, 1999, indicated that the minister of planning and economic affairs put unemployment in the country at 80 percent and underemployment at 75 percent. Though the report of a donor assessment mission to Liberia in late 1999 has not yet been made public, the team´s head made public remarks that suggest the absence of an enabling environment for meaningful donor participation in economic resuscitation. In sum, one is left with the paradox of a democratically elected government´s inability to capitalize on the legitimacy necessary to inspire leadership at home and confidence abroad. With the continuation of war-level international relief assistance in parts of the country, the revival or creation of small-scale industries, the population is coping as best it can. With only a few exceptions, the overwhelming attitude of the international community toward the Monrovia regime remains one of a cautious "wait and see." Liberia thus enters the new millennium in perilous domestic circumstances and perhaps as one of the most marginalized of states internationally.
Reprinted from Historical Dictionary of Liberia: 2nd Edition By D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan & Carl Patrick Burrowes. Scarecrow Press, 2001.Used by Permission