Liberia “Land of the free” is a West African country that was founded by free American and Caribbean slaves in 1820. On July 26th 1847, the country declared itself the Republic of Liberia making it the continent’s first republic. The country’s first president was Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Liberia’s Constitution mirrored that of the United States. Roberts incited ethnic tensions by denying the country’s indigenous population voting rights. Americo-Liberian rule endured for over 130 years, and was buttressed by the government’s close relationships with American businesses, particularly the Firestone Rubber Company, which owned a vast rubber plantation that occupied the eastern third of Liberia.
Americo-Liberian rule ended in a bloody coup d’etat in 1980. All Liberia’s Americo-Liberian leaders were taken down onto the beach of Monrovia and summarily executed by a firing squad. Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, formed the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) bringing “Americo-Liberian political domination” to an end, and beginning a period of civil war and anarchy.
In the 1980’s tensions between the country’s many ethnic groups intensified as the government began to form an ethnically exclusive military and political party. Ethnic clashes and hostilities became common occurrences. In 1979, Charles Taylor, an escaped criminal from a US jail, invaded Liberia with a Mano and Gio militia from the Ivory Coast, and declared his intention to take power by force. In retaliation Doe intensified his hold by “toppling elections, executing political rivals, human rights abuses against civilians, corruption, and ethnically motivated assaults against the Mano and Gio peoples.”
In 1985, Charles Taylor led rebels into Liberia via Sierra Leone to topple the repressive Doe regime. Taylor launched the country into one of its most gruesome civil wars from 1989 to 1996. The war claimed over 250,000 lives, and caused millions to flee and resettle in neighboring countries as refugees. In the midst of the war Doe was captured and killed in September of 1990.
During the Liberian civil war, many peace agreement options were present to Taylor and his rebels, but Taylor rejected them all. A truce was finally called when Taylor agreed to join the formation of a five-man transitional government. Elections were held following the ceasefire with Charles Taylor and his party the National Patriotic Party- NPP named as the victors.
The war destroyed most of the Liberia’s infrastructure leaving it without schools, hospitals, running water and electricity. Taylor’s new government ignored these needs and instead focused its attention and resources on aiding the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone where Taylor was accused and convicted by the Sierra Leone Tribunal of “”bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities in Sierra Leone.”
Taylor’s motive for supporting the RUF in its war effort was to obtain “blood diamonds” from the diamond pit mines of Sierra Leone, which the RUF controlled. Rebel groups such as “Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy” (LURD) and “Movement for Democracy in Liberia” (MODEL), began to rise in Liberia aiming to overthrow Taylor. The most significant of these opposition groups were women organized by a simple fish-seller named Leemah Gbowee. She and her determined women forced Taylor and the rebels who opposed him to negotiate a peace agreement in Accra, Ghana. On August 11, 2003 Taylor resigned and escaped to Nigeria where he remained in exile. He tried to escape, but was captured, and in 2012 was put on trial in the Hague by a special chamber of the Sierra Leone Tribunal. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison where he will live out the rest of his days. Leemah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Taylor’s removal from power paved the way for major developmental efforts to begin in Liberia. Organizations such as ECOWAS immediately authorized the deployment of aid workers into Liberia to enforce peacekeeping efforts. Liberia has since made major strides in democracy by electing the first female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006 who formed a government body that was inclusive of all of Liberia’s diverse ethnicities. She was re-elected this year.
As the country continues to strengthen itself through democracy and rebuild the countries social, economic, political and psychological bonds, the world awaits to see what will emerge from these efforts. Ethnic tensions have always been a major source of conflict in Liberia and time will only tell if the cycle of division has been broken or if the country will once again plunge into disarray.
If Liberia can maintain democratic rule, it is unlikely that it will again plunge into civil war and mass atrocities.
Genocide Watch is the Coordinator of Alliance Against Genocide. Founded in 1999, the Alliance is made up of over 50 organizations from around the world and was the first coalition of organizations focused completely on preventing genocide.