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About Liberia

Liberia is a republic in western Africa, bounded on the north by Sierra Leone and Guinea, on the east by Côte d'Ivoire, and on the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean. Liberia has an area of 99,067 square kilometers (38, 250 square miles). Liberia was founded in the early 1800s by freed American slaves. Monrovia is the capital and largest city.

Maps of Africa and Liberia

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Liberia is on the west coast of Africa


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Liberia owes its establishment to the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to resettle freed American slaves in Africa. An attempt at colonization in Sierra Leone had failed in 1815. Six years later native rulers granted a tract of land on Cape Mesurado, at the mouth of the Saint Paul River, to U.S. representatives, and the first Americo-Liberians, led by Jehudi Ashmun, began the settlement. In 1894 an American agent for the society, Ralph Randolph Gurley, named the new colony Liberia and the Cape Mesurado settlement Monrovia. Other separate settlements were established along the coast during the next 20 years. Soon, however, conflicts arose between the settlers and the society in the United States. By the time Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first black governor in 1841, the decision had been made to give the colonists almost full control of the government. A constitution modeled on that of the United States was drawn up, and Liberia became an independent republic in July 1847. Roberts was its first president, serving until 1856. Britain recognized Liberia in 1848, France in 1852, and the United States in 1862.

Relations with Indigenous People

The Americo-Liberian communities eked out a precarious existence during the 19th century. Claims over interior territory were disputed not only by the indigenous Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke, Kru, and Gola peoples, but also by European states that did not recognize Liberian jurisdiction over the interior. U.S. support led to a series of agreements with Britain and France between 1892 and 1911, which marked the present boundaries. (Liberian control over the interior peoples, however, was not completely assured until the 1940s.) Loans from Britain and the United States partially eased the country's financial difficulties. Liberia declared war on Germany on August 14, 1917, which gave the Allies an additional base in West Africa during World War I (1914-1918). In 1926 the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opened a rubber plantation on 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land granted by the Liberian government the year before. Rubber production became the mainstay of the nation's economy.

In 1931 the League of Nations confirmed that Americo-Liberians were using native Africans for forced labor, tantamount to slavery. The ensuing scandal implicated the highest government officials; the president and vice president resigned. By 1936 the new government had succeeded in abolishing forced-labor practices and Liberia was again in good standing with the League. The indigenous population, however, was still treated as second-class citizens, without voting rights.

Tubman's Regime

U.S.-Liberian relations became closer after the United States entered World War II (1939-1945). In 1942 the republic agreed to allow U.S. troops to be based in the country despite the fact that Liberia did not declare war on the Axis powers until 1944. In 1945 Liberia became one of the original member states of the United Nations.

Following his election in May 1943, President William V. S. Tubman pursued a policy of national unification and economic development through foreign investment. The latter policy led to the exploitation in the 1950s of iron-ore deposits in the Bomi Hills, located north of Monrovia.

In the presidential election of May 1951, women and indigenous property owners voted for the first time, but the few thousand Americo-Liberians living in the coastal region still retained control of the government. The incumbent Tubman, candidate of the dominant True Whig Party, was reelected without opposition. The government had suppressed the Reformation and United People's parties. Their leaders, supported mainly by residents of the hinterland, were arrested or exiled following the election. President Tubman was returned to office in the 1955 election, but he narrowly escaped assassination during his victory celebration. Thirty people were indicted for treason; two former cabinet ministers and five others were convicted.

Considerable progress, both social and material, was made during Tubman's later terms as president. Thus, in February 1958, the legislature passed a law making racial discrimination punishable by fine and imprisonment for citizens and by deportation for aliens. During the 1960s a Swedish-American group completed a major iron-ore project near Mount Nimba, and German investors developed iron-ore resources in the Bong Range. The Liberian Bank of Industrial Development and Investment was established in 1965 to provide capital for private investment.

During this time President Tubman held a firm rein on power. After some labor unrest within Liberia and coups elsewhere in Africa, he was given emergency powers in February 1966 for 12 months. In 1967 he was reelected to his sixth term (a year ahead of time), and he was returned the seventh time in May 1971. Two months later he died and was succeeded by William R. Tolbert, Jr., Liberia's vice president since 1951.

Violent Change

Under Tolbert's leadership during the 1970s, Liberia loosened somewhat its close ties with the United States. In 1974 it accepted economic aid from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and in 1978 it joined with other developing countries in a trade agreement with the European Community. Domestically, emphasis was placed on bringing the isolated interior into national political life and on improving the economic conditions of the indigenous population. In 1979, however, the country was paralyzed by riots caused by a proposed increase in the price of rice, the staple food. More than 40 people were killed in the violence.

In 1980 Tolbert's opponents, emboldened by a court decision recognizing them as an opposition party, openly called for his overthrow. Their leader, Gabriel B. Matthews, and a dozen others were arrested. A month later, on April 12, a bloody coup was staged by army personnel under the leadership of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Tolbert and many of his aides were killed. A People's Redemption Council, headed by Doe, subsequently suspended the constitution and assumed full legislative and executive powers. More than a dozen officials of the previous regime were publicly executed.

Under pressure from the United States and other creditors, in July 1984 Doe's government issued a decree that allowed the return of political parties outlawed since 1980. Doe, however, used his power to assure that opposition parties did not threaten his domination, and he won the presidential election in 1985. By the late 1980s inflation was rampant and exports were almost nonexistent. In addition, relations with the United States, Liberia's major foreign benefactor, deteriorated because of government corruption and human-rights abuses.

Civil War

In December 1989 a group of dissidents began an uprising against the government. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a rebel group led by Charles Taylor, soon had an ill-trained army of 10,000 men, and within weeks they controlled much of the countryside. A split among the insurgents only increased the violence as fighting continued into 1990. An Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) monitoring group (ECOMOG) was sent to Liberia as a peacekeeping force, but failed to halt the fighting. Doe was captured and executed by a splinter group of the NPFL in September 1990. The destruction of Liberia's economy begun by Doe was completed by the war.

The war spread through Liberia, as the NPFL battled ECOMOG, the Liberian army, their splinter group the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), composed of former allies of Doe. By early 1991, ECOMOG held Monrovia and the NPFL controlled the rest of the country. In October 1991 ECOWAS and the NPFL agreed to disarm and establish an Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) under civic leader Amos Sawyer; this agreement failed, however, when Taylor refused to disarm out of fear of being attacked by ULIMO and distrust of factions within ECOMOG. The NPFL began to disarm in early 1992, but clashed with ECOMOG forces, and in August was attacked by ULIMO from Sierra Leone. In September the NPFL launched an all-out assault on ECOMOG forces in Monrovia, recruiting boys as young as eight to fight, and executing civilians who refused to join. The siege temporarily shut down all transportation in or out of the capital and killed thousands of civilians in the crossfire. ECOMOG responded offensively, bombing NPFL positions outside the city, and by January 1993 succeeded in pushing the NPFL back into the c
ountryside. In the meantime, ULIMO had captured much of western Liberia, but had split along ethnic lines into two warring factions, ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K.

At a peace conference in July 1993 the leaders of IGNU, NPFL, and ULIMO-K drew up a plan for a Liberian National Transitional Government, led by a five-member Council of State consisting of one NPFL leader, one ULIMO-K member, one IGNU representative, and two other civilians. A cease-fire was implemented, but again Taylor was slow to disarm. Rural hostilities flared up in late 1993, with two new armed groups sprouting up, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) and the Lofa Defense Force (LDF), a strongly anti-ULIMO faction from the western Lofa region. In early 1994 ULIMO-J, led by General Roosevelt Johnson, refused to give up its weapons. By mid-1994 the cease-fire had completely failed, and fighting raged between the LPC and the NPFL, between ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K, and between ULIMO-J and ECOMOG. The United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) was deployed to cooperate with ECOMOG in March. At this time the United States issued a report condemning widespread human-rights violations in Liberia, noting in particular an LPC massacre of civilians suspected of being NPFL supporters. The leaders of the factions secretly met in August 1994, and negotiated a timeline for disarmament and the institution of a Council of State based on the 1993 plan, but with six members. A cease-fire in December was interrupted by skirmishes until a formal peace accord was signed on August 19, 1995. The implementation of the Council of State was hampered by Taylor's insistence on being its chairman. The council was tenuously established, consisting of a civilian as chairman, Taylor, ULIMO-K leader Alhaji Kromah, LPC leader George Boley, and two other civilians. The peace was broken in April 1996 when an uprising by ULIMO-J in the outskirts of Monrovia quickly spread into the capital, sparking street-to-street fighting and looting. Another cease-fire was declared in August, and Monrovia was reclaimed by ECOMOG forces.

Return to Democracy

An ECOMOG disarmament program was initiated under the August 1996 peace agreement. Barring some minor skirmishes and an assassination attempt on Taylor, the disarmament proceeded smoothly. ECOMOG forces cleared land mines and reopened the country's roads, allowing refugees to begin returning from neighboring countries and humanitarian aid to reach the previously inaccessible interior. The disarmament program was declared a success in January 1997. Under considerable international scrutiny, presidential and legislative elections were held in July. Charles Taylor, the man who instigated the Liberian civil war eight years earlier, was elected president by a landslide, and his political party, the National Patriotic Party, won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The elections were judged free and fair by international election observers. Taylor has sought to rebuild the economy and heal the wounds left from the Liberian civil war, which killed more than 150,000 Liberians and displaced well over 1 million between 1989 and 1996.

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