After being populated for a mere few thousand years, Liberia struck American abolitionists as an ideal place to resettle freed slaves. In 1822, the first group stepped off the boat at Providence Island, Monrovia. They saw themselves as part of a mission to bring civilisation and Christianity to Africa, but their numbers were soon depleted by tropical diseases and hostile indigenous residents, who resented being dominated by the new arrivals.
The surviving settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, declared an independent republic in 1847. Yet, fatally for the new republic’s future, citizenship excluded indigenous peoples, and every president until 1980 was of American freed-slave ancestry. For nearly a century, Liberia foundered economically and politically while the indigenous population suffered under a form of forced labour that would have been called slavery anywhere else.
During William Tubman’s presidency (1944–71) the tides began to change. Thanks to the image of stability that Tubman was able to project, foreign investment flowed into the country, and for several decades Liberia sustained sub-Saharan Africa’s highest growth rate. Firestone and other American companies made major investments, and Tubman earned praise as the ‘maker of modern Liberia’.
Yet the influx of new money exacerbated existing social inequalities, and hostilities between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous population worsened. While indigenous Liberians were finally granted the right to vote in 1963, the concession was too little too late. The government continued to be controlled by about a dozen inter-related Americo-Liberian families, and corruption was rampant.
Resentment began to simmer, and in April 1980 William Tolbert (who had succeeded Tubman as president) was overthrown and killed in a coup led by uneducated, master-sergeant Samuel Doe. For the very first time, Liberia had a ruler who wasn’t an Americo-Liberian, giving the indigenous population a taste of political power and an opportunity for vengeance. The 28-year-old Doe shocked the world by ordering 13 ex-ministers to be publicly executed on a beach in Monrovia.
While the coup gave power to the indigenous population, it was widely condemned regionally and internationally. Relations with neighbouring African states soon thawed. However, the post-coup flight of capital, coupled with ongoing corruption, caused Liberia’s economy to plummet.
Doe struggled to maintain his grip on power, but to no avail. Opposition forces began to gain strength and intertribal fighting broke out.
On Christmas Eve 1989, several hundred rebels led by Charles Taylor (former head of the Doe government’s procurement agency) launched an invasion from Côte d’Ivoire. Doe’s troops arrived shortly thereafter, indiscriminately killing hundreds of unarmed civilians, raping women and burning villages. By mid-1990, Taylor’s forces controlled most of the countryside. Much of Monrovia was under the forces of rebel leader Prince Johnson, and Doe was holed up in his mansion.
Liberia lay in ruins. Refugees streamed into neighbouring countries, US warships were anchored off the coast and a West African peacekeeping force (Ecomog) was despatched in an attempt to keep the warring factions apart. Refusing to surrender, Doe and many of his supporters were finally wiped out by Johnson’s forces. With both Johnson and Taylor claiming the presidency, Ecomog forces installed their own candidate, Amos Sawyer, as head of an interim government. Taylor’s forces continued to occupy the countryside, while remnants of Doe’s army and Johnson’s followers were encamped within Monrovia.
Following a series of failed peace accords interspersed with factional fighting, 1996 elections brought Charles Taylor to the presidency with a large majority, in large part because many Liberians feared the consequences if he lost.
Yet the situation remained tenuous. By late 1998, all former faction leaders except Taylor were living in exile, and power was increasingly consolidated in the presidency. In 1999, rebel-led warfare broke out near the Guinea border, followed by devastating outbreaks of fighting in 2002 and 2003. Finally, in August 2003, with rebel groups controlling most of the country, and under heavy pressure from the international community, Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government was established, leading to elections in late 2005.
In a hotly contested run-off vote between former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and international soccer star George Weah, Johnson-Sirleaf won the presidency, thereby also becoming Africa’s first female president. Since then, she has been overseeing Liberia’s reconstruction with aplomb. But the tasks facing the country are massive: completion of the disarmament process and refugee resettlement; solidification of the still-fragile peace and rebuilding government, economy and infrastructure. Yet most Liberians are upbeat. While optimism for the future is tempered by the tragic realities of the country’s recent past, the future, on the whole, is looking much brighter these days.