Liberia was ruled along ethnic lines until American abolitionists looking for a place to resettle freed slaves stepped off the boat at Monrovia's Providence Island in 1822. 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.
The surviving settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, declared an independent republic in 1847, under the mantra 'The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here'. However, 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 forced labour. They were not afforded the right to vote until 1963.
During William Tubman's presidency (1944–71) the tides began to change. 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 during this time.
Yet the influx of new money exacerbated existing social inequalities, and hostilities between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous population worsened during the era of William Tolbert, who succeeded Tubman. While the elite continued to live the high life, resentment among other Liberians quietly simmered.
In 2005 Liberia made headlines by electing economist and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa's first female head of state. She has been credited with reducing Liberia's debt, maintaining peace and improving infrastructure in the country, but has been criticised for some of the ways she handled the 2014 Ebola outbreak. At the time of writing, she was wrapping up her last year of presidency among multiple contenders for the 2017 presidential election.
From 2014 to 2016 the Ebola virus infected around 10,700 people, killed an estimated 4900 and devastated the economy (the majority of infections occurred in 2014). Liberia was declared Ebola-free in 2015, had several small outbreaks and was then again declared free of the virus in 2016. At the time of writing it was still on the long road to economic and emotional recovery.
Death in Pyjamas
Master-sergeant Samuel Doe crept into the presidential palace one night in 1980 and killed William Tolbert, who was ready for bed in his pyjamas. For the first time, Liberia had a ruler who was not an Americo-Liberian, giving the indigenous population a taste of political power and an opportunity for vengeance. One of Doe's first moves was to order the execution of 13 of Tolbert's ministers on a beach in Monrovia. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a member of Tolbert's cabinet and future president, narrowly escaped.
The coup was widely condemned both regionally and internationally. While relations with neighbouring African states soon thawed, the post-coup flight of capital from the country, coupled with ongoing corruption, caused Liberia's economy to plummet.
Doe struggled to maintain power, but opposition forces began to gain strength and inter-tribal fighting broke out. On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor launched an invasion from Côte d'Ivoire. By mid-1990 Taylor's forces controlled most of the countryside. Doe was murdered in 1991, his death captured on a video tape that shows Prince Johnson – who came third in the 2012 presidential race – sipping a beer while shouting instructions to the killers.
Following a series of failed peace accords interspersed with factional fighting, the 1996 elections brought Charles Taylor to the presidency with a big majority.
In August 2003, with rebel groups controlling most of the country, and under heavy pressure from the international community (and from Johnson-Sirleaf), Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government was established, leading to elections in late 2005. Johnson-Sirleaf's winning candidature made her the first elected female president in Africa.