A question of freedom
Six thousand miles from the United States lies a country whose flag bears a striking resemblance to the American one: alternating red and white horizontal stripes and, in the upper left-hand corner, a dark blue square. Against this blue background is a lone white star -- the star of liberty. The flag is a symbol of the history of the Liberian state, its relationship with America, and its search for its own identity.
The present-day Republic of Liberia occupies 43,000 square miles (slightly more than Tennessee) in West Africa. It is bordered on the southwest by the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. From antiquity through the 1700s, many ethnic groups from the surrounding regions settled in the area, making Liberia one of Africa's most culturally rich and diverse countries. Settled in the early 1800s by freeborn Blacks and former slaves from America, Liberia, whose name means "land of freedom," has always struggled with its double cultural heritage: that of the settlers and of the indigenous Africans.
From America to West Africa
In 1816, a group made up mostly of Quakers and slaveholders in Washington, D.C., formed the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Quakers opposed slavery, and the slaveholders opposed the freedom of Blacks, but they agreed on one thing: that Black Americans should berepatriated to Africa. The Quakers felt that freeborn Blacks and former slaves would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States. They also saw repatriation as a way of spreading Christianity through Africa. The slaveholders' motives were less charitable: They viewed repatriation of Blacks as a way of avoiding a slave rebellion like the one that had taken place on the island of Santo Domingo, today's Haiti.
Despite opposition from many Blacks and from white abolitionists, the repatriation program, funded by ACS member subscriptions and a number of state legislatures, moved forward. In 1822, the first 86 voluntary, Black emigrants landed on Cape Montserrado, on what was then known as the Grain Coast. They arrived with white agents of the ACS who would govern them for many years. Many others followed, settling on land sometimes purchased, sometimes obtained more forcefully, from indigenous chiefs.
Settlers shared the land with indigenous tribes. (:48) Watch
The first years were a challenge: The settlers suffered from malaria and yellow fever, common in the area's coastal plains and mangrove swamps, and from attacks by the native populations who were, at various times, unhappy -- unhappy with the expansion of the settlements along the coast; with the settlers' efforts to put an end to the lucrative slave trading in which some ethnic groups were engaged; and at the settlers' attempts to Christianize their communities. Despite these difficulties, the Black settlers were determined to show the world that they could create, develop, and run their own country. And so they kept arriving.
In 1824, the settlement was named Monrovia, after the American president (and ACS member) James Monroe, and the colony became the Republic of Liberia. Over the next 40 years, 19,000 African American repatriates, sometimes known as Americo-Liberians, settled in Liberia, along with some 5,000 Africans recaptured from slave ships, and a small number ofWest Indian immigrants.
Early settlers brought their place names and architecture. (1:48) Watch
Settlers were determined to create a Black America overseas. (1:42)Watch
A two-tiered society struggles to stand on its own feet
The settlers recreated American society, building churches and homes that resembled Southern plantations. And they continued to speak English. They also entered into a complex relationship with the indigenous people -- marrying them in some cases, discriminating against them in others, but all the time attempting to "civilize" them and impose Western values on the traditional communities. After Liberia declared its independence in 1847, Joseph J. Roberts, a freeborn Black who was born in the American state of Virginia, was elected Liberia's first president. It had taken fewer than 25 years for the Blacks from America to begin to govern their own, free country. Soon after his inauguration, President Roberts traveled to Europe, where he was received in the courts of Queen Victoria and Napoleon III. Queen Victoria gave him a gunship to combat slavery, which had continued along the coast with unscrupulous native traders who preyed on weaker ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, England and France were the first countries to recognize Liberia's independence in 1848. Roberts and his senators, all American-born, resolved to create a country based on the principles of justice and equal rights.
The settlers built schools and a university, and during the early years, agriculture, shipbuilding, and trade flourished. Yet as Liberia expanded its borders, a government of repatriates located largely on the coast attempted to establish control over a growing native population located largely in the interior. Over the next few decades, escalating economic difficulties began to weaken the state's dominance over the coastal indigenous population. When the financially burdened ACS withdrew its support, conditions worsened as Liberia tried desperately to modernize its largely agricultural economy. The cost of imports was far greater than the income generated by exports of coffee, rice, palm oil, sugarcane, and timber. Liberia was also struggling under the burden of heavy loans, primarily from Britain. By 1909, the government was bankrupt and forced to borrow further, in large part from the United States.
Forced labor was very much like slavery. (2:23) Watch
To bring in more revenue , the Liberian state leased large areas of land to American companies such as Firestone, which operated a massive rubber plantation in the African nation. The terms of the leases were strongly in favor of the private companies. The final straw came in 1930 when an accusation by the League of Nations, of "forced labor ... hardly distinguishable from slavery," turned out to be true. The government collapsed, and the new president, Edwin Barclay, dealt with the mounting discontent among his people by introducing increasingly repressive laws.
An international profile, and trouble at home
Despite these developments, the gap between the ruling elite and the indigenous populations increased. Tubman was criticized for being too influenced by the United States and its interests in the area (i.e., the fight against communism), and for repressing political opposition. Tubman's rule became gradually more authoritarian : He changed the constitution to allow himself to remain in office for seven consecutive terms, gagged the press, and introduced a system of government spies to report on all political activity.
Tolbert wanted Liberia to be a force for African unity and civil rights. (1:12)Watch
Tolbert became a tragic figure. (1:03)Watch
By the time Tubman died in 1971, frustrations in Liberia were running high. His vice president and successor, William R. Tolbert, attempted to improve the economic and political climate by introducing many new changes. But the damage of the past seemed irreparable. The majority of the population was poor and lacked basic amenities such as access to safe water and electricity. Tolbert's attempt to liberalize Liberian society backfired -- some thought he was moving too quickly, while others thought he wasn't moving quickly enough. Many could no longer bear the political dominance of the descendants of American settlers. At the same time, Tolbert's own administration opposed his efforts to bring more indigenous Liberians into the upper echelons of government. Tolbert's proposal in 1979 to increase the price of imported rice, a basic part of the Liberian diet, as a tactic to encourage local production was interpreted negatively, and this provided the spark for demonstrations which rapidly turned violent.
Doe led the coup that resulted in the assassination of Tolbert. (1:10) Watch
Doe's supporters thought the coup would get rid of Americo-Liberian domination. (1:20)Watch
Doe didn't understand the complexities of the task ahead. (1:00)Watch
Some soldiers in the army sympathized with the demonstrators, but others strongly believed in the power of the military. In 1980, a group of enlisted men led by Samuel K. Doe, a 28-year-old indigenous master sergeant, fought their way into the presidential mansion and shot Tolbert to death. Shortly afterwards, 13 members of the Cabinet were publicly executed. Hundreds of government workers fled the country, while others were imprisoned.
Many people welcomed Doe's takeover as a shift favoring the majority of the population that had been excluded from power. The new government, led by the leaders of the coup d'ètat and calling itself the People's Redemption Council (PRC), lacked experience and was ill prepared to rule. Soon there were internal rifts, and Doe began to systematically eliminate Council members who challenged his authority. Paranoid about the possibility of a counter-coup, Doe began to favor people of his own ethnic background, the Krahns, placing them in key positions. Among ordinary Liberians, support for Doe's government soon dampened.
In 1985, Doe declared himself the winner of a presidential election he had actually lost. His corrupt government became more repressive, shutting down newspapers and banning political activity. The government's mistreatment of certain ethnic groups, particularly the Gio (or Dan) and the Mano in the north, resulted in divisions and violence among indigenous populations who until then had coexisted relatively peacefully.
Rebels were ready to be organized by Taylor. (1:28) Watch
Taylor was rumored to have the backing of affluent Liberians who wanted to get rid of Doe. (:50)Watch
The brutal treatment they faced at the hands of the Liberian army drove some indigenous northerners across the border to the Ivory Coast. There, a man named Charles Taylor organized and trained many of them. Taylor had previously served as deputy minister of commerce under Doe, but was imprisoned for allegedly transferring millions of government funds into his own account. He was reported to have bribed his way out of a Massachusetts jail. When Taylor and his force of 100 rebels reentered Liberia in 1989, on Christmas Eve, thousands of Gio and Mano joined them. While they formed the core of his rebel army, there were many Liberians of other ethnic backgrounds who joined as well. A brutal civil warensued.
Military peacekeeping forces gave a fragile sense of security. (3:35)Watch
People hoped that a vote for Taylor would mean an end to the bloodshed. (1:31)Watch
In September 1990, Doe was captured and tortured to death by another rebel group originally associated with Taylor, while fighting between the rebels and the Liberian army escalated into civil war. Entire villages were emptied as people fled. Soldiers, some of them still children, committed unspeakable atrocities, raping and murdering people of all ages, in what became one of the world's worst episodes of ethnic cleansing .
Five years later, at a conference sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United Nations and the United States, the European Union, and the Organization of African Unity, Charles Taylor agreed to a cease-fire and a timetable to demobilize and disarm his troops. In a climate hardly conducive to free movement and security of persons, he won a 1997 presidential election against 12 other candidates. Liberians had voted for him in the hope that he would end the bloodshed.
The bloodshed did slow considerably, but it has not ended. Violent events have flared up regularly since the end of the war. Taylor, furthermore, has been accused of backing guerrillas in neighboring countries and funneling diamond monies into arms purchases for the rebel armies he supported, and into luxuries for himself.
The end of the turmoil?
Seven years of civil war undid much of what Liberia had achieved. Most of the country's infrastructure and public buildings were destroyed. Two hundred thousand people were killed, and another 800,000 displaced from their homes. Close to another 700,000 became refugees in neighboring countries. Recent reports from international political, environmental, and humanitarian groups point to Liberia's sky-high unemployment, continuing human rights violations, and the uncertainty of the upcoming 2003 elections.
Today, the Liberian people are just beginning the slow process of recovering from the economic, social, political, and psychological trauma of the war. The world waits and watches to see if the cycle of clashes between different populations has truly been broken, and if Liberia can rebuild itself as a unified nation to achieve the promise of its star of liberty.
Africa: South of the Sahara: Liberia:
An extensive list of links to dozens of Liberia-related Web sites, from Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources.
Liberia's History: Time Line:
Prepared by a former Peace Corps volunteer to Liberia, this timeline focuses primarily on the achievements and challenges of the many men who have held the top office in Africa's oldest republic. The timeline ends with President Tolbert's execution in 1980, and a literal question mark as to how the country's problems escalated to this point.
Cartage (Central Array of Relayed Transaction for the Advance of General Education): Liberia:
The Liberian Connection:
Liberian Embassy: Liberia at a Glance:
African Studies: Liberia:
African-American Mosaic: Colonization:
Anjali Mitter Duva is a freelance writer and consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This essay was reviewed by D. Elwood Dunn, a professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and by Womi Edith Neal, a District of Columbia public school teacher and founder/executive director of the Grass Roots Theatre Company in Bethesda, Maryland.