Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights
About Liberia
Background Information on Liberia

For thousands of years, Liberia has been the homeland of numerous indigenous African tribes, including the Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Mandingo, Vai, and Bella.  Liberia has retained its rich diversity, and there are still 16 ethnic groups and 30 living languages spoken in Liberia. 

The early Portuguese began exploring the area now known as Liberia in 1461.  They named the region the “Grain Coast” due to the discovery of large quantities of melegueta pepper.  Their explorations were followed by British traders, who established trading posts throughout the Grain Coast in the 17th century; these posts were later destroyed by the Dutch within one year.  Following these early attempts, there were no further settlements by Western nations until the arrival of the African-Americans in the 19th century. 

Early Colonization

In 1812, a group of white men, primarily Quakers, slave owners, politicians, and abolitionists, formed the American Colonization Society (ACS).  Its mission was to send free African-Americans to Africa as an alternative to emancipation.  The ACS believed that through repatriation, African-Americans would have a better chance for freedom, face less discrimination, and be able to spread Christianity throughout Africa.  Others, however, viewed the ACS’ mission as a means of preventing a slave rebellion while removing a population with an unclear legal status.  The repatriation effort was funded by ACS membership dues and several state legislatures.  In addition, Congress allocated $100,000 to repatriate recaptured slaves under the Slave Trade Act of 1819, leading to the resettlement of more than 5,000 people in Liberia.[1]  This last group of settlers was known as “Congo people” as many of them were from the Congo River Basin area prior to their capture. 

In 1822, the first 86 African-American emigrants arrived on Cape Montserrado.  The Americo-Liberians adhered to their American traditions, such as clothing and housing styles, and they continued to speak English.  Heavily influenced by their U.S. experiences, the Americo-Liberians’ views of the indigenous population varied.  They alternately attempted to exclude, convert, control and sometimes marry the members of indigenous tribes.  The indigenous Africans, in turn, reacted hostilely to the incoming population and its appropriation of their land, resulting in armed conflicts between the two populations.  The early settlers also contracted diseases common to the region, such as malaria and yellow fever.  Against these early challenges, resettlement efforts would prevail, with 19,000 African-Americans settling the area over the next 40 years. 

Africa’s First Republic

In 1824, the colony was named Monrovia after President James Monroe.  The settlement as a whole became known as Liberia, or “land of the free.”  In 1847, Liberia declared independence and elected Virginia-born Joseph J. Roberts as the first president the following year.  Roberts served as president of Liberia from 1848 to 1855 and again from 1872 to 1874.  The Americo-Liberians modeled their government and constitution on the U.S.  President Robert’s party, the True Whig Party, also was founded around this time and remained Liberia’s dominant political party until 1980. 


During the 1860s, Liberia began to face economic hurdles.  The absence of a solid industrial infrastructure led to economic problems, and the cost of Liberia’s imports vastly outweighed its revenue from exports.  Liberia took out high-interest loans from the U.S. and Europe in the 1870s, becoming economically dependent on other countries.  By 1909, the Liberian government was bankrupt.  To garner income, Liberia signed a concession agreement with Firestone in 1926.  The agreement leased one million acres of land with exclusive rights to Firestone for 99 years at an annual cost of six cents per acre.  The agreement also required that Liberia borrow $5 million from Harvey Firestone, thus assuming new loans for previous ones.  Furthermore, accusations of forced labor on the Firestone rubber plantations began to surface.  In response, the League of Nations appointed a committee to investigate and document these allegations.  The Christy Report found the Liberian government had used forcible recruitment and forced labor for the plantations, leading to the resignation of President Charles D.B. King.  Nevertheless, labor violations on the Firestone Plantations continued through the modern era.[2]    

Tubman and Tolbert Era

In 1944, William V.S. Tubman was elected President of Liberia.  With income from foreign investments and the discovery of minerals, Tubman developed some of Liberia’s basic infrastructure, including schools, roads and hospitals.  Tubman engaged in repressive practices, however, by restricting the press and suppressing political opposition.  In addition, he amended the constitution to permit himself to serve seven terms until his death in 1971.  By the time Vice-President William Tolbert succeeded Tubman, many Liberians were frustrated with the widespread poverty, lack of basic amenities, and political domination by the Americo-Liberians. 

Doe Era

In 1980, Samuel K. Doe, a 28-year old ethnic Krahn and master sergeant in the army, led Liberia’s first military coup d’etat against President Tolbert.  The coup members executed Tolbert and 13 of his cabinet ministers, bringing an end to 133 years of Americo-Liberian rule.  Tolbert and his forces formed the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), a party that favored Krahn Liberians, and governed under military rule until the 1985 elections.  Doe named himself president under fraudulent election conditions that he actually lost.  Under Doe’s regime, living standards declined further as human rights violations, corruption and ethnic friction increased.  Doe’s government engaged in widespread torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and restrictions on freedom of expression.  The government suppressed opposition activities, imprisoned opposition leaders and further intimidated suspected opponents.  Doe’s regime favored the ethnic Krahn, while mistreating members of other ethnic groups, particularly the Gio and Mano.  Throughout Doe’s rule, Liberia was a close ally of the U.S. during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and received over $500 million dollars in aid. 

Taylor Era

On December 24, 1989, Americo-Liberian Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels entered Liberia from the Côte d’Ivoire.  The invasion marked the beginning of a devastating civil war that killed 200,000 people, forced one million to seek refuge in other countries, and displaced one million others internally.[3]  Within six months, Taylor and the NPFL had reached Monrovia.  In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent 4,000 ECOWAS Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peacekeepers to Monrovia in August.  On September 9, 1990, a splinter group of the NPFL captured and tortured Samuel Doe to death.  The NPFL and Doe’s soldiers signed a ceasefire agreement in November; a second peace agreement was signed between the Interim Government, NPFL and Doe’s supporters in December.  The United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO), a rebel group composed of Doe supporters from neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, was formed to oppose Taylor and invaded Liberia in April 1991. 

Although additional peace agreements were signed by the warring factions throughout 1993 and 1994, the conflict continued.  In 1995, Taylor agreed to a ceasefire and a timeline for the demobilization and disarmament of his troops.  Taylor, along with five others, became members of the collective transitional presidency.  Elections were held in 1997, even though the country was not sufficiently stable for people to feel secure in exercising their political rights.  Taylor won the presidential election.  Under Taylor, human rights violations continued.  Killings, torture, rape, ill-treatment, and recruitment of child soldiers were carried out, as well as the persecution of journalists, opposition figures, and human rights defenders.  While the violence between warring factions slowed for a short period, it was soon renewed by rebel groups.

In 1999, exiled Liberians in Sierra Leone and Guinea formed rebel groups to oppose Taylor.  Two of those groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), launched campaigns against Taylor’s government.  After a ceasefire between LURD, MODEL, and Taylor’s government was broken in 2003, LURD attacked Monrovia, killing more than 1,000 civilians and displacing 600,000.  Three thousand regional peacekeepers were sent to Liberia in 2003. 

Under international pressure, Taylor stepped down in exchange for asylum in Nigeria on August 11, 2003.  Soon afterward, rebels and the interim government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra, which provided for a transitional government until the 2006 elections.  Gyude Bryant was selected to lead the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL).  

The war in Liberia reflects the broader conflict in the Mano River region of West Africa.  While the Mano River Union originally was formed in 1973 to facilitate economic cooperation between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, it became a region rife with interrelated conflicts.  Small arms, light weapons, and combatants circulate easily across the borders.  Insurgent groups and governments exploit the region’s natural resources by selling “blood” or “conflict” diamonds and timber to fund the fighting.  Governments in the region also have supported rebel groups in neighboring countries, further fuelling the conflicts.  Charles Taylor was a key player in driving this regional instability.  After the ECOMOG force in Monrovia clashed with Taylor in his 1990 invasion, Taylor sought retribution by attacking Sierra Leone, ECOMOG’s rear base.  On March 23, 2001, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched an attack on Sierra Leone from Liberia.  Supported and controlled by Taylor, the RUF was responsible for widespread human rights violations throughout Sierra Leone’s 11-year war.  Other principal actors included Côte d’Ivoire, which supported MODEL.  Government and rebel forces have recruited Liberian refugees and children from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.  Guinea backed LURD by supporting the presence of LURD forces in Liberian refugee camps.  During the conflict, ULIMO continued to use Guinea and Sierra Leone as a base. 

Post-conflict Liberia

On March 7, 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone charged Taylor with 17 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law; this indictment was later reduced to 11 counts.  For three years, Taylor remained in exile beyond the Special Court’s reach.  It was not until a request by the Liberian government that Nigerian President Obasanjo delivered Taylor to the Special Court on March 29, 2006.  For reasons related to preserving regional stability, Taylor’s trial was transferred to The Hague, where he is currently incarcerated.  

On November 23, 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected President of Liberia.  The first female president in Africa and a member of the Unity Party, Sirleaf had faced persecution from prior regimes.  She was imprisoned in 1980 for criticizing Doe’s administration.  She initially supported Taylor’s regime, but later disagreed with his views and was charged with treason by his government. 

On June 22, 2006, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia was launched.  Composed of nine Commissioners, the TRC will “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation,” while making it possible to hold perpetrators accountable for gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law that occurred in Liberia between the period of January 1979 and October 2003.  Although some Liberians have called for a war crimes court, there are no plans to establish such a tribunal. 

Compiled from: Liberia: Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Amnesty International (2006), at http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR340062006?open&of=ENG-LBR; Liberia: The Key to Ending Regional Instability, International Crisis Group, Apr. 24, 2002, at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=1533&l=1; Liberia: Security Challenges, International Crisis Group, Nov. 3, 2003, at http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=2344&l=1; The Regional Crisis and Human Rights Abuses in West Africa: A Briefing Paper to the U.N. Security Council, Human Rights Watch, June 20, 2003, at http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/wafrica/wafrica-humanrights.htm; Wynfred N.  Russell, LIBERIA: America’s Failed Attempt at Colonization in Africa, Address at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Project Training (July 28, 2006) (unpublished presentation, on file with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights); Samuel Dolo, Introduction to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, Address at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Project Training (July 28, 2006) (unpublished presentation, on file with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights); Background Note: Liberia, Bureau of Afr. Aff., U.S. Dep’t of State, at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/6618.htm (Sept. 2006); Liberia and the United States: A Complex Relationship, PBS, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/liberia/essays/uspolicy/index.html  (last visited Sept. 22, 2006); The Lone Star: The Story of Liberia, PBS, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/liberia/essays/history/index.html (last visited Sept. 22, 2006); Dr. Fred P.M. Van Der Kraaij, The 1926 Firestone Concession Agreement, Liberia Past and Present, at http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/1926FirestoneCA.htm (last visited Sept. 22, 2006); Carl Patrick Burrowes, The Firestone Rubber Plantation and Liberia: A History of Broken Promises, Shell Games, and Hidden Profits, at http://www.stopfirestone.org/history.shtml (last visited Sept. 22, 2006); Timeline: Liberia, BBC News, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/1043567.stm (last modified Apr. 4, 2006); History of Liberia: A Time Line, Library of Congress, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/libhtml/liberia.html (last modified Mar. 12, 1998); The African-American Mosaic: Liberia, Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam003.html (last modified July 5, 2005); Liberia: Colonization, Library of Congress, at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/afam002.html (last modified July 5, 2005); Water B. Hill, Jr., Living with the Hydra: The Documentation of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Federal Records, Prologue (Winter 2000) at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/winter/hydra-slave-trade-documentation-1.html; Languages of Liberia, Ethnologue, at http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=Liberia (last visited Sept. 22, 2006).

[1] The Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade as an act of piracy punishable by death.

[2] On November 17, 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a class action lawsuit against Firestone Corporation.  The lawsuit alleges that Firestone has engaged in forced labor, involuntary servitude, recklessness, negligence, negligent hiring and supervision, and unjust enrichment and unfair business practices under the Alien Tort Statute, the U.S. and California Constitutions and California Code of Business & Professional Conduct

[3] Estimates of the number of people killed, displaced or who fled the country vary depending on source.