Liberia: Conflict Profile
Founded by free-born and former black slaves from America and the Caribbean, Liberia was the first ex-colony in Africa to gain independence, becoming a republic based on the US model in 1847. For much of its early history, Liberia was dominated by Amerio-Liberians – descendents of the original colonists – despite comprising of only around 5 per cent of the population.
This changed in 1980 when a group from the indigenous Krahn tribe, led by Samuel Doe, staged a military coup against the government of William Tolbert. Doe’s subsequent ten-year rule was characterised by brutal repression of political opponents and favouritism towards the Krahn ethnic group. Successive coup attempts, most notably in 1985, sparked brutal reprisals against Liberia’s various ethnic groups.
It is in this context that Charles Taylor, a former minister in Doe’s government until he fled the country in 1983 following charges of embezzlement, led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to invade Liberia from the Ivory Coast in December 1989. The Doe regime fell quickly, but by early 1990 the conflict had transformed into a power struggle between Taylor, who controlled the majority of the country outside of Monrovia, and various other armed groups involved in the Civil War. ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, meanwhile set up a peacekeeping force called ECOMOG, headed by Nigeria (see here for a critical appraisal of the performance of ECOWAS). The fighting was extremely complex as some military factions splintered into different militias, often focusing on local conflicts and economic gains. Sporadic violence only halted in August 1996, after heavy fighting in Monrovia led to a ceasefire. This laid the ground for elections in 1997, won by Taylor’s National Patriotic Party with 75 per cent of the vote.
Yet a return to democracy did little to return peace to the country. Simmering ethnic tensions amongst groups loyal to Taylor’s opponents, and regional turmoil caused by Taylor’s support for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone’s Civil War, soon brought about renewed violence. In 1999, Liberians for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) – a rebel group operating out of Guinea – attacked the town of Voinjama in north-western Liberia, marking the beginning of a second civil war. Taylor’s government, weakened by the sanctions imposed because of his support for the RUF, was unable to hold back the rebels. By 2003, Taylor controlled less than one third of the country, and heavy fighting in Monrovia led to the arrival of peacekeepers in August, followed quickly by Taylor’s resignation ahead of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the war. The month before, the Special Court for Sierra Leone – established to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes in Sierra Leone’s civil war – indicted Taylor for his part in atrocities related to his support for the RUF and issued an international warrant for his arrest. He was handed over in March 2006 – his trial is ongoing.
New elections were held in 2005, which returned Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In 2006 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was established to help the country move past 20 years of dictatorship and civil war. Liberia is a major beneficiary of international development agencies, such as USAID and DFID which invest millions of dollars developing social programmess for communities to support peacebuilding. The UN also has a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force, UNMIL, in the country, which is mandated to stay until at least September 2010.
The effects of war in Liberia were catastrophic. According to UNDP estimates, the conflict left 250,000 people dead – 1 in 14 of the entire population – and a further 1/3 of Liberians fleeing to neighbouring countries. 51 per cent of Liberians are under 18 years old – many of them orphans. The economy was left in ruins, basic infrastructure and services non-existent – parts of Monrovia have not had electricity since the 1989.
As such, the development needs of Liberia are tremendous. Malnutrition affects about 40 per cent of children under five years old, and Liberia languishes near the bottom of most indicators on the UN’s Human Development Index. Improving the health and education systems are urgent priorities, yet at the same time Liberia must face many of the challenges left over from the armed conflict – not least, the reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants back into society. It is clear there are many challenges for Johnson-Sirleaf, and Liberia as a whole.
Last updated: August 2011