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 constitutional model in 1847. For much of its early history, Liberia was dominated by Americo-Liberians – descendants of the original colonists – despite their making up only around 5 per cent of the population. The relationship between Americo-Liberians and indigenous Liberians was characterised by intermittent peace and friction and ethnic interaction was generally not volatile.

Severe political changes started in the 1980s when a group from the indigenous Krahn tribe, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, staged a military coup against the government of William Tolbert. Doe’s subsequent ten-year rule was characterised by rampant corruption in government, gross inefficiency in managing the economy, the brutal repression of political opponents and favouritism towards the Krahn. In 1985 an unsuccessful military coup attempt masterminded by Brigadier General Thomas Quiwonkpa, Doe’s former confidant who turned against him, and, backed by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, sparked brutal reprisals by the Krahn against the Gio and Mano.

Image by jimforest published under a creative commons license

After he fled the country in 1983, arriving in the USA following charges of embezzlement, Charles Taylor was arrested but managed to escape from Plymouth prison in Massachussetts, USA. He formed and led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to invade Liberia from the Ivory Coast in December 1989. The Doe regime quickly lost control of most of the country to his forces, and by early 1990 the  civil war had transformed into a struggle for power and resources between Taylor, who controlled the majority of the country outside of Monrovia, Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and the various other armed groups that sprung up: Francois Massaquoi of the Lofa Defense Force (LDF) controlled gold and diamond mineral resources in Lofa County; George Boley of the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), controlled commercial operations in timber and rubber; George Dweh of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) controlled Lofa and Bomi County with both gold and diamond mineral resources; Thomas Nimely of the (MODEL) controlled southern Liberia and exported timber from the region; Alhaji G.V. Kromah of the (ULIMO-K); General Roosevelt Johnson- of the (ULIMO-J); and Sam Dokie and Tom Woewiyu of the (NPFL-CRC). The upsurge of rebel factions in the civil war was not only due to ideological differences per se but also because they wanted to control mineral, natural and commercial strategic resources.

The fighting was extremely complex as some military factions splintered into different militias, often focusing on local conflicts and economic gains. Several attempts to end the civil war were spearheaded by concerted efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)’s Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a multilateral armed force headed by Nigeria. After several failed attempts at reaching a ceasefire, sporadic violence halted in August 1996. After heavy fighting in Monrovia and with the intervention of ECOMOG, a ceasefire agreement was reached marking the end of the first civil war. This laid the groundwork 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 the north-west, 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 United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeepers in August, followed quickly by Taylor’s resignation ahead of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACP) which ended the war. The month before, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) – set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to bring justice to victims by putting to trial perpetrators of sviolations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed during the war –  indicted Taylor for his part in atrocities related to his support for the RUF, and issued an international warrant for his arrest. Although Taylor was originally indicted in 2003, he sought and was given asylum in Nigeria after fleeing Liberia. In March 2006, he fled from his house in Nigeria and tried to escape, but was arrested at the border with Cameroon. He was then extradited to the SCSL for trial following a request by the Government of Liberia. On 26 September 2013, Taylor was found guilty by the trial panel and sentenced to 50 years of imprisonment.

The ACP power-sharing agreement ended the fighting and created a National Transitional Government (NTG). The NTG, supported by UNMIL peacekeeping troops, replaced the government under the 1986 constitution and ruled until elections were held in 2005, which returned Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In 2006 the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (LTRC), was established with a mandate to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation  after 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 programmes for communities to support peacebuilding. Since 2003, UNMIL has had a strong peacekeeping force of 15,000 military personnel, 250 military observers, 160 staff officers, and 1,115 police officers in the country mandated to protect United Nations staff, facilities and civilians, support humanitarian and human rights activities, and assist in national security reform, including national police training and the formation of a new, restructured military. However, the number of peacekeepers has been reduced every year. 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 led to another third of the population fleeing to neighbouring countries. 51 per cent of Liberians are under 18 years old, many of them orphans. The economy was left in ruins, and basic infrastructure and services are non-existent. Parts of Monrovia have not had electricity since 1989.

Image by United Nations Photo published under a creative commons license

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.

Photo Credit: Veronica Sparks

Last updated: February 2014