Liberia: Conflict profile

Violent political upheaval in Liberia began in 1980, when a group led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a military coup against the government of William Tolbert. Doe’s subsequent ten-year rule saw rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, the repression of political opponents and favouritism towards the Krahn ethnic group. Tribal violence characterised the decade, with another failed coup attempt leading to brutal reprisals towards its ethnic Gio and Mano backers.

In 1983, Charles Taylor – a former supporter of Doe, and Director General of the government's General Services Agency (GSA) – was charged with embezzlement. He fled to the US, where he was arrested on an extradition warrant. After escaping the Massachusetts prison where he was being held, he underwent training in Libya before going to the Ivory Coast to raise an army against Doe. Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) crossed the border into Liberia in December 1989.

A war of succession: competing claims to power

The Doe regime quickly lost control of most of the country to Taylor's forces, and the war became a multi-dimensional power struggle between Taylor's NPFL, Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia, and a plethora other armed groups that emerged at various stages of the conflict. These included the Lofa Defense Force, the Liberia Peace Council, the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy–Kromahfaction; the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy–Johnson faction, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia-Central Revolutionary Council. The emergence of so many rebel factions during the conflict was a product not only of ideological differences but also of the desire to control natural resources including gold and diamonds.

Image by jimforest published under a creative commons license.

Fighting was complex as military factions often splintered into different militias, 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' Monitoring Group – a multilateral armed force headed by Nigeria. After several failed peace attempts, a ceasefire agreement was reached in August 1996. It marked the end of the first civil war and laid the groundwork for elections in 1997, which Taylor’s National Patriotic Party won, with 75% of the vote.

The second civil war

However, a return to democracy did little to bring peace to the country. Simmering tension and regional turmoil caused by Taylor’s support for the Revolutionary United Front rebels, in neighbouring Sierra Leone, soon sparked more violence. In 1999 a group operating out of Guinea, called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy attacked the Liberian town of Voinjama, effectively triggering a second civil war.

There is a strong UN peacekeeping presence in Liberia
Taylor’s government was unable to hold back the rebels and, by 2003, Taylor controlled less than a third of the country, as yet another rebel group - the Movement for Democracy in Liberia – achieved rapid successes against the government, reputedly with the backing of the Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone – set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations – indicted Taylor for his support for RUF atrocities, and issued an international warrant for his arrest. Heavy fighting in Monrovia led to the arrival of peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in August 2003, followed quickly by Taylor’s resignation and the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACP) which ended the war. On 26 September 2013, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment.

Power-sharing and transitional government

The ACP power-sharing agreement ended fighting in Liberia and created a National Transitional Government (NTG). The NTG, supported by UNMIL peacekeeping troops, ruled until 2005, when democratic elections returned Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In 2006 the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was established with a mandate to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation. Liberia is now a major beneficiary of international development aid, which sees millions of dollars spent on developing social programmes for communities to support peacebuilding. UNMIL has a strong peacekeeping force mandated to protect United Nations staff, facilities and civilians, support humanitarian and human rights activities, and assist in security sector reform.

Image by United Nations Photo published under a creative commons license

The legacy of conflict in Liberia

The effects of the war in Liberia were catastrophic. According to UNDP estimates, the conflict left 250,000 people dead and saw a third of the population flee to neighbouring countries. Today, 51% of Liberians are under 18 years old, and many of them are orphans. The country's economy was left in ruins, and basic infrastructure and services are lacking. Parts of Monrovia have not had electricity since 1989.

Liberia faces many challenges, including reintegrating thousands of ex-combatants into society
The development needs of Liberia are therefore tremendous. Malnutrition affects about 40% 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 other challenges left over from the war – not least, the reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants back into society.

Further challenges have also developed. In 2014, an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea quickly spread into Liberia. With almost 4000 deaths to date, Liberia has the highest Ebola death toll in West Africa. Liberia's weak, post-conflict medical infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point, and basic healthcare is now scarce.

Photo Credit: Veronica Sparks

Last updated: January 2010