HISTORY OF LIBERIA
From the start the republic of Liberia is associated, as its name suggests, with the idea of freedom. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, has as its aim the settlement of freed slaves in colonies where they can become self-sufficient. With that purpose in mind agents from the society visit the west African coast south from Freetown, where the British have already established just such a settlement.
In 1821 the society acquires a coastal area, Cape Mesurado, by agreement with local African rulers. The first freed slaves from America land here in 1822. Two years later the name Liberia is given to the region, and the town developing on Cape Mesurado is called Monrovia – after the US president of the day, James Monroe.
During the next twenty years further settlements are established along the coast, until in the 1840s the society concludes that the colony can now stand on its own. In 1847 it is proclaimed an independent republic. It soon wins recognition from most of the great powers.
As with all settlements imposed on the coast of Africa, the settlers have considerable difficulty in exercising any authority over inland regions. The constitutional approach to political life (brought from the USA in the baggage of the settlers) makes little headway against the long-established customs of the interior. Liberia remains essentially an African tribal region.
Nevertheless the republic survives. Economically the region’s rubber is of great benefit, particularly during World War II when Liberia is one of the allies’ few reliable sources for this essential commodity. The export of rubber brings much improvement in the country’s infrastructure, with the development of roads, airports and a deep-water harbour for Monrovia.
The war years also see the emergence in 1943 of a president who dominates Liberian political life for three decades. He is William Tubman, a lawyer who champions the rights of Liberia‘s majority of tribespeople against a small self-perpetuating establishment of Liberians descended from the original American immigrants.
Tubman and after: from AD 1944
Tubman is unexpectedly elected president in 1943. He immediately gives his country a much higher profile than before, declaring war on Germany and Japan in 1944 – and in the same year becoming one of the signatories of the declaration of the United Nations. After the war Liberia plays an active role in UN and African affairs.
Ruling with an enlightened policy of social and educational reform, Tubman remains a popular president. He is elected for seven successive terms and dies in office in 1971. But after his demise Liberia rapidly loses any semblance of stability.
Tubman’s successor, William Tolbert, is killed in 1980 in a coup mounted by a master sergeant in the Liberian army, Samuel Doe. Doe introduces military rule but stands for election as president in 1985. His victory in the polls is widely regarded as fraudulent.
Doe is captured and executed in 1990 at the start of a civil war involving at least three rival groups, among which the most powerful is the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) led by Charles Taylor. For seven years the country is in turmoil, with a peacekeeping force from neighbouring African nations often engaged in active war against the NPFL.
At least twice peace treaties are agreed and provisional governments are formed, only for fighting to break out again. However a ceasefire in 1996 finally holds. Elections are held in July 1997.
The NPFL wins a majority of the seats in both the senate and the house of representatives. Charles Taylor becomes president with 75% of the vote. The elections are judged by international observers to have been freely and fairly held, but President Taylor soon puts an end to any hopes of a return to democracy. Ruling by terror, amassing at speed a vast personal fortune, and supporting the unscrupulous rebel RUF in neighbouring Sierra Leone, he rapidly establishes himself as a pariah on the international stage.