A Brief History of Liberia 1822-1991

A Brief History of Liberia 1822-1991

A short history of Liberia written by a visitor to the country during the 1991 civil war.

It was intended to be background for a feature in Black Flag that never happened. It probably needs improving, especially on the responses of the people who lived there to their role as supplier of raw materials to the west, but is at least a start.

The current civil war in Liberia, which recently cost the life of Samuel Doe, the President since a coup in the early 80s, has its roots in the founding of a colony for former slaves in 1822.

In the beginning of the 18th century, the tide of opinion in America and elsewhere was turning against slavery. However, the whites were fearful of a slave revolt led by newly emancipated blacks. To this end, the American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 and two of its officials visited the Grain Coast of Africa with two US goverment agents. In 1821 an agreement was signed between the Society and local chiefs granting the Society possession of Cape Mesurado.

The first freed American slaves landed in 1822, shortly followed by Jehudi Ashmun, a white American who founded the government and the digest of laws of Liberia.

From 1841, the Governor was a free-born man, one of whose great-grandparents was black, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. At the bidding of the American Colonization Society, he proclaimed Liberia a free republic in 1847. A Constitution was drawn up along the lines of the United States'.

However, attempts to found a state based upon some 3000 settlers proved difficult. Some coastal tribes became Protestants and learned English, but most of the indigenous Africans retained their traditional religion and language. Even the slave trade continued illicitly from Liberian ports, but this was ended by the British Navy in the 1850s.

In 1919 Liberia transferred 2000 square miles of inland territory that it had claimed to France, because it could not control it. In fact the authorities could not exercise any control past about 20 miles inland. Intervention by the 'Great Powers', and particularly America, has since been a constant in the history of Liberia. In 1912, a loan of $1.7 million was secured by giving control over Customs to the US and three European powers. A Frontier Police force was organized under the command of US officers.

In the 1920s, the Firestone Rubber Company obtained a concession of 1 million hectares for rubber growing in Liberia. Following a slavery scandal in 1931, the then President and Vice President resigned, and the new President appealed to the League of Nations for financial aid. After three years of negotiation, which included the suspension of diplomatic relations with the US and Britain, an 'agreement' was reached along the lines suggested by the League, which were beneficial to Firestone.

Liberia was strategically very important during the Second World War as the best source of latex rubber, and in 1942 signed a Defence Pact with the US. This commenced a period of strategic road building and an airport was also built. Liberia declared war on Germany and Japan in 1944, and it was also during the war that William V.S.Tubman was elected President.

The country has remained dominated by the United States ever since. The chief exports are rubber (from American owned plantations) and iron ore (mined by American companies). It is also strategically very important, acting as the CIA's foothold in Africa, and there is a powerful tracking station there.

Socially, the ruling elite was at first drawn from the American settlers, and other groups who settled at the country' foundation (which included several thousand Congolese en route to the Americas on slave ships).

However, as is typical with capitalism, it became the case that any Liberian with wealth was regarded as 'Americo-Liberian' or 'Congo'. Tubman died in 1970 ,and was succeeded by William Tolbert, another Americo-Liberian, although he was half-Kpelle. Throughout this period, the government was totally corrupt, as would be expected from any bureaucracy. However, the seventies saw a depression in the world price of rubber, and by 1980 Tolbert began to respond to the Libyan and Cuban offers. The Libyans were about to start work on a low-cost housing project in Monrovia when Samuel Doe, a master sergeant in the arny, carried out a coup.

The CIA are suspected to be behind the coup, and given the extent of aid to Liberia between 1980-5 ($490 milion), this seems likely. However, despite all the promises the corruption and inefficiency remained. Millions were siphoned off, and the country's infrastructure decayed.

Doe promised elections, and when he was re-elected, a former ally of his, Thomas Quiwonk attempted a coup in November 1986. Doe replied by sending his Israeli trained army into northeast Liberia, where Quiwonk - a member of the Gio tribe, had his support. Hundreds of Gios were killed in the retaliatory raids. Doe began to recruit a large number of Kranhs into the Army and bureaucracy, which had previously been multi-ethnic.

By 1989, there was a full raging civil war, very much along tribal lines, with the respective armies of Doe, Prince Johnson and Charles Taylor slugging it out, and the ordinary Liberian getting caught in the middle. The United States' role in this has been equivocal, especially as they're partly to blame. Marines have been deployed, but only to 'protect American citizens and property'. However, American troops were used against Doe's private residency, and helicopter gunships blew the building apart.

The other nations of West Africa have intervened militarily, as much because of the destabilizing influence of the civil war on the region as anything else. However, their motives are not as pure or their actions as blameless as they pretend. When Doe surrendered to the Peacekeeping Force, they handed him over to Taylor's men. He was knee-capped, and died a few hours later.

Given the arbitrary boundaries these countries have inherited from the age of imperialism, tribal conflict of a similar type is a real danger in most African countries. Monrovia is now completely devastated, with thousands starving, and thousands more refugees streaming over the border into neighbouring countries, who are hardly in a position to help them. And the ruling class continues to play its games against this bloody back-drop. The eventual victor in this costly game will inherit only the ashes.