Lying on the Atlantic in the southern part of West Africa, Liberia is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire. It is comparable in size to Tennessee. Most of the country is a plateau covered by dense tropical forests, which thrive under an annual rainfall of about 160 in. a year.
Africa's first republic, Liberia was founded in 1822 as a result of the efforts of the American Colonization Society to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. The society contended that the emigration of blacks to Africa was an answer to the problem of slavery and the incompatibility of the races. Over the course of forty years, about 12,000 slaves were voluntarily relocated. Originally called Monrovia, the colony became the Free and Independent Republic of Liberia in 1847.
The English-speaking Americo-Liberians, descendants of former American slaves, make up only 5% of the population, but have historically dominated the intellectual and ruling class. Liberia's indigenous population is composed of 16 different ethnic groups.
The government of Africa's first republic was modeled after that of the United States, and Joseph Jenkins Roberts of Virginia was elected the first president. Ironically, Liberia's constitution denied indigenous Liberians equal to the lighter-skinned American immigrants and their descendants.
After 1920, considerable progress was made toward opening up the interior of the country, a process that facilitated by the 1951 establishment of a 43-mile (69-km) railroad to the Bomi Hills from Monrovia. In July 1971, while serving his sixth term as president, William V. S. Tubman died following surgery and was succeeded by his longtime associate, Vice President William R. Tolbert, Jr.
A Military Coup Leads to the Disastrous Rule of Charles Taylor
Tolbert was ousted in a military coup on April 12, 1980, by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, backed by the U.S. government. Doe's rule was characterized by corruption and brutality. A rebellion led by Charles Taylor, a former Doe aide, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), started in Dec. 1989; the following year, Doe was assassinated. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated with the government and the rebel factions and attempted to restore order, but the civil war raged on. By April 1996, factional fighting by the country's warlords had destroyed any last vestige of normalcy and civil society. The civil war finally ended in 1997.
In what was considered by international observers to be a free election, Charles Taylor won 75% of the presidential vote in July 1997. The country had next to no health care system, and the capital was without electricity and running water. Taylor supported Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the hopes of toppling his neighbor's government and in exchange for diamonds, which enriched his personal coffers. As a consequence, the UN issued sanctions against Liberia.
In 2002, rebels—Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)—intensified their attacks on Taylor's government. By June 2003, LURD and other rebel groups controlled two-thirds of the country. Finally, on Aug. 11, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. By the time he was exiled, Taylor had bankrupted his own country, siphoning off $100 million and leaving Liberia the world's poorest nation. Gyude Bryant, a businessman seen as a coalition builder, was selected by the various factions as the new president.
Liberia Elects Africa's First Female President
In a Nov. 2005 presidential runoff election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who had worked at the World Bank, defeated George Weah, a former world-class soccer star. In Jan. 2006 she became Africa's first female president.
Taylor Convicted of War Crimes
In 2006, former president Taylor, in exile in Nigeria, was turned over to an international court in The Hague to face trial on charges of crimes against humanity for supporting rebel troops in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war that claimed the lives of about 300,000 people in the 1990s. The rebels were seeking control of Sierra Leone's rich diamond fields to finance their acquisition of arms. His trial opened in June 2007. In April 2012, after deliberating for more than a year, the court, made up of three judges from Ireland, Samoa, and Uganda, convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the conscription of child soldiers. His conviction is the first by an international court since the Nuremberg trials. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Gyude Bryant, who was president of Liberia from 2003 to 2005 during the transition period after the 14-year civil war, was cleared of embezzlement charges in May 2009. He was accused of stealing about $1 million while in office.
Johnson-Sirleaf, along with Leymah Gbowee, also of Liberia, and Tawakkul Karman, of Yemen, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize in October "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." She won the prize during her bid for reelection. In the first round of voting, she took 44% of the vote. Her opponent in the second round, Winston Tubman, a former UN official, withdrew from the race, claiming the first round was rigged. Election authorities did not find evidence of fraud. Johnson-Sirleaf sailed to victory in the second round, winning 90% of the vote. Turnout was quite low—33%.
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