In order to get more familiar with Liberia, the country we will call home for at least a year, we have been doing lots of research. In order to understand all of the current issues and struggles that the country now faces, it is extremely important though to first understand its history. As some of you may know, Liberia has a very interesting history that is strongly tied to the United States (just take one look at the flag and it’s clear to see!).
In the early 1800’s as slaves were being freed in the US (mainly from abolitionists in the north), an organization called the “American Colonization Society,” or ACS, was formed in order to help freed slaves return back to or “repatriate” to Africa. One would think that the founding members of this organization were abolitionists themselves, why else would they be wanting to support this opportunity for freed slaves to return back to their country or origin? Interestingly enough though, many of the initial members of the ACS were slaveholders….Apparently, the freed African Americans served as “perpetual excitement” to the enslaved African Americans and “threatened the institution of slavery in the south.” So in order to “keep peace” and preserve/strengthen the institution of slavery in the south, the members of the ACS decided it best to remove the freed slaves from the country and send them back to Africa. Eventually, abolitionists also began to join ACS and the two groups, abolitionists and slave owners, began working together on the goal of repatriating freed slaves back to Africa. Both groups agreed this was the best solution. Even the federal government contributed money toward the ACS mission, purchasing slaves and freeing them, paying their passage, and assisting them with settlement once they arrived in West Africa.
Between 1816 and 1830, thousands of freed slaves had been sent back to West Africa where they formed a colony known as “Liberia” (which comes from the word “liberty”). During and after the civil war though, the repatriation of freed slaves back to Africa became less appealing for two reasons: 1) many slaves had earned their freedom in the US and economic situations were beginning to improve and 2) they had heard stories about the struggles of other freed slaves who had returned to Liberia (disease, political unrest, hunger, etc). For these reasons, it became increasingly difficult to recruit new emigrants.
In 1847, the colony of Liberia (having over 10,000 immigrants from the US) declared its independence and started its own republic with its own constitution based on the political principals in the US Constitution. Early on, these original settlers mainly mingled among themselves and rarely interacted nicely with the indigenous people. They perceived themselves as elite because of their English language, education, religious beliefs, political beliefs- all of which differed wildly from those of the indigenous peoples of “the bush.” Because of the cultural gap between the groups and assumption of superiority of western culture, many encounters between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous people resulted in violent confrontations.
Eventually, the Americo-Liberians became the political power and held onto that power for decades to come (even though they never represented more than 5% of the population). They even excluded indigenous peoples form birthright into their own land. The Americo-Liberians envisioned creating a western-style state to which the tribesmen should assimilate. They encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate and convert the indigenous peoples. They even refused to trade with the indigenous peoples until they became more “civilized.” The society that they ended up creating ended up being a reflection of the racial segregation and caste system in the US that they had just fled!!
Meanwhile, as cultural tensions continued to brew, Liberia as a country became more developed, even becoming involved in World War II and was a founding member of the United Nations. In the 1950’s, Liberia actually reached the point where it had the world’s second highest rate of economic growth.
On April 12th, 1980 all of that perceived success and stability came crashing down when a military coup led by Samuel Doe, a prominent member of one the indigenous tribes, assassinated the president of the country. In the years that followed under Doe’s dictatorship, numerous government officials and other members of the elite class were publicly tortured, executed, and replaced by indigenous peoples. In 1989, a man by the name of Charles Taylor, and his group of rebels led an insurrection against Doe and his regime, which led to Liberia’s First Civil War. From 1989 to 1996 one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars ensued, claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displacing a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. The personal stories that I have read about detail the torture methods used, the senseless mass killings, the repeated rapes of young women and children, and much more. To say that it was gruesome is a vast understatement.
Although the war ended with Taylor being “elected as president,” the political unrest didn’t stop there. Under Taylor’s leadership, Liberia became internationally known as a pariah state due to the use of blood diamonds and illegal timber exports use to fuel other civil wars in neighboring African countries. In 1999, another insurrection against the government was launched and thus began the Second Liberian Civil War. Eventually this war ended in 2003 and resulted in Taylor being exiled to Nigeria after being charged with committing crimes against humanity. From 2003 to 2005 an interim government took over under the watch of an international peacekeeping organization. The subsequent 2005 elections were internationally regarded as the most free and fair in Liberian history and resulted in Africa’s first ever female president: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Today in 2016, Sirleaf is still the president for the country and is widely-recognized for her work in peace-keeping, truth and reconciliation, debt -relief, women’s rights, gay rights, economic development, and much more. Even though the country is moving forward and is now considered “stable”, it is still heavily affected by its past. Generations of people didn’t go to school leaving 75% of the country illiterate; school buildings, governments buildings, electric power plants, and roads have all been devastated by warfare; farmlands were left barren; and families have been torn apart.