Liberia’s current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has strong connections with the United States – she studied there between 1961 and 1971 gaining an accounting degree and a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of government. Sirleaf’s US connections reflect the historical influence her Atlantic partner has had on the country.
Liberia was founded - in its modern form – by freed American slaves under the auspices of the American Colonization Society in the early 19th century. The American colonists formed an elite group which provided the central pillar of continuity within Liberian society. Liberia was not involved in the 19th centre scramble for Africa, which makes the choosing a starting point for writing a post-colonial history somewhat more complex. In the 20th century however Liberian history has been dominated by the violent regimes of two men – Presidents Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor.
When Doe took power through a coup in 1980, he became the first fully indigenous president of the country. Doe was an ethnic Krah – from the rural interior, and as such unconnected with the coastal Americo-Liberian elite that had dominated political power up to this point and whose President – William Richard Tolbert Jr he replaced. President Tolbert was killed during the coup along with 13 other members of his cabinet – all of whom came from the dominant True Whig Party. Many people welcomed Doe’s takeover as a shift away from the traditional monopoly of power amongst the aforementioned elite. The new regime – under the title The People’s Redemption Council – was ill prepared to rule and immediately suspended the constitution, promising a return to civilian rule by 1985. Elections were held in 1985 with Doe being re-elected with 51% of the vote. Doe’s regime however became more repressive and corrupt. Mistreatment of certain ethnic groups led to massive popular resentment and growing violence.
In 1989 - Charles Taylor – a former ally of Doe - re-entered the country and started a guerrilla war from Sierra Leone under the name of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Doe was captured and killed in 1990. The country was in turmoil, and Taylor stood as the most prominent warlord in a land where political power was maintained by the barrel of a gun. In 1997 elections were held and Taylor was elected President under the slogan ‘He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I vote for him.’ A vote for Taylor was essentially to prevent the war starting again if he lost.
Opposition to Taylor’s dysfunctional and violent regime sparked the second Liberian civil war in 1999 after the Organisation of Displaced Liberians attacked from Guinea. By 2003 what had begun as a small rebel movement had reached the capital. In 2003 the UN sent peacekeeping forces into Liberia made up of over 15,000 personnel. Taylor resigned from the Presidency in the same year and escaped to exile in Nigeria. However, in 2006 he was extradited back to Liberia and currently faces charges of war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone The Hague.
The 2009 film ‘Johnny Mad Dog’ catalogued the brutal and often weirdly theatrical antics of groups of child soldiers during the second civil war – a highly recommended introduction to the conflict. The most famous Liberian internationally is without a doubt former World Footballer of the year George Weah, who unsuccessfully ran for President in 2006 against Sirleaf.