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Liberia (12/01)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Republic of Liberia

Area: 111,369 sq. km. (43,000 sq. mi.). Slightly larger than Ohio.
Cities: Capital--Monrovia(est. 750,000). Principal towns--Buchanan (est.300,000), Ganta (est. 290,000), Gbarnga (est.150,000), Kakata (est.100,000), Harbel (est.136,000).
Terrain: Three areas--Mangrove swamps and beaches along the coast, wooded hills and semideciduous shrublands along the immediate interior, and dense tropical forests and plateaus in the interior. Liberia has 40% of West Africa's rain forest.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Liberian(s).
Population (2001 est.): 3,239,000.
Annual growth rate (2001 est.): 3.1%.
Ethnic groups: Kpelle 20%, Bassa 16%, Gio 8%, Kru 7%, 49% spread over 12 other ethnic groups.
Religions: Christian 30%, Muslim 10%, animist 60%.
Languages: English is the official language. There are 16 indigenous languages.
Education: Literacy--15%.
Health: Life expectancy--51.4 years.
Work force: Agriculture--70%; industry--15%; services--2%.
Unemployment: 70% in the formal sector.

Type: Republic but currently under strong presidency.
Independence: From American Colonization Society July 26, 1847.
Constitution: January 6, 1986.
Political parties: 13 political parties took part in presidential elections on July 19, 1997 that saw former rebel leader Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) emerge as President. There are now 17 political parties.

Flag: Liberia flag

GDP (2001 est.): $451.2 million.
GDP growth rate: 1.4%.
Per capita GNP (2000 est.) $200.
Annual inflation rate: 7%.
Natural resources: iron ore, rubber, timber, diamonds, gold and tin. The Government of Liberia has reported in recent years that it has discovered sizable deposits of crude oil along its Atlantic Coast.
Agriculture: Products--coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, rice, cassava, palm oil, bananas, plantains, citrus, pineapple, sweet potatoes, corn and vegetables.
Industry: Types--iron Ore, rubber, forestry, diamonds, gold, beverages, construction.
Trade (2000): Exports--$120 million: agriculture 80%, mining 20%. Major markets--France, China, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Scandinavia, U.S. Imports--$180 million: petroleum products, rice, chemicals, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, machinery, clothing, beverages and tobacco.

There are 16 ethnic groups that make up Liberia's indigenous population. The Kpelle in central and western Liberia is the largest ethnic group. Americo-Liberians, who are descendants of freed slaves that arrived in Liberia early in 1821, make up an estimated 5% of the population. There also is a sizable number of Lebanese, Indians, and other West African nationals who make up a significant part of Liberia's business community. Because of the civil war and its accompanying problem of insecurity, the number of Westerners in Liberia is low and confined largely to Monrovia and its immediate surroundings. The Liberian constitution restricts citizenship only to people of Negro descent.

Liberia was traditionally noted for its hospitality and academic institutions, iron mining and rubber industry booms, cultural skills and arts and craft works. But political upheavals beginning in the 1980s and the brutal 7-year civil war (1989-96) brought about a steep decline in the living standards of the country, including its education and infrastructure.

Portuguese explorers established contacts with Liberia as early as 1461 and named the area Grain Coast because of the abundance of grains of malegueta pepper. In 1663 the British installed trading posts on the Grain Coast, but the Dutch destroyed these posts a year later. There were no further reports of European settlements along the Grain Coast until the arrival of freed slaves in early 1800s.

Liberia, which means "Land of the Free", was founded by freed slaves from the United States in 1820. These freed slaves, called Americo-Liberians, first arrived in Liberia and established a settlement in Christopolis, now Monrovia (named after U.S. President James Monroe), on February 6, 1820. This group of 86 immigrants formed the nucleus of the settler population of what became known as the Republic of Liberia.

Thousands of freed slaves from America soon arrived during the proceeding years leading toward the formation of more settlements culminating into a declaration of independence on July 26, 1847 of the Republic of Liberia. The idea of resettling free slaves in Africa was nurtured by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that governed the Commonwealth of Liberia until independence in 1847. The new Republic of Liberia adopted American styles of life and established thriving trade links with other West Africans.

The formation of the Republic of Liberia was not an altogether easy task. The settlers periodically encountered stiff opposition from African tribes whom they met upon arrival, usually resulting in bloody battles. On the other hand, the newly independent Liberia was encroached upon by colonial expansionists who forcefully took over much of the original territory of independent Liberia.

Liberia's history until 1980 was largely peaceful. For 133 years after independence, the Republic of Liberia was a one-party state ruled by the Americo-Liberian dominated True Whig Party (TWP). Joseph Jenkins Roberts who was born and raised in America became Liberia's first President. The style of government and constitution was fashioned on that of the United States.

The True Whig Party dominated all sectors of Liberia from independence until April 12, 1980 when indigenous Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, from the Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a coup d'etat. Doe's forces executed President William R. Tolbert and several officials of his government mostly of Americo-Liberian descent. As a result, 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination ended with the formation of the People's Redemption Council (PRC).

Doe's government increasingly adopted an ethnic outlook as members of his Krahn ethnic group soon dominated political and military life in Liberia. This caused a heightened level of ethnic tension leading to frequent hostilities between the politically and militarily dominant Krahns and other ethnic groups in the country.

Political parties remained banned until 1984. Elections were held on October 15, 1985 in which Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) was declared winner. The elections were characterized by widespread fraud and rigging. The period after the elections saw increased human rights abuses, corruption, and ethnic tensions. The standard of living, which had been rising in the 1970s, declined drastically. On November 12, 1985, former Army Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa invaded Liberia by way of neighboring Sierra Leone and almost succeeded in toppling the government of Samuel Doe. Members of the Krahn-dominated Armed Forces of Liberia repelled Quiwonkpa's attack and executed him in Monrovia.

On December 24, 1989, a small band of rebels led by Doe's former procurement chief, Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Taylor and his National Patriotic Front rebels rapidly gained the support of Liberians because of the repressive nature of Samuel Doe and his government. Barely 6 months after the rebels first attacked, they had reached the outskirts of Monrovia.

The Liberian civil war, which was one of Africa's bloodiest, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and further displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened and succeeded in preventing Charles Taylor from capturing Monrovia. Prince Johnson who had been a member of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) but broke away because of policy differences, formed the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Johnson's forces captured and killed Doe on September 9, 1990.

An Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was formed in Gambia under the auspices of ECOWAS in October 1990 and Dr. Amos C. Sawyer became President. Taylor refused to work with the interim government and continued war.

By 1992, several warring factions had emerged in the Liberian civil war, all of which were absorbed in the new transitional government. After several peace accords and declining military power, Taylor finally agreed to the formation of a five-man transitional government.

After considerable progress in negotiations conducted by the United States, United Nations, Organization of African Unity, and the Economic Community of West African States, disarmament and demobilization of warring factions were hastily carried out and special elections were held on July 19, 1997 with Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party emerging victorious. Taylor won the election by a large majority, primarily because Liberians feared a return to war had Taylor lost.

Liberia is still trying to recover from the ravages of war. Five years after the war, pipe- borne water and electricity are still unavailable and schools, hospitals, roads ,and infrastructure remain derelict.

Liberia has a bicameral legislature which consists of 64 representatives and 26 senators. The legislature, which was set up on a proportional representation basis after the 1997 special election, is dominated by President Taylor's National Patriotic Party. The executive branch heavily influences the legislature.

The judicial system is functional but extensively manipulated by the executive branch. There is a Supreme Court, criminal courts, and appeals and magistrate courts in the counties. There also are traditional courts and lay courts in the counties. Trial by ordeal is practiced in various parts of Liberia.

The basic unit of local government is the town chief. There are clan chiefs, paramount chiefs, and district commissioners. Mayors are elected in principal cities in Liberia. The counties are governed by superintendents appointed by the President. There are 15 counties in Liberia.

Principal Government Officials
President--Charles Taylor
Vice President--Moses Blah
Speaker--Nyundueh Monkormana
Chief Justice--Gloria Musu Scott
Foreign Minister--Monie Captan
Ambassador to U.S.--William V.S. Bull
Ambassador to UN--Lamin Kawah

Liberia maintains an embassy in the United States at 5201 - 16th Street, NW, Washington DC, 20011; tel/fax: 202-723-0437/6.

The Liberian economy had relied heavily on the mining of iron ore prior to the civil war. Liberia was a major exporter of iron ore on the world market. In the 1970s and 1980s, iron mining accounted for more than half of Liberia's export earnings. Since the coup d'etat of 1980, the country's economic growth rate has slowed down because of a decline in the demand for iron ore on the world market and political upheavals in Liberia. Liberia's foreign debt amounts to more than $3 billion.

Timber and rubber are Liberia's main export items since the end of the war. Liberia earns more than $100 million and more than $70 million annually from timber and rubber exports, respectively. Alluvial diamond and gold mining activities also account for some economic activity.

Being the second-largest maritime licenser in the world with more than 1,700 vessels registered under its flag, including 35% of the world's tanker fleet, Liberia earned more than $18 million from its maritime program in 2000. The Liberian Government has declared in recent months that it has discovered sizable amounts of crude oil along its Atlantic coast.

Liberia's business sector is largely controlled by foreigners mainly of Lebanese and Indian descent. There also are limited numbers of Chinese engaged in agriculture. The largest timber concession, Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC), is Indonesian owned. There also are significant numbers of West Africans engaged in cross-border trade.

Liberia is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). With Guinea and Sierra Leone, it formed the Mano River Union (MRU) for development and the promotion of regional economic integration. The MRU became all but defunct because of the Liberian civil war which spilled over into neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Liberia has relied heavily on vast amounts of foreign assistance, particularly from the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, China, and Romania. But because of the corrupt nature of the Liberian Government and its disregard for human rights, foreign assistance to Liberia has declined drastically. Taiwan and Libya are currently the largest donors of direct financial aid to the Liberian Government. However, significant amounts of aid continue to come in from Western countries through international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, avoiding direct aid to the government.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia in May 2001 for its support to the brutal rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberia has maintained traditionally cordial relations with the West. Liberia currently maintains diplomatic relations with Libya, Cuba, and Taiwan. Neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone have accused Liberia of backing rebels who have devastated their countries.

Liberia is a founding member of the United Nations and its specialized agencies and is a member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Development Bank(ADB), Mano River Union (MRU) and the Non-Aligned Movement.

U.S. relations with Liberia date back to the 1820s when the first group of settlers arrived in Liberia from the United States. U.S.-Liberia relations which have been very cordial since independence are today strained. The United States had been Liberia's closest ally but a 7-year civil war (1989-96), regional stability, gross human rights abuses, and good governance problems have led to the souring of relations between both countries. The United States imposed a travel ban on senior Liberian Government officials because of the government's support to the RUF.

During the 1980s, the United States donated hundreds of millions of dollars toward the development of Liberia. The United States also donated hundreds of tons of rice--staple of Liberians--through its PL-480 program. At the moment, the United States is the largest donor of relief aid to Liberia. But this assistance is channeled through the United Nations and other international aid and relief agencies working in the country.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Bismarck Myrick
Deputy Chief of Mission--Thomas J. White
Public Affairs Officer--vacant
USAID Director--Rudolph Thomas

The U.S. Embassy is located on 111 United Nations Drive, Mamba Point, Monrovia, tel: 231-226370, fax:231-226148.

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