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Diplomacy in Action

Liberia (12/05)


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

Liberia flag is 11 equal horizontal stripes of red (top and bottom) alternating with white; there is a white five-pointed star on a blue square in the upper hoist-side corner.


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 (2004): 3.24 million.
Annual growth rate (2004): 2.4%.
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 (2003)--56%.
Health: Life expectancy (2003)--47 years.
Work force: Agriculture--70%; industry--15%; services--2%.
Unemployment: 80% in the formal sector.

Type: Republic; currently under a national transitional government.
Independence: From American Colonization Society July 26, 1847.
Constitution: January 6, 1986.
Political parties: 30 registered political parties, 22 of which had candidates running in the October 11, 2005 presidential and legislative elections. Presidential run-off elections were held on November 8, 2005.

GDP (2004 est.): $492 million.
Real GDP growth rate (2004): 2.4%.
Per capita GDP (2004): $152.
Consumer Price Index (2004): 7.8%.
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--agriculture and fisheries, iron ore, rubber, forestry, diamonds, gold, beverages, construction.
Trade (2004): Exports--$103.8 million: rubber 93%; cocoa 3.5%. Major markets--Germany, Poland, U.S., Greece. Imports--$268.1 million: mineral fuels and lubricants; food and live animals; machinery and transport equipment; manufactured goods; pharmaceuticals; 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 are sizable numbers of Lebanese, Indians, and other West African nationals who make up a significant part of Liberia's business community. Because of the 1989-1996 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, and cultural skills and arts and craft works. But political upheavals beginning in the 1980s and the brutal 7-year civil war (1989-1996) 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 the 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 following years, leading to the formation of more settlements and culminating in 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 forcibly 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 Gen. 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 1989-1996 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 fighting. 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 (now the African Union), and ECOWAS, disarmament and demobilization of warring factions were hastily carried out. 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.

For the next 6 years, the Taylor government did not improve the lives of Liberians. Unemployment and illiteracy stood above 75%, and little investment was made in the country's infrastructure. Liberia is still trying to recover from the ravages of war; six years after the war, pipe-borne water and electricity were still unavailable, and schools, hospitals, roads, and infrastructure remained derelict. Rather than work to improve the lives of Liberians, Taylor supported the bloody Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, fomenting unrest and brutal excesses in the region, and leading to the resumption of armed rebellion from among Taylor's former adversaries.

On June 4, 2003 in Accra, Ghana, ECOWAS facilitated the inauguration of peace talks among the Government of Liberia, civil society, and the rebel groups called "Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy" (LURD) and "Movement for Democracy in Liberia" (MODEL). LURD and MODEL largely represent elements of the former ULIMO-K and ULIMO-J factions that fought Taylor during Liberia's previous civil war (1989-1996). Also on June 4, 2003, the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued a press statement announcing the opening of a sealed March 7 indictment of Liberian President Charles Taylor for "bearing the greatest responsibility" for atrocities in Sierra Leone since November 1996. By July 17, 2003 the Government of Liberia, LURD, and MODEL signed a cease-fire that envisioned a comprehensive peace agreement within 30 days. The three combatants subsequently broke that cease-fire repeatedly, which resulted in bitter fighting that eventually reached downtown Monrovia.

On August 11, 2003 under intense U.S. and international pressure, President Taylor resigned office and departed into exile in Nigeria. This move paved the way for the deployment by ECOWAS of what became a 3,600-strong peacekeeping mission in Liberia (ECOMIL). Since then, the United States has provided limited direct military support and $26 million in logistical assistance to ECOMIL and another $40 million in humanitarian assistance to Liberia. On August 18, leaders from the Liberian Government, the rebels, political parties, and civil society signed a comprehensive peace agreement that laid the framework for constructing a 2-year National Transitional Government of Liberia, effective October 14. On August 21, they selected businessman Gyude Bryant as Chair and Wesley Johnson as Vice Chair of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL). Under the terms of the agreement the LURD, MODEL, and Government of Liberia each selected 12 members of the 76-member Legislative Assembly (LA). The NTGL was inducted on October 14, 2003 and will serve until January 2006, when the winners of the October/November 2005 presidential and congressional elections take office.

The October 11, 2005 elections and the subsequent November 8, 2005 run-off elections were the most free, fair, and peaceful elections in Liberia's history. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf defeated George Weah 59.4% to 40.6%. Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa's first democratically elected female president. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) certified Johnson-Sirleaf as the winner on November 23, 2005. Weah's party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) formally complained to the NEC of election irregularities, and the NEC is still conducting its investigation, but it appears that the irregularities were minor and isolated and not extensive enough to affect the election's outcome. Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration is scheduled for January 16, 2006.

Liberia is currently under a transitional government that took office in October 2003 and that will serve until January 16, 2006, when the government of President-elect Johnson-Sirleaf takes office. The transitional government includes a chair and vice chair and a 76-member Legislative Assembly.

On September 19, 2003 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1509, which established a peacekeeping operation (UN Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL) under Chapter VII authority. In keeping with the UN Secretary General's recommendations, it called for a force of 15,000 peacekeepers, with 250 military observers and 160 staff officers, a robust police component of up to 1,115, and a significant civilian component and support staff. Those forces essentially have been close to fully deployed throughout Liberia. By November 1, 2004, UNMIL had disarmed and demobilized over 103,000 individuals characterized as ex-combatants. UNMIL also advised the reformed National Election Commission as it executed the October/November 2005 legislative and presidential elections.

Historically, Liberia has had a bicameral legislature which consists of 64 representatives and 26 senators. The legislature was set up on a proportional representation basis after the 1997 special election. Historically, the executive branch heavily influences the legislature and judicial system, the latter being largely dysfunctional for now.

There is a Supreme Court, criminal courts, and appeals court 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. For now, superintendents appointed by the president (or Chairman under the NTGL) govern the counties. There are 15 counties in Liberia.

Principal Government Officials
Chairman--Gyude Bryant
Vice Chairman--Wesley Johnson
Speaker--George Koukou, Acting
Chief Justice--Henry Reed Cooper
Foreign Minister--Thomas Y. Nimely
Ambassador to U.S.--Charles A. Minor
Ambassador to UN--Lamin Kawah

Liberia maintains an embassy in the United States at 5201 16th Street, NW, Washington DC, 202-723-0094.

The Liberian economy relied heavily on the mining of iron ore and on the export of natural rubber 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. Following the coup d'etat of 1980, the country's economic growth rate 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 about $3.5 billion.

The 1989-1996 civil war had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and most foreign investors and businessmen left the country. Iron ore production has stopped completely, and Liberia depends heavily on timber and rubber exports and revenues from its maritime registry program. Relatively few foreign investors have returned to the country since the end of the civil war due to the depressed business climate and continuing instability. Timber and rubber are Liberia's main export items since the end of the war. Liberia earns more than $85 million and more than $57 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 1,800 vessels registered under its flag, including 35% of the world's tanker fleet--Liberia earned more than $15 million from its maritime program in 2004. There is increasing interest in the possibility of commercially exploitable offshore crude oil deposits along Liberia's 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. There also are significant numbers of West Africans engaged in cross-border trade.

Liberia is a member of 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. There was some revival of MRU political and security cooperation discussions in 2002.

Beyond imposing a travel ban on individuals most closely associated with the Taylor regime, the United Nations imposed sanctions on rough diamond imports from, and arms exports to, Liberia in May 2001 for Liberia's support to the brutal rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. The UN renewed these sanctions in 2002 and in 2003, it sanctioned Liberia's export of timber. In December 2004, the UN essentially renewed these sanctions for one year.

Liberia has maintained traditionally cordial relations with the West. Liberia currently also maintains diplomatic relations with Libya, Cuba, and China.

Liberia is a founding member of the United Nations and its specialized agencies and is a member of the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank (ADB), the 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. As early as 1819, Congress appropriated $100,000 for the establishment of Liberia (and resettlement of freemen and freed slaves from North America) by the American Colonization Society, led by such statesmen as Francis Scott Key, George Washington's nephew Bushrod, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and presidents Monroe, Adams, and Jackson. U.S.-Liberia relations have mostly been very cordial since independence. The United States had been Liberia's closest ally until a 7-year civil war (1989-1996), regional instability, gross human rights abuses, and good governance problems led to the souring of bilateral relations. Bilateral ties are once again improving.

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 (a staple of Liberians) through its PL-480 Program. The United States, followed by the European Union, is the largest donor of relief aid which is channeled through the United Nations and other international aid and relief agencies working in the country.

In February 2004 in New York, the United States co-hosted an international reconstruction conference on Liberia. Donors pledged over $522 million in total assistance. The United States contributed $200 million for critical humanitarian needs of refugees and displaced persons, reintegration, community revitalization, policing, independent media, rule of law, social services, agriculture, and reform of the judicial system, military, police, financial, and forest sectors. The United States also contributed $245 million for the establishment of UNMIL. In fiscal year 2005, the United States is spending close to $70 million to rehabilitate and reintegrate former combatants, reform Liberia's military, police, and financial sector, and provide humanitarian and medical relief, among other objectives. The United States has joined the European Commission, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Economic Community of West African States, and African Union in supporting and funding the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP), which aims to improve governance, combat corruption, and build capacity in Liberia.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Donald E. Booth
Deputy Chief of Mission--Lou Mazel
Political-Economic Counselor--Alfreda Meyers
Public Affairs Officer--Meg Riggs
Consular Officer--John Marietti
USAID Director--Wilbur Thomas

The U.S. Embassy is located on 111 United Nations Drive, Mamba Point, Monrovia, tel: 011-231-226370, fax: 231-226148.

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