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. 1,000,000). 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): 3.4 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 40%, Muslim 20%, animist 40%.
Languages: English is the official language. There are 16 indigenous languages.
Education: Literacy (2003)--20%.
Health: Life expectancy (2003)--47 years.
Work force: Agriculture--70%; industry--15%; services--2%. Unemployment is 80% in the formal sector.
Independence: From American Colonization Society July 26, 1847.
Constitution: January 6, 1986.
Political parties: 30 registered political parties
GDP (IMF 2005 est.): $548.4million.
Real GDP growth rate (2004): 2.0%.
Per capita GDP (2005): $119.4.
Consumer Price Index (2004): 7.0%.
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, 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. The Liberian constitution restricts citizenship only to people of Negro descent; also, land ownership is restricted by law to citizens.
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 14-year civil war (1989-2003) 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 free African-Americans and freed slaves from the United States in 1820. An initial group of 86 immigrants, who came to be 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.
Thousands of freed American slaves and free African-Americans arrived during the following years, leading to the formation of more settlements and culminating in a declaration of independence of the Republic of Liberia on July 26, 1847. The drive to resettle freed slaves in Africa was promoted by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization of white clergymen, abolitionists, and slave owners founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, a Presbyterian minister. Between 1821 and 1867 the ACS resettled some 10,000 African-Americans and several thousand Africans from interdicted slave ships; it governed the Commonwealth of Liberia until independence in 1847.
In Liberia's early years, the Americo-Liberian settlers periodically encountered stiff and sometimes violent opposition from indigenous Africans, who were excluded from citizenship in the new Republic until 1904. At the same time, British and French colonial expansionists encroached upon Liberia, taking over much of its territory. Politically, the country was a one-party state ruled by the True Whig Party (TWP). Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was born and raised in America, was Liberia's first President. The style of government and constitution was fashioned on that of the United States, and the Americo-Liberian elite monopolized political power and restricted the voting rights of the indigenous population. The True Whig Party dominated all sectors of Liberia from independence in 1847 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. One hundred and thirty-three years of Americo-Liberian political domination ended with the formation of the People's Redemption Council (PRC).
Over time, the Doe government began promoting members of Doe's Krahn ethnic group, who soon dominated political and military life in Liberia. This raised ethnic tension and caused frequent hostilities between the politically and militarily dominant Krahns and other ethnic groups in the country.
After the October 1985 elections, characterized by widespread fraud, Doe solidified his control. The period after the elections saw increased human rights abuses, corruption, and ethnic tensions. The standard of living further deteriorated. On November 12, 1985, former Army Commanding Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa almost succeeded in toppling the government of Samuel Doe. The Armed Forces of Liberia repelled Quiwonkpa's attack and executed him in Monrovia. Doe's Krahn-dominated forces carried out reprisals against Mano and Gio civilians suspected of supporting Quiwonkpa.
Despite Doe's poor human rights record and questionable democratic credentials, he retained close relations with Washington. A staunch U.S. ally, Doe met twice with President Ronald Reagan and enjoyed considerable U.S. financial support.
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 many Liberians and reached the outskirts of Monrovia within six months.
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 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened in 1990 and succeeded in preventing Charles Taylor from capturing Monrovia. Prince Johnson--formerly a member of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL)--formed the break-away Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Johnson's forces captured and killed Doe on September 9, 1990. Taking refuge in Sierra Leone and other neighboring countries, former AFL soldiers founded the new insurgent United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), fighting back Taylor's NPFL.
An Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was formed in Gambia under the auspices of ECOWAS in October 1990, headed by Dr. Amos C. Sawyer. Taylor (along with other Liberian factions) refused to work with the interim government and continued fighting. After more than a dozen peace accords and declining military power, Taylor finally agreed to the formation of a five-man transitional government. A hasty disarmament and demobilization of warring factions was followed by special elections on July 19, 1997. Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party emerged victorious. Taylor won the election by a large majority, primarily because Liberians feared a return to war had Taylor lost.
For the next six 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; until today, pipe-borne water and electricity are unavailable, and schools, hospitals, roads, and infrastructure remain derelict. Rather than work to improve the lives of Liberians, Taylor supported the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone (see Sierra Leone Country Background Note). Taylor's misrule led to the resumption of armed rebellion from among Taylor's former adversaries. By 2003, armed groups called "Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy" (LURD) and "Movement for Democracy in Liberia" (MODEL), largely representing elements of the former ULIMO-K and ULIMO-J factions that fought Taylor during Liberia's previous civil war (1989-1996), were challenging Taylor and his increasingly fragmented supporters on the outskirts of Monrovia.
On June 4, 2003 in Accra, Ghana, ECOWAS facilitated peace talks among the Government of Liberia, civil society, and the LURD and MODEL rebel groups. On the same day, the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued a press statement announcing the opening of a sealed March 7, 2003 indictment of Liberian President Charles Taylor for "bearing the greatest responsibility" for atrocities in Sierra Leone since November 1996. In July 2003 the Government of Liberia, LURD, and MODEL signed a cease-fire that all sides failed to respect; bitter fighting reached downtown Monrovia in July and August 2003, creating a massive humanitarian disaster.
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). 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 (NTGL), headed by businessman Gyude Bryant. The UN took over security in Liberia in October 2003, subsuming ECOMIL into a force that grew to its present size of over 15,000.
The October 11, 2005 presidential and legislative elections and the subsequent November 8, 2005 presidential run-off were the most free, fair, and peaceful elections in Liberia's history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defeated international soccer star George Weah 59.4% to 40.6% to become Africa's first democratically elected female president.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Liberia has a bicameral legislature consisting of 66 representatives and 30 senators. 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. Locally, political power emanates from traditional chiefs (town, clan, or paramount chiefs), mayors, and district commissioners. Mayors are elected in principal cities in Liberia. Superintendents appointed by the president govern the counties. There are 15 counties in Liberia.
Principal Government Officials
President--Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Vice President--Joseph Nyumah Boakai
Speaker of the House of Representatives--Edwin Melvin Snowe
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--Johnnie N. Lewis
Minister of Foreign Affairs--George W. Wallace
Minister of Finance--Antoinette Sayeh
Minister of Justice--Frances Johnson Morris
Minister of Defense--Brownie Samukai
Minister of Post and Telecommunication--Jackson E. Doe
Minister of Internal Affairs--Ambulai Johnson
Minister of Education--Joseph Korto
Minister of Public Works--Luseni Donzo (Acting)
Minister of Agriculture--Christopher Toe
Minister of Health and Social Welfare--Walter Gwenigale
Minister of Commerce and Industry--Bankie King-Akerele
Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism--Johnny McClain
Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs--Toga Gaywea McIntosh
Minister of State and Chief of Staff--Willis D. Knuckles, Jr. (Acting)
Minister of Land, Mines and Energy--Eugene Shannon
Minister of Labor--Samuel Kofi Woods
Minister of Youth and Sports--Jamesetta H. Wolokollie
Minister of Gender and Development--Varbah Gayflor
Chairman, National Investment Commission--Richard Tolbert
Director, Bureau of the Budget--Augustine Ngafua
Director General, General Service Agency--Willard Russell
Executive Governor, Central Bank of Liberia--J. Mills Jones
Commissioner, Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization--Abla G. Williams (Acting)
Inspector-General, Liberia National Police Force--Beatrice Seah
Director, National Security Agency--Fombah Sirleaf
Director General, National Fire Service--Joseph A.B. Derrick
Chairman, Governance Reform Commission--Amos C. Sawyer
Chairman, National Elections Commission--James Fromoyan
Chairman, Truth and Reconciliation Commission--Jerome Verdier
Liberia maintains an embassy in the United States at 5201 16th Street, NW, Washington DC, 202-723-0437.
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 1989-2003 civil war had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and most foreign investors and businesses left the country. Iron ore production has stopped completely, and Liberia cannot profit from timber and diamond exports due to UN sanctions. Its few earnings come primarily from rubber exports and revenues from its maritime registry program.
As 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 earns some $14 million annually from the flag registry. 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.
With a new, democratically elected government in place since January 2006, Liberia seeks to reconstruct its shattered economy. The Governance and Economic Management Program (GEMAP), which started under the 2003-2006 transitional government, is designed to help the Liberian Government raise and spend revenues in an efficient, transparent way. Success under GEMAP and solid economic performance should result in Liberia being able to attract investment and begin rebuilding its economy.
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. The United States, which officially recognized Liberia in 1862, shared particularly close relations with Liberia during the Cold War. The outbreak of civil war in Liberia and the long dominance of Charles Taylor soured bilateral relations. However, Liberia now counts the United States as its strongest supporter in its democratization and reconstruction efforts. In fiscal years 2004 and 2005, the U.S. contributed over $880 million, including more than $520 million to support the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Another $90 million has gone for assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons. The U.S. is committing another $270 million for fiscal year 2006, making a total of some $1.16 billion for fiscal years 2004-06.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Donald E. Booth
Deputy Chief of Mission--Louis Mazel
Political-Economic Counselor--Alfreda Meyers
Public Affairs Officer--Meg Riggs
Consular Officer--John Marietti
USAID Director--Wilbur Thomas