Republic, western Africa.
Area: 37,743 sq mi (97,754 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 2,900,000.
Capital: Monrovia. Liberia’s ethnic groups include the
Americo-Liberians, descendants of the black freedmen who emigrated from
the U.S. in the 19th century; and 16 indigenous peoples of the Mande,
Kwa, and Mel linguistic groups. Languages: English (official),
indigenous languages. Religions: traditional beliefs, Christianity,
Islam. Currency: Liberian dollar. Liberia has coastal lowlands extending
350 mi (560 km) along the Atlantic; farther inland are hills and low
mountains. Roughly one-fifth of Liberia consists of tropical rainforest.
Agriculture is the main component of the economy, but only a portion of
the arable land is cultivated. The country also has rich iron ore
reserves, which are a major source of exports. The principal cash crops
are rubber, coffee, and cacao; the staple crops are rice and cassava.
Constitutionally, Liberia is a republic with two legislative houses, and
its head of state and government is the president. Africa’s oldest
republic, Liberia was established on land acquired for freed U.S. slaves
by the American Colonization Society, which founded a colony at Cape
Mesurado in 1821. In 1822 Jehudi Ashmun, a Methodist minister, became
the director of the settlement and Liberia’s real founder. In 1824 the
territory was named Liberia, and its main settlement was named Monrovia.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts proclaimed Liberian independence in 1847 and
expanded its boundaries. Border disputes with the French and British
lasted until 1892, when its boundaries were officially established. In
1980 a coup led by Gen. Samuel K. Doe marked the end of the
Americo-Liberians’ long political dominance over the indigenous
Africans. A rebellion in 1989 escalated into a destructive civil war in
the 1990s. A peace agreement was reached in 1996, but fighting broke out
again in 1999 and lasted until 2003. The National Transitional
Government, supported by United Nations peacekeeping troops, was
established later that year and ruled until a new administration was
democratically elected and installed. Presidential elections were held
in late 2005, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was declared the winner; she
became the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa.
Official name Republic of Liberia
Form of government multiparty republic with two legislative bodies
(Liberian Senate ; House of Representatives )
Head of state and government President
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Liberian dollar (L$)
Population estimate (2008) 3,543,000
Total area (sq mi) 37,743
Total area (sq km) 97,754
country along the coast of western Africa. Liberia’s terrain ranges
from the low and sandy coastal plains to rolling hills and dissected
plateau further inland. The country is home to a lush rainforest
containing a rich diversity of flora and fauna.
Liberia is the only black state in Africa never subjected to colonial
rule and is Africa’s oldest republic. It was established on land
acquired for freed U.S. slaves by the American Colonization Society,
which founded a colony at Cape Mesurado in 1821. In 1824 the territory
was named Liberia, and its main settlement was named Monrovia, which is
the present-day capital. Liberian independence was proclaimed in 1847,
and its boundaries were expanded. The country enjoyed relative stability
until a rebellion in 1989 escalated into a destructive civil war in the
1990s that did not fully cease until 2003. The country’s first
post-conflict elections, held in 2005, were noteworthy for the election
of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the presidency, as she was the first woman
to be elected head of state in Africa.
Liberia is bounded by Sierra Leone to the northwest, Guinea to
the north, Côte d’Ivoire to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the
south and west.
The four physiographic regions of Liberia parallel the coast. The
coastal plains are about 350 miles (560 km) long and extend up to 25
miles (40 km) inland. They are low and sandy, with miles of beaches
interspersed with bar-enclosed lagoons, mangrove swamps, and a few rocky
promontories—the highest being Cape Mount (about 1,000 feet [305 metres]
in elevation) in the northwest, Cape Mesurado in Monrovia, and Cape
Palmas in the southeast. Parallel to the coastal plains is a region of
rolling hills some 20 miles (32 km) wide with an average maximum
elevation of about 300 feet (90 metres); a few hills rise as high as 500
feet (150 metres). It is a region suitable for agriculture and forestry.
Behind the rolling hills, most of the country’s interior is a dissected
plateau with scattered low mountains ranging from 600 to 1,000 feet (180
to 305 metres) in elevation; some mountains rise to 2,000 feet (600
metres). A striking feature of the mountainous northern highlands along
the Guinea frontier is Mount Nimba.
The Mano and Morro rivers in the northwest and the Cavalla in the
east and southeast are major rivers and form sections of Liberia’s
boundaries. Other major rivers are the Lofa in the north and, moving
southward, the St. Paul, St. John, and Cestos, all of which parallel
each other and flow perpendicular to the coast. The Farmington River is
a source of hydroelectric power. Waterfalls, rapids, rocks, and
sandbanks occur frequently in upstream sections of most rivers,
inhibiting river traffic, and limiting navigation inland to short
distances. During the rainy season there is often severe flooding in the
Liberia forms part of the West African Shield, a rock formation 2.7
to 3.4 billion years old, composed of granite, schist, and gneiss. In
Liberia the shield has been intensely folded and faulted and is
interspersed with iron-bearing formations known as itabirites. Along the
coast lie beds of sandstone, with occasional crystalline-rock outcrops.
Monrovia stands on such an outcropping, a ridge of diabase (a
dark-coloured, fine-grained rock).
Four types of soil are found in Liberia. Latosols of low to medium
fertility occur in rolling hill country and cover about three-fourths of
the total land surface. Shallow, coarse lithosols, in the hilly and
rugged terrain, cover about one-eighth of the land. Infertile regosols,
or sandy soils, are found along the coastal plains. Highly fertile
alluvial soils represent a small percentage of the land area and are
utilized largely for agriculture.
The climate, especially on the coast, is warm and humid year-round,
dominated by a dry season from November to April and by a rainy season
from May to October. The dusty and dry harmattan (desert winds) blow
from the Sahara to the coast in December, bringing relief from the high
relative humidity. Deforestation and drought in the Sahel have affected
the climate, lengthening the dry season by almost a month in some areas.
Mean annual temperatures range between 65° F (18° C) in the northern
highlands to 80° F (27° C) along the coast. Rainfall is irregular, and
the rainy season varies in intensity and begins earlier at the coast
than in the interior. The greatest amount of rainfall, 205 inches (5,200
mm), occurs at Cape Mount and diminishes inland to about 70 inches
(1,800 mm) on the central plateau. The interior has hot but pleasant
days and cool nights during the dry season.
Plant and animal life
Liberia has year-round evergreen vegetation. Many trees—such as red
ironwood, camwood, whismore, teak, and mahogany—are valuable, but occur
with other species, preventing easy harvest. Other trees of value are
rubber, cacao, coffee, and the raffia palm.
Liberia’s rainforest used to abound with animals such as monkeys,
chimpanzees, small antelopes, pygmy hippopotamuses, and anteaters.
However, these animals, along with the already threatened elephants,
bush cows (short-horned buffalo), and leopards, were hunted for food
during the civil war; their populations are recovering. There are many
reptiles, including three types of crocodiles and at least eight
poisonous snakes. There are several unique species of bats and birds,
and scorpions, lizards, and fish are numerous. Sapo National Park,
established in 1983 in the country’s southeast, was expanded in 2003 to
encompass an area of some 700 square miles (1,800 square km). The 2000s
saw an expansion of protected regions in Liberia, with new and enlarged
wildlife reserves at Gola National Forest, the Wonegizi National Forest
Reserve, and Lake Piso, and ecotourism was seen as a potential growth
industry for the country.
Ethnic groups and languages
The people of Liberia are classified into three major groups: the
indigenous people, who are in the majority and who migrated from the
western Sudan in the late Middle Ages; black immigrants from the United
States (known historically as Americo-Liberians) and the West Indies;
and other black immigrants from neighbouring western African states who
came during the anti-slave-trade campaign and European colonial rule.
The Americo-Liberians are most closely associated with founding Liberia.
Most of them migrated to Liberia between 1820 and 1865; continued
migration has been intermittent. Americo-Liberians controlled the
government until a military coup in 1980.
Liberia’s indigenous ethnic groups may be classified into three
linguistic groups, all belonging to the Niger-Congo language family: the
Mande, Kwa, and Mel (southern Atlantic). The Mande are located in the
northwest and central regions of Liberia and also in Senegal, Mali,
Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Prominent among them are the Vai, who invented
their own alphabet and who, in addition, use Arabic and English; the
Kpelle, the largest Mande group, who are also found in Guinea; Loma
(also found in Guinea); Ngbandi; Dan (Gio); Mano; Mende; and Malinke.
Kwa-speaking peoples include the Bassa, the largest group in this
category and the largest ethnic group in Monrovia; the Kru and Grebo,
who were among the earliest converts to Christianity; the De; Belleh
(Belle); and Krahn. The Kwa-speaking group occupies the southern half of
the country. The Mel group includes the Gola and Kisi, who are also
found in Sierra Leone and are known to be the oldest inhabitants of
Liberia. These people live in the north and in the coastal region of the
More than two dozen languages are spoken in Liberia. English is the
official language. Predominant languages include Kpelle, Bassa, Grebo,
Dan, Kru, Mano, Loma, and Mandingo (spoken by the Malinke).
About two-fifths of Liberians are Christian, about one-fifth are
Muslim, and roughly two-fifths profess other religions, primarily
traditional beliefs. The largest number of Christians are the Kpelle,
followed by the Bassa. Some Liberians who identify themselves primarily
as Christian incorporate traditional beliefs into their personal
theologies. The Muslims are found predominantly among the Mande peoples
in the northwest region of the country.
The present pattern of population distribution in Liberia is both a
reflection of its migration history and a response to such social,
economic, and cultural factors as war, employment, and superstition.
Migrants from north-central Africa, who began to arrive in the 13th
century, originally settled in the hinterlands but were driven by
overcrowding to the coast. Immigrants from the United States and the
West Indies, and from neighbouring African countries, also settled on
the coast. The former migrated mostly to selected areas such as Monrovia
(the oldest immigrant settlement), Buchanan, Edina, Greenville, Harper,
Robertsport, and Marshall. Scattered settlements were created along
newly constructed or improved roads, while plantation and mining
activities encouraged larger settlements in a few interior and coastal
areas. There are more than 2,000 villages, the majority of which are
concentrated in central Liberia, in the northwest, and in the coastal
region near Monrovia. The predominantly forested regions of
south-central and northern Liberia have remained sparsely populated. The
trend toward urbanization has had little impact on these villages. The
result has been the segmentation of Liberian society into two coexisting
subsystems—traditional-rural and modern-urban.
Monrovia, founded in 1822, is the focal point of political, economic,
and cultural activities. Situated on the left bank of the St. Paul River
on the ridge formed by Cape Mesurado, it commands an imposing view of
the Atlantic Ocean and the coastal plains. The city and its outlying
districts and suburbs occupy five square miles. The old style of
architecture that once characterized it, reminiscent of that of the
southern United States before 1860, is giving way to contemporary
styles. All of the ethnic groups of Liberia are represented in its
population, as are refugees, African nationals from other countries, and
More than two-fifths of the population of Liberia is under age 15;
less than 5 percent is older than 65. The country’s birth and death
rates are similar to or greater than those of other sub-Saharan African
countries and are among the highest in the world. Life expectancy, about
39 years for males and 42 years for females, is lower than that of most
neighbouring countries and is among the lowest in the world. It fell as
a result of the civil war and strife that began in the late 1980s and
continued until 2003. About three-fifths of the population lives in
urban communities, and there is a high rural-to-urban movement,
especially to Monrovia. Other destinations include enclaves around
rubber plantations and mines.
The Liberian economy is predominantly agrarian, and raw materials,
equipment, and consumer goods are imported. Production for export is
carried out on a large scale through foreign investment in rubber,
forestry, and mining. Foreign ships registering under a Liberian “flag
of convenience” have made Liberia one of the world’s foremost countries
in registered shipping tonnage. Liberia nevertheless remains primarily
agricultural. The distribution of wealth is uneven, the coastal
districts receiving a greater share of economic benefits than the
hinterland, after which the administrative centres are the next
After the mid-1970s the once-vibrant economy took a sharp downturn.
Between 1976 and 1980 sluggish demand and low prices stagnated the
economy and the annual growth rate plunged. But gradual signs of
recovery appeared, especially in agriculture and forestry. In the early
1990s, however, civil war disrupted Liberia’s economy. Since the end of
the conflict in 2003, and particularly after a democratically elected
government was inaugurated in early 2006, efforts to rebuild the
country’s economic infrastructure have been under way.
Liberia is a member of two regional economic unions—the Mano River
Union, a free trade group to which Sierra Leone and Guinea also belong,
and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Agriculture is the leading sector of the economy. About half the
land area is suitable for cultivation, though a small percentage is
actually cultivated. Commercial farms are often operated by foreigners.
Traditional farms, which comprise the largest number, are usually
cultivated by slash-and-burn methods.
Traditional farmers practice mixed cultivation of rice, cassava
(manioc), and vegetables. They also raise goats, sheep, chickens, and
ducks. Cultivation of cash crops such as coffee, cacao (grown for its
seeds, cocoa beans), oil palm, sugarcane, and swamp rice is increasing.
Domestic rice production meets about three-fourths of the country’s
needs. The rest is imported, principally from East Asia.
Liberia’s climate is suitable for rubber production; the necessary
plants thrive on the country’s poor soils. In 1926 the Firestone Tire
and Rubber Company of the United States obtained a concession for rubber
cultivation. Rubber has become by far the country’s most valuable
commercial crop, with coffee and cacao increasing in importance. Kola
nuts, peanuts, and cotton are also produced, and cattle and pigs are
Rainforests produce fine hardwood timber, especially in the east of
the country, but also in the centre and in the west. Timber concessions
operate in the southeast and northwest. Substantial amounts of timber
are produced, but exploitation of the forest resources is difficult
because of poor roads and shortage of labour. Of the approximately 250
species of forest trees about 90 are marketable. In 2003 the United
Nations (UN) placed an embargo on timber exports from Liberia, crippling
the domestic forestry sector. These sanctions were lifted in 2006, and
the industry was slow to recover.
Deep-sea fishing is important, and the catch is largely mackerel,
barracuda, and red snapper. Kru and Fanti fishermen, the latter from
Ghana, have traditionally been the suppliers of fish to coastal areas
but are supplemented by Liberian fishing companies. Inland fish-breeding
ponds provide a source of protein.
Resources and power
Liberia is rich in natural resources. Prior to the civil war, it was
among the leading producers of iron ore in Africa. Its sizable reserves
are found primarily in four areas: the Bomi Hills, the Bong Range, the
Mano Hills, and Mount Nimba, where the largest deposits occur. Other
minerals include diamonds, gold, lead, manganese, graphite, cyanite (a
silicate of aluminum, with thin bladelike crystals), and barite. There
are possible oil reserves off the coast. During the civil war, iron
production ground to a halt, and diamond exports were banned by the UN
in 2001, in an effort to halt the traffic of “blood” or “conflict”
diamonds. (See map illustrating the diamonds-for-weapons trade that had
taken place in Africa by the end of the 20th century.) The diamond trade
was resumed with the removal of sanctions in 2007, under the auspices of
the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international program
that ensures that the rough diamond trade does not finance armed
There is vast potential for the development of hydroelectric power,
as virtually all of Liberia’s installed hydroelectric capacity was
damaged or destroyed as a result of the civil war. The Mount Coffee
hydroelectric station on the St. Paul River, once responsible for
providing much of Monrovia’s power, was destroyed in the early days of
the conflict. Reconstruction of the facility and electrification of
Liberia’s rural countryside were two critical issues that faced the
country in the postwar period.
Access to potable water was severely limited by the civil war, and
from 1990 to 2005 tap water was unavailable in Monrovia. However,
surface water is abundant, and groundwater reserves are ample and
regularly replenished by the country’s heavy rainfall.
To export the ores, iron interests have built railroads connecting
the mines with Monrovia and Buchanan. Iron ore is extracted by open-pit
mining, while gold and diamonds are extracted by placer mining.
Traditional, small-scale mining for gold and diamonds continues.
Manufacturing enterprises are predominantly private and
foreign-owned, and most serve the local market. Near Monrovia there is a
petroleum refinery as well as a cement plant. There are also explosives,
paint, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics plants. Bricks, tiles, cement
blocks, lumber and furniture, soap, and footwear are also manufactured,
and there are several distilleries.
The U.S. dollar, previously the sole legal tender in Liberia,
circulates alongside the Liberian dollar, the official currency minted
by the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL). Government revenues are derived
from income, profits, property, domestic transaction, foreign trade, and
maritime taxes. About one-third of economic development funding has
generally been derived from foreign sources, both bilateral and
Among the several government-sponsored banks are the CBL, the
National Housing and Savings Bank, the Agricultural and Cooperative
Development Bank, and the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment.
In addition there are private banks, insurance companies, and credit
The United States and the countries of the European Union are the
principal markets for Liberian exports. Rubber accounts for the
overwhelming majority of Liberian export earnings, followed by gold,
diamonds, coffee, and cocoa. Petroleum products and food are primary
imports; others include machinery and transport equipment, beverages,
tobacco, manufactured goods, lubricants, and chemicals. Asian countries,
including South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, are the largest suppliers
Instability and civil war have held Liberia’s potentially lucrative
tourist industry in check. Tourist facilities are concentrated near
beaches in Monrovia and Robertsport and near Lake Piso. Many cultural
attractions, such as the Monrovia Zoo and the National Cultural Center
at Kendeja, were destroyed or looted during the war. Providence Island
near Monrovia and the Kpatawee Waterfalls on the Zor River near Suakoko
remain popular destinations for Liberia’s emerging tourist trade.
Labour and taxation
About one-fourth of the workforce is employed in agriculture; an
equal number work in trade and tourism and the public sector. The rest
work in manufacturing, sales, services, and administration and
management. Some two-fifths of the total labour force is made up of
women. More women than men are employed in agriculture.
Liberia’s economy is mixed and there is no nationalization of
industry. The government, which is the largest single employer, operates
several public corporations. There is a national Federation of Labour
Unions, a federation of trade unions, and several other employees’
Only a small percentage of Liberian roads are paved. Primary roads
connect administrative and economic centres and provide access to the
road systems of neighbouring countries.
Monrovia is the principal commercial port, and it also has facilities
for transshipping iron ore and liquid latex. Nimba Range iron ore is
shipped from Buchanan, while the ports at Greenville and Harper are used
primarily for the shipment of rubber and forest products. All ports are
administered by the National Port Authority of Liberia.
Liberia has two major airports, Robertsfield International, and James
Spriggs Payne Airport, both near Monrovia. More than 100 airfields and
airstrips dot the country’s interior.
Government and society
Liberia’s government was patterned after that of the United States,
with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Political parties
were legalized in 1984, and civilian rule was established in 1986.
However, considerable political unrest and violence precluded any stable
leadership in power from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. A
power-sharing agreement in 2003 largely ended the fighting and created a
National Transitional Government (NTG). The NTG, supported by United
Nations peacekeeping troops, replaced the government under the 1986
constitution and ruled until a democratically elected administration was
installed in 2006.
According to the 1986 constitution, the country is led by a president
who is directly elected for a six-year term. Members of the bicameral
National Assembly, who serve six-year terms in the House of
Representatives and nine-year terms in the Senate, are also elected
For administrative purposes, Liberia is divided into 15 counties.
Each of the counties is headed by a superintendent, who is appointed by
The judicial system comprises the Supreme Court, an appeals court,
magistrate courts, and criminal courts. There are also traditional
courts in some communities; the ethnic groups are allowed, as far as
possible, to govern themselves according to customary law.
The 1986 constitution calls for a multiparty system. Major political
parties and organizations include the Unity Party, the Congress for
Democratic Change, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, the United
People’s Party, the National Patriotic Party, and the Liberty Party.
The participation of women in Liberia’s political process was
highlighted in late 2005 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected
president, becoming the first woman to be elected head of state in
Africa. In the first decade of the 21st century, women held about
one-seventh of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate
and some one-third of local government posts. In addition, women have
served as ministers and deputy ministers in the cabinet and as justices
on the Supreme Court.
Health and welfare
Conditions in Liberia were poor prior to the civil war, and they
deteriorated further after years of war and unrest. Although much
progress had been made in providing better health facilities, after the
conflict subsided, the majority of these facilities were left in
shambles or completely destroyed, especially in the areas beyond
Monrovia. International relief organizations operated makeshift
hospitals to serve the country’s health care needs, and reestablishing
the health care infrastructure was a priority of the government.
Malaria and measles are major health problems, and yellow fever,
cholera, tuberculosis, and malnutrition are also prevalent. Dysentery,
malaria, and diarrhea are major causes of infant mortality, which, at
about 150 per 1,000 births, is high by world standards. The occurrence
of HIV/AIDS in Liberia is increasing and is of growing concern.
Liberia’s rate of HIV/AIDS, although higher than the world average, is
comparable to that of most neighbouring countries and is much lower than
that of many other sub-Saharan African countries.
Housing in much of the country was damaged or destroyed by civil war
and the following years of unrest; hundreds of thousands of Liberians
were displaced. The country’s utilities infrastructure was also
destroyed. When the fighting subsided in 2003, privately owned
generators were, for the most part, the only source of power in the
country. Water delivery and sanitation systems were adversely affected
by warfare as well, and unsafe water conditions were a major source of
disease during and after the conflict.
Since 1939 education has been compulsory for children between ages 7
and 16 and is free at the primary and secondary levels. Institutes
providing higher education include the University of Liberia (1951) in
Monrovia, Cuttington University College (1889; Episcopalian) in Suakoko,
and the William V.S. Tubman College of Technology (1970) in Harper.
There are several vocational schools, including the Booker Washington
Institute at Kakata, a government school.
The years of civil war and strife that began in the late 1980s and
continued into the early 2000s disrupted education in Liberia: students
were forced to flee with their families from the violence, and the
majority of educational facilities and supplies were destroyed. After
the peace accord of 2003, Liberia began the arduous task of rebuilding
the country’s educational system.
Traditional and Western lifestyles coexist; however, traditional
values, customs, and norms influence the Western type considerably. In
cities both Western and African music and dancing styles are in vogue,
but in rural areas traditional rhythms are favoured. Schools instruct
students in the legends, traditions, songs, arts, and crafts of African
culture, and the government promotes African culture through such
agencies as the National Museum in Monrovia, the Tubman Center for
African Culture in Robertsport, and the National Cultural Center in
Kendeja, which exhibits architecture of the 16 ethnic groups of Liberia.
Mask making is an artistic pursuit that is also related to the social
structure of some ethnic groups. Music festivals, predominantly
religious, are held in most communities. The University of Liberia has
an arts and crafts centre. There are several libraries, including a
children’s library in Monrovia and a National Public Library.
Sports and recreation
Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Liberia. An
intercounty football competition is held for the annual championship.
The University of Liberia and Cuttington University College hold annual
sports competitions. Liberia’s best football player and most popular
sports figure is George Weah. Weah used his popularity and personal
funds to enable Liberia’s national team, known as the Lone Stars, to
compete in the African Nations Cup competitions during the mid-1990s,
despite the ongoing civil war. He also founded a sports school and a
youth football club.
Media and publishing
Monrovia has a number of daily newspapers, including the Daily
Observer and The Analyst. A few magazines are published annually.
Officially, there is press freedom, but newspapers are banned
occasionally for violating government policies on information.
Monrovia is served by numerous private radio stations, as well as the
state-run Liberia Broadcasting System, and programming includes sports,
entertainment, and news. Television networks broadcast local news and
foreign films, although local and international football matches tend to
be the most popular programs. Satellite television is also available on
a subscription basis. International telecommunication services are
available through direct satellite links between Liberia, the United
States, Italy, and France.
Abeodu Bowen Jones
This discussion focuses on Liberia from the 19th century. For a
treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its regional context,
see western Africa, history of.
Outsiders’ knowledge of the west of Africa began with a Portuguese
sailor, Pedro de Sintra, who reached the Liberian coast in 1461.
Subsequent Portuguese explorers named Grand Cape Mount, Cape Mesurado
(Montserrado), and Cape Palmas, all prominent coastal features. The area
became known as the Grain Coast because grains of Melegueta pepper, then
as valuable as gold, were the principal item of trade.
In the beginning of the 19th century the tide started to rise in
favour of the abolition of slavery, and the Grain Coast was suggested as
a suitable home for freed American slaves. In 1818 two U.S. government
agents and two officers of the American Colonization Society (founded
1816) visited the Grain Coast. After abortive attempts to establish
settlements there, an agreement was signed in 1821 between the officers
of the society and local African chiefs granting the society possession
of Cape Mesurado. The first American freed slaves, led by members of the
society, landed in 1822 on Providence Island at the mouth of the
Mesurado River. They were followed shortly by Jehudi Ashmun, a white
American, who became the real founder of Liberia. By the time Ashmun
left in 1828 the territory had a government, a digest of laws for the
settlers, and the beginnings of profitable foreign commerce. Other
settlements were started along the St. John River, at Greenville, and at
Harper. In 1839 Thomas Buchanan was appointed the first governor. On his
death in 1841 he was succeeded by Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the colony’s
first black governor, who was born free in Virginia in 1809; Roberts
enlarged the boundaries of the territory and improved economic
The early republic
When the American Colonization Society intimated that Liberia should
cease its dependency on it, Roberts proclaimed it an independent
republic in 1847. Independence was recognized in 1848–56 by most
countries, though formal recognition by the United States did not come
At the time independence was declared, a constitution based on that
of the United States was drawn up. Roberts, who had been elected the
first president of the republic, retained that office until 1856. During
that period the slave trade, theretofore illicitly carried on from
various nominally Liberian ports, was ended by the activity of the
British and U.S. navies.
In 1871 the first foreign loan was raised, being negotiated in London
nominally for £100,000. The loan was unpopular, and still more unpopular
was the new president, Edward J. Roye, who was deposed and imprisoned at
Monrovia. Roberts was called back to office. He served until 1876.
The early days of Liberia were marked by constant frontier troubles
with the French on the Ivory Coast and the British at Sierra Leone. The
Liberians tried to extend their authority inland, although they were
still unable to control all the coastal area they claimed. Efforts to
end the frontier disputes resulted in treaties with Great Britain in
1885 and with France in 1892. In 1904 President Arthur Barclay, who was
born in Barbados, initiated a policy of direct cooperation with the
tribes. Having obtained a loan from London in 1907, he made real efforts
at reform. The foreign debt, however, was a burden, and the government
was unable to exert effective authority over the interior for more than
20 miles (32 km) inland. In 1919 an agreement was signed transferring to
France some 2,000 square miles (5,200 square km) of hinterland that
Liberia had claimed but could not control.
In 1909 a commission appointed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt
investigated political and economic conditions in Liberia and
recommended financial reorganization. A loan of $1.7 million (U.S.),
secured by customs revenue, was raised by an international consortium of
bankers in 1912, and a receivership of customs was set up, administered
by appointees of the British, French, and German governments and a U.S.
receiver-general. A frontier police force was organized by officers of
the U.S. Army, with the result that Liberian authority was better
maintained. However, this promising new regime was upset by World War I.
Revenues dropped to one-fourth of their previous level, and the
financial situation steadily deteriorated.
The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company obtained a concession of
1,000,000 acres (400,000 hectares) for a rubber plantation in 1926. At
the same time, a loan was arranged through the Finance Corporation of
America, a Firestone subsidiary. Using this private loan, the Liberian
government consolidated and bonded all its external and internal debts
and placed the country’s finances on a relatively stable basis.
Administration of the customs and internal revenue was placed in the
hands of a U.S. financial adviser. In 1952 the government was able to
liquidate its foreign debt for the first time since accepting the
English loan of 1871.
An investigation by the League of Nations of forced labour and
slavery in Liberia, involving the shipment of Africans to the Spanish
plantations in Fernando Po, brought about the resignations of President
Charles King and Vice President Allen Yancy and the election of Edwin
Barclay to the presidency in 1931. Liberia appealed to the Council of
the League of Nations for financial aid, and a commission of inquiry was
established. The next three years were marked by unsuccessful attempts
to work out a plan of assistance involving appointing foreign
administrators, declaring a moratorium on the Firestone loan, and
suspending diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the United
States. After the League Council had finally withdrawn its plan of
assistance, the Liberian government reached an agreement with Firestone
along lines similar to the league’s recommendations.
World War II and after
The new significance of Liberia became apparent after the outbreak
of World War II. During the war Liberia’s rubber plantation was the only
source of natural latex rubber available to the Allies, apart from
plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1942 Liberia signed a defense
agreement with the United States. This resulted in a program of
strategic road building and the construction of an international airport
and a deepwater harbour at Monrovia. U.S. money was declared legal
tender in Liberia in 1943, replacing British West African currency. In
1943 William V.S. Tubman was elected to his first term as president.
Liberia declared war against Germany and Japan in January 1944 and in
April signed the Declaration of the United Nations. In December 1960
Liberia became a member of the UN Security Council, and from that time
it took an active part in African and international affairs. In 1963 the
country became a member of the Organization of African Unity (since 2002
the African Union) at its inception.
In 1963 Tubman was elected to his fifth term as president, and the
following year the United States and Liberia signed an agreement to
transfer the free port of Monrovia to the government of Liberia. Tubman
was again elected president in 1967, the only candidate for the office;
he died in London on July 23, 1971, shortly after his election to a
seventh term as president. He was immediately succeeded by Vice
President William R. Tolbert.
A decline in world prices for Liberia’s chief exports, iron ore and
natural rubber, brought financial hardship to the country during the
1960s and early ’70s. Foreign loans helped sustain the economy during
Decades of strife
In April 1980 Tolbert was killed in a coup led by Master Sergeant
(later General) Samuel K. Doe, who became head of state and chairman of
the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). The PRC promised a new
constitution—which became effective in 1986—and a return to civilian
rule. Elections were held in 1985 with several parties participating but
were widely criticized as fraudulent. Doe was inaugurated as the first
president of the Second Republic in January 1986. His rule ended in 1990
after civil war—primarily between the Krahn and the Gio and Mano
peoples—erupted. A multinational West African force, the Economic
Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group, attempted to
restore order, but the leaders of two rebel groups, Charles Ghankay
Taylor and Prince Johnson, contended for power after Doe’s downfall and
execution. The war dragged on for seven years as new factions arose and
neighbouring countries became enmeshed in the strife. The toll on the
civilian population and the economy was devastating. After a series of
abortive attempts, a truce was achieved in 1996. In elections held the
following year, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia Party, led by
Taylor, achieved a clear majority.
At first, Taylor’s government was able to maintain a shaky peace,
buoyed by the presence of ECOWAS peacekeeping forces. However, those
troops left in early 1999, and by the end of the year rebels were on the
attack in northern Liberia. The country’s economy, already in shambles,
was made worse in 2001 when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions
for Liberia’s support of rebel forces in Sierra Leone; Taylor’s alleged
role in Sierra Leone’s civil war also resulted in his June 2003
indictment by a UN-sponsored war crimes tribunal. Meanwhile, the rebel
insurgency in Liberia had slowly spread southward, killing thousands and
displacing tens of thousands in the fighting. Government troops could
not stop the rebel advance, and in August 2003 Taylor fled the country
and went into exile in Nigeria. In March 2006 the Liberian government
requested Taylor’s extradition, and Nigeria announced it would comply
with the order. Taylor subsequently attempted to flee Nigeria but was
quickly captured. Charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes,
he was later sent to The Hague; his trial before the Special Court for
Sierra Leone began in June 2007.
Return to peace
After Taylor fled Liberia in 2003, the National Transitional
Government (NTG), headed by Liberian businessman Gyude Bryant and
supported by United Nations peacekeeping troops, was established and
ruled until a new administration was democratically elected and
installed. Presidential elections were held in late 2005, and Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf defeated former football star George Weah in the second
round of polling. She became the first woman to be elected head of state
in Africa. Sirleaf focused on rebuilding the country’s economy and
infrastructure, both of which were devastated from decades of conflict
and instability, and worked to promote unity and reconciliation within
the country. To that end, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was
established in 2006. Sirleaf also addressed the culture of corruption
that had been rampant for some time: she fired the entire staff of the
Ministry of Finance and promised to investigate and prosecute anyone
responsible for graft. In December 2007 Bryant, the former NTG head, was
arrested for failing to appear in court to face corruption charges
stemming from his time as leader of the transitional government; he was
accused of embezzling more than $1 million, a charge that he vehemently
denied. Bryant was found not guilty in 2009. In October 2008 Taylor’s
son, Charles (Chuckie) Taylor, Jr., was convicted in a U.S court on
charges of torture and related war crimes; he was sentenced to 97 years
in prison in January 2009.
Donald Rahl Petterson
Svend E. Holsoe