Here’s What You Need to Know About Liberia

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The Republic of Liberia is on Africa’s west coast and shares borders with Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of 4,732,000 million (2017) and has a total area of 111,369 sq. km.

Monrovia is the capital. Most of the country’s rainfall occurs in the rainy season. Harmattan winds arrive in the dry season. The Pepper Coast is mostly mangrove forest. The inlands population is sparse and opens to a grassland plateau.

Liberia’s history is unique due to the country’s relationship with the U.S. Liberia is one of only two countries, Ethiopia being the other, that was not part of the European Scramble for Africa. Freed American slaves, along with the help of a private organization called the American Colonization Society, founded and colonized the country from 1821-1822. It was believed the freed slaves would have greater equality and freedom there.

Instead of being repatriated to countries of origin, slaves that were freed from slave ships were sent there. These formed the elite of Liberian society and became the Republic of Liberia’s founders in 1847. Their government was modeled after the United States and the capital, Monrovia, was named after James Monroe, the U.S. President who supported the colonization.

In 1980, a coup overthrew William Tolbert, the president, and instability began which eventually led to two civil wars. These destroyed the economy and killed hundred of thousands. Liberia is still recovering and 85 percent of the people live below the international poverty level.

Etymology

The country’s name means “liberty.” The settlers formed an ethnic group called the Americo-Liberians. This led to tension with the other ethnic groups already residing in Liberia. Europeans had different names for Liberia from the 16th century until 1822.

Liberia was known as the Malaguetta Coast or Pepper Coast during the spice trade. The name derived from the melegueta pepper found in the country’s rural areas. Since it was rare, it was dubbed the “Grains of paradise”. Due to its notoriously choppy, unnavigable coastal waters, English referred to it as the Windward Coast in the 18th century.

History

Evidence shows the Liberia region was inhabited as far back as the 1100s. Ethnic groups were forced southward toward the Atlantic Ocean when the Mende-speaking people expanded westward. The earliest arrivals were the Bassa, Days, Gola, Kru, and Kissi. When the Western Sudanic Mali Empure decline in 1375, this influx accelerated. This influx occurred again when the Songhai Empire declined in 1591. Desertification occurred in the inland areas, which pressured those living there to move to the wetter coast.

The Vai people migrated to the Grand Cape Mont region after the Manes conquered Liberia. The Vai were part of the Mali Empire before its collapse. The Vai migrated to the coast, which the ethnic Kru opposed. The Manes and Kru joined to stop the Vai but were not successful.

The coastal people built canoes and traded with others in West Africa. Traders from Europe later bartered for commodities and goods with the locals. The Kru initially began trading commodities with the Europeans, but eventually began trading slaves.

Kru workers left the area and worked as paid laborers in other areas of the world, including working on the Panama and Suez canals. Another area ethnic group, the Glebo, was driven to the coast by the Manes’ invasion.

The Portuguese, British, and Dutch contacted trading posts in what became Liberia between 1461 and the late 17th century.

Settlers from the United States

The American Colonization Society (ACS) established Liberia in 1822 with the purpose of repatriating black Americans to supposedly greater freedom in Africa. The movement had broad support among whites in the U.S., including James Monroe and Henry Clay. To them, this was preferable to freeing slaves in America due to the prejudice of whites. There were nearly 4 million slaves in the U.S. by the mid-19th century. The immigrants to Liberia were known as Americo-Liberians. Many living in Liberia today trace their ancestry to those original immigrants. Those settlers declared the Republic of Liberia as independent on July 26, 1847.

While they viewed Africa as a “Promised Land,” they did not integrate into its society. They referred to themselves as Americans and were recognized as such by Africans and colonial authorities. Their form of government and state symbols reflected their background in America. In 1854, the Ashmun Institute was founded in Pennsylvania, which educated Americo-Liberians for leadership in Liberia. The first class to graduate included Armistead Miller, James Amos, and Thomas Amos, his brother. These left for Liberia in 1859 after graduation.

The customs of the Americo-Liberians were rooted in the pre-Civil War American South. This applied to the attitudes of the settlers toward indigenous Africans. There was mistrust between the natives and Americo-Liberians. The Americo-Liberians worked to dominate the natives whom they saw as inferior primitives. The name they gave the country translates to the “Land of the Free” in Latin.

Throughout history, the U.S. Government has unofficially supported and cooperated with Liberia. Liberia’s government was modeled on the U.S. The True Whig Party took and monopolized political power in 1877. Nomination of the party basically ensured election. Pressure from France and Britain and the threat of financial insolvency challenged the country. During the Scramble for Africa, the country did retain its independence, but lost extensive territories annexed by France and Britain. In the late 19th century, the market for Liberian goods declined, which hindered development and drained the economy.

Mid-20th Century

In 1926, Liberia granted a concession to Firestone Plantation Company, an American-owned enterprise. This began modernization of the Liberian economy. The U.S. also started giving Liberia technical and economic assistance during World War II. During this time, the Roberts International Airport and the Freeport of Monrovia were built by U.S. personnel.

In April 1980, a group of non-commissioned army officers led by Samuel Kanyon Doe staged a successful coup. William Tolbert, Jr., the president of nine years, was killed in a late night raid on his Monrovia mansion. Later, they executed a majority of his cabinet and seized control of the government. Calling themselves the People’s Redemption Council, they effectively ended Africa’s first republic. Doe was the first leader in Liberia who was not an Americo-Liberian.

Doe banned opposition parties and newspapers. Typically, he would label opposition parties as socialist, making them illegal under the constitution. Less popular minor parties would be permitted as token opposition.

The first post-coup elections were held in 1985. International observers almost all agreed an opposition candidate from the Liberia Action Party (LAP) won by a clear margin. During the vote count, Doe replaced the election officials with his own Special Election Committee (SECOM) who announced Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia had won the election. In response, Thomas Quiwonkpa led a counter-coup with widespread support in the country. This coup was defeated three days later. The government responded with harsh repression. Doe’s troops killed over 2,000 and imprisoned 100 opposition politicians.

1989 and 1999 Civil Wars

The First Liberian Civil War began in 1989. Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, entered Nimba County with 100 men. He was supported by neighboring countries. Due to popular support, he quickly took most of the country. A former Taylor ally, Prince Yormie Johnson, formed an army and received support from Mano and Gio ethnic groups.

In 1990, a group under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened with a military task force. Doe was captured by Gio tribe members while on his way to a meeting. They took him to Johnson’s headquarters where he was tortured and killed.

After Doe was killed, Amos Sawyer, the interim president, resigned as a condition for the war’s end. After leading an insurgency backed by Libya, Taylor became president in 1997. He targeted activists and opposition leaders. 1999, Taylor’s authoritarian rule led to the Second Liberian Civil War.

In 2003, the fighting intensified and moved into Monrovia. U.S. Marines moved in to protect and airlift foreign nationals to Senegal. A force of Nigerian troops was flown into Monrovia to prevent the rebels from overrunning the city and killing civilians.

Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was a key to ending the fighting. Leymah Gbowee, a social worker, organized protests and forced a meeting with Taylor. At this meeting, Taylor promised to attend peace talks. The group continued to apply pressure to end the fighting.

As his government’s power diminished, Taylor accepted asylum in Nigeria, but vowed to return. A 15,000 U.N. peacekeeping mission began. Over 200,000 are believed to have been killed in the civil wars.

Post-Civil War

After Taylor left, Gyude Bryant became the transitional government’s chairman in 2003. This body was tasked with preparing for fair and peaceful elections.

In October 2005, with U.N. troops keeping the peace, Liberia conducted legislative and presidential elections. No candidate gained the majority and there was a run-off between George Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf won the run-off decisively, becoming the first elected female head of state in Africa. Her government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate war crimes. Taylor’s extradition was requested from Nigeria for a trial for crimes again humanity.

In 2011 Johnson Sirleaf won re-election.  The UN Security Council called to reduce US troops in Liberia by half by a deadline of 2015.

Politics and Government

The country has a dual system of statutory law for the modern sector and unwritten tribal law in rural communities. Liberia has three equal branches of government, but in reality the executive is the strongest.

The True Whig Party dominated the government from 1876 to the coup in 1980. No party currently has a legislative majority. William Tubman was the longest serving president who was in power from 1944 to 1971. James Skivring Smith held the shortest term at two months.

The President heads the executive branch. The cabinet and the Vice-President are other parts of the executive. Presidents are elected to six-year terms and can serve up to two terms.

Liberia’s legislature is bicameral with an upper chamber (Senate) and lower chamber (House of Representatives). There are two senators for each county and the representatives are allocated by voting population. Senators serve nine year terms and the representatives serve six years.

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority and is led by the Chief Justice. There are five justices who hold sessions at Monrovia’s Temple of Justice. The President nominates the members and they are approved by the Senate. Members serve for life. There are 15 circuit courts below the Supreme Court.

Geography

Liberia is a West African country with the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It has a flat landscape with coastal plains containing swamps and mangroves. These rise to a rolling plateau and low mountains to the northeast. The hills are covered in a tropical rainforest and semi-deciduous forest and elephant grass dominate the vegetation in the north. It is hot year round and there is heavy rainfall from May to October. Dry harmattan winds cause problems for residents from November to March during the winter.

The watershed moves to the southwest towards the sea when new rains move down the forested plateau of the Guinee Forestiere mountain range in Guinea. Near Sierra Leone, Cape Mount receives the most rainfall. The Mano River is on the northwest border and in the southwest, the Cavalla River is the boundary. The three largest rivers in Liberia are the St. John, St. Paul, and Cestos. The longest is the Cavalla River.

Mount Wuteve, part of the West Africa Mountains and the Guinea Highlands, is the highest point at 1,440 meters above sea level. Mount Nimba is higher at 1,752 meters but is not completely within Liberia.

Counties and Districts

There are 15 counties, which are further divided in to districts, then into clans. Grand Bassa and Montserrado are the oldest counties. They were both founded in 1839 prior to independence. Gbarpolu is the newest and was created in 2001. At 11,551 sq. km., Nimba is the largest. Montserrado is the smallest at 1,909 sq. km., but it has the most population with 1,144,806 residents in 2008. The complete list of counties are Bomi, Bong, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Lofa, Margibi, Maryland, Montserrado, Nimba, River Cess, River Gee, and Sinoe.

Economy

With a formal employment rate of only 15 percent, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Throughout its history, the economy depended on rubber and iron ore exports, foreign investment, and other natural resources exports. Agriculture consists of rice, a food staple, and livestock. Along the coast fish are raised in inland farms. Other food is imported. Dams and oil plants supply electricity.

During the civil war, exports declined, but the wartime economy led to exploitation of the diamond wealth in the region. Over $300 million in diamonds were exported every year, which led to a U.N. export ban. This was lifted in 2007.

Due to illicit agreements, other exports continued during the civil war. Looting destroyed Liberia’s infrastructure and the capital did not have electricity and running water.

Some legitimate activities resumed after the end of hostilities. These included a deal for a new steel mill and additional iron ore exports. The country still depends on foreign aid and has  one of the highest unemployment rates in the world at 85 percent.

Liberia’s dollar trades against the U.S. dollar at 65:1. The country’s debt of $3.5 billion is very large compared to its $2.5 billion per year GDP. Imports far exceed exports. Inflation is still significant but is falling.

U.N. sanctions were removed in 2007. Liberia’s maritime registry is the second largest in the world with 3,500 vessels registered. This is due to it being a “flag of convenience” and its excellent ranking with port control institutions.

Liberia’s poor economic performance continues due to poor infrastructure, devastation from the war, instability, and lack of human capital.

Economic History

Liberia’s trade was historically for the benefit of the Americo-Liberian elite. Trade between foreigners and indigenous people was limited by the 1864 Ports of Entry Act. The country’s law failed to protect indigenous Africans from arbitrary taxation and rents. Most lived only on subsistence farming and low wage work.

Liberia typically uses non-metric units of measure with the exception of certain areas. The units are not uniform between regions and even surveys.

Demographics

The population is about 4.7 million.

There are 16 indigenous ethnic groups and foreign minorities. 95 percent are indigenous, the largest of which are the Kpelle people. 2.5 percent are Americo-Liberians and another 2.5 percent are Congo people. The Congo people descend from repatriated Afro-Caribbean and Congo slaves. A number of Indians, Lebanese, and people from other West African nations are a large part of the business community. There are also a small number of people of European descent. The population growth rate is 2.5 percent per year. There is a large youth population, with half the population under 18.

In terms of religion, 40 percent follow indigenous religions, 40 percent are Christian, and 20 percent are Muslims.

Health

Life expectancy is  58 years old and the fertility rate is 4.8 births per woman.  Infant mortality is 69 per 1000.  0.9 percent had HIV/AIDS.

Culture

Liberia’s textiles and quilting have a long history and the country is noted for its hospitality, cultural skills, arts, and academic institutions. The former U.S. slaves arrived with quilting skills.

Quilts were typically given as official governments gifts in modern times. One is included in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum that has portraits of JFK and Liberian president William Tubman.

Education

Located in the capital, the University of Liberia is the largest college. It is one of Africa’s oldest universities and was founded in 1862. The university sustained damage during the civil war but is being rebuilt. The university has six colleges, including the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, the country’s only law school.

Started by the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. in 1889, Cuttington University is located in Suakoko. It is the oldest private college in Liberia.

According to estimates,  65 percent of those primary school aged and 24 percent secondary school aged are enrolled. This is an increase from prior years. Children average 10 years of education. Education is compulsory for those ages five to eleven, but there is poor enforcement of the law.



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