Liberia:America's Closest African Ally

Samuel Thompson and Barry Mowell

What is the only country on earth patterned directly after the United States? If you don't know the answer, you're not alone. Despite the historical links between Liberia and the United States, American students appear to know little about this small West African nation. When the question was posed to nearly two hundred world geography students at Broward Community College in fall 1996, few had ever heard of Liberia. Virtually no one knew that its birth as a country was the result of American involvement, or that the U.S. form of government later served as a model for Liberia.
Why should Americans become familiar with Liberia? What should social studies and geography teachers focus on when teaching about it? This article provides an overview of the historical foundations, geography, and modern political developments of Liberia. We hope that providing some insight into the complex political situation in Liberia today will encourage American teachers to devote attention to it in their classrooms.

The Historical Links Between Liberia and the United States
The origins of modern Liberia are rooted in the practice of slavery in early nineteenth century America. Normally, one tends to associate efforts to repatriate freed slaves back to Africa with the post-Civil War era and beyond. In fact, it was during World War I that Marcus Garvey proposed a "Back to Africa" movement and set his sights on Liberia as its headquarters. However, organizations to repatriate freed slaves were active in the United States many decades prior to the Civil War.
One group, the American Colonization Society (ACS), successfully lobbied the United States government to allow freed slaves to return to Africa and establish a colony. The founders of the American Colonization Society (formed in 1816 as the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States) had varied motives for seeking the return of freed slaves to Africa. Some-Quakers and Evangelical clergymen prominent among them-wanted to remedy the injustices of slavery. Others feared that the presence of "free men of color" amongst the population posed a threat to the stability of American institutions, and particularly the institution of slavery in the southern states.1

In 1818, the American Colonization Society sent agents to West Africa to find a suitable place for a resettlement colony. After exhaustive searches, they reached agreement with a group of Bassa chiefs to "purchase" a strip of land stretching nearly 60 miles along the coast at Cape Mesurado. The Bassa promised to live in harmony with the settlers; in return, the settlers were obliged not to interfere in the affairs of the indigenous Africans, including trade in slaves.2

Congress had already granted a charter for this purpose, and in 1822, settlers arrived at the site near present-day Monrovia (named after then-U.S. President James Monroe, who supported the colonization effort). The name of the new colony was derived from the Latin "liber," meaning "to be free."3

The ACS was not the first to establish a colony for freed slaves in the region.

A neighboring settlement at Freetown, in modern Sierra Leone, was established by the British as a self-governing colony in 1787. The first settlers, several hundred liberated slaves, were soon joined by more blacks who had left the United States with British forces and settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. Adding to their number over time were "recaptives" from slave runners intercepted by British naval ships in the effort to end the slave trade. Such recaptives would also help swell the ranks of the colony at Monrovia.

The ACS administered affairs in Liberia through an appointed governor, who was assisted by a vice agent and council members representing the colonists. In the early years, the colony underwent attack by the Bassa, who repudiated their sale of communal land to the settlers, who were now interfering in the slave trade.4 In 1838, the colony merged with a number of other settlements established by state colonization societies (namely Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi). A new commonwealth constitution restricted citizenship to "persons of color" and granted suffrage to all male citizens over 21.

The majority of the Liberian colonists were, then, freedmen from the slave-holding states of America. While most began as farmers in the new colony, many were unhappy with this occupation because of its association with slavery. Other settlers had been craftsmen in northern cities in the United States. Many of the "Americo-Liberians"-as they came to be called-adopted the role of middlemen in trade with the indigenous peoples of Liberia. Others prospered in such artisan crafts as shipbuilding and barrel making.

The principal source of revenue for the Liberian colony was customs duties levied on all imports and exports. British (and other European) merchants had been trading with coastal tribes in this region for many years; things changed when they refused to pay the taxes, in effect denying the legitimacy of the ACS, whom they regarded as a group of private Americans without the right to claim sovereignty over Liberia.

This British refusal prompted the severing of ties between the settlers and the ACS, changing Liberia's status in the international community from that of a private venture to that of an independent state. Liberia declared independence in 1847, adopting a new constitution and governmental structure patterned directly after that of the United States. English was declared the official language. The national currency from colonial times to the present has been the U.S. dollar. Even the red-white-and-blue flag of Liberia was patterned after the U. S. "stars and stripes." However, while Britain and several other European states were quick to recognize Liberia, political considerations caused the United States to hold off recognition until 1862.

Geography and People
Liberia's significance as a topic for teaching lies not only in its historical relationship with the United States, but also in its place within the West African sub-region of Sub-Saharan Africa. Liberia's distinguishing geographical qualities relate to its relative location and internal characteristics; its ethnic makeup and recent human movement; and its human-environmental relationships.
Liberia is located in the humid tropics along the bulge of West Africa. The landscape consists of plains and lowlands along the coast, with low mountains in the north. As is typical of the tropics, temperatures are high year-round, with distinct wet and dry seasons. During the wet season, which extends from April through November, the coastal areas receive as much as 120 to 200 inches of rain annually. Liberia possesses West Africa's largest tropical rainforest, a source of both rubber and timber. In addition, its natural resources include iron ore, diamonds, and gold.

Liberia is one of Africa's smaller countries. Its area of 38,250 square miles roughly equals the size of Tennessee or Ohio. In 1993, the population was 2,875,000, with a population density of 77 people per square mile. The 1996 population was down to 2,109,789, with 44 percent urban dwellers and a density of 55 persons per square mile-this decline reflecting the degree of outmigration caused by internal conflict during the decade.5

The people of Liberia are a mixture of ethnic identities, with five percent Americo-Liberians and 95 percent indigenous African tribes. Linguistically, all of these tribes belong to one of three language families-Mande, Kwa, and West Atlantic-within the greater Niger-Congo language group. The tribes include the Kpelle (21 percent), the Bassa (15 percent), the Kru (10 percent), the Gio (9 percent), the Grebo (9 percent), the Mano (8 percent), the Gola (6 percent) the Krahn (5 percent), the Mandingo (4 percent), the Gbandi (4 percent), the Loma (4 percent), the Kissi (3 percent), the Vai (3 percent), the Mende (2 percent), and the Bella (1 percent).6 By religion, 70 percent subscribe to traditional beliefs, 20 percent are Muslims, and 10 percent are Christians.

Liberia shares borders with three countries: Sierra Leone to the west, Cote d'Ivoire to the east, and Guinea to the north. The civil war that has engulfed Liberia in recent years has forced tens of thousands to flee; in the early 1990s, the outmigration rate was as many as 300 per 1000 people. The influx of Liberian refugees into neighboring countries has strained their resources, resulting in the closing of international borders on several occasions.

The human-environmental relationships in modern Liberia are a significant factor in its problems. The combination of a tropical environment and scarcity of productive cropland have contributed to the comparatively low population density previously mentioned. Additionally, because of the lack of arable land, humans have encroached significantly upon rainforest habitats, an environmental trend that shows no sign of improving.

Recent Political and Social Upheaval
The political and social disruptions that have engulfed Liberia in recent years have destroyed most of its infrastructure, left thousands dead, sent many more thousands into neighboring countries, and accelerated the rate of decline of the Liberian economy. Unfortunately, the United States has failed to use its influence to avert what has become a tragedy for millions of Liberians.
Prior to the 1980s, Liberia was a relatively peaceful country that had never impeached or violently deposed an elected president. It had a special relationship with the United States, and at the height of the Cold War, remained a staunch supporter of U.S. policies. The United States benefitted from this special relationship through both an agreement that created a huge Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia in 1926 and the establishment of military landing rights in the country during World War II.7 As recently as the 1980s, the United States provided millions of dollars in foreign aid to Liberia, making it the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The causes of Liberia's political and social upheavals cannot be explained without considering the historical context. The five percent of Liberians known as Americo-Liberians are descendants of former slaves in the United States. They came from states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Maryland, and Kentucky, and they transplanted the culture of these southern states to the new country.8

The first contact of the Americo-Liberians with the indigenous peoples of Liberia occurred along the coast with the Bassa, Kru, and Grebo peoples.

The settlers arrived with a variety of skills acquired in America. They valued education as a symbol of success, and this was reflected in the culture of the new country. School became mandatory for children between the ages of six and sixteen. However, limited teaching resources meant that children of Americo-Liberians had priority over indigenous children. From 1847 until 1980, political, economic, and social control remained in the hands of the Americo-Liberians, who emerged as the ruling elite. The integration of indigenous Liberians into the political system was not a priority, creating a full-fledged resentment against the Americo-Liberian minority.

With the first elections in 1847, Joseph Jenkins Roberts (birthplace Virginia) became the president of Liberia, serving until 1856. Neither he nor the next sixteen presidents made any concerted effort to bridge the social, economic, political, and cultural gaps between the settlers and the indigenous people. William Tubman, the eighteenth president, attempted to unify all Liberians under his 1944 Unification Policy, which was designed to eliminate any social and political privilege for Americo-Liberians.9 But indigenous Liberians objected to retention of the country's motto, "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here," under this unification policy; based on their experience, it spoke to Americo-Liberians only. Unfortunately, this motto remains in place today.

The 1970s: Reform and Riot
Tubman's reign of more than a quarter of a century ended in 1971 without political and social upheaval. His successor was Laurent Tolbert (1971-1980), who liberalized the political climate with a new guarantee of freedom of speech.10 However, only a few Liberians-mainly professionals and students-took advantage of this right, having been subjected to authoritarian and one-party rule for so many years.
President Tolbert initiated reforms to integrate indigenous people into Liberian society and politics. These reforms did not go far enough to alleviate deep-seated resentments against the minority elite. In April 1979, the price of the staple food (rice) was increased. The Tolbert government had underestimated the resulting frustration of ethnic groups, which sparked "rice riots" in Monrovia and elsewhere. Continued rioting weakened the power base of the government and strengthened that of the military. On April 12, 1980, a group of indigenous Liberian military officers staged a successful coup d'etat, toppling the government and killing Tolbert and all of his cabinet in the process. According to the leaders of the coup, the Tolbert government had become notorious for corruption, despotism, and the accumulation of private wealth.

The coup leaders included Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the minority Krahn ethnic group. Doe was installed as head of state, the first time political power shifted away from the Americo-Liberians to the indigenous people. Many ethnic Liberians regarded the coup as a liberation from the old ruling elite. But after the military take-over, the hopes of Liberians for the fairer distribution of wealth and power quickly diminished in a new era of repression that prohibited any true discourse on the future of the country.

The 1980s: New Repression
In 1982 and 1984, the Doe government issued decrees making it a crime to criticize the government. Many radicals and intellectuals fled the country, while others were placed in detention. Doe suspended the constitution and declared martial law. These policies were carried out with the aid of a military apparatus filled with Krahn ethnic members. Many Liberians in the United States, firmly convinced of the appropriateness of the democratic way of life, became involved in the struggle for reform in Liberia, but were reluctant to return home since they would certainly be prime targets for arrest.
In 1984, the arrest of Professor Amos Sawyer led to student demonstrations on the University of Liberia campus in Monrovia. Soldiers stormed the campus, killing more than 40 students and arresting others. The Doe government dismissed the entire university administration and faculty, and made reappointment contingent upon agreeing not to espouse radical views.

The United States government pressured the Doe regime to return Liberia to civilian rule, with the Reagan Administration promising the funding to ensure free and fair elections. In 1984, Doe conceded to U. S. pressure and lifted the ban on opposition political activities. On October 15, 1985, in a disputed election, Doe emerged as the winner to become a civilian president. Many Liberians felt cheated when the United States supported the election results, in spite of protests from members of the U.S. Congress who witnessed election irregularities in Monrovia.

Doe continued human rights abuses and suppression of ethnic groups other than the Krahns, setting the stage for a coup attempt on November 12, 1985. Thomas Qwiwonkpa, an ethnic Gio, led the failed coup. Qwiwonkpa, the ring leader of the group that had successfully toppled Tolbert's government in 1980, had separated from Doe in 1983 due to philosophical differences. Following the failed coup, security forces engaged in bloody retribution against opposing ethnic groups, including the Gios and the Mandingos. Qwiwonkpa was captured and killed, leaving Doe and the Krahns in power.

These events left the Liberian economy in a shambles. The government had to seek support of the International Monetary Fund for measures to stabilize Liberia's finances. A team of 17 United States "operational experts" (known locally as OPEX) arrived in the country late in 1987. Its mission was to oversee government accounting procedures, following allegations by the U.S. General Accounting Office that $12 million in aid to Liberia had been diverted to unauthorized uses, and that a further $16.5 million was unaccounted for.11 These allegations caused the U.S. Congress to withhold $15 million in economic and military aid to Liberia.

The 1990s: War and a Fragile Balance
The ongoing ethnic violence and economic hardship set the stage for the next struggle for control of the country, which began as another attempt to remove President Doe from power and evolved into a violent civil war. On September 12, 1990, one of the many warring factions killed Doe, plunging the country into chaos. Many thousands of Liberians died as the result of fighting, famine, and disease. Moreover, the civil war has made refugees or displaced persons of nearly half the population. In late 1991, a West African regional group-the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG)-sent a peacekeeping force into Liberia to halt the carnage and bring about a cease-fire among the combatants. A series of cease-fires followed, each failing to take hold.
In 1995, most of the combatants agreed to negotiate a new peace accord pending elections to return the country to civilian rule. In September 1995, a transitional Council of State was installed, but factional fighting flared up again in April 1996. In September 1996, Mrs. Ruth Sando Perry, head of the transitional council, became Africa's first female head of state in modern times.

Elections were finally held on July 19, 1997, with 500 international observers on hand to guard against fraud or irregularities. Charles Taylor, a warlord who played a major role in the seven-year civil war, won a surprising 75 percent of the vote. His closest rival was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former United Nations and World Bank official, who won only 10 percent of the vote. But election observers reported being fairly satisfied that the election was fairly won. Some 700,000 of the country's 2.3 million people registered to vote, making for a voter turnout of 85 percent, and reflecting popular desire to end the war that had left one million people homeless and 200,000 dead.

Taylor and his rebel army had come to control large areas of the Liberian countryside with a de facto government and with generous outlays of money obtained from rubber and mineral profits. The Nigerian-led peacekeeping force had prevented Taylor from taking control of Monrovia before the election. Taylor has presented himself as a charismatic leader, comparing himself to U.S. President Clinton and British Prime Minister Blair. Now, his government faces the challenges of restoring Liberia to peaceful and democratic rule, and of rebuilding after years of carnage and destruction. Substantial amounts of money will be needed to achieve this, as well as the cooperation of other political parties. Opponent Johnson-Sirleaf has promised strong opposition on the heels of the election defeat. Consequently, the outlook for the future is cautious, but the Liberian people have sent a strong message of hope for peace as well as for a strong leader to maintain it.

Summary and Conclusion
The purpose of this article was essentially two-fold. First, we wanted to illustrate the importance of Liberia as a focus of classroom study in terms of both its historical relationship with the United States and its geographical significance within Africa. Additionally, we hoped to provide a clear overview of Liberia's contemporary socio-political conflicts to make teachers more comfortable with the topic. We hope that social studies educators will focus attention on this fascinating and complex country of the Sub-Saharan African realm.
If and as Liberia returns to normalcy, the United States will be playing a major role in the reorganization of the economic and political institutions in the country. Liberia will continue to be a close friend and partner, seeking U.S. moral support in the difficult years ahead. In spite of the war, an American can feel the warmness of Liberians toward the United States, and their eagerness to learn from American democratic processes. We encourage teachers and students to follow the struggle of this African country as it tries to unite all its warring factions and return to the international community.

1. See Harold D. Nelson, ed., Liberia: A Country Study (Washington, DC: American University, 1985), 7-9; Kevin Shillington, History of Africa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 239-241; and Robert I. Rotberg, A Political History of Tropical Africa (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 209-213.
2. Rotberg, 10.
3. J. G. Liebenow, The Evolution of Privilege (New York: Cornell University Press, 1969), 126.
4. Rotberg, 14.
5. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1997 (Mahwah, N.J.: World Almanac Books, St. Martins Press), 793.
6. Ibid.
7. E. R. Anderson, Liberia, America's African Friend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976), 6.
8. Ibid., 62.
9. T. Wreh, The Love of Liberty (London: C. Hurst and Company, 1976), 42.
10. Ibid., 126.
11. C. Legum and M. E. Doro, African Contemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, Vol. 20 (New York: Africana Publishing, 1988).

Resources for Teaching About Liberia
In Print

Blake, R. Best Friends: Violations of Human Rights In Liberia, America's Closest Ally in Africa New York: Fund for Free Expression, 1986. $7.35.
Dendel, E. You Cannot Unsneeze a Sneeze and Other Tales From Liberia. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 1995. $13.45.
Enoanyi, B. Behold Uncle Sam's Step Child: Notes on the Fall of Liberia, Africa's Oldest Republic. London: San Mar Publications, 1991. $16.50.
Liebenow, J. G. The Quest for Democracy. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987. $6.25.
* At the time of writing, these books were available for purchase on the internet at the Amazon online bookstore:

Liberia Home

Links to articles, photographs, and general information about Liberia

Excerpts from Compton's Encyclopedia about Liberia

Samuel Thompson is a Liberian residing in the United States who is a member of the education faculty at the University of Akron, Ohio. He retains close ties to his homeland.
Barry Mowell is a faculty member at Broward Community College, Florida, teaching U.S. history and geography.