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Frontline World

Liberia - No More War, May 2005


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "No More War"

WHO'S WHO?
Interactive Feature: In Conflict and in Peace

REPORTER'S SLIDESHOW
Keeping the Peace

BEHIND THE SCENES
Two Opinions on the Mission in Liberia

LIBERIA'S HISTORIC TIES TO THE U.S.
Similar Flags and Shared History

FACTS & STATS
Land and People, History and Government, Effects of War, Economy

LINKS & RESOURCES
Background, News, United Nations, Child Soldiers

MAP OF THE REGION

WATCH
Streaming video

REACT TO THIS STORY
Is the U.N. an effective peacekeeping operation? react

   


Images of Liberian landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

Land and People
History and Government
Effects of War
Economy



Land and People

Liberia, a nation located in western Africa, is slightly larger than Tennessee and shares borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

Lagoons and mangrove swamps dot Liberia's coastline; inland, grassy plateaus support some agriculture.

Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, was named for U.S. president James Monroe.

The country's name means "Land of the Free," so named because it was founded by freed slaves from the United States.

Indigenous African tribes (not descendants of immigrants from the United States) account for 95 percent of Liberia's population of about 3.4 million people.

Descendants of U.S. slaves are called Americo-Liberians, and descendants of slaves from the Caribbean are called Congoes. Each group accounts for about 2.5 percent of Liberia's population.

English is the official language in Liberia, but there are about 20 ethnic languages, many of which have no written form.

Eighty percent of Liberia's population lives below the poverty line.

Life expectancy for men and women is just over 40 years old.

In 2003, the per-capita annual income was US$130.

Approximately 450,000 Liberians -- mostly affluent and educated -- live in the United States.

The Liberian flag design is modeled after the U.S. flag: It has red and white stripes and, in the upper hoist-side corner, a white five-pointed star on a blue square.

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History and Government

Freed American slaves founded Liberia in 1820, and it gained independence as a republic in 1847. Its constitution was modeled after that of the United States.

Descendants of the former slaves dominated political and economic power in Liberia for more than 130 years thereafter, largely through the peaceful one-party system of the True Whig Party.

Riots erupted in 1979, when the government, led by President William Tolbert, proposed price increases on imported rice, a staple for Liberians. Tolbert's family was the dominant rice importer in the country.

In a coup d'état on April 12, 1980, Samuel K. Doe, a semiliterate indigenous Liberian from the Krahn ethnic group, seized power. President Tolbert was killed in his bed, and 13 of his aids were publicly executed.

Doe suspended the Liberian constitution and formed an authoritarian regime called People's Redemption Council. The Krahns who followed Doe amassed political and military power, spawning tension with other ethnic groups.

Doe fostered good relations with the United States and courted U.S. economic and military aid; he also saw to it that Liberia was a U.S. ally during the Cold War.

In 1989, Charles Taylor, a former Doe ally, led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in a revolt against Doe. The NPFL easily found supporters among non-Krahn Liberians and also was backed by the government of neighboring Ivory Coast.

Doe's regime ended in 1990. His death by torture was filmed.

Subsequent to Doe's death, civil war erupted in Liberia among warring rebel factions; later in 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in a peacekeeping force and was backed by Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Guinea. Although the NPFL agreed to disarm in 1991, it attacked the West African peacekeepers.

ECOWAS helped establish the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) in 1990, but Taylor resisted cooperating, and hostilities among warring factions continued intermittently.

In 1997, Taylor was elected president during a ceasefire when he assured voters that if they didn't elect him, he would return to war.

Taylor's 1997 campaign slogan was "He killed my ma; he killed my pa; I'll vote for him."

Taylor backed rebellions in Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone; Guinea and the Ivory Coast countered by supporting rebel groups inside Liberia.

Fighting continued, and in 2003, anti-Taylor rebels moved closer to Monrovia.

Later in the summer of 2003, as fighting intensified, Taylor was trapped in Monrovia by rebels and forced to resign. Taylor then went into exile in Nigeria.

In August 2003, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, brokered by ECOWAS, ended 14 years of civil war. A treaty between the government and the two main rebel groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), established the current interim government, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), which includes rebel, government, and civil society groups. The U.N. Security Council promptly authorized the deployment of 15,000 peacekeeping troops to Liberia.

The NTGL is headed by Charles Gyude Bryant, a little-known Monrovian businessman who was selected largely because he is regarded as being politically neutral.

Bryant was given a two-year mandate to oversee the rebuilding of Liberia.

In October 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) launched a campaign to disarm foreign combatants and maintain the ceasefire.

Presidential elections are scheduled for October 2005.

Taylor has been indicted for crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, where he allegedly aided rebels who murdered civilians. The United States has offered $2 million for his capture.

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Effects of War

At least 150,000 people were killed in Liberia's civil war, and hundreds of thousands became refugees throughout the region.

As of 2004, at least 200,000 Liberian refugees were living in surrounding countries.

Years of civil war have destroyed the Liberian economy, which is now characterized by an extremely low growth rate, high foreign and domestic debt burdens, and an unemployment rate estimated at 80 percent.

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, Liberia was exporting raw timber, rubber and diamonds, but in 2001, the U.N. Security Council imposed an embargo on Liberian diamonds and timber, contending that the wrong people were profiting and that trade in these natural resources fueled further conflict.

An estimated 15,000 children fought in Liberia's civil war.

According to a Filipino policeman deployed by the United Nations to investigate Liberian war crimes, Taylor's men would sometimes bet on the sex of an unborn child, then kill both the mother and the child to determine who was the winner of the bet.

When the United Nations entered the scene, ex-fighters were offered $300 cash and help with school and vocational training costs.

About 100,000 former soldiers have disarmed.

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Economy

Years of civil war devastated the Liberian economy, destroying most major businesses and driving out foreign investors.

The Liberian economy has traditionally been rooted in subsistence agriculture, rubber, timber and mining (including iron ore, gold and diamonds).

In 2001, the United Nations imposed a trade embargo on diamonds and timber from Liberia; the U.N. Security Council extended the embargo in 2004, citing the NTGL's failure to meet necessary conditions, including maintaining control of Liberia's timber regions and freezing the assets of certain allies of Taylor.

In 2004, 90 percent of Liberia's $42 million in exports came from rubber.

Liberia's major markets include France, China, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Scandinavia and the United States.

In 2004, the country's gross domestic product was $476 million.

Liberia's foreign debt is approximately $3.5 billion.

With more than 18,000 ships registered under its flag, Liberia is the second-largest provider of maritime licenses. More than a third of the world's tanker fleets contributed to this $15 million business in 2004.

Liberia is a member of the Economic Union of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional association.

Business in Liberia is dominated by people of Indian and Lebanese descent.

According to a 2004 U.N. report, Liberia's unemployment rate was approximately 80 percent.

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Sources: CIA World Factbook; The Economist; The Economist Intelligence Unit; International Crisis Group; BBC News; U.S. State Department; U.N. Security Council; PBS Online NewsHour; Human Rights Watch.