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Liberia's History
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June 19, 2009

Liberia was once Africa's longest-lived republic but successive coups and 14 years of civil war have taken over 200,000 lives and devastated the country's infrastructure.

Liberia was one of the few African nations not colonized by European powers during the 19th century. That status was gained by the country's long-standing, close relationship with the United States — which began sending freed slaves to what was then the Grain Coast in 1820.

Homeland for Freed Slaves
In an attempt to deal with the increasingly fraught question of freed slaves, the American Colonization Society (ACS), an alliance of slaveholders and abolitionist Quakers, advocated "repatriation" to West Africa. Originally the Society attempted to fund the project by selling life memberships. But the Society's members also pressured Congress and the President for support. In 1819, they received $100,000 from Congress and in January 1820 the first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed from New York headed for West Africa with three white ACS agents and 88 free blacks. The ship arrived first at Freetown, Sierra Leone then sailed south to what is now the Northern coast of Liberia and made an effort to establish a settlement. In 1824 American agents were employed to govern the area and the capital Monrovia, was named in honor of President James Monroe. More than 2,600 freed African Americans migrated to Liberia over the next decade.

Of course, there were already people living in the area and frequent skirmishes plagued the early settlements. As the illustration to the right, entitled "The Shield and Emblem of Liberia as They Might Be" shows, hopes were high that indigenous peoples and freed slaves would come together to create a republic. Today Liberia is mostly made up of indigenous Africans, with the slaves' descendants comprising 5% of the population.

The independent nation-state of Liberia was created in 1847. The first black governor of the colony was elected president of the republic. Only in 1862 did the U.S. formally recognize Liberia's independence, having withheld recognition because southern states would not accept a black ambassador in Washington, D.C.

Political and Economy Allies
In addition to historic ties the United States also had economic and military reasons to maintain a close relationship with Liberia. In 1926 Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Ohio opened a rubber plantation in Liberia. An agreement with the Liberian government allowed Firestone to lease one million acres of land for 99 years and to exploit any materials found on the land. The plantation employed 25,000 workers, and Liberia accepts a five-million-dollar loan from Firestone for a 40-year period.

Liberia was seen as an important military bulwark in World War II. A base was constructed near Monrovia for refueling and maintaining U.S. military aircraft active in North Africa and Europe. At the height of the war, in 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped in Liberia on his North African tour to visit U.S. troops. During the Cold War the country's importance to U.S. interests remained high as proxy wars flared throughout the continent.

The Long Civil Wars
Years of conflict for Liberia began with an economic downturn and a coup led by Samuel Doe in 1980. In 1989 Libyan-funded and former Doe-supporter Charles Taylor, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. The invasion began a brutal civil war that lasted seven years and resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Liberians. The players in Liberian history and politics over the last several decades are complex. PBS's FRONTLINEWORLD created a helpful graphic to untangle the relationships.

Leymah Gbowee, whose story as the leader of a Liberian women's peace movement is told in PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL, described the long years of civil war as all-encompassing:

"There is no other description because when you read about hell, there is nothing explicit about the word 'hell' that says joy. And that was the life we lived, no joy. You wake up in the morning and you're just wondering what is going to be different today? Am I going to be shot as I walk the streets? Or is my younger brother going to be conscripted? Or am I going to be raped? You know, every day you wake up and there was one terrible thing after the other. Seeing people being taken off the line and being killed, and early morning someone comes to you and says, 'Remember your classmate you graduated with three months ago? This morning the entire family was slaughtered.' Those were the kind of things we grew up with. There is no description, there is no way that you can call this life. Death, at one point, was better than life."
In 2003 Taylor quit under international pressure and went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government steered the country towards elections in 2005. Taylor is currently facing war crimes charges. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2005. She had been threatened with imprisonment, if not death, by both Doe and Taylor regimes. There are more than 10,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops still on the ground in Liberia.

Related Media:
FBI Congo messengerWomen, War & Peace
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL will be shown in its entirety as part PBS's WIDE ANGLE's Women, War & Peace series. The four-part series will focus on women's strategic role in the post-Cold War era, where globalization, arms trafficking, and illicit trade have intersected to create a whole new type of war. On the WIDE ANGLE site you can view an interview with producers Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker.

In 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated Liberia's first elected female president and Africa's first freely elected female head of state. Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war. You can watch the film on YouTube.

Congo messengerFRONTLINE WORLD: Liberia -- No More War
With unique access to the UN peacekeeping mission under Force Commander General Daniel Opande, FRONTLINE/World reporter Jessie Deeter, accompanies the charismatic Opande into the war-torn region as the mission faces one of its biggest challenges -- to disarm more than 100,000 former fighters and offer them an alternative to war. The Web site offers a who's who in the conflict, a timeline, extended interviews and a sideshow narrated by the journalist as well as the video report. (May 2005)

FBI Congo messengerHope in the Congo
THE JOURNAL takes viewers on the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo to follow aid workers and local relief efforts that are bringing hope to a forgotten land. "The aid agencies are almost substituting for a social welfare system that hasn't operated in these areas for decades," says Dominic MacSorley, emergency director for Concern Worldwide, an international aid organization. (April 4, 2008)

The Web site offers more about the film and filmmakers and where find a screening. The site also contains information for groups who want to host local screenings and educational materials.

References and Reading:
Also This Week:

The JOURNAL profiles Leymah Gbowee, a woman who led her fellow countrywomen to fight for and win peace in war-torn Liberia, and Abigail Disney, who produced the documentary of their struggle and triumph in the award-winning film PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL.

From the arrival of freed U.S. slaves through civil war and beyond.

View a photo essay of women's peace movements around the globe.

Where do women stand in terms of political power? And, find out more about Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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