A Region Divided: 14 Years of War in West Africa

A Liberian soldier watches for insurgent activity.

Objects in the Mirror’s protagonist, Shedrick Yarkpai, begins his journey in his West African coastal home of Liberia, where the lingering trauma of two connected civil wars (spanning 1989–2003) has left much of the country in physical and economic ruin to this day—parts of Monrovia, the capital city, lost power in a 1989 attack, and remain without electricity. Due to the large death toll, and even larger resettlement figures, more than half of today’s Liberian population is under age 18.

But from this country’s beginnings more than 150 years prior, the idea of Liberia was born from strange bedfellows—and into conflict.

Objects_Liberia_Map_InsetLiberia declared independence in 1847 and became the first of what are now considered the modern African republics. The early 19th century saw the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was dedicated to the emigration of free people of color from the United States. In what might seem a curious alliance at first blush, the ACS was established by two disparate groups: abolitionists (mostly Quakers and other Methodist leaders, who hoped emigration would put an end to slavery), and mid-Atlantic slaveholders (who feared a growing population of freed slaves could result in revolution). Still others felt that racial equality was a losing bet in America: the only way for black Americans to live free of the binds of racial discrimination was to send them to a black homeland. Abolitionist dissent within the ACS escalated in the Society’s first years, as they realized the slaveholders’ schemes. Still, by 1867, the Society had transported or arranged for the transport of more than 13,000 black emigrants to the “Grain Coast”—the present republic of Liberia, which extends from the Mano River to Cape Palmas and borders Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

Samuel Doe

For the first 40 years of the republic, every president elected to lead Liberia had been born in the United States—and until 1980, every president had been of Americo-Liberian descent. Those leaders either neglected or disempowered the indigenous Liberian population, even though the Americo-Liberians made up only five percent of the country’s total population. In April of 1980, President William R. Tolbert was assassinated in a coup led by a mostly-unknown soldier, Samuel Doe, who, in his first act as the country’s first indigenous Liberian president, promptly (and publicly) executed nearly the entirety of his Americo-Liberian predecessor’s cabinet. Doe had the U.S. government’s support and financial aid, as the Reagan administration fought to strengthen the country’s ties to the Western bloc and prevent the spread of Cold War era communism in Africa. As Doe’s reign continued, though, his governing style came to resemble that of his predecessor: characterized by greed, corruption and crimes against humanity. Doe initially claimed that he would govern in favor of all native Liberians, but it soon became apparent that he favored the Krahn, his own tribe, and the Mandingo; other tribes, including the Gio and Mano, rebelled. Towards the end of 1989, Gio and Mano military forces—led by Prince Yormie Johnson and Charles Taylor, two officials who fled Liberia years earlier to escape the Doe regime—crossed the Liberian border from Côte d’Ivoire, where they had been building anti-Doe rebel forces. A decade after taking power, Doe was captured and brutally killed in a coup lead by Johnson—beginning a two-part civil war that would last nearly a decade and a half, leaving almost 250,000 dead and more than one million displaced.

In 1990, Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Johnson’s splinter group, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), together struggled to maintain power over the country. Doe supporters and former militants from nearby Sierra Leone and Guinea formed the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO); the brutal fighting between the NPFL and the ULIMO continued for years, despite attempted interventions from the Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations and leaders from other African countries (including Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana). Notably, and despite its financial and colonial ties with Liberia, the United States did not participate in these intervention attempts.

Liberian men run for cover during a fight in Monrovia.
Liberian men run for cover during a fight in Monrovia.

Taylor’s military tactics and those of his opponents were cruel and extraordinary: they pressed scores of young boys (many aged nine to 13) into service as child soldiers and forced them into drug habits to both maintain physical control and strip them of mental independence. At one point in the war, it is estimated that more than a quarter of Liberia’s fighters were children.

Finally in 1996, the warring factions agreed to disarmament; the next year, Taylor was elected president in a landslide victory. Bloodshed slowed but did not stop; Taylor kept the “blood diamond” trade going in West Africa, buying weapons for his own administration from extremist rebels in neighboring countries.

Less than two years after the official end of the first civil war, displaced Liberians in Guinea (mostly members of ULIMO) invaded Liberia from the north, and alliances between those forces and militias in Sierra Leone led to major aggressions in north and northwest Liberia. They pushed further into Taylor’s Liberia, and in 2003, anti-Taylor forces from another rebel group originating in Côte d’Ivoire began an invasion from the southwest. As rebels closed in on Monrovia, Taylor resigned from the presidency and fled to Nigeria to live in exile.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Following years of postponements, 62-year-old Taylor was finally charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2012, and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment in a maximum-security facility in the United Kingdom. Following his resignation, Liberia was handed to an interim government and, in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the first female president in Africa. Sirleaf was a supporter of Taylor in the 1980s and early ‘90s, but she later became one of his fiercest political opponents.

Today, both because of the wars and an Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the majority of businesses in Liberia have left, rendering the country with one of the smallest GDPs per-capita in the world, and with nearly two-thirds of its citizens unemployed. Average current life expectancy in Liberia is under 59 years, also among the lowest in the world, with a very high maternal mortality rate. There is some hope of these statistics bettering over the next several years through a burgeoning palm oil industry, though critics suggest that this industry may create just another plantation economy—enriching a few and leaving many destitute.

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