New Internationalist

Liberia: the first African Republic

On 16 January 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president of Liberia, the first African Republic, after 10 years of civil war which left the country in economic ruin and 250,000 people dead and even more wounded. Ms Johnson-Sirleaf will be running for a second term in the October 2011 elections.

I thought it might be interesting to look briefly at the founding of Liberia in 1847, which would provide context to the country’s civil wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003); and later, I’ll take a close look at the first four years of Johnson-Sirleaf’s presidency.

Image in public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

In 1816, a group of white American Quakers and slaveholders formed the American Colonisation Society (ACS) with the idea of solving what they perceived as the problem of ‘freed Black slaves’ – by resettling them back in Africa. The Quakers saw the resettlement of Africans to Africa as an opportunity to spread Christianity; the slaveholders, fighting the abolitionists and growing slave rebellions across the southern US, saw it as an opportunity to rid the US of these ‘promoters of mischief’.

Despite opposition from many Blacks and Abolitionists, the ACS managed to raise funds from religious and philanthropic organizations as well as the US government, and in 1822 the first group of 88 black settlers and three white ACS members set sail and landed in present day Sierra Leone. Over the next 10 years some 2,500 African Americans settled in what is present day Liberia.  

The land they settled on was either taken by force or bought from the indigenous chiefs; conflict between the settlers and the indigenous people continued. The recent civil war in Liberia can be traced back to this period as resentment over the expansionist settler colony which essentially came to build an ‘American Christian’ society in Africa, even recreating the plantation-type homes of the former slave masters in the coastal regions.   

‘The settlers suffered from malaria and yellow fever, common in the area’s coastal plains and mangrove swamps, and from attacks by the native populations who were, at various times, unhappy – unhappy with the expansion of the settlements along the coast; with the settlers’ efforts to put an end to the lucrative slave trading in which some ethnic groups were engaged; and at the settlers’ attempts to Christianize their communities. Despite these difficulties, the Black settlers were determined to show the world that they could create, develop, and run their own country. And so they kept arriving.’

The relationship between the two groups, the settlers and the indigenous, worsened as the latter were marginalized and treated as inferior to the ‘white’ African Americans.

In 1824, the settlement was named Monrovia – after one of the founders of the ACS, James Monroe. Initially the colony was run by the ACS, which maintained control over all aspects of governance. In 1842, Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first non-white Governor of what was now Liberia and its first President in 1848, after the declaration of independence by the legislature in 1847.

Liberia was built on violence and conflict – indigenous land was stolen or bought for nothing, traditional rulers murdered and the local population excluded from commerce and education. The AmericoLiberians sought to recreate a two-tiered society based on ethnicity and class, not too dissimilar from the one they had left in the hope of finding a better life and freedom.  

‘They referred to themselves as “Americans” and were recognized as such by tribal Africans and by British colonial authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone. The symbols of their state – its flag, motto, and seal – and the form of government that they chose reflected their American background and immigrant experience.’

Like most civil wars, Liberia’s was complex and regional. However, 150 years after the country’s founding, the repercussions of inequalities and marginalization of indigenous peoples was to surface in Liberia.  

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For more information on the founding of Liberia, see African American Settlements in West Africa by Amos Jones Beyan, which examines the ‘intellectual accomplishments’ of John Brown Russwurm, a Black American who had an ‘unwavering support of the American Colonisation Society’.

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