New Internationalist

Liberia

Issue 245

new internationalist
issue 245 - July 1993

Country profile: Liberia

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Where is Liberia?   [image, unknown]
JAMES MILLER / CAMERA PRESS [image, unknown]
  JAMES MILLER / CAMERA PRESS [image, unknown]

Liberia today presents an image of anarchy and desolation. The way the country has fallen apart in the past three years is an object lesson in how bad governance can destroy a 150-year-old nation state.

The state of Liberia was created in 1847, although the idea was born in the US in the 1820s. It was a mixture of good intentions (of the anti-slavery lobby) and cynical realism (of plantation owners - the cotton gin had reduced the need for slaves) that encouraged resettlement of freed slaves in West Africa. Monrovia, the capital, was founded in the 1820s, named after the US President Monroe.

The Americo-Liberians, as they came to be called, found themselves playing the role of classic colonizers, going to war against the 'native' peoples to establish themselves and fight for survival. Over the years, however, they came increasingly to mix and intermarry. Monrovia is now a typically multi-ethnic West African city.

The bloody coup which brought Master Sergeant Samuel K Doe to power in April 1980 and ousted the autocratic regime of William Tubman was initially welcomed as a new dawn; the disillusionment was rapid. Doe ruthlessly killed his own colleagues, rigged the first universal suffrage elections and consolidated the power of his own people, the Krahn.

When rebellion started in December 1989 the country rallied to its banner. After the initial clashes and repression in Nimba County there was little resistance to the rebel advance, until they reached the outskirts of Monrovia. Due in part to the divisions in the rebel ranks there was a stalemate, an anarchic breakdown which led to the intervention by a West African peace-keeping force in August 1990. The ambush of Doe and his subsequent killing in September did nothing to resolve the situation - rebel leader Charles Taylor seemed to offer more of the same. Liberian democrats, who established the Interim Government under the umbrella of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS: Ivory Coast, Gambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Togo), found they had no sway outside Monrovia.

The stalemate of the past three years has meant there are still thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries as well as displaced persons within Liberia. ECOWAS has been reluctant to go beyond its mandate to monitor a ceasefire. Taylor's rule has survived through his exploitation of diamonds, timber and rubber in the lands under his control, which give him resources to purchase arms. He has also been sustained by Burkina Faso and the neighbouring Ivory Coast. Liberia has become a bone of contention in West African power rivalries. The situation threatens to contaminate the whole sub-region, giving a new and devastating irony to the old Americo-Liberian motto: 'a love of liberty brought us here'.

Kaye Whiteman

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Amos Sawyer of the Interim Government of National Unity: controls little outside Monrovia.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita of US $450 (US $21,790). Figure available is for 1988.
Monetary unit: Before 1985 Liberian dollar was equal to US dollar. Though still the notional official rate, the real exchange is 10 to 1.
Main exports: Iron ore, ships and boats, rubber, diamonds mostly from Taylor-held areas.

PEOPLE: 2.7 million. As many as 600,000 - 800,000 are refugees.

HEALTH: Life expectancy 55 years. Infant mortality 131 per 1,000 (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Before 1990 16 major tribal groups; 93 per cent of population indigenous. Five per cent descendants of American slaves, others include Lebanese and Asians who control commercial sector.
Religion: 75 per cent traditional/animist, 15 per cent Muslim, 10 per cent Christian.
Language: Official language English spoken mostly in cities: 20 African dialects used in rural areas.

Sources: Third World Guide 1993/94; State of the World's Children 1993.

Last profiled in March 1984.

 

STAR RATINGS

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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Previously élite dominated by Americo-Liberians. Now hard to gauge.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
40% literate, schools mainly in cities.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Even more dependent on US aid and foreign corporations.

1984 [image, unknown]

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FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Restricted by civil war, though interim government tries to maintain freedom in Monrovia.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Strong tribal roles, active in agriculture; female circumcision widely practised.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
55 years (US 76 years). Health services inadequate and now deteriorated.

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POLITICS

Politics now

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1984

Civil war

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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