Welcome Black History Month! Last December, I decided to focus on countries of Africa. Hopefully all of you held onto what I covered last year, because a lot of what I go over this year is a continuation of that. If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to get started, I will confess, because this is a bit harder than I expected. I not only want to cover the political boundaries established by Europeans, but also want to include the history of the people who were already there. I started with Nigeria and after 3 hours of research, had only done about 5 paragraphs. So I decided to put off Nigeria for the weekend and start with another country. And I picked Liberia. Turned out to be equally difficult! I will certainly understand if you don’t read it all. But I found it fascinating and I hope you will too!
Today’s Liberia is a relative small country, slightly larger than the size of Tennessee. It has a population of 4 million people with close to 1 million people living in the capital city of Monrovia on the western coast. Liberia has a fairly diverse population of numerous different cultures. Only 20% of the people speak English and the rest speak some 20 different languages. Liberia is richly endowed with water, mineral resources, forests, and a climate favorable to agriculture, and iron ore and rubber. They sell rubber, coffee, cocoa, rice, cassava (manioc, tapioca), palm oil, sugarcane, bananas; sheep, goats; timber, and have a small diamond industry. About 70% of the population works with agriculture. Yet, Liberia is also an extremely poor country. 80% of the people live in poverty – even though 95% of the adults and many children are working, many die of infectious diseases, the life expectancy is under 60 years, and there is 1 doctor per 100,000 people. Liberia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking; most victims are Liberian and are exploited within the country, where they are forced into domestic servitude, begging, prostitution, street vending, agricultural work, and diamond mining. The country is rife with corruption, and one-third of married Liberian women between the ages of 15-49 are in polygamous marriages. Customary law allows men to have up to four wives.
Liberia is experiencing an epidemic of Ebola virus disease (commonly known as “Ebola”), as are the neighbouring countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Ebola virus, a biosafety level four pathogen, is an RNA virus discovered in 1976. On March 31, 2014 Liberia confirmed its first two cases of Ebola virus disease. By 23 April 2014 there were 34 cases and six deaths from Ebola. By June 17, 2014 sixteen people had died from Ebola. Doctors would get infected early on, because they would think the patient had malaria- Malaria is extremely common in Liberia; for example in 2010 there were nearly 1.3 million cases of malaria in a country of about 4 million.
Before the Ebola epidemic, Liberia had 50 doctors for its population of 4.3 million, weakened from a civil war that ended in 2003. Over the course of the next 8 months, Liberia had 6,525 cases (including 1,627 probable, 2,447 suspected cases) and 2,697 deaths. The World Health Organization along with Germany, sent supplies and helped set up clinics in the affected areas. Quarantine zones were established and people were urged not to shake hands. On 5th November, the WHO situation report noted that “There appears to be some evidence of a decline at the national level in Liberia, although new case numbers remain high in parts of the country.” A report by CDC released on 14 November, based on data collected from Lofa county, indicates that there has been a genuine reduction in new infections. This is credited to an integrated strategy combining isolation and treatment with community behavior change including safe burial practices, case finding and contract tracing – this strategy might serve as a model to implement in other affected areas to accelerate control of Ebola. On 13 November the Liberian President announced the lifting of the state of emergency in the country following the decrease in the number of new cases in the country but the decline in Liberia cases is contradicted in the latest reports from WHO with 439 new cases reported between 23 and 28 November.
The history of the region of Liberia shows that it has always had a diverse cultural population. The Kumbas, including the Kpelle, the Loma, the Gbande, the Mende, and the Mano, had lived in the region since 6000 BC. The Kru, Bassa, Dei, Mamba, and Grebo tribes migrated to the area as a result of tribal wars. The Vai and the Mandingo tribes migrated in the 16th century, bringing Islam to the region.
Documents reveal that the first white men landed on this part of the West African coast in the year 520 B.C. It was not until the 14th century that further and more frequent contacts were established. About 1364 the Normans settled (temporarily) at a few places on the coast of Liberia and started trading with the coastal tribes from whom they bought ivory, pepper, gold and camwood. The Portuguese also frequented the Liberian coast as from this period and soon even controlled the trade. From the 15th century onwards the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French sailors and traders became common and accepted visitors of the West African coast. The Portuguese e.g. named regions, mountains and rivers, and some of these names are still in use. In the Liberian area the Portuguese gave names such as (from west to east) Gallinhas River, St. Paul’s River, Mesurado River, St. John River, Cestos River, Sanguin River and Cavalla River, and named the promontories Cabo do Monte (at present Cape Mount), Cabo Mesurado (Cape Mesurado) and Cabo das Palmas (Cape Palmas).
The spices, gold and ivory, sought by the Europeans were exchanged for textiles, alcoholic beverages, general merchandise and, later, when this trade degenerated into the barbarous slave trade, horses and weapons. The trade in slaves soon ousted the more common trade and by the end of the sixteenth century all European powers (of that period) were engaged in this historical and inhumane commerce. When the slave trade was over Africa was left with hostilities between tribes, with a disrupted social and family life and with famines. The Golas, Krus, Kpelles and Kissis were notorious slave traders conniving with unscrupulous Europeans who looted the coastal areas. Besides this, the northern tribes of the Mano and the Gio were feared because of their cannibalism, a practice which was also not uncommon among the Greboes and the Krus.
It was in this environment of slave trade, suspicion, fear and open discord and hostilities that the first freed black colonists arrived, aboard an American ship, in 1820. The idea of Liberia as a country originated in the US around 1800, when both abolitionists and slaveholders in the American Colonization Society looked for ways to deal with the growing population of freed black slaves which made up 13% of the American population. The first ship to sail for the African coast for this purpose was the Mayflower of Liberia in 1820, with 86 settlers. They ended up in Sierra Leone where most of them died of disease. So a naval officer along with a doctor were charged to sail up the coast and find a more suitable land. By gunpoint, the Bassa people surrendered a land of 36×3 square miles for $300. The freed blacks started a community on Cape Mesurado called Christalis in what is now Monrovia (named for president James Monroe) Maryland, Virginia and Mississippi had their own American Colonization Societies and formed additional colonies along the Liberian border. From the beginning, the colonists were attacked by indigenous peoples, such as the Mandingo tribes. In addition, they suffered from disease, the harsh climate, lack of food and medicine, and poor housing conditions.
The maturing colony was gradually given more self-governance. In 1839, it was renamed the Commonwealth of Liberia; 1841 saw the Commonwealth’s first black Governor, J.J. Roberts. By the 1840s, the ACS was effectively bankrupt; Liberia had become a financial burden for it. In 1846, the ACS directed the Americo-Liberians to proclaim their independence. In 1847, Roberts proclaimed the colony the free and independent republic of Liberia. It then counted some 3000 settlers. A Constitution was drawn up along the lines of that of the United States.
The Americo-Liberians were often of mixed race and easily distinguishable. And of course, Americo-Liberians held American-style cultural and social values. Like many Americans and Europeans of the period, the Americo-Liberian held beliefs in the religious superiority of Protestant Christianity and the cultural superiority of European civilization over indigenous animism and culture. The Americo-Liberians created communities and social infrastructure closely based on American society, maintaining their English-speaking, Americanized way of life, and building churches and houses resembling those of the southern United States. Although they never constituted more than five percent of the population of Liberia, they controlled key resources that allowed them to dominate the local native peoples: access to the ocean, modern technical skills, literacy and higher levels of education, and valuable relationships with many American institutions, including the American government. Based on the system of racial segregation in America, the Americo-Liberians recreated a cultural and racial caste system with themselves at the top and indigenous Liberians at the bottom. They did believe, on the other hand, in a form of racial equality which meant that all had the potential of to become “civilized” through conversion to Christianity and education. (Sound familiar???)
The suppression of the slave trade in West Africa by American and British navies, and constant economic competition from European colonies in Africa, created a long term economic problem in Liberia. The economy of Liberia was always based on the production of agricultural produce for export, however it faced increasing competition from other states. In particular, Liberia’s important coffee industry was destroyed in the 1870s by the emergence of production in Brazil. New technology available in Europe increasingly drove Liberian shipping companies out of business.
In 1926, Firestone, an American rubber company, started the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia. This industry created 25,000 jobs, and rubber quickly became the backbone of the Liberian economy; However, around 1927, the League of Nations investigated accusations that the Liberian government forcibly recruited and sold indigenous people as contract labor or slaves. In its 1930 report the League admonished the Liberian government for “systematically and for years fostering and encouraging a policy of gross intimidation and suppression”, “[suppressing] the native, prevent him from realizing his powers and limitations and prevent him from asserting himself in any way whatever, for the benefit of the dominant and colonizing race, although originally the same African stock as themselves
During World War II thousands of indigenous Liberians came from the nation’s interior to the coastal regions in search of jobs. The Liberian Government had long opposed this kind of migration, but was no longer able to restrain it. In the decades after 1945, the Liberian government received hundreds of millions of dollars of unrestricted foreign investment, which destabilized the Liberian economy. Government revenue rose enormously, but was being grossly embezzled by government officials. Growing economic disparities caused increased hostility between indigenous groups and Americo-Liberians.
“in the 1950s, rubber accounted for 40 percent of the national budget. During the 1930s Liberia signed concession agreements with Dutch, Danish, German and Polish investors in what has been described as an “open door” economic policy. Between 1946 and 1960, exports of iron, timber and rubber rose strongly. In 1971, Liberia had the world’s largest rubber industry, and was the third largest exporter of iron ore. Since 1948, ship registrations was another important source of state revenue.
After World War II, the U.S. pressured Liberia to resist the expansion of Soviet influence in Africa during the Cold War. Liberian president Tubman was agreeable to this policy. Between 1946 and 1960 Liberia received some $500 million in unrestricted foreign investment, mainly from the U.S. From 1962 to 1980, the U.S. donated $280 million in aid to Liberia. In the 1970s under president Tolbert, Liberia strove for a more non-aligned and independent posture, and established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Eastern bloc countries. It also severed ties with Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but announced it supported American involvement in the Vietnam War.
President William R. Tolbert, Jr. pursued a policy of suppressing opposition. Dissatisfaction over governmental plans to raise the price of rice in 1979 led to protest demonstrations in the streets of Monrovia. Tolbert ordered his troops to fire on the demonstrators, and seventy people were killed. Rioting ensued throughout Liberia, finally leading to a military coup d’état in April 1980 by Samuel Doe, a member of a small ethnic group, the Krahn. The president was killed during the coup, and several of his ministers were executed soon afterwards, marking the end of Americo-Liberian domination of the country.
Doe overcame seven coup attempts between 1981 and 1985. A presidential election was “staged” in 1985, but was thought to be rigged. in November 1985 another coup attempt against Doe failed. Doe retaliated against tribes such as the Gio (or Dan) and Mano in the north, where most of the coup plotters had come from. December 1989, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor, invaded Nimba County in Liberia. Thousands of Gio and Mano joined them, Liberians of other ethnic background as well. The Liberian army (AFL) counterattacked, and retaliated against the whole population of the region. Mid 1990, a war was raging between Krahn on one side, and Gio and Mano on the other. On both sides, thousands of civilians were massacred. June 1991, former Liberian army fighters formed rebel group United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), entered western Liberia in September ’91, and gained territories from the NPFL. Civil War of some kind or another plagued Liberia until 2003. An August 2003 peace agreement ended the war and prompted the resignation of former president Charles TAYLOR, who faces war crimes charges in The Hague related to his involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. After two years of rule by a transitional government, democratic elections in late 2005 brought President Ellen JOHNSON SIRLEAF to power. She subsequently won reelection in 2011 in a second round vote that was boycotted by the opposition and remains challenged to build Liberia’s economy and reconcile a nation still recovering from 14 years of fighting. The United Nations Security Council in September 2012 passed Resolution 2066 which calls for a reduction of UN troops in Liberia by half by 2015, bringing the troop total down to fewer than 4000, and challenging Liberia’s security sector to fill the gaps.
Today although civil unrest continues to abate with the assistance of 6,500 UN Mission in Liberia peacekeepers, as of January 2013, Liberian refugees still remain in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and Ghana.