History of Liberia
A question of freedom
Six thousand miles from the United States lies a country whose flag bears a striking resemblance to the American one: alternating red and white horizontal stripes and, in the upper left-hand corner, a dark blue square. Against this blue background is a lone white star — the star of liberty. The flag is a symbol of the history of the Liberian state, its relationship with America, and its search for its own identity.
The present-day Republic of Liberia occupies 43,000 square miles (slightly more than Tennessee) in West Africa. It is bordered on the southwest by the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. From antiquity through the 1700s, many ethnic groups from the surrounding regions settled in the area, making Liberia one of Africa’s most culturally rich and diverse countries. Settled in the early 1800s by freeborn Blacks and former slaves from America, Liberia, whose name means “land of freedom,” has always struggled with its double cultural heritage: that of the settlers and of the indigenous Africans.
From America to West Africa
In 1816, a group made up mostly of Quakers and slaveholders in Washington, D.C., formed the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Quakers opposed slavery, and the slaveholders opposed the freedom of Blacks, but they agreed on one thing: that Black Americans should be repatriated to Africa. The Quakers felt that freeborn Blacks and former slaves would face better chances for freedom in Africa than in the United States. They also saw repatriation as a way of spreading Christianity through Africa. The slaveholders’ motives were less charitable: They viewed repatriation of Blacks as a way of avoiding a slave rebellion like the one that had taken place on the island of Santo Domingo, today’s Haiti.
Despite opposition from many Blacks and from white abolitionists, the repatriation program, funded by ACS member subscriptions and a number of state legislatures, moved forward. In 1822, the first 86 voluntary, Black emigrants landed on Cape Montserrado, on what was then known as the Grain Coast. They arrived with white agents of the ACS who would govern them for many years. Many others followed, settling on land sometimes purchased, sometimes obtained more forcefully, from indigenous chiefs.
The first years were a challenge: 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.
In 1824, the settlement was named Monrovia, after the American president (and ACS member) James Monroe, and the colony became the Republic of Liberia. Over the next 40 years, 19,000 African American repatriates, sometimes known as Americo-Liberians, settled in Liberia, along with some 5,000 Africans recaptured from slave ships, and a small number of West Indian immigrants.
The Liberian Civil War (1989-2003)
In 1989, Charles Taylor and his NPFL rebel group launched a rebellion against the Samuel Doe government of the Republic of Liberia. Civil war ensued among various tribal groups and the country suffered estimated deaths of up to 300,000 people before the end of fighting in 2003. The war was characterized by the use of child soldiers (many of whom were fed narcotics in order to incite them to perform the deadly tasks directed by their leaders) and gruesome atrocities including the random amputation of limbs, mutilation and the murder of pregnant women simply for the purpose of betting on the gender of the unborn child.
In addition to the human carnage, the infrastructure of the country was laid to waste. Buildings, including hospitals and power facilities, were looted, burned and destroyed. Water and sanitation systems fell into unimaginable disrepair and were rendered useless. By the end of the war, the nation was left without power, water or sanitation. The war displaced nearly one-third of the population into refugee camps across the country and West Africa. Tens of thousands of refugees migrated to the Firestone farm seeking to avoid the horrific violence, overwhelming the property.
The U.S. State Department has said that the war “brought about a steep decline in the living standards of the country, including its education and infrastructure.” Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and most foreign investors and businesses left the country. Today, about 85 percent of Liberians are unemployed.
USAID, the foreign aid branch of the U.S. State Department, has said, “it is difficult to exaggerate the devastation that this war has had on Liberia’s physical, social, political, economic and governance structure.”
Africa’s First Female Head of State
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a magnificent leader and an amazing woman. In January I attended her inauguration in Monrovia, where she delivered a moving and inspiring address that spoke directly to the women of Liberia, of Africa and of the world. From her service as a Liberian Cabinet Minister in the 1970s, senior United Nations administrator in the 1990s and now Liberia’s President, Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, has never stopped working for democracy for her country.
When she opposed the military rule of Samuel Doe, she was imprisoned before eventually fleeing Liberia. Her years in exile afforded her valuable international experience through her work at the World Bank and the U.N. As the first woman ever elected President in Africa, Johnson-Sirleaf is an example of what can happen when girls are educated. Educated women are better positioned to contribute to their economies and their countries. When women are equipped with knowledge, they can be better mothers. Now that Liberia’s 14-year civil war has ended, we hope women will follow Johnson-Sirleaf’s example and return to their home country and be a part of Liberia’s economic future.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s courage and commitment to her country are an inspiration to me and women around the world.
Mrs. Bush is First Lady of the United States
Source: Time Magazine, April 30, 2006
Liberia has had long-standing relations with the State of Ohio. Ohio has benefited from relationships with Liberia, including the industrial connections with Firestone in Akron and Republic Steel in Cleveland. Since 1926 the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which was headquartered in Akron, has had the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia which is still in operation.
Liberia’s fifth President, Edward James Roye, was born in Newark, Ohio on Feb. 3, 1815 and attended Ohio University. Many educated Liberians have received their schooling at Ohio colleges and universities.
Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, has a “Sister City” relationship with Dayton, Ohio.