The Liberian Civil War: How One of America’s First Experiments in Nation Building Descended into Madness Part I

Part one of three, I think. Keep in mind that this is a woefully incomplete account of these events… I just don’t have the time to get into all the crazy details, but this should give you an idea of what this war was like. I encourage you to dig into this period, because all of this is just scratching the surface. 

Part I – Creation of a “Free” African Nation and Lead up to a Coup

Liberia was first founded as a African repatriation point for newly freed black slaves from the United States before and after the Civil War. To many a white politician, being able to deport blacks from the US and the Caribbean back to Africa while appearing to be doing something noble was a win-win situation. They quickly founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color (ASCFPC). Concerns about the fact that these organizations were both dominated by Southern slave holders and both excluded blacks from membership was forgotten with the rush of optimism that this plan held for blacks who felt that they would never be treated fairly in the U.S. Of course, indigenous Africans were already living in the chunk of the West African coast they had picked out; but that certainly never stopped a European power from doing whatever it wanted in Africa, so why not America? According to an  account in the American Memory section of the Library of Congress:

“The American Colonization Society (ACS) dispatched a representative, Dr. Eli Ayres, to purchase land farther north up the coast from Sierra Leone. With the aid of a U.S. naval officer, Lieutenant Robert F. Stockton, Ayres cruised the coastal waters west of Grand Bassa seeking out appropriate lands for the colony. Stockton took charge of the negotiations with leaders of the Dey and Bassa peoples who lived in the area of Cape Mesurado. At first, the local leaders were reluctant to surrender their peoples’ land to the strangers, but were forcefully persuaded — some accounts say at gun-point — to part with a ‘36 mile long and 3 mile wide’ strip of coastal land for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300.”

Of course, being an American project, a high “freedom” gloss was applied  to the whole affair, and Liberia’s new ruling class of former slaves (known as the Americo-Liberians) were quick to give itself all of the trappings of a “Free” nation, eventually “declaring independence” in October of 1846. Calling the nation Liberia (“the Free Land”) and the capital city Monrovia after American President James Monroe, the new elites in Liberia almost immediately started to show that they had learned exactly how freedom worked in a western society at the time: by exploiting and mistreating an artificially created lower class. And guess who that would be in Liberia? That would be the indigenous African groups that made up 95% of the population. A two-tiered social structure was in place by 1865 as the new nation began accepting larger and larger numbers African peoples from the surrounding area to bolster the national population and create a lower class of laborers with which to profit from.  They were quickly put to use harvesting one of Liberia’s early exports, rubber. This was being gobbled up by American companies such as Firestone (starting in 1926), but really took off after the fall of Malaysia and Singapore to the Japanese during WWII. All throughout this time stories of forced labor and slavery conditions were reported in the
rubber plantations, but these were ether ignored or quickly swept under the rug. The Americo-Liberians had also used the war and Liberia’s sudden strategic importance to have major infrastructure projects completed and paid for by ether the Allies, or from the taxes levied almost entirely on the indigenous portions of the population. Small concessions were made to the native population who lived in the coastal regions in the forms of public schooling and health care, but these measures were almost completely lacking in the interior.

This begins a period of politicians who were elected based on promises to bridge the divide between the Americo-Liberians and the native population, widespread and crippling corruption at all levels of government, food shortages and riots that would eventual culminate in bloody overthrow of the Americo-Liberian government by a group of rebels lead by  the Krahn tribesman Samuel Doe in 1980.

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~ by herodotuswept on November 15, 2007.

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