A Brief History of Liberia

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Podcast Transcript

Every country in Africa is unique and has its own history. However, many African countries share a similar story over the last 150 years, having gone through European colonization and decolonization. 

The nation of Liberia, however, has a history, unlike any other country in the world. From its founding to its modern-day governance, the story of the country is truly fascinating. 

Learn more about the West African country Liberia and its unique history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Almost every border between African countries was drawn by European powers. There was a period known as the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century, where European countries fought to carve up Africa for themselves.

France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Spain all had colonies in Africa. However, there were a few countries in Africa that managed to escape colonization. One was Ethiopia, which warrants an episode of its own, and the other was Liberia.

Ethiopia and Liberia couldn’t have been more different from each other. Ethiopia was a kingdom with an ancient, rich culture. Liberia was a republic with an elected government and a largely imported culture. 

So what made Libera so exceptional that it managed to escape European colonization? 

The story actually starts in the United States. 

In 1816, an organization known as the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America was formed. It later changed its name to the American Colonization Society. 

The organization was founded by white, slave-owning Southerners who were concerned about the problem of freed slaves. Slaves would often be freed by their owners when they died or would buy their freedom.

After the Revolutionary War, the number of freedmen had grown significantly, from 60,000 in 1790 to 300,000 in 1830. The American Colonization Society wanted to ship all the emancipated slaves back to Africa. 

The idea was vehemently rejected by abolitionist groups as well as the free black community. While their ancestors might have come from Africa, the only life they knew was in the United States. Their homes, friends, and family were all there.

Furthermore, despite the rhetoric, the American Colonization Society was not designed to help end slavery, it was designed to protect slavery. The organizers felt that removing freemen from the country would lessen the chance of slave rebellions.

The project was, by any measure, a failure. State chapters of the Colonization Society, in particular Mississippi, Kentucky, and Maryland, set up their own small colonies on what was known as the Pepper Coast, but few people migrated. 

Between 1820 and 1842, only 4,571 freedmen migrated to Africa. Those who migrated saw incredibly high mortality rates due to disease. Only 40% of those who migrated were alive in 1843.

By the conclusion of the US Civil War, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 emancipated slaves from the US and the Caribbean migrated. A tiny fraction of the total population of freed slaves in the US. 

Those who did migrate mostly did so because they were forced to do so. Many slaves were offered their freedom on the condition that they migrate  to Africa. 

The small community of those who did migrate found themselves in a totally alien land. They had nothing in common with the native people who lived around them. In fact, they often found themselves in conflicts with them.

They spoke English, and they had American tastes and habits. This community became very tight-knit, and they began to marry amongst themselves. 

The region formerly known as the Pepper Coast became renamed Liberia, meaning “land of the free.” The migrants who lived there called themselves Americo-Liberians. 

On July 26, 1847, the group declared themselves independent and established the Republic of Liberia. The capital was named Monrovia after President James Monore, the flag was modeled on the US flag, as was their constitution. 

They were recognized by the United Kingdom in 1848 and France in 1852 but, surprisingly, not by the United States, who had hatched the idea in the first place. Southern states did not want to recognize a black country, which is also why the US didn’t recognize Haiti right away. 

It wasn’t until 1862 and the start of the Civil War that the US finally recognized both Liberia and Haiti. At that point, all of the southern members of Congress were gone and could no longer stand in the way. 

The new country was dominated by a small group of Americo-Liberians. They looked down on the native Liberians and organized the government and the economy accordingly. 

The Americo-Liberians became a ruling elite that controlled almost every aspect of the government and the economy. The Americo-Liberians restricted the vote to only their community and refused the franchise to all native Liberians. 

While the Americo-Liberians held sway and were an insular community, they did have differences. Two political parties formed amongst the group. The Liberia Party and the True Whig Party were the first two political parties established. 

The Liberia Party was made up mostly of poorer Americo-Liberians, and the True Whig Party was made up of richer ones. 

The Liberian Party won the first election in 1847, but the True Whig Party took control 22 years later in 1869. 

The Liberian Party deposed the president in 1871, but the True Wing Party returned to power in 1877 and stayed in power for over 100 years, in effect turning Liberia into a one-party state.

The creation of a stable government and a ruling elite, as well as recognition by the major European powers, ensured that Liberia was left alone as the Europeans carved up the continent. However, they weren’t totally left alone. The British colony of Sierra Leone and the French colony of the Ivory Coast both took significant amounts of inland territory, which Liberia had claimed. 

A major problem Liberia had was a lack of investment and infrastructure. European countries made infrastructure investments in their colonies, building roads and railways. Liberia, not having an outside source of money, had a difficult time being economically competitive.

Heading into the 20th century, Liberia retained close ties to the United States. 

After the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Liberia followed. They didn’t fight, but they did seize German economic assets in the country.

Liberia participated in the Conference of Versailles and the League of Nations.

In the 1920s, the Firestone Corporation opened a rubber plantation turning Liberia into the world’s largest producer of rubber.

Heading into the later half of the 20th century, Liberia had a major problem. 

After almost 150 years, the ruling Americo-Liberians, which made up only 2% of the population, still ran pretty much everything. The other 98% of native Liberians were shut out of any major positions in the government or the economy. 

This came to a head on April 12, 1980, when master sergeant Samuel Doe led a coup against the government of President William Tolbert.

The coup was shockingly small, with only 17 other non-commissioned officers other than Doe taking part in the coup. Tolbert and 27 other people were executed in the coup, including several top cabinet officials.

13 other government leaders were forced to face a kangaroo court and were publically executed.

Doe was a member of the Krahn people, which was a small minority group in Liberia. He claimed that the coup was to liberate the country from Americo-Liberian control. His military government was known as the People’s Redemption Council or PRC.

Doe’s regime was seemingly right out of the African dictator’s playbook. There were several coups that he put down, paranoia set in, there was a fraudulent election, and eventually, in 1989, a civil war broke out. 

The National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL, was led by Charles Taylor. Taylor was an Americo-Liberian who organized several ethnic groups which Doe had persecuted. 

They attacked from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and found a great deal of popular support because Doe was so unpopular. 

In August 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent 4000 peacekeepers to the country. On September 9, while Doe was traveling to visit a peacekeeper base, he was captured by a breakaway group from Taylor’s army known as the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), led by Prince Johnson.

He was brutally tortured, including having multiple body parts cut off, and his body hung up on the street in Monrovia, and the entire torture incident was recorded on video.

A civil war raged for years between Taylor’s and Johnson’s forces and several other minor groups. The war was exceptionally brutal, with mass killings taking place around the country and the use of child soldiers. 

Finally, after a negotiated settlement, elections were held in 1997 with United Nations observers.

Charles Taylor won the election in a landslide with 75% of the vote, having run on one of the most bizarre campaign slogans in history. “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”

While president, Taylor tried to kill political opponents, was directly involved in the Sierra Leone civil war, and stole over $100 million dollars, which was half of the government’s revenue. 

Soon after the election, a resistance group formed in northern Liberia known as the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy or LURD,

By the early 2000s, things were spinning out of control. Taylor’s government was supporting rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, those countries were supporting the LURD, and a third group, known as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia or MODEL, joined the fight. 

Around this time, Charles Taylor had been charged with war crimes by the United Nations.

There was also another force that appeared, which changed everything. The type of force which had never appeared in an African civil war before.


The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was founded by Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Muslim and Christian women throughout the country joined together in nonviolent protests.

They managed to force the various parties to the negotiating table in 2003 in Ghana and sent a delegation of their own to ensure that a deal was brokered. 

The settlement involved the resignation of Charles Taylor and his exile to Nigeria and new elections in 2005. 

The 2005 election had United Nations overseers and was the most peaceful and fair election in Liberia’s history. 

The winner of the election was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, one of the women behind the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. 

She became the first woman elected as the leader of an African country. 

In 2011, she and Leymah Gbowee were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. 

Since the end of the second civil war in 2003, Liberia has been stable. Sirleaf was reelected to a second six-year term in 2011, and in 2017 they had a peaceful transition of power when George Weah was elected. 

Weah is probably the most famous Liberian and perhaps the greatest football player to have come from the continent of Africa. 

I should note one thing before I finish, the thing which Liberia is probably best known for. Ships flying Liberian flags of convenience. Liberia has the second-highest number of ships flying its flag, behind only Panama. 

When I sailed to Antarctica, the ship I was on was a Liberian flagged ship. There was a wedding on board, and when the captain concluded the ceremony, he said, “By the powers vested in me by the nation of Liberia….”

Flags of Convenience are one of the largest sources of revenue for the Liberian government. 

Liberia has had quite a history. From its founding as a colony for former slaves to its one-party rule by a tiny elite, to two brutal civil wars, to a current period of peace and stability, it stands apart from every other country in Africa, and indeed the world.