Find a Security Clearance Job!


Back to the Table of Contents


LIBERIA, AFRICA'S OLDEST REPUBLIC, also has the distinction of being older than any of the world's other black republics except Haiti. Lying a few degrees north of the equator at the south west corner of the continent's great western bulge, the country covers roughly 43,000 square miles, an area about the size of Tennessee. Its coastline extends 370 miles along the Atlantic Ocean be tween Sierra Leone on the northwest and Ivory Coast on the south east (see fig. 1). Inland the land ascends the seaward slopes of a series of highlands to an irregular border with Guinea on the north.

A sovereign state since 1847, Liberia is an anomaly when compared with the other developing African countries. All the rest share a legacy of having once been colonized and exploited by white-ruled foreign powers. Only Liberia had a "colonial era" in which a ruling minority -- alien in origin, life-style, and habits of thought -- was made up solely of black people. What passes for the Liberian version of a colonial experience began in the early nineteenth century with the arrival of freed American slaves sent from the United States by private colonization societies to settle along the coast of West Africa. The territory the black settlers initially acquired from the indigenous Africans living there was purchased for six firearms, one keg of gunpower, three pairs of shoes, a barrel of rum, a box of beads, and various other consumer items.

The settlers brought with them a broad range of skills and habits acquired in the Western Hemisphere, particularly a prefer ence for the white landowners' way of life they had witnessed in the American South during their years of dehumanizing servitude. Viewed as symbols of success, attributes such as educational achievement, proper attire, and antebellum architectural style be came important elements of the culture they formed in the new y West African republic. A constitution modeled on that of the United States was drafted for the independent state by the dean of Harvard University's Law School, and the American pattern was followed in establishing the Liberian political, judicial, and administrative sys tems. The country's flag copied the red, white, and blue design of its United States counterpart, its administrative subdivisions were de signated counties and, in several instances, towns and counties were given American place?names. The name chosen for the new republic declared that it was a land of the free, and the motto in scribed on its official coat of arms proclaimed to all that "the love of liberty brought us here."

But this motto was meaningful only to the settlers and their descendants, who called themselves Americo?Liberians. From the outset this increasingly elite group discriminated against the indigenous Africans, whose presence and freedom in the region dated from the twelfth century. Referred to as "uncivilized" and "aborigines" who were content to live in a tribal setting in accordance with the "primitive" traditions of their ancestors, the indigenes were treated much in the same manner as were their counterparts nn neighboring African territories colonized by the European powers. Thus a void was created between the two elements of Liberia's population from the very beginning. This gap was to become a hindrance to the emergence of a sense of nationalism and would remain a latent source of social unrest and, ultimately, conflict. In surrounding countries the British and French colonizing powers withdrew during the mid?twentieth century, leaving the African majority to manage its own future. But Liberia's colonists were an integral part of the country, and they did not leave.

The Americo Liberians, who have never exceeded more than 5 percent of the country's total population, settled in the urban centers they formed along the Atlantic coast and developed a society based on cultural models they had imported from the United States. The majority element of the population?the indigenous peoples, each distinguished by its own language and customs?was eventually classified by the government into 16 different "tribes." For more than a century, most of them were encouraged to remain in their homelands in the interior of the country, a region vaguely designated the Hinterland. Exceptions were made, however, when inexpensive labor was needed on the large estates established by Americo?Liberians in the tradition of the planter aristocracy once common in the United States. Ironically, forcible recruitment and compulsory labor practices were often reminiscent of the slavery that was so much a part of the Americo?Liberian heritage. Preoccupied with its own development goals, this select minority effectively excluded the indigenous majority from Liberia's political and economic life for 133 years.

The republic led an isolated, impoverished, and often precarious existence until well into the twentieth century. Its first 100 years often have been described as a "century of survival" because of the encroaching efforts of neighboring colonial powers. Although the American influence on Liberia's ruling minority was apparent, the impact of British interest was more pronounced before the beginning of an economic experiment in 1926 by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, an American firm whose name would become virtually synonymous with Liberia over the subsequent 40 years. After World War II the country was brought into closer contact with the outside world largely through the assistance of the United States in building a modern seaport and an international airport near the capital city of Monrovia.

The economic system, in keeping with emulated American tradition, was founded on the principles of free enterprise, and in the 1960s and early 1970s foreign investment set in motion a wave of economic growth that saw Liberia operating in the world mar ket as a leading African producer of iron ore and timber products as well as rubber. Its economic fortunes had also been enhanced through the flag?of?convenience system, devised in 1947?48 with United States assistance, which made the small republic the world's largest maritime registry and brought additional income to the national treasury.

But characterized as it was toward external trade, the economic system was dangerously vulnerable to changes in world commodity demands and prices, particularly to slowdowns in the economies of the industrialized countries upon which Liberia had become so dependent. These contingencies became reality in the late 1970s as the cost of oil rose on the world market and international recession reduced demands for Liberian exports. When the world price of iron ore?the republic's principal export?declined dramatically in 1977 because of deteriorating conditions in the world steel industry, the Liberian government had already launched a four?year development plan a year earlier and had committed itself to hosting a summit conference of the Organization of African Unity in 1979. Both programs had required considerable borrowing of funds, which exacerbated the country's growing indebtedness. The result was a deepening depression in a society that had placed too much confidence in its modern economic sector at the expense of improvement and support for local agriculture. Reliance on foreign imports and government subsidies had impact on both consumer and producer. Moreover, use of the United States dollar as the republic's basic monetary unit and medium of exchange deprived the government of independent fiscal action in coping with external economic forces.

The finger of blame pointed, of course, to the central government in Monrovia and the political dynasty of the', True Whig Party, which had been Liberia's power broker for 103 years. During 27 years of that long period, the country's best?known president, William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, had served as head of state and had been nominated for an unprecedented seventh term of office when he died suddenly in 1971 at the age of 74. A consummate politician and popular leader, he had been known affectionately as "Uncle Shad" and the "Maker of Modern Liberia."

Under his pragmatic approach many of the republic's political, economic, and social policies and institutions had formed and flourished, including the Open Door Policy, which invited virtually unrestricted foreign investment, and the Unification Policy, by which he had introduced a limited effort to bring the country's tribal majority into the republic's political and economic processes.

Tubman was succeeded in officeby William RichardToIbert, his vice president of 20 years, and the pulse of the True Whig oligarchy scarcely missed a beat. During the next nine years the Tolbert presidency attempted to attain a more African image than had persisted during the Tubman era, when reliance on proper Western attire became a symbol of office and authority. Tolbert, like his predecessor, recognized that eventual full integration of tribal peoples into the politico?economic structure would be necessary for public order and political stability. Their support for these views had contributed to a moderate trend toward better representation of tribal groups in the governmental process, but other influential figures had been less willing to accept the need for change. This was particularly true of about a dozen interrelated Americo?Liberian families who operated as a network that exerted effective control over the upper levels of both the government and the economy. Their motives were self-serving, and nepotism and institutional corruption were standard practices.

The desire for material wealth that had started under the Tubman regime accelerated after Tolbert came to national power, largely because the appetite was greater, according to former cabinet officials. Rural development began during the Tubman administration, but Tolbert did little more than talk about it and could never deliver as rapidly as was required. Rising unemployment, public demonstrations over the high price of rice bought in towns and the low price paid to farmers, and the formation of political parties to challenge the True Whig system all became issues that spawned public unrest as the decade of the 1970s came to a close. But the economic depression that had left its mark on the lives of most common citizens was probably the ultimate stimulus for what some observers have subsequently referred to as Liberia's "colonial revolution."

Government of, by, and for the few came to an end early on April 12, 1980, when a group of armed soldiers of tribal origins led by noncommissioned officers (NCOs) of similar background stormed Monrovia's Executive Mansion and carried out a successful coup d'etat against the Tolbert government. The president and some two dozen members of his security guard were killed in the process. Ten days later 13 other high government officials were executed publicly after having been tried by a special military tribunal for a variety of offenses. The 17?member body that assumed control and defined itself as the People's Redemption Council (PRC) represented Liberia's first experience with military government. Led by a 28-year-old army master sergeant named Samuel Kanyon Doe, the PRC established military law and proceeded to rule by decree after suspending the constitution and abolishing the legislature. Quick to reassure the people of their intentions, Doe and his compatriots announced the immediate goals of ending the country's political and economic domination by a few Americo?Liberian families, stamping out corruption, and building a "new society" in which the republic's wealth would be distributed more equitably.

These promises were initially well received by the Liberian people, whose resentment of the Tolbert regime and its reputation for corrupt practices had become a ground swell in the months that preceded the coup. But the objectives of the "revolution" represented a monumental task for a military government composed of young soldiers lacking in administrative experience and formal education beyond high school level. Candid recognition of these limitations resulted in the early establishment of a cabinet in which key portfolios were given to qualified civilians, many of whom had played leading political roles in precoup opposition to the Tolbert regime. But even with talented assistance, the military government has faced many problems in attempting to reestablish an image of political and economic stability that was shattered by gunfire on April 12, 1980.

In the five years that have elapsed since the coup, numerous adjustments have been made in the national governing body whose members once shared collegial responsibilities. In addition to the removal of some original PRC members, the advisory cabinet has been reshuffled repeatedly to eliminate members whose political philosophies have not coincided with those of the innermost circle. As these moves continued, it became apparent that an internal power struggle was in progress?one aimed essentially at determining who was going to govern Liberia. Doe had become chairman of the PRC at the outset by virtue of his NCO seniority, and he retained his master sergeant' rank long after his compatriots had promoted themselves summarily to officer grades. This stance was a mute reminder that only his rank was real and, in fact, superior to that of the others. As his position became more secure, he was referred to regularly by his title of chairman. Since his rank skyrocketed to general of the army and five?star status in mid?1981, however, he has insisted on being addressed as both commander in chief and head of state?a clear reminder that collegiality has given way to a regime bearing Doe's exclusive imprint.

Since the overthrow of the conservative True Whig oligarchy, there has been much speculation on the real meaning of the term revolution that the military government has bandied about. Most observers eventually have agreed that Doe and his supporters have planned to move neither to the left nor to the right, a decision that has divided the military and introduced the possibility of a countercoup. On several occasions Doe has alleged that plots against him have been discovered, and he has taken action to expose them publicly and to eliminate the accused perpetrators from their positions of authority. Some observers have suggested that Doe has deliberately used the tactic to retain support from the United States, which was expected to go to great lengths to prevent a socialist takeover in Liberia.

Probably the most conservative of the original PRC's inner-circle members, Doe has consistently rejected a radical departure from the familiar conservative Liberian way of life. Immediately after the coup it became apparent that the republic had become fertile ground for political influence by the Soviet Union and Libya. Both offered military aid in an effort to wean the new government away from the country's traditional reliance on the United States, and Moscow's overtures also included offers from its Cuban and Ethiopian surrogates. Because the PRC and its cabinet included several avowed socialists, there was much debate over the direction the "revolution" would take. After Ethiopia became one of the first African countries to offer its support to the PRC, Doe visited Addis Ababa to get a personal view of the Marxist revolution in that country. Shortly thereafter, the PRC announced that it had rejected the Ethiopian model as inappropriate for Liberia. Instead, Doe has followed the advice received from Ahmed Sekou Toure, the late president of the neighboring People's Revolutionary Republic of Guinea. Toure, who had encouraged the PRC when Liberia's other neighbors treated it like a pariah, advised Doe to retain the capitalist system he had taken over because it had been around a long time, the people were used to it, and apparently it was the best one for the country. The aging president, once West Africa's leading leftist revolutionary, confided to Doe in 1980 that if he had had the benefit of hindsight he might have done a number of things differently with regard to Guinea's own socialist development efforts.

The United States has responded to the Doe government's requests for assistance largely because of the "special relationship" it has shared with Liberia since the early nineteenth century. Some of the American interests relate to intangibles such as the West African republic's unique Afro?American identity, the large number of Liberians who have been educated in the United States, the common use of the United States dollar as currency, and the fact that the country's leaders have always sought American assistance and guidance rather than turning elsewhere. But Washington's interests in Liberia are not devoid of more tangible foundations. The United States, for example, has long enjoyed access to Roberts International Airport and the modern port of Monrovia, a privilege affecting international security concerns that would probably be difficult to duplicate elsewhere in Africa. A large and important United States telecommunications installation is located in Liberia, and a relay station there transmits all of the Voice of America's programming to Sub?Saharan Africa. Liberia is also the site of an American?operated OMEGA navigation station, one of eight facilities in a global network that provides assistance to ships and aircraft of every country. Defense agreements between the governments in Washington and Monrovia provide a vehicle for protecting all these interests and have limited the opportunity for other countries to train, arm, and influence the Liberian armed forces. It has thus been to Doe's credit that he has not attempted to play off Soviet or Libyan offers of military aid against requests for economic and military assistance directed to Washington.

As the military regime has attempted to keep its promise to restructure the national economy, it has become apparent that the task will not be easily or quickly accomplished. The coup exacerbated problems associated with an economic situation that had been deteriorating rapidly for a number of years. The downward trend continued after the military takeover until corrective measures and extensive aid from the United States and the International Monetary Fund moderated somewhat the threat of financial crisis. But the Doe government nonetheless had entered difficult times. The public's enthusiasm for Tolbert's overthrow in 1980 began to wane as the military regime appeared unable even to manage?let alone restructure?the economy any better than had its predecessors. As one civilian official in the cabinet lamented, "The people still expect government to provide everything for them from the day they leave their mothers' wombs until they go to their tombs. We lack the imagination and the willpower for a national restructuring." The basic problem is that restructuring will require considerably more money than the Liberians can muster within a time frame that will satisfy the demands of an anxious and impatient public. Moreover, the short-term prospects for a resumption of significant economic growth do not appear promising.

In consolidating his role as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, Does has been under ever increasing pressures. He has been obliged to absorb much information in learning how to play the role of chief executive, a posiution for which he had little background before 1980. He has also been forced to make decisions that have not always drawn favorable reaction from the Liberian public - or at times from his compatriots- and as a result he has had to fend off challenges to his leadership. This has been particularly true since mid-1984, when the country entered a transitional phase in preparation for the return of civilians government, which Doe has promised for January 1986. A new Constitution has been writeen and adopted, the PRC has been dissolved and replaced by a military-civilian body known as the Interim National Assembly, and the four-year ban on political activity has been lifted in preparation for presidential and legislative elections schedualed for October 1985.

Contrary to statements he made immediately after the coup in 1980 denying any interest in a future political role, Doe has become an active candidate for the presidency. In adjusting to this changed stance, the head of state has assumed a new image with which he hopes to persuade voters that his experience of the past five years merits their continued support. His actions in appointing many former memberes of the True Whig Party to positions of authority in his transitional government is believed to reflect a feeling that the republic needs the skills and experience of the educated minority. In keeping with this altered approach, Doe has increasingly assumed the outward appearance of a successful civilian executive, abandoning the camouflag fatigue uniform he had worn for all occasions in favor of three-piece, pinstriped suits. To his other titles he added the term doctor (by virtue of honorary Ph.D. granted him in 1982 by a university in the Republic of Korea).

Recurrent reports have indicated that not all of the military establishment has been conciled to the reinstitution of civilian rule and that moves to undermine or eliminate Doe's leadership should not be ruled out. Accustations of plots against his administration have occurred with increasing regularity, and the regime has attempted to neutralize threats to Doe's plan for moving from a position of military governor to one of civilian president. The head of state needs to the support of his armed forces to stay in power, and he has acted resolutely against a number of perceived threats within the military establishment. In January 1985 only eight of the 17 young soldiers who seized power in 1980 remained in the army. Five had been executed in 1981 on charges of plotting against the head of state, and four others who were capable of adversly influencing the troops had been retired from active duty with the armed forces.

In the process of permitting the Liberian people to exercise a constitutional right to choose their future leaders, Doe had found it difficult to maintain control over the evolving political process and his own effort to emerge as the successful candidate for the presidency. Action by a disgruntled military??or by a threatened Doe regime?were both regarded as latent possibilities that would have severe domestic and international repercussions. There seemed little doubt that Liberia's search for democracy once again hung in the balance.

March 1985

Harold D. Nelson

Back to the Table of Contents

Join the mailing list

Unconventional Threat podcast - Threats Foreign and Domestic: 'In Episode One of Unconventional Threat, we identify and examine a range of threats, both foreign and domestic, that are endangering the integrity of our democracy'