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Bureau of African Affairs
April 2003

Background Note: Liberia


Republic of Liberia

Area: 111,369 sq. km. (43,000 sq. mi.). Slightly larger than Ohio.
Cities: Capital--Monrovia (est. 750,000). Principal towns--Buchanan (est. 300,000), Ganta (est. 290,000), Gbarnga (est. 150,000), Kakata (est. 100,000), Harbel (est. 136,000).
Terrain: Three areas--Mangrove swamps and beaches along the coast, wooded hills and semideciduous shrublands along the immediate interior, and dense tropical forests and plateaus in the interior. Liberia has 40% of West Africa's rain forest.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Liberian(s).
Population (2001 est.): 3,239,000.
Annual growth rate (2001 est.): 3.1%.
Ethnic groups: Kpelle 20%, Bassa 16%, Gio 8%, Kru 7%, 49% spread over 12 other ethnic groups.
Religions: Christian 30%, Muslim 10%, animist 60%.
Languages: English is the official language. There are 16 indigenous languages.
Education: Literacy--15%.
Health: Life expectancy--51.4 years.
Work force: Agriculture--70%; industry--15%; services--2%.
Unemployment: 70% in the formal sector.

Type: Republic but currently under strong presidency.
Independence: From American Colonization Society July 26, 1847.
Constitution: January 6, 1986.
Political parties: 13 political parties took part in presidential elections on July 19, 1997 that saw former rebel leader Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) emerge as president. There are now 17 political parties.

Flag: Liberia flag
GDP (2002): $562 million.
GDP growth rate: 3.3%.
Per capita GNP (2002) $188.
Annual inflation rate: 14%.
Natural resources: Iron ore, rubber, timber, diamonds, gold and tin. The Government of Liberia has reported in recent years that it has discovered sizable deposits of crude oil along its Atlantic Coast.
Agriculture: Products--coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, rice, cassava, palm oil, bananas, plantains, citrus, pineapple, sweet potatoes, corn and vegetables.
Industry: Types--iron ore, rubber, forestry, diamonds, gold, beverages, construction.
Trade (2002): Exports--$147 million: agriculture 80%, mining 20%. Major markets--France, China, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Scandinavia, U.S. Imports--$173 million: petroleum products, rice, chemicals, manufactured goods, foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, machinery, clothing, beverages, and tobacco.

There are 16 ethnic groups that make up Liberia's indigenous population. The Kpelle in central and western Liberia is the largest ethnic group. Americo-Liberians who are descendants of freed slaves that arrived in Liberia early in 1821 make up an estimated 5% of the population.

There also is a sizable number of Lebanese, Indians, and other West African nationals who make up a significant part of Liberia's business community. Because of the civil war and its accompanying problem of insecurity, the number of Westerners in Liberia is low and confined largely to Monrovia and its immediate surroundings. The Liberian constitution restricts citizenship only to people of Negro descent.

Liberia was traditionally noted for its hospitality and academic institutions, iron mining and rubber industry booms, and cultural skills and arts and craft works. But political upheavals beginning in the 1980s and the brutal 7-year civil war (1989-1996) brought about a steep decline in the living standards of the country, including its education and infrastructure.

Portuguese explorers established contacts with Liberia as early as 1461 and named the area Grain Coast because of the abundance of grains of Malegueta Pepper.

In 1663 the British installed trading posts on the Grain Coast, but the Dutch destroyed these posts a year later. There were no further reports of European settlements along the Grain Coast until the arrival of freed slaves in early 1800s.

Liberia, which means "land of the free," was founded by freed slaves from the United States in 1820. These freed slaves, called Americo-Liberians, first arrived in Liberia and established a settlement in Christopolis now Monrovia (named after U.S. President James Monroe) on February 6, 1820. This group of 86 immigrants formed the nucleus of the settler population of what became known as the Republic of Liberia.

Thousands of freed slaves from America soon arrived during the proceeding years leading toward the formation of more settlements culminating into a declaration of independence on July 26, 1847 of the Republic of Liberia. The idea of resettling free slaves in Africa was nurtured by the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that governed the Commonwealth of Liberia until independence in 1847. The new Republic of Liberia adopted American styles of life and established thriving trade links with other West Africans.

The formation of the Republic of Liberia was not an altogether easy task. The settlers periodically encountered stiff opposition from African tribes whom they met upon arrival, usually resulting in bloody battles. On the other hand, the newly independent Liberia was encroached upon by colonial expansionists who forcefully took over much of the original territory of independent Liberia.

Liberia's history until 1980 was largely peaceful. For 133 years after independence, the Republic of Liberia was a one-party state ruled by the Americo-Liberian dominated True Whig Party (TWP). Joseph Jenkins Roberts who was born and raised in America became Liberia's first president. The style of government and constitution was fashioned on that of the United States. The True Whig Party dominated all sectors of Liberia from independence until April 12, 1980 when indigenous Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, from the Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a coup d'etat. Doe's forces executed President William R. Tolbert and several officials of his government mostly of Americo-Liberian descent. As a result, 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination ended with the formation of the People's Redemption Council (PRC).

Doe's government increasingly adopted an ethnic outlook as members of his Krahn ethnic group soon dominated political and military life in Liberia. This caused a heightened level of ethnic tension leading to frequent hostilities between the politically and militarily dominant Krahns and other ethnic groups in the country.

Political parties remained banned until 1984. Elections were held on October 15, 1985, in which Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) was declared winner. The elections were characterized by widespread fraud and rigging. The period after the elections saw increased human rights abuses, corruption, and ethnic tensions. The standard of living which had been rising in the 1970s declined drastically. On November 12, 1985, former Army Commanding Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa invaded Liberia by way of neighboring Sierra Leone and almost succeeded in toppling the government of Samuel Doe. Members of the Krahn-dominated Armed Forces of Liberia repelled Quiwonkpa's attack and executed him in Monrovia.

On December 24, 1989, a small band of rebels led by Doe's former procurement chief, Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast. Taylor and his National Patriotic Front rebels rapidly gained the support of Liberians because of the repressive nature of Samuel Doe and his government. Barely 6 months after the rebels first attacked, they had reached the outskirts of Monrovia.

The Liberian Civil war which was one of Africa's bloodiest, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and further displaced a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened and succeeded in preventing Charles Taylor from capturing Monrovia. Prince Johnson, who had been a member of Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) but broke away because of policy differences, formed the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Johnson's forces captured and killed Doe on September 9, 1990.

An Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was formed in Gambia under the auspices of ECOWAS in October 1990 and Dr. Amos C. Sawyer became President. Taylor refused to work with the interim government and continued war. By 1992, several warring factions had emerged in the Liberian civil war, all of which were absorbed in the new transitional government. After several peace accords and declining military power, Taylor finally agreed to the formation of a five-man transitional government.

After considerable progress in negotiations conducted by the United States, United Nations, Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), disarmament and demobilization of warring factions were hastily carried out and special elections were held on July 19, 1997 with Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party emerging victorious. Taylor won the election by a large majority, primarily because Liberians feared a return to war had Taylor lost.

Liberia is still trying to recover from the ravages of war. Six years after the war, pipe-borne water and electricity are still unavailable, and schools, hospitals, roads, and infrastructure remain derelict. For the past several years, a rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) has been fighting government security forces in Lofa County along Liberia's border with Guinea. Unrest at times has spread beyond the border area into western and central Liberia.

Liberia has a bicameral legislature which consists of 64 representatives and 26 senators. The legislature, which was set up on a proportional representation basis after the 1997 special election, is dominated by President Taylor's National Patriotic Party. The executive branch heavily influences the legislature. The judicial system is functional but extensively manipulated by the executive branch of government.

There is a Supreme Court, criminal courts, and appeals court and magistrate courts in the counties. There also are traditional courts and lay courts in the counties. Trial by ordeal is practiced in variousparts of Liberia. The basic unit of local government is the Town Chief. There are clan chiefs, paramount chiefs, and district commissioners. Mayors are elected in principal cities in Liberia. The counties are governed by superintendents appointed by the president. There are 15 counties in Liberia.

Principal Government Officials
President--Charles Taylor
Vice President--Moses Blah
Speaker--Nyundueh Monkormana
Chief Justice--Gloria Musu Scott
Foreign Minister--Monie Captan
Ambassador to U.S.--Vacant (as of January 2003) Charge d'Affaires Aaron B. Kollie
Ambassador to UN--Lamin Kawah

Liberia maintains an embassy in the United States at 5303 Colorado Ave., Washington DC.

The Liberian economy relied heavily on the mining of iron ore and on the export of natural rubber prior to the civil war. Liberia was a major exporter of iron ore on the world market. In the 1970s and 1980s, iron mining accounted for more than half of Liberia's export earnings. Following the coup d'etat of 1980, the country's economic growth rate slowed down because of a decline in the demand for iron ore on the world market and political upheavals in Liberia. Liberia's foreign debt amounts to more than $3 billion.

The 1989-1996 civil war had a devastating effect on the country's economy. Most major businesses were destroyed or heavily damaged, and most foreign investors and businessmen left the country. Iron ore production has stopped completely, and Liberia depends heavily on timber and rubber exports and revenues from its maritime registry program. Relatively few foreign investors have returned to the country since the end of the civil war due to the depressed business climate and continuing instability. Timber and rubber are Liberia's main export items since the end of the war. Liberia earns more than $85 million and more than $57 million annually from timber and rubber exports, respectively. Alluvial diamond and gold mining activities also account for some economic activity.

Being the second-largest maritime licenser in the world with more than 1,800 vessels registered under its flag, including 35% of the world's tanker fleet, Liberia earned more than $13 million from its maritime program in 2002. There is increasing interest in the possibility of commercially exploitable offshore crude oil deposits along Liberia's Atlantic Coast.

Liberia's business sector is largely controlled by foreigners mainly of Lebanese and Indian descent. There also are limited numbers of Chinese engaged in agriculture. The largest timber concession, Oriental Timber Corporation (OTC) is Indonesian owned. There also are significant numbers of West Africans engaged in cross-border trade.

Liberia is a member of ECOWAS. With Guinea and Sierra Leone, it formed the Mano River Union (MRU) for development and the promotion of regional economic integration. The MRU became all but defunct because of the Liberian civil war which spilled over into neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. There was some revival of MRU political and security cooperation discussions in 2002.

Historically, Liberia has relied heavily on foreign assistance, particularly from the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, China, and Romania. But because of the corrupt nature of the Liberian Government and its disregard for human rights, foreign assistance to Liberia has declined drastically. Taiwan and Libya are currently the largest donors of direct financial aid to the Liberian Government. But significant amounts of aid continue to come in from Western countries through international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, avoiding direct aid to the government.

The United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia in May 2001 for its support to the brutal rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Liberia has maintained traditionally cordial relations with the West. Liberia currently also maintains diplomatic relations with Libya, Cuba, and Taiwan. Liberia accuses Guinea of backing rebels who have fought the Liberian Government to a standstill in the north. Fighting and looting on both sides of the Liberian-Ivoirian border has been fomented between members of the respective Krahn and Guere ethnic groups with their Gio and Yacouba neighbors.

Liberia is a founding member of the United Nations and its specialized agencies and is a member of the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank (ADB), the Mano River Union (MRU), and the Non-Aligned Movement.

U.S. relations with Liberia date back to the 1820s when the first group of settlers arrived in Liberia from the United States. U.S.-Liberia relations, which have been very cordial since independence, are today strained. The United States had been Liberia's closest ally, but a 7-year civil war (1989-1996), regional stability, gross human rights abuses, and good governance problems have led to the souring of relations between both countries. The United States imposed a travel ban on senior Liberian Government officials in 2001 because of the government's support to the RUF.

During the 1980s, the United States donated hundreds of millions of dollars toward the development of Liberia. The United States also donated hundreds of tons of rice (staple of Liberians) through its PL-480 Program. At the moment, the United States is the largest donor of relief aid to Liberia. But this assistance is channeled through the United Nations and other international aid and relief agencies working in the country.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--John W. Blaney, III
Deputy Chief of Mission--Duane E. Sams
Public Affairs Officer--Christina A. Porche
USAID Director--Edward W. Birgells Consul--Glenn W. Carey

The U.S. Embassy is located on 111 United Nations Drive, Mamba Point, Monrovia, tel: 231-226370, fax: 231-226148.

The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: Consular Affairs Tips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are on the internet and hard copies can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.

Passport information can be obtained by calling the National Passport Information Center's automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648). It also is available on the internet.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).

U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.

Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at, the Department of State web site provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including 
Background Notes; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of Foreign Service posts and more.

National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet ( and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.

Page last modified: 27-04-2005 10:21:17 Zulu