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Liberia - People

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita GDP of US $407. Estimates of unemployment and illiteracy range from 75 to 85 percent. Liberia's largely unskilled labor force works as rubber tappers, petty traders, seafarers, miners, and agricultural workers.

The Census, released 21 May 2008, confirms a population of 3,476,608 Liberians. It noted a growth rate of 2.1% since the last census in 1984, and projected a doubling time of 33 years. There was no mention of the deaths (estimated at 250,000) or the massive emigration during the years of conflict or of the impact that might have on population growth rates or gender balance. The Census became a political football as legislators refused to debate the redistricting legislation ("Threshold Bill") that was a prerequisite for the 2011 elections until the final census results were available. The numbers speak for themselves: Liberians are young, uneducated and concentrated in the capital. Liberia is confronting a baby boom, with the number of Liberians under age 10 exceeding the number over age 30. Only 25% of women have any education over primary level, and most have no education at all.

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. The indigenous population may be regarded as falling into three or possibly four well defined groups, namely, the Kru, Gola, Mpesse or Kipwesi, and Mandingo. Liberia's historic "Country/Congo," divide led to Samuel Doe's 1980 coup. The civil war resulted in large movements of populations, and created both urban and rural squatters.

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.

In Liberia's early years, the Americo-Liberian settlers periodically encountered stiff and sometimes violent opposition from indigenous Africans, who were excluded from citizenship in the new Republic until 1904. At the same time, British and French colonial expansionists encroached upon Liberia, taking over much of its territory. Politically, the country was a one-party state ruled by the True Whig Party (TWP). Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who was born and raised in America, was Liberia's first President. The style of government and constitution was fashioned on that of the United States, and the Americo-Liberian elite monopolized political power and restricted the voting rights of the indigenous population. The True Whig Party dominated all sectors of Liberia from independence in 1847 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. One hundred and thirty-three years of Americo-Liberian political domination ended with the formation of the People's Redemption Council (PRC).

Doe's regime was infamous for open and excessive violence against anyone seen as the opposition. Initially, Doe focused his brutality against Arnerico-Liberians. Over time, however, the violence of his regime and his favoritism toward the Krahn and Mandingo peoples resulted in new opposition by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups. Samuel Doe's seizure of power was the initial spark of ethnic conflict in the civil war. The April 1980 coup was not a revolution against Americo-Liberian domination, but a coup within a marginal institution by a socially marginal element, the Krahn. Liberia's previous leaders, Tubman and Tolbert, ceded little power or status to the military. Doe's actions resulted in the creation of the first generation of warlords by introducing ethnic rivalry and failing to develop or liberate indigenous peoples outside his own ethnic group and their alliances.

According to the 2008 census, the largest ethnic group is Kpelle (706,000 or 20.35%; primarily from Bong and Gbarpolu counties). Next are the Bassa (470,000 or 13.5%). There are 115,000 Mandingo (3.3%). Ethnic relations within Liberia prior to the conflict were altered by the conflict, but a review of traditional conditions in the early 20th Century provides a starting point.

Estimates of the number of ethnic categories adequate to the classification of Liberia's indigenous communities have ranged from 28 to the 16 officially recognized tribes. The variation reflected shifting and uncertain notions of what constituted an ethnic group and a lack of systematic knowledge of many of the peoples of Liberia. As that knowledge has been accumulated, it has become clear that few if any of the ethnic categories arbitrarily established and named by the government authorities were characterized by the elements usually considered in defining an ethnic group. In these circumstances sections of the recognized categories have deemed themselves (or have been regarded by various observers) as separate entities.

The formal establishment of these categories and their interaction within a national framework have changed the situation in some respects and may change it further, but reference to the recognized tribes as if they were firmly fixed, historically rooted actors on the Liberian political scene may be misguided. For example, shortly after the coup some observers stressed Doe's membership in the Krahn tribe and noted that those closest to him were of the same group. The communities making up the Krahn, however, were historically among the most politically fragmented in the area, were riot firmly fixed territorially, did not share a name, and spoke different but closely related languages. It was possible that a sense of Krahn ethnic consciousness might develop, but there was little of it beyond an awareness of the name imposed by outsiders.

Except insofar as portions of them have become urbanized, the communities constituting a recognized ethnic category occupy contiguous territory. The boundaries between categories, however, do not necessarily divide distinctive and internally homogeneous entities. The decision to lump the south eastern Kruan-speaking communities into three categories (Grebo, Kru, and Krahn) was arbitrary, as was the location of theboundaries between them. In many cases the geographical contiguity of specific communities is historically recent. Small groups of people have continued to move, mixing with or displacing others.

Liberia - Linguistic Groups

Liberia - Ethnic Groups

The Kru people, who were essentially coast dwellers, occupy a lengthy stretch of the seaboard running from Garraway to Grand Bassa; and within these limits, notably at Sasstown, Nana Kru, Setra Kru, and elsewhere, their settlements or "towns" were in some cases very large and important, and, on the whole, fairly well kept. No less than eighteen tribes as falling within the Kru group alone. Nearly related to the Krus, and speaking distinctly allied languages, are the Bassas and Greboes, the former occupying the basin of the St. John River, and the latter that of the Cavalla. There are doubtless, to ethnologists, noticeable distinctions to be found existing between these peoples; but as they are only three of the eighteen tribes into which the Liberian Kru may be divided.

It is a noticeable fact that, in the entire history of the West African coast, the Kru people never permitted themselves to be sold into slavery. They had taken part, and a very active part, in the slavetrade, it is true, and for many years their determined disregard of law and order in relation to this practice was a terrible thorn in the side of the early administrators sent out by the American Colonization Society. Undoubtedly the Krus substantially benefited by the enslavement of others, but, with a shrewdness which invariably stood them in good stead, they fully realized the advantages of the position which they assumed, and have resolutely adhered to it ever since.

The antithesis of the Kru with their allied families the Bassas, Greboes, and all the rest of them, with their noisy assertiveness and attachment to deplorable propensities, are the Mandingo and the Vai. Both these tribes have adopted the Mohammedan faith, and possess much more dignity, and are infinitely more interesting and picturesque. The Mandingoes, who are found most numerously in the northern portion of the Republic, now commonly known as the Mandingo Plateau, whence they distribute themselves for purposes of trade of various kinds throughout the country even inhabiting more or less permanently portions of Western Liberia are of a more or less nomadic temperament. They have for centuries past been dwellers in well-defined areas of West Africa, especially in French Guinea, and portions of the division of Senegal, as in that wide expanse of country through which flow the multitudinous streams forming the source of the Niger. They are not, properly speaking, coast people, and seldom or" never remain very long away from the dry, healthy uplands of the interior of the various divisions of the Guinea Coast.

There is only one significant instance of geographical dispersion of a recognized ethnic category -- that of the Mandingo. The first small bands of Mandingo may have arrived as early as the seventeenth century and continued to enter the territory as late as the twentieth century. They came not as whole communities settling the land but to establish chieftainship over segments of interior peoples, such as the Loma and the Gbandi, or to engage in trade, moving southwestward to open and control a trading corridor to the coast. Typically, they settled among other peoples as traders and rulers, often taking women from them. Some of the earlier Mandingo were culturally absorbed by the people they ruled, but by the late nineteenth century, most of the Mandingo were Muslims, and their religion and occupation set them apart from the people among whom they lived. Among other things, Islam precluded their participation in those peoples' central institutions, Poro and Sande (male and female secret societies).

By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Mandingo who had functioned as traders could no longer make a living in that way and persuaded the government to establish a small chiefdom in which they could farm the land. Mecca chiefdom was carved out of largely uninhabited territory formerly held by nearby Gola, and it, as well as adjacent territory stretching north to Bopolu, is home to a number of Mandingo. Most Mandingo remain traders, however, and occupy quarters of varying size in towns throughout Liberia. Large Mandingo quarters are found in the larger towns, e.g., Kakata and Gbarnga, along the main road from Monrovia to the Nimba Range.

A somewhat remarkable branch of the Mandingo people who have for several centuries been settled in the western portion of Liberia, are also Mohammedans. These are the Vai (which is pronounced to rhyme with "tie "). It is thought that they may have reached Liberia about the same time as the Mandingoes. The Vai country extends over much of the territory of Grand Cape Mount, and runs practically if not quite up to the Sierra Leone boundary. The people are exceedingly industrious, keen traders, and fairly good workmen.

The basin of the St. Paul River, and the country thence to the westward, is inhabited by a congeries of tribes consisting of the De, Gola, Gbalin, Kisi, Kondo, and several others, occupying a very considerable expanse of country of which the great mart, metropolis, and distributing center is the large native town of Boporo. The first named of the people mentioned seem to have fallen upon somewhat evil days. In the early years of the occupation of Monrovia by the Americo-Liberian settlers, the Des were a race of great consequence, and it was with them that negotiations for land purchase were concluded. There can be no doubt that these were the natives who forcibly prevented settlement upon Bushrod Island in 1822, and fomented the hostility by which the immigrants were long assailed. Since these early days, however, from one cause and another, their numbers dwindled, until by the early 20th Century but a small proportion remained spread up the course of the St. Paul River, but entirely destitute of political importance. They certainly speak a dialect differing considerably from those of their neighbors, but are, apart from this unnecessary peculiarity, practically indistinguishable from them.

Apart from the Gola, the Kisi, and the Kondo peoples, who with the Buzi division present no specially interesting features, are the Gbalins, whose country lies to the north of Mount Kwinyei. This is a populous tribe, believed to be in some sort an off-shoot of the Vai. They had several distinguishing features unshared by any of the above-named races, first and foremost among which is that, by repute, they were once frank, professing, enthusiastic cannibals. It was nothing short of marvellous that cannibalism in Africa should have subsided as rapidly as it had done.

Between the upper waters of the St. John and those of the River Cess we find the country of the Gios, between whom and the Mas there are few points of strong resemblance. These two peoples, although their two countries practically march, speak very different dialects, and present other distinguishing features. For instance, while both tribes are extensive agriculturists, and their roads and towns are kept clean and tidy, the Gios were hardier, sturdier people, most industrious in land cultivation and good and indefatigable hunters.

In the northern portion of the Gio country, which borders upon that of the Mpesse or Kpwesi people and extends along the left bank of the St. John River, large weekly markets were held in the principal villages, whereat rubber, kola nuts, palm-oil, rice and other native products were exchanged for cotton goods, brass wire, beads, gunpowder, gun-caps, and other things. The latter are brought in by the Mandingo traders from over the French boundary, into whose territory the produce is carried.

Of all the interior tribes of Liberia, probably the most important both numerically and politically was that of the Mpesse or Kpwesi people. These occupied a wide stretch of country between the St. John and St. Paul Rivers, backing on to the French boundary. These were traditionally the hunters par excellence, and it was a marvellous sight to see them as, even in the thickest jungle, they ran lightly and swiftly through it, twisting and turning, leaping and dodging, with almost all the agility and quickness of the animal they pursue. They were a brave, fearless, warlike people who, unlike most Africans, disdained ambuscades and cover, and depended on shock tactics and cold steel; their attacks being made in a series of well-concerted rushes, their traditional weapon the knife bows and arrows being reserved exclusively for hunting.

In the period preceding firm governmental control over indigenous communities, none of the sets of communities that were to make up an officially recognized category was organized into a single inclusive polity. The maximal political unit with which an individual usually identified and to which he or she gave loyalty was much smaller than what the government called a tribe. In a few instances there was an awareness of belonging to a larger grouping marked by shared culture, language, name, and (usually) myth of common origin, but that larger grouping was a cultural entity rather than a political one. In the northwest, where Mande, Mel, and a few Kruan peoples came together, multiethnic chiefdoms were not uncommon, but ethnic differences did not necessarily generate conflict. Elsewhere, especially in the southeast, ethnic similarity of neighboring political units did not preclude armed conflict over the control of resources, such as land and trade routes.

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Page last modified: 07-10-2013 19:05:48 ZULU