Civil War: Liberia (1989-1997)

Jun Wei. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Country Background

The Republic of Liberia is located on the west coast of Africa; it is bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire, and its capital is Monrovia. Liberia is a multiparty republic in which the legislative and judicial branches of government counterbalance the executive branch. It is headed by a president, who elected at regular six-year intervals. The bicameral legislature is modeled on that of the United States and is composed of a twenty-six-seat senate and a sixty-four-seat house of representatives.

A slow process of political freedom and democratic change has characterized Liberia during the last decade. Based on a scale of 1 to 7 (in which 1 is the most free), the 2005 Freedom House scale gives Liberia a score of 5 on political rights and a 4 on civil rights. Liberia has transformed itself from “not free” to “partly free,” developing much more political freedom after the civil war through the establishment of proportional representative government (Freedom House 2005). In addition, in terms of regime type and authority characteristics, Polity IV data (2003) allot Liberia a score of 3 on a scale of–10 to 10 (in which –10 represents the most autocratic regime).

Liberia is below the average level of world development in various categories. According to World Bank indicators of 2004, it was ranked as 210th in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP; World Bank 2004b). Among Liberia’s population of 3,482,211, 46 percent are below the poverty line, compared to 37 percent for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Liberia’s education indicator is below world and developing country averages, with a literacy rate of 44 percent (World Bank 2005). The country has recently suffered two civil wars (1989–1997 and 1999–2003) in which the economic and administrative infrastructures were destroyed and law and order ceased to exist. These civil wars devastated the economy. A report released by the World Bank estimates that by the end of the first war in 1996, real gross domestic product was as low as 10 percent of its prewar level. Most multinational corporations (MNCs) left the country during the civil war. Official exports through the government fell from $44 million in 1988 to $25 million in 1997 because of the unrestrained illegal exploitation of natural resources such as iron ore, minerals, and rubber. Real income per capita remained at about one-third of prewar levels (World Bank 2004b). The impact of civil wars on civilians was drastic as well. It was estimated that out of an estimated population of 2.8 million, 150,000 were killed, 750,000 fled the country, and more than 1.2 million were internally displaced (U.S. State Department, 1995). Liberia is currently in the process of recovering from civil wars that have inflicted massive human trauma and caused the collapse of its economic infrastructure.

Conflict Background

The violence in Liberia had its origins in Nimba County, in the December 1989 attack by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) from their bases in the Ivory Coast. The NPFL was led by Charles Taylor, a former official of President Samuel Doe’s government. The revolt aimed to topple Doe’s government, which was infamous for mass ethnic repression and human rights violations. The attack marked the beginning of eight years of civil war, in which 20,000 people would die and which would make refugees of almost half of the country’s population of 2.5 million.

The NPFL’s force was made up of the Gios and the Manos, the principal tribes in Nimba County. Both of these groups (constituting about 15 percent of the Liberian population) were motivated by a powerful desire to overthrow Doe’s rule because they were suppressed by the Krahn and the Mandingo tribes, which the Doe regime supported. The NPFL insurgents also contained “mercenaries from Burkina Faso and internationalist revolutionaries from Gambia and Sierra Leone” (Ellis 1995). All these groups fought bravely, and by the end of July 1990, Charles Taylor’s force had approached the capital and was threatening to overthrow Doe’s government. At this time, a new insurgency, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), emerged from the conflict. This splinter group, led by an ally of Taylor, Prince Johnson, broke away from the NPFL. With 500 soldiers, Johnson successfully captured large parts of Monrovia in July 1990 and posed a major challenge to Doe’s regime.

From the outbreak of the war, the internal strife in Liberia was characterized by widespread abuse of human rights. The NPFL invaded Krahn Gedeh County and committed atrocities against innocent citizens in revenge for the raid by the Krahn-dominant Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) of Doe’s regime on the Gio and Mano people after the abortive Quiwonkpa coup of 1985 (Alao 1998). In response to the insurgency, the AFL launched a counterattack on civilians in Nimba County. According to reports of the international community, by 1990 at least 200 people, the majority from the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, had been killed by AFL troops in the course of the ruthless campaign (Global Security 2005).

To face the challenge imposed by the overthrow of the legitimate government, and in response to evidence of atrocities committed by the warring factions, a number of West African countries decided to intervene under the leadership of Nigeria. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) prepared a military intervention force under the command of Ghana’s Lieutentant-General Arnold Qainoo. In September 1990, the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) established itself in Monrovia. The situation continued to deteriorate after Doe was captured and mutilated by INPFL’s force.

In October 1990, backed by the ECOMOG, the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was established to weaken Taylor’s position. It was headed by Amos Sawyer, the former leader of the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL). Both INPFL and AFL chose to support Sawyer’s regime. However, the NPFL refused to acknowledge IGNU and regarded it as a puppet of the ECOMOG. Taylor’s reaction was to establish National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in Gbanga. At this time, the NPFL maintained control of large portions of country, in which abundant natural resources such as timber and rubber were exploited and trafficked by Taylor to advance his military and political ambitions.

In November 1990, in response to military and political pressure from the international community, all warlords involved in the conflict met at Bamako, Mali, to discuss the peace process. However, peace talks ended because of disagreement among ECOMOG’s member countries over the objective of the intervention.

Consequently, warring factions splintered and proliferated. Seven warring parties emerged from the internal conflict: the NPFL, led by Taylor; the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K), splintered from ULIMO; the Liberia Peace Council; NPFL-Central Revolutionary Council (NPFL-CRC); the Lofa Defense Force; and the remaining forces of the AFL, who were faithful to President Doe. At this time, it became clear that Liberia had devolved into a failed state, in which a legitimate government could not effectively exert its political power within its territory.

From 1993 to 1995, several attempts to impose peace were made by external actors. These efforts involved the signing and implementing a series of peace accords sponsored and monitored by the ECOMOG and the United Nations. However, Liberian warlords continued to fight each other because of the disagreement that existed between Liberian factions and peacekeepers over the composition of a council of state. In September 1995, with the efforts of international community, a Liberian council of state, made up of leaders of the major warring factions, was formed within the framework of the Abuja Peace Accord, accepted in principle by major warring factions. This peace plan led to the final political and military settlement of the civil war.

In accordance with provisions of the Abuja Accord, the disarmament and demobilization of warring factions in January 1997 were followed by democratic presidential and parliamentary elections. The elections were widely monitored and endorsed by international and regional organizations. In July 1997, the National Patriotic Party (NPP) led by Taylor won the election with 75 percent of the vote. This event signified the end of the first civil war in Liberia.

Although in his inaugural address President Taylor promised to devote his efforts to reconciliation, the rule of law, and economic development, his regime was characterized by a “by government militia and security agencies” (United Nations 2003a). In 2001, following an unstable transition period, Liberia engaged in another armed conflict.

Two opposing groups had emerged which together controlled more than two-thirds of the country and which attempted to overthrow Taylor. The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a rebel group supported by the government of neighboring Guinea, emerged in 1999 in northern Liberia. It was composed of excombatants who had been forced into exile as early as 1998, nearly a year after the postwar elections. In 2003, a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) formed in southeastern Liberia. It claimed to “protect the safety and security of all within the borders of Liberia, respect and promote individual human rights” (PBS 2004). In summer 2003, these two rebel groups attacked the capital, Monrovia, and demanded that Taylor resign within three days. President Taylor asked the international community to intervene by way of a peacekeeping force.

In response to the threat posed by the Liberian situation to regional peace and security, the UN Security Council issued a resolution establishing a multinational force to be sent into Liberia to stabilize the situation and to secure the environment for the delivery of humanitarian assistance (United Nations 2003). In addition, at the request of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the United States deployed combat-equipped forces off the coast of Liberia to support Nigerian-led ECOWAS forces entering Liberia.

With the assistance of the international community, Liberia made substantial progress toward peace. In July 2003, peace talks in Akosambo, Ghana, were arranged by the special mediator of the ECOMOG in July 2003. These were followed by several bilateral meetings of delegations—chiefly the Liberian government, the rebel LURD, MODEL, and eighteen political parties. One important agreement was that a sustainable peace would be achieved in Liberia only if Taylor relinquished the presidency and that his removal from power would ease the path to restoring stability in Liberia and its West African neighbors.

At this time, Nigeria played an important role in resolving the civil strife in Liberia. In particular, it offered an asylum to President Taylor on the condition that he relinquish his power. On August 11, 2003, Gyude Bryant took power as chairman of the Liberia transition authority, with the support of the United Nations and West Africa leaders. The role of the interim government was to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections. On November 11, 2005, after two decades of internal strife, Liberia successfully held presidential elections. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected woman president.

During his exile in Nigeria, Taylor was charged with war crimes by the Special Court, a UN-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, for his involvement in human rights abuses committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The court alleges that “he is among those who bear the greatest responsibility for widespread and systematic rape, murder, physical violence, including mutilation and amputation and other atrocities in Sierra Leone through his support and guidance of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement” (New America Media 2003). In Nigeria, Taylor continued to destabilize the regional peace. More specifically, he was still able to “work through the personal networks of business contacts and ‘shadow’ market channels of exchange to mobilize mercenaries, influence former allies in the Liberian government and undermine the efforts of other nations and organizations in the region” (Global Witness 2005a). Faced with this situation, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution empowering the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to arrest, detain, and transfer Taylor to the UN court in Sierra Leone. According to the resolution, the UN Security Council “decides that the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) shall include the following additional element: to apprehend and detain former President Charles Taylor in the event of a return to Liberia and to transfer him or facilitate his transfer to Sierra Leone for prosecution before the Special Court for Sierra Leone and to keep the Liberian Government, the Sierra Leonean Government and the Council fully informed” (United Nations 2005).

In March 2006, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf submitted a letter formally requesting the extradition of Charles Taylor from Nigeria to face justice. The Nigerian government reacted by stating that Liberia was free to collect Taylor so that he could face war crimes charges in the Liberian courts. Consequently, in April 2006, Charles Taylor was arrested in Nigeria and physically transferred to the UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone. Taylor will face trial in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he was indicted on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The internal violence in Liberia has destabilized the West African subregion by spilling into neighboring countries such as Sierra Leone and Guinea. During the 1990s, the rebel NPFL stole diamonds in Sierra Leone and attempted to punish its government for sending forces to join ECOMOG units in Liberia to weaken Taylor’s position. Specifically, the NPFL became actively involved in the Sierra Leone’s civil war by helping the Revolutionary United Front, one of “West Africa’s most notorious spoilers” (Adebajo 2004), to destabilize the legitimate government led by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. The RUF was infamous for committing atrocities such as cutting off the heads, arms, and legs of defenseless women and children.

Taylor played a major role in supporting the RUF rebels and their leader, Foday Sankoh, with whom he had a close personal relationship that can be traced back to their training in Libya, in one of the biggest terrorist training camps in Africa. This relationship can also be traced to Sankoh’s support of Taylor’s effort to topple Doe’s regime in the 1990s (United Nations Security Council 2000).

With the comprehensive support provided by the NPFL of Liberia, the RUF used several international arms brokers to obtain large quantities of weapons imported from Eastern Europe. According to a report of the UN Panel of Experts in 2000, these weapons and supplies included mortars, rifles, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), satellite phones, computers, vehicles, and batteries (United Nations Security Council 2000). Most of the supplies were sent by road or helicopter to Foyakama, a few miles from the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, and then transported across the border into RUF territory for onward distribution to the region controlled by the RUF (United Nations Security Council 2000). With considerable logistical support from Liberia’s NPFL, RUF evolved from a guerrilla group into a quasi-conventional army, thus leading to Sierra Leone’s internal crisis.

In March 1991, backed by Taylor’s NPFL, the RUF rebel group launched its first attack on the Sierra Leone government and seized some of the country’s territory, beginning one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars. During the course of the civil war, the ill-equipped, poorly trained, and logistically deficient Sierra Leone Army (SLA) was unable to defeat the rebels. In later campaigns, RUF firmly controlled large parts of the Sierra Leone countryside.

By 1995, the RUF had gained control of Kono and Tongo, the two most diamond-rich areas in Sierra Leone, and it exploited these resources to sustain its rebellion. During the 1990s, the war in Sierra Leone became a complex conflict with major humanitarian and political disasters. Between 1991 and 1996, the civil war claimed more than 75,000 lives, created half a million refugees, and displaced 2.4 million of the country’s 4.5 million people, most of whom were forced into neighboring Guinea and Liberia (Smillie, Gberie, and Hazleton 2000). In 2001, with the efforts of the UN peacekeeping force and other international organizations, the civil war in Sierra Leone ended. National elections were held in May 2002, and the government began to reestablish its authority. At this time, the Liberian government planned to destabilize Sierra Leone by plotting a two-pronged attack, activating cells of well-armed, Liberian-paid operatives already within Sierra Leone, which were later joined by an external force of Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) fighters attacking from Liberia. The attack also involved disrupting the UN Special Court’s proceedings by releasing ex-RUF leader Sankoh and regaining full access to Sierra Leone’s lucrative diamond resources (Global Witness 2003). In sum, by providing support and leadership to RUF, Taylor was directly responsible for fueling and complicating the internal strife and atrocious violations of human rights committed in Sierra Leone.

Civil war in Liberia also spilled over into the neighboring country of Guinea. Since September 2000, the southwest region of Guinea, which is close to the Sierra Leone–Liberia border, had been threatened by a series of border attacks aimed at the Guinean civilians and Sierra Leone and Liberian refugees by the RUF, which was sponsored by the government of Liberia. According to a report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR 2000), Guinea has Africa’s second-largest refugee population, including 130,000 Liberians and 330,000 Sierra Leoneans. Until recently, Guinea’s relative stability offered some protection for these refugees; however, these attacks in Guinea caused a major humanitarian crisis (UNHCR 2000). It was estimated that the attacks caused the displacement of 250,000 people from their shelter in Guinea, as well as the deaths of 2,000 people. The United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, described the situation as the “world’s worst refugee crisis” (Gberie 2001).

Two factors accounted for these attacks. First, the attacks were caused by Liberian President Taylor to retaliate against Guinea for giving refuge to members of the Liberian opposition. In 2003, Taylor argued that “the government of Guinea facilitated the establishment of Liberians United for a Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) by permitting the recruitment, training and arming of Liberian refugees living in refugee camps in the territory of Guinea” (Allafrica 2003). The second factor was Taylor’s pursuit of abundant natural resources. Guinea has diamond reserves estimated at 25 million carats, worth well over $2 billion dollars (Gberie 2001). This was significant motivation for Taylor to plot a series of border attacks in an attempt to acquire diamonds.

In September 2001, when confronted with this dangerous situation, Guinea’s prime minister, Lamine Sidime, accused Liberia of destabilizing Guinea by means of the recent attacks, stating that “[e]verything points to the fact that it is an external aggression from Liberia which has, for years, been preparing to engage in war with Guinea” (Afrol 2001). Furthermore, the Guinean government asked for international help to avoid becoming yet another victim of internal chaos caused by Liberia.

In September 2001, members of the United Nations Security Council demonstrated their serious concern over the cross-border attacks on refugees and civilians in southwest Guinea. The council also reconfirmed the military embargo against Liberia. A UN statement made it clear that Liberian-supported Sierra Leonean RUF terrorists and rebels would be held responsible for the attacks. In addition, it called for all states, “particularly Liberia—to abide by its earlier statement, which had called for all UN member States to stop providing military support to the rebels carrying out the attacks” (Afrol 2001). Eventually, with the help of the international community, the sociopolitical crisis in Liberia was solved, and political stability has been restored. In sum, the substantial spillover effects of the Liberian civil war led to the internal turmoil and the decline of economic development of its neighboring countries.

The Insurgents

The ability of insurgents to fuel armed conflict depends on their capacity to secure access to resources, to procure weapons and materials, and to pay soldiers. In Liberia, the control and exploitation of diamonds, timber, and other raw materials were some of the principal objectives of Taylor’s NPFL, which was the main insurgent group in the Liberian civil war. From 1990 to 1994, Liberia exported $300 million worth of diamonds annually, followed by timber at $53 million, rubber at $27 million, iron ore at $43 million, and gold at $1 million. Taylor received approximately $75 million annually from these resources (Cain 1999) to finance the NPFL and gave it the means to sustain the civil war.

Owing to the relatively stable price of diamonds in the global market and the fact that they can be easily seized by individuals or small groups of unskilled workers (Ross 2004), diamonds have played an important role in sustaining and advancing Taylor’s military and political ambitions and contributed to the prolongation of the civil war in Liberia.

Sources: CIA 1990; CIA 2005; Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Polity IV 2004 .
War: NPFL and IPPFL vs. government
Dates: December 1989–July 1997
Casualties: 150,000
Regime type prior to war: –4 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from –10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 3 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from –10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: $395 (in constant 1990 US dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: $700 (in constant 2005 US dollars)
Insurgents: NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia)
Issue: Ethnic repression, human rights violations, corruption
Rebel funding: Exploitation of natural resources (diamonds, timber, rubber)
Role of geography: Rebels hid in rain forest and mountains.
Role of resources: Diamonds, timber, etc. sold to provide funding for war.
Immediate outcome: Revolt was victorious; election facilitated by UN and ECOMOG.
Outcome after 5 years: No fighting
Role of UN: Facilitated peace talks; sent peacekeeping force.
Role of regional organization: ECOWAS was active.
Refugees: 779,900
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Liberia

Taylor was attracted to Sierra Leone’s diamonds for their high quality and abundance. Diamond reservations were located in the districts of Kenema, Kono, and Bo in the central and eastern parts of Sierra Leone. It was estimated by De Beers in 1998 that diamond production in Sierra Leone was 300,000 carats (worth $100 to $300 per carat) (Global Witness 2000). Official exports through the government of Sierra Leone were estimated at 114,438 carats, whereas in 1999 this figure fell to 9,320 carats (Global Witness 2000). The dropoff in diamond production in 1999 by the government of Sierra Leone could be attributed to the fact that diamond production had fallen under the control of the RUF, which had several diamond mines and was known for producing of gem-quality diamonds (American University 2001).

To sustain the civil war in Liberia with the proceeds from smuggled Sierra Leonean diamonds, Taylor offered comprehensive support to the RUF to increase its control of the diamond fields. With the NPFL’s help, the RUF launched its first campaign from Liberia and attacked major diamond mining centers. By 1995, almost all major diamond mining areas had fallen under the control of the RUF in Sierra Leone, giving Taylor a conduit for diamond exports to fuel Liberia’s conflict and advance his own personal ambitions. With the combined efforts of Taylor and the RUF, there was a well-established route for diamond production, trading, and smuggling of diamonds in exchange for guns and military hardware. The network originally operated along the long, open border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, which provided a geographic opportunity for Taylor to smuggle diamonds mined by the RUF in Sierra Leone. Millions of dollars worth of diamonds from Sierra Leone were transported from the northern and western areas of Liberia to such ports as Monrovia and Buchanan, where they were shipped to Belgium, Lebanon, and the Netherlands. Weapons, such as AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, were transported from ex-Soviet and eastern bloc countries, China, and the Balkans into Liberia and Sierra Leone to fuel the civil war. According to an estimate by the Diamond High Council, between 1994 and 1999 Belgium recorded $2.2 billion worth of rough diamond imports from Liberia (Smillie 2002). In addition, the United Nations estimated that the “blood diamonds” that left Liberia in 1999 were worth about $75 million on the open market. Taylor received a commission on each transaction, and Ibrahim Bah Bath, who was a key figure of terrorism in Africa and the Middle East, received the rest (Farah 2001). Thus, an illegal diamonds trade center was established, in which proceeds from diamonds could be used to purchase large amounts of military equipment to fuel the civil war in Liberia.

To combat the illicit traffic in diamonds and to disconnect the link between the illegal diamond trade and internal strife in Liberia, Resolution 1343 of the United Nations Security Council was adopted. It banned the production and transportation of diamonds in the conflict region, and it also banned the Liberian importation of weapons (United Nations 2001b). In addition, the General Assembly would continue an embargo on Liberian diamonds until it could be demonstrated that diamonds no longer led to conflict and that government control met the requirements for lifting sanctions as prescribed in Security Council Resolution 1521 (United Nations 2003c).

Despite sanctions imposed on the illegal diamond trade, the illegal trading of weapons for diamonds in Liberia has steadily increased. For example, some companies in the diamond business with Liberia have continued to promote illegal arms trade, such as Mano River Resources (MRR) and American Mining Associates (AMA). According to a report by the UN panel of experts in 2005, illegal domestic diamond production generated approximately 350,000 carats per month in 2003 (Global Witness 2005a), and the scale of AMA’s operations were “excessive for exploration activity” (Global Witness 2005b). All income from the trade of diamonds was used to buy guns and other military equipment and to prolong the civil strife and destabilize Liberia.

Revenue from the production and trafficking of timber from major timber-producing areas enabled the NPFL to remain militarily active and thus dismiss all efforts toward peace on the part of the United Nations and ECOMOG. Most parts of Liberia were under Taylor’s control in 1990. Taylor began to make large profits from timber to sustain his insurgents in Greater Liberia, which included 70 percent of Liberian territory and parts of Guinea and Sierra Leone (Reno 1997).

Millions of tons of timber were produced and transported from Greater Liberia to China, France, and Italy through four ports along the Atlantic Ocean: Monrovia, Buchanan, Greenville, and Cape Palmas. In these ports, logging ships arrived, offloaded arms, and took on loads of logs.

Many multinational corporations involved in timber extraction were associated with smuggling timber from Liberia’s resource-rich region and delivering weapons to the NPFL. In the employ of these companies was Gus Van Kouwenhoven, manager of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), the largest logging operation in Liberia. He had been identified in a series of UN reports as being “involved with the logistical aspects of many of the arms deals” (Global Policy 2001). Specifically, this company controlled 43 percent of what remains of the Upper Guinean Forest ecosystem in Liberia, and was estimated to have paid Taylor $3 million to $5 million for control of the 1.6-million-hectare area (United Nations 2001a). In addition, Leonid Minin, a notorious Ukranian crime figure, was also involved in obtaining logging concessions and providing arms to Liberia. It was reported that in 2000, Minin arranged an import of 10,500 AK 47 rifles, and RPG-26 rocket-launchers and sniper rifles (United Nations 2001). These weapons were used by Taylor to sustain the internal armed conflict.

To cut off Taylor’s source of timber, in May 2003 the UN Security Council imposed a ban on all Liberian timber, effective July 7, 2003. In addition, the requirements for lifting of sanctions as set forth in Resolution 1521 reconfirmed that the Liberian government must exercise control over its territory and must have in place the proper accounting and governance mechanisms to ensure that the revenue is not used to fuel conflict (United Nations 2003d). Although measures were taken to this end, Taylor continued to exploit timber to purchase weapons by finding an alternative approach. In 2002, he sold timber concessions inside Sapo National Park, one of West Africa’s main woodland reserves. Concession agreements involved a number of stipulations that covered the size and location of the area to be logged, the duration of the agreement, the minimum diameter of trees to be felled, species that can or cannot be taken, environmental safeguards such as maintaining buffer strips along streams, and royalty rates and other fees (Barden 1994). With this alternative, Taylor continued to receive several million dollars from the Oriental Timber Company of Hong Kong. The sum allowed him to buy back, at least temporarily, the loyalty of his senior commanders and arm his troops (Farah 2002). It was obvious that Taylor was still violating the UN arms embargo. Thus, by illegal access to natural resources such as diamonds and timber, Taylor sustained the civil war in Liberia and played a major role in the destabilization of the region.

Causes of the War

The civil war in Liberia was a product of ethnic hatred and the violation of human rights and systematic corruption of Doe’s government. First, internal strife in Liberia can be traced to the country’s origins. Historically, Liberia has been divided by two opposing ethnic groups. One group, known as Americo-Liberians, were descended from repatriated slaves who migrated to West Africa from the United States in the nineteenth century under the aegis of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The other group was made up of indigenous tribal Africans. They had a government ruled by kings and village elders. People were bound by “institutional moral rules and laws, and stability was achieved through kinship” (Nmoma 1997). Americo-Liberians regarded this ethnic group as “primitive and uncivilized” and treated them as little more than an abundant source of forced labor (Wippman 1993).

From the founding of the Republic of Liberia in 1847, Americo-Liberians controlled the administrative, fiscal, legal, and military resources of the economy and the government, and the indigenous people became targets of repression. The Americo-Liberians established a “settler oligarchy,” which dominated the indigenous people through extreme economic exploitation, including forced labor and brutal repression (Ofuatey-Kodjoe 1993). More specifically, the Americo-Liberians used a policy of “divide and rule” and the practice of recruiting armed forces along ethnic lines and deploying them to brutalize other ethnic groups (Ofuatey-Kodjoe 1993). The Americo-Liberians prevented the indigenous population from receiving education and deprived them of their right to vote by making property ownership a prerequisite for education and voting. There was an enormous disparity in the distribution of wealth; the Americo-Liberians heavily taxed the indigenous inhabitants and imposed forced labor for public work projects. Thus, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through control of land and other measures, Americo-Liberians wielded “a monopoly of power over a majority of indigenous peoples” (Khafre 1978).

In the 1970s, the deterioration of the economy caused by the global oil crisis further intensified ethnic repression. During President William Tolbert’s reign, various activist groups were formed to demonstrate their concern about the injustices confronted by many Liberians. On April 12, 1980, a group of lower-rank soldiers headed by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, seized power through a coup that toppled President William Tolbert’s administration. This coup signified the collapse of the political dominance of the Americo-Liberian elite. Initially, Doe tried to present his coup as a victory over an oppressive system. He also promised to curb corruption with effective measures and to realize the equitable distribution of the nation’s natural resources and the full participation of all ethnic groups in the political process (Dunn 1998). However, after establishing representation favorable to him, Doe decided to further stabilize his power by continuing the practices of the previous regime. By 1984, a popular slogan justly summarized Doe’s Liberia as “Same Taxi, New Driver” (Outram 1997).

Liberia’s return to a dictatorial government began with Doe’s rapid elevation of members of his own group, Kranh, to high posts in the administration, such as the National Bank and the Department of Defense. Doe filled his administration with Krahn officials, even though Kranh made up only about 5 percent of the Liberian population. Furthermore, Doe offered economic and educational opportunities to the Krahn at the expense of other ethnic groups. This resulted in a disproportionate representation of the Krahn in government. The Krahn dominance was so well established that postcoup Liberia witnessed the emergence of a Krahn–non-Krahn ethnic divide. Many Americo-Liberians felt alienated by the brutal murder of their former leaders, and Gios and Manos felt victimized and marginalized. The deep separation between Krahn and other ethnic groups became wider, and tensions exploded in the wake of the coup attempt during Doe’s regime. On November 12, 1985, General Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former officer of Doe in the 1980 coup, invaded Liberia through Nimba County to launch a coup that aimed at toppling Doe’s government. The coup failed, and Quiwonkpa was beaten beyond recognition, castrated, and dismembered. The failed coup engendered massive reprisals against the Gio and Mano ethnic groups in Nimba County, the hometown of General Quiwonkpa (Ellis 1999). In sum, the ethnic violence caused by the exclusion of the indigenous majority of the population, along with the imbalance in the distribution of wealth that favored the powerful ethnic groups in the Doe regime, escalated the intergroup tension in Liberia and thus contributed to the outbreak of the civil war.

Apart from ethnic tensions, another underlying cause of the Liberian civil war was the violation and abuse of fundamental human rights during Doe’s regime. The killing of President Tolbert and the public execution of thirteen senior officials in 1980 demonstrated the brutality of Doe’s regime. During the 1980s, Doe frequently suppressed independent political activities; he charged opponents with treason and often had them executed after summary trials (Human Right Watch 2005). The imprisonment for treason of Gabriel Kpolleh and Caephar Mabande, both leaders of a banned political party, illustrate Doe’s efforts to crush all opposition and to impose a de facto one-party state (Human Rights Watch 2005). In October 1989, two people arrested for yet another alleged coup attempt died in custody (Human Rights Watch 2005). The government explained their deaths as a result of natural causes but held no inquest to substantiate this claim.

Furthermore, the Doe government’s violation of human rights was demonstrated by its crackdown on the press. In June 1982, the Ministry of Information revoked the license of Radio ELCM, a Catholic station, for reporting a story about several people who were crushed to death at a football stadium. The revocation was done without an administrative hearing as required by the ministry’s guidelines (Human Right Watch 1989). Repressive measures included “the closure of newspapers, such as the shutdown of the Daily Observer in 1982, summary imprisonment of journalists, harassment of journalists, regulatory edicts, judicial actions, and an actual and unprecedented presidential sanctioning of the murder of a journalist” (Rogers 1996).

Human rights abuses were also committed against students who challenged Doe’s rule. When Liberian students became aware of Doe’s repressive rule, they began to express their dissatisfaction. The students of the National University of Liberia demanded a return to constitutional civilian rule and became the voice of a disaffected population. On August 22, 1984, 200 soldiers attacked students on the university campus who were protecting a popular professor, Amos Sawyer, from arrest on suspicion of treason. The soldiers arrested, detained, and beat hundreds of students and reportedly raped female students, transforming the University of Liberia into a breeding ground for political agitation and conflict. However, the Doe government denied that any killings had taken place and acknowledged only one case of sexual abuse (Human Rights Watch 2005).

In the late 1980s, as resistance to Doe’s government grew, human rights violations became widespread. Torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, imprisonment of opposition leaders, and restriction of freedom of expression were all commonplace violations of human rights under Doe’s government (Amnesty International 1997). In short, the widespread and organized conflict in Liberia was an expression of dissatisfaction with the violation of human rights committed by the government. The seeds of hate sown by the abuse of human rights took root all over the country, ripened, and bore fruit: the outbreak of civil war in 1989.

Furthermore, the outbreak of civil conflict in Liberia can be explained by examining the widespread corruption in Doe’s government of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Under the dictatorship of Doe, there were no legislative and administrative safeguards to prevent, detect, punish, or eradicate the corruption of public officials. Allegations of high-level corruption among government officials in Doe’s administration were frequent. For example, it was alleged that on the day of the coup, the plotters withdrew $200,000 from the national Bank of Liberia; a few days later, $100,000 was stolen from the National Housing Bank, and a further $26,000 was taken from the safe in the executive mansion (Dunn and Tarr 1988). Other corruption was associated with the use of foreign aid. For example, from 1980 to 1985, the United States gave Liberia nearly $500 million, making Liberia the largest per capita aid recipient in sub-Saharan Africa. The aid money amounted to one-third of Liberia’s annual budget. However, the administration and distribution of this aid was under little scrutiny (Adebajo 2002). Corruption became rampant, with much of the aid disappearing into the personal accounts of Doe and other elites in the PRC. By the end of his rule, Doe and his cronies had stolen a reported $300 million in public funds (Berkeley 1992). Adebajo offered this perspective on the corruption: “Doe and his officials illegally acquired wealth and land as blatantly as the True Whigs once did. Revenue from logging concessions and fuel went straight to Doe’s private funds; even U.S. food assistance was diverted into private pockets” (Adebajo 2002, 1). Thus, the social inequality and lack of secure personal property rights caused by high-level, systemic corruption contributed to intensified conflict and finally led to the overthrow of Doe’s government by internal violence in the 1990s.


Conflict Status

The civil war in Liberia ended with an independent democratic election in 1997 as an integral part of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts. The electoral process was monitored and assessed by several international organizations: the United Nations, the European Union, and the Carter Center. Sixteen parties registered to take part in the elections. On July 24, 1997, the outcome of the election was announced, and the National Patriotic Party (NPP), led by Charles Taylor, won an overwhelming victory with 75 percent of the vote. The NPP received 468,443 of the 621,888 votes, garnering 49 of 64 seats in the house of representatives and 21 of 26 seats in the senate (Adebajo 2002). The monitors acknowledged that the election was free and fair. Therefore, the Independent Election Commission declared Taylor president of the Republic of Liberia on July 23. Taylor’s victory symbolized the end of the Liberian civil war.

External Military Intervention

Regional organizations and international organizations played a major role in the facilitation of peace and security in Liberia. From the outbreak of the civil war in 1989, the situation in Liberia was characterized by fighting between warlords, a crumbling socioeconomic infrastructure, and extreme violence against civilians. Soon, the crisis in Liberia not only became a threat to its neighboring countries but also destabilized the subregion of West Africa. Therefore, the ECOWAS, a regional organization of West Africa, responded to this situation by establishing the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in August 1990 to resolve conflicts among warring factions. It was formed within the framework of ECOWAS’s Revised Security Treaty. According to Article 58 of the treaty, the provision of defense and security is one of ECOWAS’s objectives, and each member state is obliged to cooperate in the areas of politics, diplomacy, international relations, peace, and security (Malu 2003), thus legitimizing the intervention in Liberia. The objective of the ECOMOG was to stop the fighting among warlords, to monitor the process of the cease-fire, and to integrate the major rivals into an interim administration.

A number of reasons accounted for the ECOWAS’s decision to intervene in Liberia. First, the overflow of refugees from Liberia to neighboring countries posed a threat to regional stability (Ero 2000). Armed attacks on civilians had been commonplace since the beginning of the civil war in 1989. A large number of people were forced to flee Liberia to Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire to avoid persecution, imposing a huge economic and political burden on these states. In August 1990, General Emmanuel A. Erskine of ECOMOG argued that, “with the crisis in Liberia creating unbearable refugee problems for Sierra Leone, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, it is obvious that the situation in Liberia has gone beyond the boundaries of the country and ceases to be an exclusive Liberian question” (Ero 2000, para. 14). Erskine also maintained that this issue “could not be accomplished by the grinding wheels of diplomacy” (Ero 2000).

Furthermore, ECOWAS’s decision to intervene was associated with its concern with the major humanitarian crisis caused by the civil conflict in Liberia. According to the Final Communiqué, the ECOWAS’s decision to intervene was based on humanitarian consideration. The communiqué stated, “[P]resently, there is a government in Liberia which cannot govern and contending factions which are holding the entire population as hostage, depriving them of food, health facilities and other basic necessities of life” (Ero 2000). ECOWAS further affirmed its commitment to intervene in Liberia, “stopping the senseless killing of innocent civilians nationals and foreigners, and to help the Liberian people to restore their democratic institutions” (Ero 2000, para. 5).

ECOMOG’s decision was also related to the protection of citizens of member countries in Liberia. Obed Asamoah, Ghana’s foreign prime minister, argued that, “the Liberian situation … assumed international dimensions because several thousand Ghanaians, Nigerians and other nationals [had] been holed up in Liberia and [were] suffering because of the fighting” (Adibe 1997, 474). Because of the internationalization of the civil war in Liberia, ECOWAS decided to deploy peacekeeping troops in Liberia to restore peace and security.

Formal ECOMOG involvement in the Liberian civil war began with military deployment near the capital, Monrovia, in September 1990. Specifically, ECOMOG adopted a “limited offensive” strategy, which aimed at driving the NPFL forces, which posed a direct threat to a legitimate government of Liberia, out of Monrovia (Vogt 1997). Consequently, ECOMOG was resisted by the NPFL, and the strategy led to a direct confrontation between peacekeeping forces and the NPFL. However, this strategy sueceeded in “containing the conflict, at least for a short period and preventing the situation from degenerating into genocidal proportions like the type of slaughter witnessed between April and July 1994 in Rwanda” (Draman and Carment 2001, 11). To avoid a rapid escalation of the situation, ECOMOG and the NPFL held a series of talks. Based on the official reports of the ministerial conference, there had been substantial disagreement between members of the ECOMOG and the warlords over key elements of the proposed peace plan. Major issues leading to the dispute were: “the desirability and timing of a cease fire, the desirability and composition of an interim government, and the usefulness of deploying a regional peacekeeping force” (Adibe 1997, 473).

However, it was difficult to find common ground on these issues among negotiators. At this time, Taylor’s NPFL led the most powerful military force and was committed to controlling the entire country. Therefore, Taylor refused the ECOMOG’s request, insisting that the NPFL “took up arms, got rid of Doe, and took more than 98 percent of the country and so had earned the right to rule Liberia” (Adibe 1997, 474). Taylor’s objective of capturing the state was destroyed by the engagement of peacekeeping forces of the ECOMOG. Accordingly, in October 1992, Taylor’s NPFL launched a major attack named Operation Octopus on ECOMOG positions in Monrovia, aimed at capturing the city and establishing a national government. ECOWAS counterattacked by bombing NPFL’s position from air and sea. Backed by units of AFL and INPFL, ECOMOG successfully contained and then turned back the attack (Mackinlay and Alao 1994). This operation illustrated that the Liberia crisis had escalated beyond the negotiating capabilities of ECOMOG. Consequently, the security situation deteriorated rapidly, leading to the continuation of fighting between warlords.

From 1990 to 1993, enormous efforts were made by the ECOMOG to assure that all parties complied with the provisions of a series of peace agreements; however, these efforts failed because of the differences among ECOMOG member states with respect to their strategies. Specifically, Francophone countries of ECOMOG attached much importance to diplomatic strategy, accommodating warlords in a coalition government; however, the Anglophone states stressed launching a military force to contain the rebels and frustrate their aspirations (Armon and Carl 1996). Thus, the lack of consensus among ECOMOG member countries rendered ECOMOG incapable of making the Liberian factions lay down their arms.

In April 1993, Security Council Resolution 856 was passed to send the newly formed United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) into Liberia to assist the ECOMOG in monitoring and verifying the peace process—in particular, ensuring compliance with and impartial implementation of the agreement by all parties. UNOMIL was the first United Nations peacekeeping mission undertaken in cooperation with a peacekeeping operation already established by a regional organization (United Nations 2003a). In 1996, with the efforts of ECOMOG and the UN, the Abuja Accord was reached and accepted by all parties involved. This treaty integrated Liberian factions into a unified government following a cease-fire among warlords. In 1997, under the supervision of the UN, a democratically elected government was established, and Taylor was elected president of Liberia. The objective of the peace operation was achieved. In sum, in the Liberian case the conflict resolution process illustrated the effectiveness of the joint intervention strategy of international and regional organizations to address the civil strife in Africa. Specifically, the UN assumed “mainly supervisory roles while regional organizations would carry out the practical aspects of the peace keeping operations” (Alao 1998, 20). The regional organization was familiar with social and economic problems unique to the region; in addition, they were committed to solving the conflict and thus could play a positive role in the mediation process, whereas the United Nations provided abundant capability, resources, expertise, and authority to facilitate the process of disarmament and demobilization.


The civil war in Liberia had a drastic impact on Liberia’s economic structure as well as its political structure and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. About half the country’s 2.3 million people fled their homes and are either refugees in neighboring states or displaced inside Liberia. Efforts should be made along domestic and regional dimensions to prevent the recurrence of internal violence in Liberia. First, in a country such as Liberia which has experienced state collapse, efforts should be made to build a strong state that has “ample resources and the administrative and political capacity to control or regulate most economic, social, and political activity” (Gurr 2001, 142). Under this framework, in order to address the issue of ethnic problems and to prevent continuing interethnic revenge, Liberia should include representatives of different ethnic groups in the political process. Specifically, the parliament should be composed of representatives from different ethnic groups.

With this approach, various ethnic groups with different beliefs and backgrounds can live together in harmony without threatening the country’s political stability. In addition, the Liberian government should devote resources to socioeconomic development programs to increase “the improvements in the physical quality and dignity of people’s lives: access to potable water, safe and sanitary neighborhoods, basic health care, literacy and advanced education, sufficient income to provide at least minimally adequate food and clothing and sufficient income to provide for one’s family” (Diamond 1992, 123). With improved living conditions, people would have less motivation to participate in rebel activities against the government. Furthermore, to address the potential threat of internal violence in Liberia, regional organizations such as the Organization of Africa States (OAS) and ECOWAS should establish an institutional mechanism of conflict prevention. Liberia should be integrated into this security framework, in which situations in Liberia would be monitored, potential tension among ethnic groups detected, and ethnic conflicts resolved.