Portuguese explorers established contacts with the land later known as "Liberia" as early as 1461 and named the area the 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. No further "European" settlements occurred along the Grain Coast until the arrival of freed American slaves after 1817.
Liberia, which means "Land of the Free", was founded by freed slaves from the United States under the supervision of the American Colonization Society in 1820. These Americo-Liberians established a settlement in Christopolis, soon renamed Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe, President of the Society, 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". Lt. Robert F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy helped negotiate a treaty with the natives that led to the founding of the new country.
Africa's first republic, Liberia was founded in 1822 as a result of the efforts of the American Colonization Society to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. The society contended that the immigration of blacks to Africa was an answer to the problem of slavery as well as to what it felt was the incompatibility of the races. Over the course of forty years, about 12,000 slaves were voluntarily relocated. Originally called Monrovia, the colony became the Free and Independent Republic of Liberia in 1847.
The English-speaking Americo-Liberians, descendants of former American slaves, make up only 5% of the population, but have historically dominated the intellectual and ruling class. Liberia's indigenous population is composed of 16 different ethnic groups.
Attempts to modernize the economy led to a rising foreign debt in 1871, which the republic had serious difficulty repaying. The debt problem and constitutional issues led to the overthrow of the government in 1871. Conflicts over territorial claims resulted in the loss of large areas of land to Britain and France in 1885, 1892, and 1919. However, rivalries between the Europeans colonizing West Africa and the interest of the United States helped preserve Liberian independence during this period. Nevertheless, the decline of Liberia's exports and its inability to pay its debts resulted in a large measure of foreign interference.
In 1909 the government was bankrupt, and a series of international loans were floated. Firestone leased large areas for rubber production in 1926. In 1930 scandals broke out over the exportation of forced labor from Liberia, and a League of Nations investigation upheld the charges that slave trading had gone on with the connivance of the government. President C. B. D. King and his associates resigned, and international control of the republic was proposed. Under the leadership of presidents Edwin Barclay (1930–44) and William V. S. Tubman (1944–71), however, Liberia avoided such control.
Under Tubman, new policies to open the country to international investment and to allow the indigenous people a greater say in Liberian affairs were undertaken. The country's mineral wealth, particularly iron ore, began to be exploited, and there was a gradual improvement of roads, schools, and health standards. Upon Tubman's death in 1971, Vice President W. R. Tolbert took charge, and in 1972 he was elected to the presidency. Although Tolbert cultivated a democratic climate and favorable relations abroad, an organized opposition emerged early in his regime, some of it from Liberian students living in the United States.
Tolbert was ousted in a military coup on April 12, 1980, by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, backed by the U.S. government. Doe's rule was characterized by corruption and brutality. A rebellion led by Charles Taylor, a former Doe aide, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), started in Dec. 1989; the following year, Doe was assassinated. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated with the government and the rebel factions and attempted to restore order, but the civil war raged on. By April 1996, factional fighting by the country's warlords had destroyed any last vestige of normalcy and civil society. The civil war finally ended in 1997.
In what was considered by international observers to be a free election, Charles Taylor won 75% of the presidential vote in July 1997. The country had next to no health care system, and the capital was without electricity and running water. Taylor supported Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the hopes of toppling his neighbor's government, in exchange for diamonds, which enriched his personal coffers. As a consequence, the UN issued sanctions.
In 2002, rebels—Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)—intensified their attacks on Taylor's government. By June 2003, LURD and other rebel groups controlled two-thirds of the country. Finally, on Aug. 11, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. Gyude Bryant, a businessman seen as a coalition builder, was selected by the various factions as the new president. By the time he was exiled, Taylor had bankrupted his own country, siphoning off $100 million. According to the New York Times, Taylor left Liberia the world's poorest nation.
In a Nov. 2005 presidential run-off election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard educated economist who had worked at the World Bank, defeated George Weah, a former world-class soccer star. In Jan. 2006 she became Africa's first female president.
Land area: 37,189 sq mi (96,320 sq km); total area: 43,000 sq mi (111,370 sq km)
Population (2006 est.): 3,042,004 (growth rate: 4.9%); birth rate: 44.8/1000; infant mortality rate: 155.8/1000; life expectancy: 39.6; density per sq mi: 82
Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Monrovia, 1,348,900 (metro. area), 550,200 (city proper)
Monetary unit: Liberian dollar
Languages: English 20% (official), some 20 ethnic-group languages
Religions: traditional 40%, Christian 40%, Islam 20%
Literacy rate: 58% (2003 est.)
GDP/PPP (2004 est.): $2.903 billion; per capita $900
Real growth rate: 21.8%
Inflation: 15% (2003 est.)
Agriculture: rubber, coffee, cocoa, rice, cassava (tapioca), palm oil, sugarcane, bananas; sheep, goats; timber
Labor force: agriculture 70%, industry 8%, services 22% (2000 est.). Industries: rubber processing, palm oil processing, timber, diamonds. Natural resources: iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold, hydropower. Exports: $1.079 billion (f.o.b., 2002 est.): rubber, timber, iron, diamonds, cocoa, coffee
Imports: $5.051 billion (f.o.b., 2002 est.): fuels, chemicals, machinery, transportation equipment, manufactured goods; foodstuffs
Major trading partners: Germany, Poland, Greece, U.S., France, Thailand, China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Spain (2003)
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
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