It is believed that many of the peoples of Liberia migrated there from the north and east between the 12th and 16th centuries AD Portuguese explorers first visited the coast in 1461, and Europeans traded with coastal tribes during the next three centuries. Modern Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed slaves from the United Staets. They were sent to Africa under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, a private organization whose purpose was "to promote and execute a plan for colonizing in Africa, with their own consent, the free people of color residing in the US." The first settlement was on Providence Island near where the present capital city, Monrovia, is located. Although the Society, with the help of the United States government under President James Monroe (after whom Monrovia is named), had arranged with local chiefs for a settlement, the colonists were attacked by indigenous peoples, disease, and barely maintained their foothold.
The first governors of the settlement were agents appointed by the Colonization Society, but in 1847 Americo-Liberians established the Republic of Liberia under a constitution modeled after that of the US. The state seal shows a ship at anchor in a tropical harbor, and bears the inscription, "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here." Thus began over a 130 years of Americo-Liberian domination over the 16 indigenous ethnic groups within Liberia's borders.
Emigration to Liberia continued until the close of the US Civil War, during which about 14,000 settlers went to Liberia under the auspices of the Society, and some 5,700 captives, liberated from slave ships on the high seas by the US Navy, were sent by the US government.
Although the United States refused to extend diplomatic recognition to independent Liberia until the civil war, several European governments did, including Britain and France. However, as the scramble for Africa reached its feverish pitch, Liberia's "century of survival" began. Neighboring British and French colonial powers, on one pretext or another, and by force of arms, encroached upon the infant republic. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Liberia lost considerable resource-rich territory to adjoining British and French colonies. Pressure on Liberia's borders continued well into the 20th century.
Added to these dangers was Liberia's precarious economic position. In the 1870s, Liberia contracted for a $500,000 loan from European sources. Because of increasing world competition from Brazilian coffee, European sugar beets, and steamers, Liberia was unable to generate sufficient export revenue, and defaulted on this loan. Recession forced Liberia into a series of ever larger loans. Liberians were further compelled to allow collection of customs revenues by Europeans and Americans. Eventually, Liberia was able to secure a $5-million loan from a US firm, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., which set up rubber plantations in the country in 1926. The depression of the 1930s brought Liberia to the verge of bankruptcy, and government revenues fell in 1933 to a low of $321,000.
In the early 1930s, Liberia's political sovereignty was also severely threatened. Accusations had begun to circulate internationally that Liberian laborers, with the complicity of high government officials, were being recruited for shipment to the Spanish island of Fernando Póo (now Bioko, in Equatorial Guinea) under conditions that resembled slave trading. A commission of inquiry, set up by the League of Nations at the request of Liberia's President Charles D. B. King, found some basis for the charges and implicated the vice president, who was forced to resign. President King also resigned.
Exportation of rubber from the new Firestone plantations began in 1934. The establishment of a US air base in Liberia during World War II and the building of an artificial harbor at Monrovia further stimulated the country's development. William V. S. Tubman, elected president in 1944 and reelected for five additional terms, sought to unify the country by attempting to bridge the wide economic, political, and social gaps between the descendants of the original American ex-slaves and the tribal peoples of the interior. President Tubman, affectionately called "Uncle Shad," died at the age of 74, after 27 years in office. He was known as the "Maker of Modern Liberia" for his open door policy of unrestricted foreign investment and his Unification Policy.
Upon his death in 1971, Vice-President William R. Tolbert, Jr. assumed the reigns of power. Tolbert was nominated by the True Whigs, Liberia's only legal political party, and, having been elected without opposition in October 1975, was inaugurated for an eight-year term in January 1976. Unfortunately, Tolbert's term coincided with a deep economic depression, which sparked Liberia's colonial revolution. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) organized a protest against proposed increases in the price of rice. The meeting turned violent resulting in looting. Tolbert was forced to subsidize rice to restore order, a sign that the True Whig government was coming to an end.
On 12 April 1980 army enlisted men staged a coup. Tolbert and at least 26 supporters were killed in the fighting. Thirteen officials were publicly executed 10 days later. The People's Redemption Council (PRC) led by Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, a Krahn tribesman, became head of state. Doe suspended the constitution, but a return to civilian rule was promised for 1985. Despite two coups attempts in 1981, the government declared an amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles. Forty political prisoners were released in September of that year, and another 20 were released in December. A draft constitution providing for a multiparty republic was issued in 1983 and approved by referendum in 1984.
In the elections of 15 October 1985, nine political parties sought to challenge Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), but only three were allowed to take part. Doe was elected with 51% of the vote, and the NDPL won 21 of the 26 Senate seats and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. Foreign observers declared the elections fraudulent, and most of the elected opposition candidates refused to take their seats.
In November 1985, military leader Thomas Quiwonkpa and an estimated 500 to 600 people died in an unsuccessful coup attempt—the seventh since Doe took power. Krahn troops retaliated, killing thousands of Gio, considered supporters of the coup leaders. In late December 1989, a small group of insurgents calling themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor invaded Liberia. The rebel invasion soon pitted ethnic Krahn sympathetic to the regime against those victimized by it, Gio and Mano. Thousands of civilians were massacred on both sides. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes.
By June 1990, Taylor's forces laid siege to Monrovia. A third force led by Prince Yormie Johnson, split from the NPFL. Johnson quickly controlled parts of Monrovia prompting evacuation of foreign nationals and diplomats by the US Navy in August.
With military discipline absent and bloodshed throughout the capital region, members of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) created the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to restore order. The force comprised some 4,000 troops from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Guinea. ECOMOG succeeded in bringing Doe and Johnson to agree to its intervention, but Taylor's forces engaged it in the port area of Monrovia.
ECOWAS invited the principal Liberian players to meet in Banjul, Gambia to form a government of national unity. Exiled members of Liberia's leading political parties and associations elected Dr. Amos Sawyer, leader of the LPP to head an interim government of national unity (IGNU). Bishop Ronald Diggs of the Liberian Council of Churches became vice president. However, Taylor's NPFL refused to attend the conference, and the AFL, which formerly supported Doe, and the INPFL allied themselves against Taylor. Within days clashes erupted.
On 9 September 1990, Johnson's forces captured Doe at the port. His torture and execution were videotaped by his captors. ECOMOG was reinforced in order to protect the interim government headed by Dr. Sawyer. Sawyer was able to establish his authority over most of Monrovia, but the rest of Liberia was in the hands of various factions of the NPFL or of local gangs.
Repeated attempts to get Taylor and Johnson to cooperate with Sawyer proved fruitless. The war spilled into Sierra Leone, further complicating peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts. In April 1996, violence escalated in Monrovia, essentially destroying the city. Roving gangs of heavily armed, leaderless teenagers recklessly sprayed the city with machine-gun fire and grenade launchers. More than 3,000 people were killed in the next two months and nearly every building in the capital suffered damage. Looters targeted international relief organizations for their radios, medicines, and cars.
On 8 May 1996, after more than 150,000 deaths and 13 peace accords, Liberia's four principal militias approved a peace plan that required an immediate halt to fighting, the removal of weapons and ammunition from the capital city of Monrovia, and the return of about $20 million worth of vehicles and equipment stolen from international relief organizations. Additional troops from Ghana, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin were brought in to enforce the peace accords, bringing the total number of foreign peacekeeping troops to 13,000. Meanwhile, it was apparent that disagreements over establishing an electoral commission and other difficulties in preparations would delay the proposed elections.
On 19 July 1997 some 500 international observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter, monitored the elections. They reported peaceful, mostly free and fair elections, although runners-up Johnson-Sirleaf and Kromah complained of irregularities. The official results gave Taylor the victory with 75.3% of the vote, while Johnson-Sirleaf obtained 9.6%. Taylor's National Patriotic Party (NPP) took 49 House seats and 21 seats in the Senate (out of 64 and 26 total seats respectively). On 2 August Taylor was inaugurated. He appointed a cabinet with some members of the transitional administration, and he established a nine-member national security council to maintain civil order.
Although insecurity prevailed in parts of Liberia, especially Lofa County, the last ECOMOG troops began leaving the country in October 1999. In July 1999, Taylor presided over the burning of a huge stockpile of weapons. By May 2000, much of Liberia was still in ruins, but international donors had made some progress in restoring agricultural production, reintegrating ex-combatants, and helping refugees and internally displaced persons resettle in their home areas.
Unfortunately, the peace was ephemeral. Fighting broke out again in 2000, leading to a declaration of a state of emergency on 8 February 2002. Taylor lifted the emergency in September 2002, but by February-March 2003, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) had made gains deep into territory previously held by government troops. Under ECOWAS supervision, the two sides met in Bamako in March 2003, the first such official encounter, and peace talks were scheduled to continue in Accra. However, with rebel forces having entered parts of Monrovia in June, French commandos evacuated more than 500 foreigners—many of them relief workers, leaving Liberians to deal with scarcity of fuel, skyrocketing food costs, and wounded bodies filling the main hospital in the capital. On 17 June, the two sides signed a cease-fire, committing to discussions within 30 days, leading to a transition government excluding Taylor. But by 20 June 2003, Taylor had renounced his pledge to cede power, and declared that he would serve out his term to January 2004 with the possibility of seeking re-election.