Liberia - Political background

The Republic of Liberia has its origins in a nineteenth-century effort to create a colony in Africa for the increasing numbers of freed slaves from the United States, coupled with missionary desires to gain a foothold in the region. In 1822, a settlement was established near what is now Monrovia. As more settlers arrived the territory grew, both through annexation of neighboring settlements and through the subjugation of indigenous peoples. The Free and Independent Republic of Liberia was declared on 26 July 1847.

The Liberian government has historically been patterned after that of the United States, and its Constitution echoes that of the United States as well. The country's president is elected to a renewable six-year term by universal suffrage. Its legislature is the bicameral National Assembly, which is composed of a 26-member Senate and 64-member House of Representatives.

One of the most notable characteristics of the Liberian state prior to 1980 was its basis of privilege. Political and economic power was wielded by the minority elite Americo-Liberians (about 50 extended families), who were directly descended from the former U.S. slave settlers. The introduction of universal suffrage in the 1940s did little to shift the balance of power, since few of the newly enfranchised bothered to vote.

The "evolution of privilege," as coined by the late Professor J. Gus Liebenow, received its wake-up call from William Tubman, the True Whig candidate who was elected president in 1944. Until his death in 1971, Tubman introduced reforms intended to eliminate social and economic discrimination against indigenous Liberians. Tubman was succeeded by his vice president, William Tolbert. Tolbert held office until 1980, amid increasing pressure from indigenous Liberians to speed up the pace of reforms. In 1978, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia was formed, representing the first significant opposition to the government. In April 1979, riots and looting broke out in response to a government plan to increase the retail price of rice. The now infamous rice riots led to Tolbert's assumption of emergency powers. In April 1980, Tolbert was assassinated in a coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. On assuming power as chairman of the People's Redemption Council (PRC), Doe suspended the Constitution and proscribed all political parties.

Thus began a decade of political and institutional upheaval in Liberia. Sergeant Doe, an illiterate career soldier, unleashed a reign of terror, during which summary executions became routine. In 1981, a commission was appointed to draft a new Constitution, and it was announced that a return to civilian rule would occur by 1986. In July 1984, the new Constitution was approved by 78% of registered voters. In the same month, Doe dissolved the PRC and appointed an interim National Assembly. In August, Doe founded the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) and announced his candidacy for the presidency. He also lifted the ban on political parties.

By 1985, almost a dozen political parties had been created, but they experienced significant legal obstacles in attempting to complete the registration process for the upcoming elections. Elections took place in October after a fractious campaign where opposition leaders were detained, and opposition parties proscribed. Doe won the election with 50.9% of the vote, and the NDPL won 22 of the 26 Senate seats and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. The elections were widely regarded as fraudulent, and several analysts consider them to have been the catalyst for the violence that followed.

On 24 December 1989, an armed insurrection began in the northeastern border region of Nimba County. The rebels were members of the previously unknown National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), an opposition group led by Charles Taylor, a former government official in the Doe administration. Nearly seven years of war ensued. Weary of fighting, Liberians went to the polls in June 1997 and elected Charles Taylor president.

In May 2000, the opposition, led by Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, formed a loose coalition of eleven entities called the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), which aimed to present a common candidate in 2003. In mid-2001, several key opposition leaders including Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf met in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss political strategies. The opposition has made a number of demands before going to the elections, including restructuring the armed forces according to the Abuja Accords, holding elections for chiefs and mayors, conducting a new census, dissolving NPP party cells in the civil service, stopping illegal funding of the NPP, guaranteeing opposition parties equal air time and reconstituting the elections commission (ECOM). Political activity upcountry on the part of the opposition remains extremely risky.

An insurgency led by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) threatened to derail elections, and following an outbreak of fighting within 80 km (50 mi) of Monrovia, Taylor declared a state of emergency on 8 February 2002. The emergency was lifted in September, but fighting by LURD forces was reported within 56 km (35 mi) of Monrovia at the end of March 2003.

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