Liberia is the only West African state never to have been formerly colonized. The country was formed in 1820 when U.S. philanthropists negotiated rights to settle freed slaves from the United States in the area. Liberia was declared a republic in 1847 and operated with political institutions modeled on those of the United States.
For the next 133 years the True Whig Party, which mostly consisted of the descendants of freed slaves, was the only significant political force. The party's rule ended in 1980 when President William Tolbert was assassinated. Following Tolbert's death Sergeant Samuel Doe took power as head of the ruling 15-member military People's Redemption Council (PRC).
The following decade was marked by growing opposition to the military regime, with many alleged or actual coup attempts resulting in executions. Rigged multi-party elections in 1985 brought Doe back to power as president with a tiny majority. In the next month a coup led by Brigadier General Quiwonkpa was put down, 600 people died, and reprisals were taken against Quiwonkpa's ethnic group, the Gio, adding further to the tensions.
On 24 December 1989, Charles Taylor, a former government employee, invaded the country with a small armed force from Côte d'Ivoire. Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) gained popular support, and by June 1990 only Monrovia remained under Doe's control. The fight for the capital became a 3-way contest with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the NPFL, and a splinter group from the NPFL, the INPFL, vying for control.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), anxious about regional destabilization, sent in a 6,000-strong monitoring group, ECOMOG, to take control of the capital. ECOMOG was made up of many nations, but the main constituent was Nigerian. Despite ECOMOG also offering Doe protection, Doe was kidnapped and killed. A cease fire was signed in November 1990, but the NPFL refused to recognize the interim government.
By March 1991, fighting had resumed, spilling over into Sierra Leone, with the NPFL backing a Sierra Leonian rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The Sierra Leone army was backed by the new United Liberation Movement for democracy in Liberia (Ulimo), who went on to attack the NPFL in north-west Liberia.
Amid this shifting chaos of armed rebel groups and failed peacemaking, diplomatic efforts continued. Finally, in June 1995, Charles Taylor visited Nigeria, and all sides agreed to a peace accord in August. The accord set out plans for elections in 1996, with an interim 6-man Council of State that included representatives of the main factions and civilians. Renewed violence in April 1996 threw this initial agreement off track, but a second peace agreement, again signed in Nigeria, called for disarmament and elections, with the threat of sanctions if this was not achieved. Disarmament started slowly but in early 1997 was completed, and the militias were formally disbanded.
Elections took place in July 1997, which allowed time for preparations and campaigning and were undertaken in a calm and relatively peaceful atmosphere. Taylor won 75 percent of the vote, and Taylor's National Patriotic Party (NPP) won a majority in both Houses. However, prospects for a viable multiparty system receded by 1998 with all the main opposition leaders in exile. Currently the country is not completely secure, as witnessed by invasions from armed bands in 1999 and 2000.
Liberia's political history has been dominated both by the struggle between American Liberians and ethnic Liberians (which was resolved in the 1980 coup with the ethnic Liberians gaining the upper hand) and conflicts between ethnic groups within Liberia (both to gain power and avenge past wrongs). Ethnically motivated killings and harassment were undertaken by all sides during the civil war, and reconciliation has proved to be slow and difficult. Taylor was initially seen as a welcomed alternative to Doe but was later seen as preventing stability by not honoring the peace agreements. The murder of Samuel Dokie, a former member of the NPFL, and the intimidation of other opposition leaders led to greatly reduced opposition power and to fears of Liberia becoming a de facto 1-party state, with all power in the hands of the president.
Under the 1986 constitution, the president and vice-president have executive roles, and legislative power rests in Congress and the House of Representatives. Both houses were elected for 6 years, although this was reduced to 4 years before the 1997 elections. New legislation has endorsed the 1986 constitution, although the rebuilding of democratic institutions has been hampered by limited funding and enduring tensions.
The links with Sierra Leone's rebel RUF and the allegations of material support for the group have caused significant problems for Taylor's regime. Taylor has used his influence over the RUF in constructive ways, for example, by helping to negotiate the release of captured United Nations troops. However, renewed violence in May 2000 prompted the United Kingdom to accuse Liberia of supplying arms for diamonds and led to the suspension of a US$60 million European Union (EU) aid package for Liberia. Recently, government forces have reinforced the Sierra Leone border, and the Liberian government has accused the United Kingdom of trying to destabilize Taylor's regime.
Relations with Guinea, in the light of reports of armed incursions being launched from there as well as from Sierra Leone, have improved little despite the president of Mali's attempts to broker a reconciliation. Relations with the United States have got better since 1998, but Liberia's oldest ally is critical of civil rights abuses.
There is little recent information on government finances. In 1988 total government revenue was 18 percent of the GDP, with taxes on income of individuals and corporations raising 33 percent of government income, indirect taxes 25 percent, customs duties and export levies 34 percent, and other sources contributing 8 percent. General administration accounted for 24 percent of expenditure, defence 10 percent, health 5 percent, economic activities 28 percent, and other expenditures (including social services) 33 percent.
Extensive corruption and a near complete lack of respect for the law makes Liberia an extremely unfriendly place for foreigners to do business. According to the U.S. State Department, corruption and lawlessness permeates every level of the government: requests for bribes, red tape, and a lack of enforcement for legal contracts has kept investment to a minimum. The government has done little to address these problems.