Liberia History | Professional Jeweler

September 2003

Liberia: 1847-2003

From Freedom to Fear: Liberia's Troubled History
For the last 20 years, Liberia has been under the control of several military dictatorships. It is a country where 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and the life expectancy is just 51 years. It is also a country where corruption and lawlessness have allowed it to become a main conduit for conflict diamonds. Given these facts it is surprising that for nearly the rest of its over 150 year history, Liberia was a stable county, supported by the United States. Liberia was the shining example of a country with an American-style constitution functioning in the Third World.

In order to understand Liberia's role in the international conflict diamond crisis, its current instability, and America's role in helping the country now, it's necessary first to review the country's history.

In the Beginning
As white Americans were gaining the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" following the Revolutionary War, the situation for blacks remained horrendous. There was a growing belief, in the black and white communities, that freed slaves would never gain equality in America. A "back to Africa" sentiment began to percolate in the minds of African Americans who strove for freedom. The first black Americans went to Africa in 1820, with poor results. As time went by, however, more and more African American colonists came to the region which is now Liberia. Finally in 1847, a constitution based on that of the United States was ratified and Liberia declared its independence. As the land grab for African colonies began in the 1860's and 70's, Liberia remained one of the few independent republics in the whole of the continent. During the first half of the 20th century, new laws were passed in Liberia, bringing equality to all the different ethnicities inside the country.

Coup, Chaos, and Civil War
In 1971, the seven-times elected president of Liberia, William Tubman, died in office. He was succeeded by William Tolbert, Jr., vice president under Tubman for the previous 19 years. The stability that Liberia had enjoyed throughout most of its history lasted until 1979, when an increase in the price of rice caused massive demonstrations and eventually riots. Amidst the turmoil, an officer in the Liberian Army named Samuel Doe staged a simple and bloody overthrow of the then-weakened government. He executed Tolbert and most of the high ranking government officials, sweeping out any remnants of the old government. Doe suspended the democratic practices of Liberia, and in doing so, became the country's first dictator.

The new military government ran Liberia into the ground. Despite massive U.S. aid, the country's economy took a nose dive. U.S. companies backed out of Liberia, taking with them jobs and money that the nation's people desperately needed. Several attempts were made at overthrowing the Doe regime, but were brutally crushed. This culminated in the civil war that began in 1989 and continued for seven bloody years of on and off fighting. Starting in that year, the rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, made increasing gains and rose in strength and notoriety.

The Doe government came to a dramatic end when in 1990, Samuel Doe himself was captured and executed by the rebels. In the ensuing chaos, the NPFL, the strongest of the rebel factions, battled several other groups for supremacy in Monrovia and the countryside. A peace keeping force of West African troops attempted to bring about a cease fire, and in 1993, a fragile peace was drawn up by the rebel groups. This peace lasted just as long as the groups were at the bargaining table, and the fighting resumed. A true peace agreement was signed in 1995, but again was a mere intermission in the fighting. When the hiatus ended, the fighting raged more intensely than ever, this time in Monrovia itself. Finally, West African peacekeepers were able to disarm the rebels, and beginning in late 1996, a more viable peace began. In the first fair elections held in more than 16 years, the leader of the NPFL, Charles Taylor, won in a landslide.

Conflict Diamonds
After he was elected, Charles Taylor held a tenuous grip on power, just barely suppressing the two main rebel groups. These groups are Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD, and Movement for Democracy and Elections in Liberia, or MODEL. However, it was not during Liberian internal conflicts that Charles Taylor committed the war crimes for which he is now indicted by the United Nations.

Liberia's neighbor to the northwest, Sierra Leone, was engulfed in its own domestic struggle for nearly ten years. Atrocities on an unimaginable scale were committed in the battles to control the country's diamond deposits. Fortunately the world took notice and the United Nations placed a diamond embargo on Sierra Leone. As it was then impossible to sell diamonds directly from Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone-based rebel group Revolutionary United Front began to channel the diamonds through Liberia, with the blessing of Charles Taylor, who had been aiding and abetting the RUF all through the 1990s. The RUF was the dark end of the spectrum of humanity, committing genocide, rape, and brutal maimings - the oldest crimes, in new, bloodier forms. As soon as Charles Taylor began facilitating them, he too became a war criminal.

The illegal diamond trade grew as the civil war continued and despite Liberia's relatively small diamond reserves, its exports of diamonds expanded. By means of a world wide network, diamonds went from Sierra Leone to Liberia, then to Lebanon, Belgium and the Netherlands. Weapons found their way from ex-Soviet and eastern block countries, China, and the Balkans, through Liberia and into Sierra Leone to fuel the civil war. Charles Taylor even allowed RUF forces into some border regions of Liberia to re-arm and rest before continuing the campaigns of terror.

The world responded to Liberia's role in the bloodshed that was taking place in Sierra Leone. In March 2001, a unanimous United Nations Security Council vote placed diamonds and weapons embargos on Liberia, to try to curb the guns for diamonds trade. However the Sierra Leone civil war continued until January 2002, when it was ended by international peacekeepers.

Not surprisingly, the people and government of Sierra Leone wanted Charles Taylor's head. For 10 years, both as a rebel leader and president, he had ravaged Sierra Leone, stealing its diamonds and supporting the murderous and hated RUF. Accordingly, Taylor was indicted for war crimes on June 4, 2003 by a UN-backed, Sierra Leone court.

Despite sanctions, pressure by the international community, and Taylor's indictment by the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, Liberia continues to be a main junction of conflict diamonds and the weapons they fund for all of West Africa. With the Sierra Leone civil war over, the weapons are now filtering out to Liberia's other neighbors, some of which have been experiencing civil wars as well.

A more frightening facet of Liberia's connection to the illegal diamond trade is the alleged link to the al Qaeda terrorist network. Experts believe terrorists have been able to convert $200 million of their funds into safe, transportable diamonds. Charles Taylor and the rest of the corrupt Liberian government are suspected of helping them to do so safely and easily inside of Liberia. It is not known how many diamonds al Qaeda now possesses, or whether any have been sold to raise money for terrorism.

The Crisis of 2003
The fighting that raged in and around Monrovia for more than two months during the summer of 2003 was one of the largest pushes by the rebel group LURD to force Charles Taylor from power. From mortar barrages to house-to-house urban fighting, the combat did not show mercy toward civilians. Dozens of innocent people were killed, hundreds injured and many more felt the effects of the fighting in the form of food and water shortages. The city was forcefully partitioned between the government and rebel armies, with the government controlling the city center and the rebels controlling the Free Port. International food and medical shipments were stopped at the port and used solely by the rebels. With no food allowed to reach the government sector, thousands became malnourished. Many more were affected by the lack of medical supplies and facilities.

Charles Taylor accepted a Nigerian offer of asylum and on August 11, 2003, he finally stepped down from power. Once Taylor had stepped down, LURD signed an accord in which they agreed to leave the port and on August 18 LURD, MODEL, and the post Taylor government signed a peace treaty in Ghana which officially brought the fighting to an end. West African peacekeepers began landing in August to cautiously assess the complex circumstances of post-Taylor Liberia. West African forces, mostly Nigerians, occupied the port and began assuring that food shipments reached the people. American warships, carrying several thousand Marines, were positioned off shore. With Taylor's exit, one of the major conditions laid out by the Bush administration for American involvement was met. Thus, on August 14, a force of 200 American Marines came ashore to assure the safe travel of food shipments to the people of Monrovia. U.S. military officials say that this not a peacekeeping force, but a short term reactionary team to aid the West African troops establish control in the war torn capital. Many Liberians are praying for the day that the Americans step in with a full scale deployment to bring real security, but as of yet, it is unclear when or if they will do so.

The Road Ahead
Liberia's long history has brought about a truly unique country, with truly unique problems. The people have known democracy, unlike many other African nations. Liberians closely identify with the United States, which is why they asked for American help in their time of crisis. But above all, Liberians haven't known a single year in the previous twenty without war, rebellion or a tyrannical despot. This has produced the instability and government corruption that led to Liberia's role as a conflict diamond conduit. Perhaps all this will change now that Charles Taylor has ceded power, or now that peacekeepers have landed to begin mediating the country's factions, or with the signing of the peace treaty in Ghana. But for a country which has time after time tried and failed to secure its own stability, a lasting peace is anything but certain.

by Bill Donahue