This is the third of four case studies of African conflict. There is no single driver of fighting, but the First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997) can be used an example to understand how groups become incentivized to violence. In Liberia, the sense of group deprivation of indigenous Liberians led them to seek resources from descendants of Americo-Liberians. The neighboring civil war in Sierra Leone can only be understood fully by learning a bit about Liberia, as Liberia (and the leadership of Charles Taylor) had a “spillover effect.” I wrote about Sierra Leone as an example of individual motivation in conflict, but these explanations are not mutually exclusive and one can find both group and private incentives in both civil wars.
Liberia and the “Group Motivation” Hypothesis (Stewart, 2002): The first Liberian Civil War was rooted in the founding of the nation in 1822 as a colony for former slaves from the U.S. and the Caribbean. As a solution to the perceived incompatibility of the races in the West, around 5000 former slaves arrived, intermarried with local populations, and became dominant social figures within a few decades. Despite only constituting 5% of the Liberian population, Americo-Liberians (or Congaus) ruled Liberia as a dominant majority over the indigenous people until 1980. They were able to maintain power for so long through a combination of U.S. support, mastery of political strategy derived from their past as Americans, tight and self-benefitting social networks, and a degree of lighter skin privilege. The higher social status of Americo-Liberians instilled a sense of horizontal inequality with other groups in Liberian society.
In 1980, a non-commissioned military officer named Samuel Doe came to be the first indigenous head of state after staging a violent coup and killing President Tolbert. As a member of a small, rural ethnic group, Doe initially enjoyed widespread popular support from indigenous Liberians who had been marginalized by American-Liberians, but quickly turned violent and repressive. Political opponents were jailed and killed, some even having their bodies put on public display. Doe survived an attempted counter-coup and in response held fraudulent elections to justify his rule in 1985. The attempted coup only emboldened his targeting of the ethnic groups seen as the plotters of his overthrow.
A former member of Doe’s government ousted for embezzlement, Charles Taylor, assembled and trained a rebel force in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire to take over the Liberia in the late 1980s. Taylor’s National Patriotric Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded Liberia on December 24, 1989, and soon received much support and volunteer fighters from the ethnic groups most violently targeted by Doe, the Gio, and the Mano peoples. Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) quickly responded with scorched earth campaigns against these rural communities in the territories occupied by Taylor’s army, massacring and displacing hundreds of thousands. Many soldiers on both sides were children. In this milieu, ethnic Krahn, Doe’s ethnic group which was sympathetic to him, soon came to be pitted against those victimized by him, the Gio and the Mano.
The capital of Monrovia was the stage of a takeover in the summer of 1990 when the AFL tried to fight off both Taylor’s NPFL as well as soldiers of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), founded when a NPFL fighter named Prince Johnson broke away from Taylor to start his own ethnically-based rebel group.
At this point in 1990, the conflict became a regional concern because of Liberia’s strong ethnic, linguistic, and political ties to neighboring countries. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria, attempted to negotiate with the besieged Taylor to convince him to give up his position in Monrovia but he refused. In unclear circumstances, Samuel Doe was lured an ECOWAS headquarters building believing that it was a diplomatic call, and then Prince Johnson’s soldiers tortured and murdered him. This left the NPFL and the INPFL to battle over the country after initial ECOWAS peace talks with the rebel groups failed. Johnson soon fled to Nigeria and various other warlords emerged to try to control Monrovia.
From 1990-1991, ECOWAS, religious leaders, and other international actors attempted to get Taylor and Johnson to agree to peace talks in neutral West Africa countries but these efforts were unsuccessful. The Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was established in during a peace conference in the Gambia in 1990, but enjoyed only limited control over Monrovia since Taylor refused to attend the conference and which rebel parties saw as illegitimate. In June 1991, Doe’s former supporters reemerged, in collaboration with former AFL fighters, in the form of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO). After training in neighboring Sierra Leone’s civil war (rebellion funded and supported by Taylor), ULIMO forces then took over Taylor’s diamonds and mining strongholds. After three years of committing extreme violence, the ULIMO fell apart by 1994.
From 1992-1996, Monrovia continued to host intense fighting among Taylor’s NPFL, Johnson’s INPFL, and ECOWAS troops attempting to quell the other two groups. In 1994, the United Nations established the UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) after a peace agreement among factions in Benin in order to monitor elections planned for March 1994, and also deployed its own troops to support ECOWAS. The security situation continued to only worsen in 1994 despite the Contonou and Akosombo peace agreements that rebels were party to. Almost 2 million Liberians were in need of humanitarian aid but aid workers, diplomats and other government officials were unable to function in the country. The UN reduced its troop numbers and fighting among rebels led by warlords Taylor, Alhaji Kromah, and Geroge Boley continued to flare.
Taylor agreed to disarmament and demobilization in 1995, yet heavy fighting broke out again the following year only for Taylor to then agree to peace again in the Abuja Accord. Taylor agreed to elections for July 1997, in which his National Patriotic Party swept the polls under widespread intimidation and fraud. Most reported that they voted for him only as a means to end the bloodshed. While President, Taylor supported rebel factions in neighboring countries as a means of securing access to lootable natural resources, e.g. diamond, clamped down on dissidents, engaged in immense corruption and self-profit, and was later found guilty of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2012.
The End of the War: By the end of the First Liberian Civil War in 1996, the country was completely destroyed. All economic infrastructure developed since the country was founded had deteriorated, a million Liberians were refugees in neighboring countries, and 200,000 Liberians had been killed. In response to these conditions, former ULIMO soldiers founded Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) to oust Taylor and gain control of his diamond mines in northern Liberia, which led to the Second Liberian Civil War in 1999.