Reconciliation in Liberia

by Michael Patrick O'Leary



Liberia is a small West African country of four million people. In 2003, after 14 years of civil war that left 250,000 dead and a million displaced, the  warring factions concluded a peace agreement in Accra. During peace negotiations, a crucial issue was the choice between a war crimes tribunal (WCT) and a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). Earlier Liberian peace agreements had offered blanket amnesty to belligerent parties.  At Accra, the opportunity for some form of accounting was possible. The TRC was designed to “provide a forum that will address issues of impunity, as well as the opportunity for both victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences in order to get a clear picture of the past to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.”


According to the TRC, its hearings and other meetings provided a setting for “restorative justice” processes in which the victim, the offender, and the other individuals or community members can actively participate in the mediation and resolution of past grievances.”


One man did become accountable, but not for his actions in Liberia. Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was president of Liberia from 2 August 1997 until his resignation on 11 August 2003. On 26 April 2012, the SCSL (Special Court for Sierra Leone) at The Hague, after a trial lasting four years, unanimously ruled that he was guilty on all eleven counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor was  found guilty of arming Sierra Leone rebels in return for “blood diamonds in a war, in which 120 000 died. He was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment last Wednesday, 30 May 2012. Taylor will serve his sentence in a British prison.

The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847. While most of Africa was  divided by European colonists on the basis of the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, the area that is now Liberia began to be settled in 1820 by freed American slaves with the help of the American Colonization Society. The ACS was founded in 1816 to support the return of free African Americans to what was considered greater freedom in Africa. It was a coalition made up mostly of evangelicals and Quakers who supported abolition, and Chesapeake slaveholders who understood there was no economic future for slavery. They found common ground in support of so-called “repatriation” , which was a way to remove free blacks and avoid slave rebellions. Critics have said the ACS was racist, while others point to its benevolent origins and later takeover by men with visions of an American empire in Africa. The Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until independence. By 1867, the ACS had helped ship  more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.

Most US presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln thought colonisation would solve the race problem. The rationale was that blacks were inferior to whites and incapable of adequately adjusting to white civilisation. Historians have debated whether Lincoln’s racial views (or merely his acceptance of the political reality) included that African Americans could not live in the same society as white Americans.  Lincoln was a complicated figure who wrestled with his own views on the African American race. Lincoln’s primary audience was white voters. Lincoln’s views on slavery, race equality, and African American colonization are often intermixed. During the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln expressed the view that whites were superior to blacks.[  Lincoln stated he was against miscegenation and would not allow blacks to serve as jurors. One view is that Lincoln adopted colonization for Freedmen in order to make his Emancipation Proclamation politically acceptable.

In a speech in Peoria  in 1854 Lincoln said: “My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me that whatever of high hope (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible.” Of course, Liberia would have been the “native land” of few of the deportees. The United States would have been the land where many of them had been born. Lincoln mentioned colonization favourably in his first Emancipation Proclamation, and continued to support efforts at colonization throughout his presidency.

Sierra Leone was established  by Britain as a colony for resettlement of blacks who opposed the American Revolution against the British and poor blacks from England. More on this in a later article.

Pre-ACS Liberia had similarities with Sri Lanka in that it attracted the interest of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Portuguese explorers established contacts with people of the land later known as “Liberia” as early as 1461. It was known as Costa da Pimenta  because of the abundance of melegueta pepper. In 1602 the Dutch established a trading post at Grand Cape Mount but destroyed it a year later. In 1663, the British installed trading posts on the Pepper Coast.

In 1839, it was renamed the Commonwealth of Liberia; 1841 saw the Commonwealth’s first black Governor, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. By the 1840s, the ACS was effectively bankrupt; Liberia had become a financial burden for it. In 1846, the ACS directed the Americo-Liberians to proclaim their independence. In 1847, Roberts proclaimed the colony the free and independent republic of Liberia. It then had  3000 settlers. A Constitution modelled on that of the USA was drawn up .  Voting rights to the indigenous Liberians were denied. Between 1847 and 1980, the state of Liberia was governed by the small minority of African-American colonists and their offspring, suppressing the large indigenous majority of 95% of the Liberian population. The original inhabitants of the area resented the American settlements and their territorial expansions. They engaged in resistance from the inception of colonization until at least 1980.

The Americo-Liberians created a facsimile of American society in Liberia, maintaining their English-speaking, Americanized way of life, and building churches and houses resembling those of the Southern U.S. Although they never constituted more than five percent of the population of Liberia, they controlled key resources that allowed them to dominate the local native peoples: access to the ocean, modern technical skills, literacy and education, and valuable relationships with the American government.

They created a  cultural and racial caste system with themselves at the top instead of the bottom. Like many white missionaries, they were frustrated by the natives’ lack of interest in becoming ‘civilized.’

After 1927, the League of Nations admonished the Liberian government for “systematically and for years fostering and encouraging a policy of gross intimidation and suppression”. In 1926, the Liberian government gave a concession to  Firestone to start the world’s largest rubber plantation and  Firestone arranged a $5 million private loan. During World War II, Liberian rubber was essential to the US war effort. In 2005, Firestone were accused of using “forced labor, the modern equivalent of slavery”. The U.S. established  military bases and bridgeheads for transport of soldiers and war supplies and  subsidized the construction of airports and roads into the interior.

After 1945, the Liberian government received hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, which destabilized the economy. Revenue was embezzled by government officials and  economic disparities increased hostility between indigenous groups and Americo-Liberians. The U.S. assisted the Liberian rulers in putting down rebellions.


Social tensions led President William Tubman to enfranchise indigenous Liberians, but repression continued and elections were rigged. Following Tubman’s death in 1971, his long-serving vice president, William R. Tolbert, Jr., assumed the presidency. Tolbert initiated some liberal reforms and allowed the creation of an opposition party, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia. His government was criticized sharply for failing to address the deep economic disparities between different sectors of the population. Everything from cabinet appointments to economic policy was tainted with allegations of nepotism.

In 1980, Liberian Army Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, seized power in a bloody coup, ending the 133-year rule of the Americo-Liberian True Whig Party. Doe’s  troops assassinated Tolbert, executed 13 members of his cabinet, and imprisoned dozens of government officials before establishing a new ruling political entity, The People’s Redemption Council. Under Doe, members of the Krahn ethnic group dominated Liberian politics and government. Friction and military conflict with other Liberian ethnic groups became common.  Internal unrest, opposition to the new military regime and governmental repression grew, until in 1989 Liberia sank into outright tribal and civil war.

Charles Taylor was an  economics graduate of  Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. After the 1980 coup d’état he served some time in new leader Samuel Doe’s government until he was sacked in 1983 for embezzlement. He fled Liberia, was arrested in 1984 in Massachusetts on a Liberian warrant for extradition; he escaped from jail in Massachusetts in 1985, and fled to Libya.

While in the Ivory Coast, Taylor assembled a group of rebels calling themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. In December 1989, NPFL invaded Liberia and were joined by thousands of Gio and Mano as well as  Liberians of other ethnic background. The Liberian army (AFL) took revenge on  the whole population of the region. Thousands of civilians were massacred. By the middle of 1990, Taylor controlled much of the country, and by June laid siege to Monrovia.

Charles Taylor won the 1997 presidential elections with 75.33 percent of the vote, while the runner-up, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, received only 9.58 percent. Violence reduced  but did not end. Throughout  his entire reign, Taylor had to fight insurgencies. In June,  LURD forces (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) began a siege of Monrovia. On July 9, the Nigerian President offered Taylor safe haven if he stayed out of Liberian politics.

By June 2004, a programme to reintegrate the fighters into society began and more than 100,000 Liberian fighters had been disarmed. The economy recovered somewhat in 2004. Elections on October 11, 2005, saw Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf winning the presidency. The election was peaceful and orderly, with thousands of Liberians waiting patiently in the heat to cast their votes.

Under international pressure, President Johnson-Sirleaf requested in March 2006 that Nigeria extradite Charles Taylor, who was then brought before an international tribunal.

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released July 1, 2009 .

Among its main findings were:

  • The conflict had  its origin in the history and founding of the Liberian State.
  • The root causes were poverty, greed, corruption and inequality. Wealth  accumulation by a privileged few created a debased conscience which allowed  rights violations and  engendered  a culture of impunity.
  • All factions were responsible for violations of international criminal law, international human rights law, including war crimes violations.
  • All factions recruited children.
  • There was a  systematic pattern of abuse, disregarding the rights of non-combatants, orchestrated to achieve a military or political objective.
  • All factions committed  crimes against women including rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages.
  • Reparation is desirable to promote justice and genuine reconciliation.
  • A prosecution mechanism is desirable to fight impunity and promote justice and reconciliation.
  • The Geneva Convention  applies to Liberia.
  • External State Actors supported crimes against the people of Liberia for political, economic and foreign policy advantages.
  • All individuals admitting their wrongs and speaking truthfully before or to the TRC as an expression of remorse which seeks reconciliation with victims will not be recommended for prosecution.

The TRC included President Johnson-Sirleaf in a list of 49 people who should be barred from public office for  thirty years. Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman president and an icon of the international women’s movement, is supported by human rights and advocacy groups throughout the world. She  told the TRC hearing that she contributed US$10,000 to the NPFL through Mr. Harry Greaves, former Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company(LPRC). She apologized to Liberia, adding that “when the true nature of Mr. Taylor’s intentions became known, there was no more impassioned critic or strong opponent to him in a democratic process” than she.  

The Supreme Court later ruled that the TRC recommendation was  unconstitutional. Johnson-Sirleaf is still president and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

According to the Liberian Daily Observer dated 28 May,  he Independent Human Rights Commission of Liberia (INHRCL) recently urged that  names of major players who allegedly committed heinous crimes be submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Roosevelt Woods, Executive Director of FIND (Foundation for International Dignity), said: “We consider the statement by the INHRCL as an unprecedented move aimed at bringing genuine peace and reconciliation in the country following years of armed conflict occasioned by the death of over 250,000 Liberians and the displacement of thousands of our people”. Woods  believes that genuine reconciliation and lasting peace in the country would be unworkable in the absence of retributive and restorative justice.

Prince Johnson, a Senator for Nimba County, who is one of those whose names would be forwarded, vehemently asserted the  TRC will trigger “instability” in Liberia.