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The Liberian Post
Page 53
Background Conflict

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How Leaders Caused Tribal

Conflict in Liberia's War


Geog 333 - GMU

Sindi Sheer

Research Paper

Final version

Due April 13, 1998

Table of Contents


Introduction 1

Background 1

The 1980s: Doe's Dictatorship 6

The 1990s: Taylor's Quest 8

Conclusion 12

Appendix A: List of Acronyms 14

Annotated Bibliography 15


The Liberian civil war has raged since December 1989. It has disintegrated into random violence, looting, and mayhem. Since 1990, 150,000 to 200,000 Liberians have died, 1.5 million (of the country's original population of 2.5 million) have fled their homes, and hundreds of thousands have been injured (Rupert 1997c). The economy has collapsed. Children with guns loot the foreign aid office and steal everything. Various men have rallied various tribes behind them as a political base to try to fight for power. These politicians lead their ethnic group into battle against the others causing tribes that previously had coexisted peacefully to start killing each other. Originally, the division in Liberia was between the Americo-Liberian ruling class and the indigenous tribes. Since 1985, the indigenous tribes have been fighting against each other. Political leaders vying for power and developing their constituent base created this tribe-against-tribe conflict.


In 1822, the American Colonization Society (ACS) decided to create Liberia in Western Africa on the Atlantic Ocean between what are now the countries of Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone (see Figure 1). The ACS created Liberia for two reasons: to send freed American slaves back to Africa and to Christianize West Africa. The American Colonization Society was composed of such prominent white Americans as President James Monroe (after whom Liberia's capital city of Monrovia was named), Andrew Jackson, and Francis Scott Key (Liebenow 1969:

3). Their motivations for colonizing Liberia were mixed. Some thought it best for former slaves to return to the land of their origin. Some considered Liberia to be a beachhead for establishing Christianity in Africa. Some wanted to rid America of its growing class of former slaves (Liebenow 1969: 2). In the early 1800s, three types of immigrants arrived in Liberia in approximately equal numbers: freed American slaves, free-born Americans of black African descent, and recaptured Africans who had been on their way to America on slave ships when their ships were intercepted and redirected to Liberia (Dolo 1996: 21). Though many of them had never been to America, these immigrants and their descendants became known as Americo-Liberians. Their descendants may have had indigenous ancestry but were still considered Americo-Liberian. Marriages between Americo-Liberians and indigenous people did not stigmatize the Americo-Liberian. There was no such thing as illegitimacy: a child born out of wedlock was brought up in the house of the Americo-Liberian father and was treated the same as his other children (Liebenow 1969: 16). Therefore, the dividing line between Americo-Liberians and indigenous people was somewhat flexible: a child whose father was an African from a redirected slave ship and whose mother was from an indigenous tribe could be considered Americo-Liberian (Lowenkopf 1976: 15). Though people lived in Liberia before immigrants arrived, the Americo-Liberian minority soon took over and became the ruling class. In 1847, the Americo-Liberians proclaimed Liberia an independent republic (Ellis 1995: 174).

The Americo-Liberians adopted "a constitution written at Harvard Law School and laws codified at Cornell" (Harden 1990: 241). One distinguishing feature of the Liberian Constitution was that only black people could become Liberian citizens (Konneh 1996: 141). Americo-Liberians built the city of Monrovia which became their home base. Liberia was never colonized by Europeans, but the 50,000 Americo-Liberians behaved like colonizing Europeans. They controlled political power and the country's wealth while most of the two million indigenous people remained subsistence farmers. Americo-Liberians controlled the only political party, the True Whig party (Liebenow 1969: 130). In Liberia, the only way to get ahead, to obtain a position of prominence, was through politics. Business or religious leaders became leaders first through politics (Liebenow 1969: 85).

Because of the country's geography, Americo-Liberian settlers had limited contact with the indigenous tribes. Most of the Americo-Liberians live near the coast in the city of Monrovia in Montserrado County (Lowenkopf 1976: 47). Most of the indigenous people live inland in the area known as the tribal hinterland (see Figure 2) (Liebenow 1969: 71). The slope of the land is such that the lowest land is on the coast. Elevation increases to the northeast. The farther inland one travels, the farther uphill one goes (Schulze 1973: 17). Deep ravines, mangrove swamps, and lack of roads made travel between the coast and the inland plateau difficult. Liberia is one of the hottest and rainiest places in the world. The country is "rain-besotted" and "bug-infested" (Harden 1990: 240). "The mean daily temperature in Liberia is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is exceptionally enervating. It is, I think, the most uncomfortable place in Africa" (Harden 1990: 241). For all these reasons, travel and contact between the settlers on the coast and the tribes in the hinterland was difficult and infrequent.

After the Americo-Liberians established themselves in Liberia, two tribes violently and unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the settlers' new central government. In 1915, the Kru, from the southeast coastal area of Sinoe County, revolted because Americo-Liberians had been diverting trading ships from Kru lands to Monrovia. The Kru mistakenly expected British assistance. The British did not help the Kru; the Americans helped the Americo-Liberians to viciously put down the Kru. In 1918, the Gola, living northwest of Monrovia, waged an unsuccessful war against the Americo-Liberian government because of taxes. Taxes caused

Gola fortunes to decrease significantly. The Americo-Liberians affected the livelihood of the Kru and the Gola for the worse. These two indigenous tribes found a common enemy in the colonizing Americo-Liberians. The indigenous tribes usually did not fight each other until the 1990s. That is what makes the current conflict so unusual.

Contact between the Americo-Liberians and many of the indigenous tribes was limited until the 1960s when Nimba Mountain, in the far northeast corner of Nimba County, was found to be a solid block of iron ore (Liebenow 1969: 173). The Liberian government and foreign investors set up roads, airplane service, and wireless radio that finally connected the hinterland to the coastal area (Lowenkopf 1976: 48). They built roads to Nimba Mountain and paid the local indigenous people (of the Mano tribe) to work in the mines. These new roads and jobs were good for the indigenous people because the roads provided both easier access to other parts of the country and more consumer goods. The roads were bad for the tribal people because they brought government officials wanting tax money and business people wanting cheap labor. For the first time, the indigenous Liberians in the hinterland had contact with the settlers. The Americo-Liberians saw the hinterland tribes as cheap local labor and more people to tax. The tribal people saw most of the profits of their labors go to the foreign business owners and to the Americo-Liberian government. Now the hinterland people had less time to work on their farms because they were employed in the mines. They received low wages for their work, and the Liberian government imposed a "hut tax" on their houses (Liebenow 1969: 54).

The 1980s: Doe's Dictatorship

In 1980, Samuel Doe, a 28-year-old indigenous Krahn, seized power and killed William Tolbert, the last Americo-Liberian president. When Doe took over, he knew nothing about how to run a government. He was illiterate, and he had little education. He learned quickly how to make himself rich and how to shore up political support. He demolished the True Whig party that had controlled Liberia's politics for more than a hundred years, but he did not replace it with any other coherent form of government. He was good at developing allies. He learned English, Liberia's official language, by studying videotapes of Ronald Reagan who invited him to the White House and called him "Chairman Moe" (Lowenkopf 1976: 4; Harden 1996). During the culmination of the cold war in the 1980s, Doe courted the Reagan-era American Republicans and received millions of dollars of American aid (Harden 1990: 243). The American aid established Voice of America transmitters and maintained the Robertsfield airport which the U.S. used to transport weapons to Angola (Randal 1995). The U.S. also sent a large supply of arms to Liberia (Dolo 1996: 101-102). During Doe's years in power, Liberia became America's beachhead in its fight against communism in Africa.

Doe also courted the people of an unusual Liberian tribe, the Mandingo. Most of Liberia's indigenous tribes were subsistence farmers. Their lives depended on what they grew on their land. The Mandingo differed from other indigenous tribes. They were traders traveling from village to village buying, selling, and bartering (Konneh 1996: 141). Originally from the northeast, the Mandingo are Muslim. They did not own or work the land. Other indigenous ethnic groups, though grateful for the goods the Mandingo sold them, eyed the Mandingo with suspicion and did not accept them as equal citizen of Liberia. In 1986, President Doe aligned himself with the Mandingo by recognizing them as an official Liberian ethnic group (Ellis 1995: 179).

Except for the Mandingo, the various indigenous tribes coexisted peacefully until 1985 when Thomas Quiwonkpa staged a coup attempt against Doe (Harden 1990: 239). Quiwonkpa's ethnic base was Gio and Mano soldiers of Nimba County (Ellis 1995: 178). When Quiwonkpa challenged Doe, Quiwonkpa's Gio and Mano people became enemies of Doe's Krahns. When Doe defeated Quiwonkpa's coup attempt, Doe's Krahns went on a killing spree of Gio and Mano tribesmen (Harden 1990: 239). Before 1985, a person's tribal allegiance was not a life-or-death issue. After this coup attempt, the life of every Gio and Mano tribesman was in danger.

After this coup attempt, Doe consolidated his power by surrounding himself with his fellow Krahn. He promoted them more swiftly than people of other tribes. By legitimizing Mandingo citizenship, Doe also won them as allies. Doe strengthened his ties with Krahn and Mandingo against Quiwonkpa's Gio and Mano. Even tribe members who had nothing to do with politics were immediately identified as being either for or against Doe simply by their tribal affiliation (Ellis 1995: 178-179).

The 1990s: Taylor's Quest

In 1989, Charles Taylor, a leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and an Americo-Liberian, invaded from Cote d'Ivoire because he wanted to end Doe's dictatorship. Less than a year later in September 1990, a rebel offshoot of Taylor's forces led by Prince Johnson tortured and killed Doe (Ellis 1995: 169). Since then, Liberia has been consumed by fighting and bloodshed. These events coincided with the end of the Cold War. At the same time that Doe was being overthrown, the U.S. washed its hands of Liberia and pulled its advisors and its money out of the country (Randal 1995). Without American aid and the foreign investors who owned the rubber plantations and the mining equipment, Liberia's economy collapsed. After Doe's death, there was no system of government in place with which Liberia's citizens could choose a new leader. Doe had destroyed the Americo-Liberian-controlled True Whig party, the only political system Liberians had ever known. The indigenous majority of Liberians did not want to bring back the True Whig party nor the domination of Americo-Liberians. Few Liberians wanted another Samuel Doe either. As various leaders rose to prominence in the 1990s trying to gain control of the country, they identified themselves with their tribe and brought their particular ethnic group into the conflict (Ellis 1995: 183). Several warlords defined their constituency along tribal lines and then tried to rush in to fill the leadership vacuum.

Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, aligned himself with the Gio and Mano tribes against Doe's Krahns and Mandingo. Taylor's troops marched through the outskirts of Monrovia killing hundreds of ethnic Krahns (Richburg 1992). Taylor continued the rift started in 1985 by Thomas Quiwonkpa's unsuccessful coup attempt against Doe. The Gio and Mano tribes were on one side of this rift; the Krahns and Mandingo were on the other side. It is interesting to note that Prince Johnson, Doe's killer, did not get very far politically because he failed to align himself with a particular tribal constituency as a political base (Ellis 1995: 183). He did not identify himself as belonging to one particular tribe, so he had nobody to stand behind him, support him, defend him, and fight for him.

The politicians used their tribal identity for their own benefit. When a politician said he belonged to a particular tribe, everybody in that tribe was then obligated to fight for him against other tribes who were being used as political bases by other politicians. Once the tribes started fighting against each other, revenge became a factor, and peace became even more elusive. What happened to the Americo-Liberians who were not of any particular tribe? Many had already fled abroad. Many had already been killed. Others, like Charles Taylor, aligned themselves with a tribe. A politician, like Prince Johnson who was not associated with any particular tribe, could not succeed. A politician was only as powerful as the tribe he called his own.

After Doe's murder, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) created a peace-keeping force, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which controlled Monrovia while Taylor's NPFL controlled the rest of the country (Ellis 1995: 169). ECOMOG was supposed to be neutral, but it was Nigerian-led, and Nigerian President Babangida had been a personal friend of Doe, so it was on the side of the Krahn (Ellis 1995: 168). The ECOMOG troops, inexperienced and underpaid, became so famous for looting and extortion that ECOMOG became an acronym for "Every car or movable object gone" (Randal 1995). In September 1990, ECOWAS set up the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) with the soft-spoken Professor Amos Sawyer (who had been teaching Political Science at the University of Indiana) as interim President of Liberia in Monrovia (Kramer 1991; Richburg 1992; Ellis 1995: 169-170). Taylor's NPFL did not recognize Sawyer's government. Taylor set up his own government in the town of Gbarnga in Bong County -- far inland where the indigenous tribes lived. From Gbarnga, Taylor financed his makeshift government by selling timber from the forests and diamonds from the mines (Rupert 1997b; Rupert 1997a).

In 1992, Taylor's NPFL launched Operation Octopus: an unsuccessful attack to regain Monrovia. ECOMOG rearmed Doe's old army, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and joined with a new group called ULIMO to defend the city. ULIMO was formed by Krahns and Mandingo who had fled Liberia to Sierra Leone during the massacres two years earlier (Richburg 1992; Ellis 1995: 170-171). By now, the various fighting factions in Liberia had gotten a reputation for their bizarre behavior. They wore strange costumes like wedding gowns, Donald Duck masks, shower caps, or nothing at all. They fought in a drug-induced frenzy. Many of these warriors were children who went into battle carrying teddy bears and baby dolls (Richburg 1992).

By 1994, the major fighting groups had separated themselves into smaller and smaller factions. Krahn General George Boley, a graduate of the University of Akron and former resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, created the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) to fight against Taylor's NPFL (Shiner 1994; Ellis 1995: 172-173). ULIMO had split in two with Alhaji Kromah leading the Muslim Mandingo and Roosevelt Johnson leading the Krahn (Ellis 1995: 184). Many factions were trying to work together to conquer Taylor's NPFL. These factions included the Nigerian-led ECOMOG, Doe's AFL, Boley's LPC, the two wings of ULIMO, the Lofa Defense Force, the Bomi Defense Force, the Nimba Redemption Council, and the Citizens' Defense Force in Maryland County (Shiner 1994; Ellis 1995: 172-173). By the middle of 1994, there were so many factions that violence was hardly ethnically or politically based (Ellis 1995: 185). The Gio and Mano tribes of Taylor's NPFL were fighting everybody else, but there were many instances of children aiming guns at farmers demanding food. Farmers (a majority of the pre-war population) were reluctant to grow food for fear it would be taken away at gun point.

In April 1996, Taylor launched yet another attack on Monrovia and tried to take the city street-by-street in some of the bloodiest fighting Liberia had seen in years (Randal 1996). The attack lasted six weeks and killed more than a thousand people (Rupert 1997c). A few months later, after Liberia's faction leaders signed their twelfth peace accord, Ruth Perry became Liberia's interim leader and the first woman to be a head of state in Africa since the beginning of European colonialism (Rupert 1997d; Rupert 1997c). The fighting continued.

In July, 1997, Charles Taylor was elected president (Rupert 1997a). Many people voted for him not because they wanted him to be president but because they thought his election was the only way to stop the war (Lange 1997). It is sadly ironic that Taylor started the war and made his election to the presidency the only thing that would end the war.


From 1990 to 1997, 30,000 to 60,000 armed fighters (10 percent of whom were under the age of 15) raped, stole, and killed their way across the country of what used to be 2.5 million people. Approximately 150,000 to 200,000 people were killed and 1.5 million fled their homes (Rupert 1997c). This civil war, fueled by rival warlords, caused indigenous tribes that previously had coexisted peacefully, to fight each other. In order to build himself a political base, each warlord aligned himself with a particular ethnic group. As the leaders battled each other, so did their constituents. As more factions broke off from the original groups, more ethnic groups became embroiled in the conflict until 1996 when the fighting disintegrated into random violence, looting, and mayhem.

Doe's alliance with the Krahn and Quiwonkpa's 1985 coup attempt against Doe caused tribes who had coexisted peacefully to fight each other. The economic changes in the middle of this century brought contact between the coastal settlers and the tribal hinterland. This contact created friction between the Americo-Liberian haves and the indigenous have-nots. The 1980 coup that brought Doe into power destroyed the Americo-Liberian leadership system. Doe rebuilt the system putting his people, the Krahn, into the place vacated by Americo-Liberians. With Doe's new system in place, the Krahn and Mandingo were the haves and the other tribes were the have-nots. Quiwonkpa's coup started the fighting between the Gio and Mano on one side and the Krahn and Mandingo on the other side. Taylor invaded and aligned himself with the Gio and Mano, the new have-nots. Soon, other leaders were rallying tribes behind them, too. A leader's identification with a tribe committed every tribe member to support that leader. This powerful incentive is one of the major causes of the war. Eventually, the factional fighting disintegrated into a free-for-all. Tribal alliances no longer mattered. We can only hope that the desire for peace and Taylor's leadership as the new president are enough for most Liberians to resist the next rallying cry of a politician claiming a tribe as his ethnic base.

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