Leon Ninham Ollie Bird-Conliff and Kevin Jenq
September 22, 2009

The First Liberian Civil War

In the latter half of the 20th century, Africa has borne witness to some of the most bloody and violent conflicts in recent history. With the newfound right to rule their own nations, Africans found they also had the right to wage war and topple the fledgling establishments that grew from the skeletons of European colonies. Liberia is a nation that had retained independence from the great European powers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Much like Sierra Leone, Liberia’s inhabitants originally consisted of ex-slaves from the United States of America. In spite of this, Liberia was no exception to the cycle of African conflict and warfare. Initially a prosperous democracy, by the 1980s Liberia was virtually a dictatorship under regime of Samuel Doe, and a country that would soon see war on its soil.

Before going into the origins of the war it is important to determine the type of war the Liberian Civil War truly was. There is little disagreement that the war was a civil war as it was between the people of the nation and the goal was clearly to overthrow the government and reform the country. It can also be determined that the Liberian Civil War was a guerrilla war because much of the opposition to Doe's government was guerrilla factions such as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles G. Taylor, which was a rebel unit that had invaded from the Ivory Coast. Other important factions included the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), Lofa Defense Force (LDF), Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPEL), National Patriotic Front of Liberia-Central Revolutionary Council and United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (both Johnson faction and Kromah faction). Finally, when classifying the war against Doe's regime, it is important to note that the war was by all definitions, a total war as it was contained within the nation state and all sides of the conflict, civilian or otherwise, put forth all their resources to win. When it comes down to it the war did not take place in battlefields, but in village roads and city streets, the deaths we see from this war were not all soldiers, in fact a good percentage were civilians without any formal training at all.Reagan.gif

Of course, the aforementioned conflict did not spring up in a day. The war was a culmination of years of mismanagement, corruption and poor decision-making. The government of Samuel Doe and those preceding him did many things to turn the country in the direction of civil war. One of the major factors was the loss of economic support from the United States of America. Liberia had always, to an extent, been reliant on its connection to America. In fact, one of the main reasons why Liberia was never colonized by European powers was because of the potential possibility of conflict with the United States. During World War 2, reliance on American economic might came to a forefront, a trend that would continue after the war until the government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. During Tolbert’s administration, Liberia established political ties with the Soviet Union, leading the United States to withhold foreign aid.

The rampant corruption of Doe’s government spurred foreign nations such as the United States to cut off foreign aid, following the waning of the Cold War. Doe’s regime only exacerbated already existing tension between the many ethnic groups that composed the Liberian population and made Liberia a catalyst for violent conflict. Samuel Doe, for example, was notable because he did not belong to the Americo-Liberian elite that had dominated Liberian politics since the conception of the Liberian State. Samuel Doe’s nemesis in the ensuing struggle, Charles Taylor (An Americo-Liberian), would be sure to utilize ethnic tensions to his own devices. Preexisting ethnic rivalries gave the various factions in the Liberian Civil War an easy and willing source of recruits. It also lent itself well to the individual motivation of each soldier.
Africa’s place in modern world history has always run concurrent with the course of conflict. Certainly, most notable in the European story of Africa is the colonization and dismemberment of the continent. However, long after the great European powers had left Africa, the taste for war remained. Liberia, as far as African nations go, is, along with Sierra Leone, unique in that it was never under the domination of a European country. Remarkable about the nature of African conflicts is the savagery with which they are fought. In this regard, the Liberian Civil War shares many characteristics with the various conflicts that Africa witnessed.

It is worth noting that the various factions and armies involved in the conflict did not have, at their disposal, sophisticated precise weaponry, the most heavy of weaponry being the occasional self-propelled gun. Far more common among the combatants were assault rifles, machetes and otherwise benign farming implements. Still, the intense savagery with which the Liberian Civil war was conducted could not be simply attributed to the equipment and weapons utilized. In fact, deeper motives and principles mixed to make the Liberian civil war one of exceptional brutality. One such underlying motive was the intense ethnic hatred that was present to fuel the conflict. Throughout history, ethnic conflicts have always had a trend of being extraordinarily bloody, violent and merciless.

Additionally, much of the Liberian population subscribed to a certain level of belief in the supernatural. Thus, dismemberment, the desecration of human remains or even the consumption of a fallen enemy would not have the strange alien connotation it does within the Western history of modern warfare.

Still, perhaps the largest contributing factor to the savagery of the Liberian civil war was the same one that plagued many African nations in the late 20th century; absolute anarchy. The Liberian Civil War was not simply one of reactionary and revolutionary forces battling each other for control. It was one of multiple, separate and independent factions fighting each other for domination with no other vein of commonality than their desire to win. In such an insane atmosphere, armies could be characterized in little other fashion than gangs as warfare degenerated into simple thuggery, rape and murder.PJohnson.gif
‘So the war came and the war went.’ It would be convenient to characterize the Liberian Civil war, like most other wars, passed in this fashion. Still, this is not entirely true. To say that the First Liberian Civil War ended is a bit of a stretch; the war merely petered out as time went on. In 1994, at the capital of Beninois, a peace accord was signed but nearly immediately forgotten by the warring factions that kept the war moving. No more attempts were made for peace until 1996 when UNOMIL and ECOMOG forces promised to deploy themselves in Liberia to defend a council attempting to bring about a peaceful end to the war; however this pledge was never fulfilled as UNOMIL and ECOMOG continued pushing back the date of their arrival until they eventually gave up coming altogether. The Liberian Council of State, the council UNOMIL and ECOMOG pledged safety to, was unable to give any solutions that satisfied the factions and in fact only increased fighting within the country when they declared they would arrest Prince Johnson, who was allied with the factions of LPC, AFL and ULIMO-J, on April 3rd, 1996. On the 17th of August Nigeria and other Western African States finally managed to establish a cease-fire between the factions on the grounds that an election would be held to determine the leader of the war.
Liberian President Charles Taylor, 2008

As the war closed up the face of the country had completely transformed. Although no territories were lost, Doe’s government had been virtually replaced entirely by a government controlled by NPFL, homes across the nation were destroyed, and racial tensions were only deepened in the closing months of the war where political differences gave way to racist hate. The culmination of all the problems Liberia had was the sudden drop in the national economy. Even the strongest parts of the Liberia economy, such as diamond and timber markets, collapsed while the sale of guns and other weapons increased staggeringly quick.

Even though a year after the end of the war, 1997, an election was held and Charles Taylor won the election with an impressive 75% of the votes, the violence did not completely end. In many areas fighting continued almost entirely unhindered by the change in government and President Taylor himself was accused of funding rebel factions in other countries and buying many luxuries for himself off of the profits of Liberia’s diamond fields. Despite the facts stability began to return to the nation, many refugees returned home and villages were rebuilt, however at the same time, forces of ULIMO, renamed LURD began a string of violence in an attempt to claim the diamond fields, inevitably leading to the Second Liberia War.


1 Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the official Liberia military, specifically during the Liberian Civil War they were loyal to Samuel Doe however during the second war they fought for President Taylor as he was the new leader of the government, basically always loyal to the government as the military.
2 National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the faction that initiated the civil war, led by Charles Taylor, the unit was the main enemy of the AFL and the Doe regime. Following the war the group recognized that it had to reform to be accepted in post war Liberia and so reformed as the National Patriotic Party (NPP), which won the election for a new president with it's nomination: Charles Taylor.
3 Liberia Peace Council (LPC), joined in the fighting about halfway through the war, it was a rebel faction led by George Boley that generally fought on the side of the AFL, against the NPFL.
4 Lofa Defense Force (LDF), a smaller rebel faction from an area in Liberia called Lofa County, led by Francois Massaquoi, the majority of its fighting was limited to battles against ULIMO-K.
5 Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a splinter faction of NPFL led by Prince Johnson, originally leaving NPFL due to leadership disputes, they are most notable for kidnapping and murdering Samuel Doe in 1990, the group eventually dissolved in 1992.
6 National Patriotic Front of Liberia-Central Revolutionary Council (NPFL-CRC), another splinter faction of NPFL, they played only a limited role in the war, specifically a few skirmishes with NPFL in the northern part of the country.
7 United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), led by Raleigh Seekie, ULIMO was the third major faction that fought within the war. Mostly made up of former fighters of AFL they fought against NPFL and AFL to gain considerable ground in Lofa County, however the unit eventually split up in 1994 and became ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K.
8 United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy-Johnson faction (ULIMO-J), one of the factions created when ULIMO split up, its leader was Roosevelt Johnson and the unit never played a very large role because it was poorly controlled and the fighters were frequently discontent with their missions and objectives.
9 United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy-Kromah faction (ULIMO-K), the more powerful faction of the two units born from ULIMO, ULIMO-K was led by Alhaji G.V. Kromah which mostly continued ULIMO's part in the war although on a much smaller scale, it frequently got into battles with LDF due to it's control of Lofa County.
10 Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ECOMOG represents the first organized attempt at collective security for Western Africa in decades, ECOMOG had intended to deploy in Liberia to force a cease-fire but eventually gave up deploying soldiers and instead merely attempted to draft a cease-fire all the factions could agree on.
11 United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL), an overseeing unit developed by the United Nations that attempted to support ECOMOG's plan's for a ceasefire but in the end all cease-fires were ignored by the warring factions, and UNOMIL never succeeded in deploying more that a few hundred "military observers" who were eventually removed after the failure of ECOMOG.

Works Used and Referred to:

1. (n.d.). The Liberian Tragedy. Retrieved from http://pages.prodigy.net/jkess3/Civilwar.html

2. (2005, April 27). Liberia - First Civil War - 1989-1996. Retrieved from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/liberia-1989.htm

3. (n.d.). TLP: Civil War. Retrieved from liberian.tripod.com/Post24.html

4. (n.d.). President Samuel K. Doe (1980-1990) The Master Sergeant-President . Retrieved from http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/SamuelKDoe.htm