Liberia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Liberia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Liberia, republic in West Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean coast. A sparsely populated land, Liberia was founded in the early 1800s by freed American slaves. The Liberian Civil War, from 1989 to 1996, killed 150,000 people and devastated the country’s economy and infrastructure. Liberia is bounded on the north by Sierra Leone and Guinea, on the east by Côte d’Ivoire, and on the south and west by the Atlantic Ocean.


Liberia rises gradually from the Atlantic coastal plain, through a region of hills and plateaus, toward the steep Guinea Highlands. Liberia has an area of 99,067 sq km (38,250 sq mi). Monrovia is the capital and largest city.

Natural Regions in Liberia

Estuaries of parallel-flowing major rivers—such as the Mano, Lofa, St. Paul, and Cavally—break the monotony of Liberia’s straight shoreline but provide no harbors. The coastline extends 579 km (360 mi). Constant heavy surf and moderate tidal range have built up sandspits and sandbars that shift over buried stones in the river mouths. The coastal plain, extending about 80 km (about 50 mi) inland, is fringed with lagoons and swamps.

Farther inland, the land rises gradually to densely forested ridges of hills. Steep escarpments separate the hill country from the sparsely populated plateaus to the north. Above these plateaus rise the discontinuous Guinea Highlands and Nimba Range along the border with Guinea. In the valleys are many open grasslands, with scattered thickets of brush and dense woodland. Mount Wuteve is the highest point in Liberia, at 1,380 m (4,528 ft).

Climate in Liberia

The climate of Liberia is equatorial and humid, particularly during the June to July and October to November rainy seasons. Annual rainfall varies from 2,240 mm (88 in) in the interior to 5,210 mm (205 in) along the coast. The average temperature in Monrovia is about 26°C (about 79°F) in January and 24°C (about 76°F) in July.

Plants and Animals in Liberia

Mangrove trees line Liberia’s tidal estuaries and lagoons. Beyond the coast grow various kinds of palms, screw pines, and rubber trees. In the evergreen forests are a mixed assortment of hardwood and broadleaf species, including ironwood and sassy. Deciduous forests, less dense than the evergreen forests, yield mahogany and softwoods.

Wildlife has been depleted and survives mainly in the east and northwest. Large mammals include the elephant, leopard, buffalo, the endangered pygmy hippopotamus, and various deerlike animals such as the bongo, duiker, and water chevrotain. Among reptiles are the dangerous Nile crocodile and numerous snakes, some poisonous.

Natural Resources of Liberia

Although Liberia has primarily an agricultural economy, minerals and forest products such as wood and rubber are its most important resources. The country has significant deposits of iron ore, diamonds, and gold. Hydroelectric power plants have been constructed on several streams, including the St. Paul River.

Environmental Issues in Liberia

Rich in biodiversity, Liberia was almost entirely forested until recent decades. Forest and woodland now cover only 28 percent (2005) of the land, although much of this is relatively undisturbed tropical wet forest. Shifting agriculture is the major cause of forest loss, but logging is an increasingly important factor. In addition to deforestation, major environmental threats include soil erosion and water pollution from mine tailings in rivers to oil and sewage along the coast. Wetlands are also threatened by agriculture and firewood collection.

Although there are several national forests in Liberia, logging is permitted within them. The only truly protected land is in Sapo National Park in eastern Liberia. Protected land makes up 12.7 percent (2007) of the country’s area.


The vast majority of the people of Liberia belong to one of several indigenous African ethnic groups. The largest of these groups are the Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, and Kru peoples. Americo-Liberians, descendants of emancipated slaves who emigrated from the United States, make up no more than 5 percent of the population. They live mostly in coastal cities and towns.

Population Characteristics of Liberia

Liberia has a population (2009 estimate) of 3,441,790, giving the country an overall population density of 36 persons per sq km (92 per sq mi). Civil war between 1989 and 1996 drove hundreds of thousands of Liberians into neighboring countries as refugees. In 2006 the United Nations estimated that there were still 160,550 Liberian refugees living in neighboring countries. An estimated 48 percent of people within Liberia live in cities and towns. Most Liberians make their living by farming or herding.

Principal Cities of Liberia

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia and by far the country’s largest city. Other important communities are the coastal towns of Buchanan and Harper; and the inland trade centers of Zwedru, near the border with Côte d’Ivoire, and Yekepa, close to the Guinea border.

Religion and Languages spoken in Liberia

About 43 percent of Liberia’s people follow traditional animist religions. About 29 percent are Christians (most Protestants) and 16 percent are Muslims. English is Liberia’s official language but is spoken by only about one-fifth of the people. The rest of the people speak various African languages which mainly belong to the Mande, West Atlantic, or Kwa linguistic groups.

Education in Liberia

Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. However, a scarcity of educational facilities means that few Liberians progress beyond primary school. Almost all children of primary school-age attend school, but the figure drops to 23 percent (1999–2000) for secondary school-age children. Just 56 percent of the population was literate in 2007. Higher education is provided by the University of Liberia (1862), in Monrovia, and several colleges.


Civil war destroyed much of the economy of Liberia, particularly the infrastructure in and around Monrovia. Prior to the war the country had encouraged foreign investment in the development of its rich natural resources, mainly rubber, iron ore, and timber. Many of these investors were slow to return after the end of hostilities. With 72 percent of the labor force engaged in agriculture and forestry, the postwar government hoped educational and vocational training programs would encourage the development of other sectors. During the war, Liberia’s gross domestic product (GDP)—the total value of goods and services produced within a country—dropped to a fraction of prewar levels. The economy improved after the end of the civil war in 1996, but large numbers of returning refugees led to high unemployment rates.

Agriculture of Liberia

Rice and cassava are the principal food crops of Liberia; the country must import rice to meet its needs. Fruits, vegetables, and sweet potatoes are also grown for local consumption.

Liberia’s dominant export crop is rubber, the production of which rebounded quickly after the end of the civil war. Other cash crops include oil palm fruit (from which palm oil is extracted), coffee, cocoa, and sugar.

Forestry and Fishing in Liberia

Timber is Liberia’s other important export earner. Most timber is exported in the form of uncut logs, but the government has encouraged development of the sawmilling industry. Most fish caught in Liberia are freshwater fish consumed locally. The Liberian commercial deep-water fishing catch includes sole, lobster, crayfish, shrimp, and crabs.

Mining and Manufacturing in Liberia

The Liberian Civil War and declining world demand for iron ore led to the complete shutdown of Liberian iron mining in the early 1990s. After the war, Liberian mines produced diamonds and gold. Liberia has few major manufacturing industries. Small-scale production of food products, construction materials, and consumer products is carried on.

Currency and Banking of Liberia

The unit of currency is the Liberian dollar (61.30 Liberian dollars equal U.S. $1; 2007 average). The Central Bank of Liberia (1974) sets the value of the domestic currency.

Foreign Trade in Liberia

The main exports of Liberia are rubber and wood. Imports include foodstuffs, petroleum, and machinery. Liberia’s principal trading partners for exports include Germany, Indonesia, Greece, Poland, and Italy. Leading sources for imports are France, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Germany. In 2007 exports earned the country $205 million while imports were valued at $555 million.

Transportation and Communications in Liberia

The civil war destroyed Liberia’s already dilapidated transportation network. Railroads that connected port cities with now-defunct iron mines have deteriorated and are no longer operable. Only about 6 percent of the country’s roads were paved in 1999. The major airport is Monrovia Roberts International, east of Monrovia. The Liberian merchant marine, because of low registry costs, small annual fees, and absence of operational controls, has one of the largest tanker fleets in the world. In 2008, 2,306 ships were registered in Liberia; most were owned by foreign interests. Due to the country’s poor road connections, particularly in the east, coastal shipping is an important means of transport.

Liberia’s major newspapers include the Inquirer, the News, and the Analyst, all independently owned and printed on a daily basis.


Following a coup d’état in 1980, Liberia’s original constitution, dating from 1847, was suspended. A new constitution came into force in 1986.

Executive of Liberia

Liberia’s head of state and government is a president. The president and vice president are jointly elected to a six-year term by universal adult suffrage.

Legislature of Liberia

Legislative power is vested in a two-chamber National Assembly. This body is composed of a Senate, whose 30 members are elected to nine-year terms, and a House of Representatives, whose 64 members are elected for six years.

Judiciary in Liberia

The Liberian judicial system is largely modeled after that of the United States. The People’s Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and five associate justices. Subordinate courts are established by the legislature, and all judges are appointed by the president for life terms.

Health and Welfare in Liberia

Malaria, yellow fever, and schistosomiasis are prevalent in Liberia. In 2009 average life expectancy at birth was 43 years for women and 41 years for men; the infant mortality rate was 138 per 1,000 live births. Some hospitals are operated by the central government, but no national social-welfare system exists.


Liberia owes its establishment to the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to resettle freed American slaves in Africa (see Slavery). An attempt at colonization in Sierra Leone had failed in 1815. Six years later native rulers granted a tract of land on Cape Mesurado, at the mouth of the St. Paul River, to U.S. representatives, and the first Americo-Liberians, led by Jehudi Ashmun, began the settlement. In 1824 an American agent for the society, Ralph Randolph Gurley, named the new colony Liberia and the Cape Mesurado settlement Monrovia. Other separate settlements were established along the coast during the next 20 years. Soon, however, conflicts arose between the settlers and the society in the United States. By the time Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first black governor in 1841, the decision had been made to give the colonists almost full control of the government. A constitution modeled on that of the United States was drawn up, and Liberia became an independent republic in July 1847. Roberts was its first president, serving until 1856. Liberia was recognized by Britain in 1848, by France in 1852, and by the United States in 1862.

Relations with Indigenous People in Liberia

The Americo-Liberian communities eked out a precarious existence during the 19th century. Claims over interior territory were disputed not only by the indigenous Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke), Kru, and Gola peoples, but also by European states that did not recognize Liberian jurisdiction over the interior. U.S. support led to a series of agreements with Britain and France between 1892 and 1911, which marked the present boundaries. (Liberian control over the interior peoples, however, was not completely assured until the 1940s.) Loans from Britain and the United States partially eased the country’s financial difficulties. Liberia declared war on Germany on August 14, 1917, which gave the Allies an additional base in West Africa during World War I (1914-1918). In 1926 the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opened a rubber plantation on 400,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land granted by the Liberian government the year before. Rubber production became the mainstay of the nation’s economy.

In 1931 the League of Nations confirmed that Americo-Liberians were using native Africans for forced labor, tantamount to slavery. The ensuing scandal implicated the highest government officials; the president and vice president resigned. By 1936 the new government had succeeded in abolishing forced-labor practices and Liberia was again in good standing with the League. The indigenous population, however, was still treated as second-class citizens, without voting rights.

Tubman’s Regime in Liberia

U.S.-Liberian relations became closer after the United States entered World War II (1939-1945). In 1942 the republic agreed to allow U.S. troops to be based in the country despite the fact that Liberia did not declare war on the Axis powers until 1944. In 1945 Liberia became one of the original member states of the United Nations.

Following his election in May 1943, President William V. S. Tubman pursued a policy of national unification and economic development through foreign investment. The latter policy led to the exploitation in the 1950s of iron-ore deposits in the Bomi Hills, located north of Monrovia.

In the presidential election of May 1951, women and indigenous property owners voted for the first time, but the few thousand Americo-Liberians living in the coastal region still retained control of the government. The incumbent Tubman, candidate of the dominant True Whig Party, was reelected without opposition. The government had suppressed the Reformation and United People’s parties. Their leaders, supported mainly by residents of the hinterland, were arrested or exiled following the election. President Tubman was returned to office in the 1955 election, but he narrowly escaped assassination during his victory celebration. Thirty people were indicted for treason; two former cabinet ministers and five others were convicted.

Considerable progress, both social and material, was made during Tubman’s later terms as president. Thus, in February 1958, the legislature passed a law making racial discrimination punishable by fine and imprisonment for citizens and by deportation for aliens. During the 1960s a Swedish-American group completed a major iron-ore project near Mount Nimba, and German investors developed iron-ore resources in the Bong Range. The Liberian Bank of Industrial Development and Investment was established in 1965 to provide capital for private investment.

During this time President Tubman held a firm rein on power. After some labor unrest within Liberia and coups elsewhere in Africa, he was given emergency powers in February 1966 for 12 months. In 1967 he was reelected to his sixth term (a year ahead of time), and he was returned the seventh time in May 1971. Two months later he died and was succeeded by William R. Tolbert, Jr., Liberia’s vice president since 1951.

Violent Change in Liberia

Under Tolbert’s leadership during the 1970s, Liberia loosened somewhat its close ties with the United States. In 1974 it accepted economic aid from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and in 1978 it joined with other developing countries in a trade agreement with the European Community. Domestically, emphasis was placed on bringing the isolated interior into national political life and on improving the economic conditions of the indigenous population. In 1979, however, the country was paralyzed by riots caused by a proposed increase in the price of rice, the staple food. More than 40 people were killed in the violence.

In 1980 Tolbert’s opponents, emboldened by a court decision recognizing them as an opposition party, openly called for his overthrow. Their leader, Gabriel B. Matthews, and a dozen others were arrested. A month later, on April 12, a bloody coup was staged by army personnel under the leadership of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Tolbert and many of his aides were killed. A People’s Redemption Council, headed by Doe, subsequently suspended the constitution and assumed full legislative and executive powers. More than a dozen officials of the previous regime were publicly executed.

Under pressure from the United States and other creditors, in July 1984 Doe’s government issued a decree that allowed the return of political parties outlawed since 1980. Doe, however, used his power to assure that opposition parties did not threaten his domination, and he won the presidential election in 1985. By the late 1980s inflation was rampant and exports were almost nonexistent. In addition, relations with the United States, Liberia’s major foreign benefactor, deteriorated because of government corruption and human-rights abuses.

Civil War in Liberia

In December 1989 a group of dissidents began an uprising against the government. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a rebel group led by Charles Taylor, soon had an ill-trained army of 10,000 men, and within weeks they controlled much of the countryside. A split among the insurgents only increased the violence as fighting continued into 1990. An Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) monitoring group (ECOMOG) was sent to Liberia as a peacekeeping force, but failed to halt the fighting. Doe was captured and executed by a splinter group of the NPFL in September 1990. The destruction of Liberia’s economy begun by Doe was completed by the war.

The war spread through Liberia, as the NPFL battled ECOMOG, the Liberian army, their splinter group the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), composed of former allies of Doe. By early 1991, ECOMOG held Monrovia and the NPFL controlled the rest of the country. In October 1991 ECOWAS and the NPFL agreed to disarm and establish an Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU). The NPFL began to disarm in early 1992, but clashed with ECOMOG forces, and in August was attacked by ULIMO from Sierra Leone. In September the NPFL launched an all-out assault on ECOMOG forces in Monrovia, recruiting boys as young as eight to fight, and executing civilians who refused to join. The siege temporarily shut down all transportation in or out of the capital and killed thousands of civilians in the crossfire. ECOMOG succeeded in pushing the NPFL back into the countryside by January 1993. In the meantime, ULIMO had captured much of western Liberia, but had split along ethnic lines into two warring factions, ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K.

At a peace conference in July 1993 the leaders of IGNU, NPFL, and ULIMO-K drew up a plan for a Liberian National Transitional Government, led by a five-member Council of State consisting of one NPFL leader, one ULIMO-K member, one IGNU representative, and two other civilians. A cease-fire was implemented but progress towards lasting peace was hampered by the appearance of a new armed group, the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), and by the refusal of ULIMO-J to disarm. By mid-1994 the cease-fire had completely failed, and fighting raged between the LPC and the NPFL, between ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K, and between ULIMO-J and ECOMOG. The United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) was deployed to cooperate with ECOMOG in March. At this time the United States issued a report condemning widespread human-rights violations in Liberia.

The leaders of the factions secretly met in August 1994, and negotiated a timeline for disarmament and the institution of a Council of State based on the 1993 plan, but with six members. A cease-fire in December was interrupted by skirmishes until a formal peace accord was signed in August 1995. The peace was broken in April 1996 when an uprising by ULIMO-J in the outskirts of Monrovia quickly spread into the capital, sparking street-to-street fighting and looting. Another cease-fire was declared in August, and Monrovia was reclaimed by ECOMOG forces. In all, more than 150,000 Liberians died in the seven-year civil war, and well over 1 million people were displaced.

Return to Democracy in Liberia

An ECOMOG disarmament program was initiated under the August 1996 peace agreement. Despite some minor skirmishes and an assassination attempt on Taylor, the disarmament proceeded relatively smoothly. ECOMOG forces cleared land mines and reopened the country’s roads, allowing refugees to begin returning from neighboring countries and humanitarian aid to reach the previously inaccessible interior. The disarmament program was declared a success in January 1997. Under considerable international scrutiny, presidential and legislative elections were held in July. Charles Taylor, the man who instigated the Liberian Civil War eight years earlier, was elected president by a landslide, and his political party, the National Patriotic Party, won a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The elections were judged free and fair by international election observers.

Taylor pledged to forge national reconciliation and appointed leaders of rival factions to various government positions. After the last ECOMOG forces withdrew from Liberia in 1999, however, Taylor’s security forces were criticized by international groups for alleged human rights abuses against members of the opposition. Beginning in 2000 government forces shut down several independent newspapers and radio stations.

In 2001 the UN imposed economic sanctions against Liberia for aiding rebel groups in neighboring Sierra Leone. Taylor’s administration also allegedly aided rebels in both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Taylor accused Guinea of supporting a new Liberian rebel group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and retaliated with several attacks on Guinean border towns. LURD rebels gained control over significant amounts of northern Liberia by 2002, soon limiting Taylor’s authority to little more than Monrovia. After months of fighting and international pressure (notably from the United States), Taylor agreed to step down in August 2003 as part of an overall peace agreement, and he went into exile in Nigeria. A Special Court, jointly administered by the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government, later brought war crimes charges against Taylor, and in June 2007 he went on trial in The Hague (see War Crimes Trials). In October, Liberian businessman Charles Gyude Bryant was sworn in as Liberia’s new president, charged with overseeing a two-year power-sharing transitional government. The bicameral legislature was replaced temporarily by an interim National Transitional Legislative Assembly. Under the 2003 peace agreement, the United Nations Security Council formally established a peacekeeping force known as the UN Mission in Liberia.

In November 2005 elections Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, an economist and longtime political dissident, was elected president. She became the first female head of state of an African nation. Elections were also held for the restored bicameral legislature. Johnson-Sirleaf defeated George Weah, a popular former soccer star, winning more than 59 percent of the vote.

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