By Toni Shapiro-Phim

Liberia is a relatively small country that has seen a huge amount of devastation wrought by political instability and civil war. Settled in the early 1800s by free-born Blacks and former slaves from the United States who were being “returned” to Africa through the “American Colonization Society,” the colony became the Republic of Liberia in 1824, with a capital city called Monrovia, after U.S. President James Monroe.

The “returned” settlers recreated in Liberia many aspects of American society—speaking English and building churches and houses reminiscent of those of their masters in North America. And, even though there was intermarriage between the new arrivals and the indigenous population, discrimination against the local Africans was the norm. The Americo-Liberians, descendants of those early settlers, continued to rule the country for more than a century until a coup d’état in 1980 led by a man named Samuel Doe.

Although he brought indigenous people into positions of power, he was in over his head – inexperienced and overwhelmed by the daunting tasks of running a country – and soon started mistreating people from certain ethnic groups and pitting those in other ethnic groups against one another -- all of whom had previously co-existed peacefully. A full-blown civil war erupted in 1989. A fragile ceasefire took hold in 1996, but lasted only a few years. As a result of these back-to-back civil wars, most of the country's infrastructure was destroyed. People fled en masse, leaving whole villages deserted. Soldiers, some of whom were children, were responsible for horrific violence inflicted on the civilian population.

A quarter of a million people died, and double that number were displaced within Liberia. Even greater numbers sought safety in neighboring countries. There, in exile in the Ivory Coast and Guinea, were Fatu Gayflor and Zaye Tete, both accomplished and famous recording artists, as well as dancers, who -- separately, independently from one another -- found the strength to perform for fellow refugees in the midst of hopelessness and chaos, as a way of making a statement against war. Meanwhile, back in Liberia, Tokay Tomah, who had, along with Fatu and Zaye, been a member of Liberia’s National Cultural Troupe as a singer and dancer, was doing the same thing. Peace accords were signed among the fighting factions in 2003, in no small part because of the activism of the country’s women. And Liberians elected Africa’s first woman president in 2006.

Cite This

Toni Shapiro-Phim. “Brief Overview of Liberian History.” April 30, 2014.

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