Who is Leaving?



In 1822, freed black American slaves began settling in Liberia, an area in West Africa inhabited by about 16 principal tribal groups. Liberia was declared a republic in 1847 and ruled by descendants of the freed slaves, Americo-Liberians, until 1979 when Samuel Doe, an indigenous Krahn, took over the government in a coup (The Associated Press 6 Aug. 1990). Currently, there are about 2.5 million Liberians including about 50,000 Americo-Liberians (Ibid.) and 125,000 Krahn, mainly in eastern Liberia (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990; Manchester Guardian Weekly 9 Sept. 1990). The major ethnic groups, in terms of numbers, are: the Kpelle in Bong County, the Bassa in Buchanan region and the Gio/Mano in Nimba County. 1974 Census figures indicate there were also about 3,430 Lebanese, 2,399 U.S. citizens, 4,101 Europeans and 47,654 non-Liberian Africans in Liberia (Africa South of the Sahara 1989, 611).

Although Liberia has a constitution which provides for democracy and the protection of human rights, under Doe it has had a restrictive one-party system with prominent military support (Country Reports 1989 1990, 182-183). The policies of Samuel Doe's Krahn government concentrated political divisions along ethnic lines. Members of the Krahn ethnic group were accorded preferential treatment. According to the testimonies of several Gio\Mano refugees in Côte d'Ivoire, ethnic-based harassment directed against the Gio/Mano by soldiers and Krahn workmates and supervisors has been continuous since a 1985 attempted coup led by a Gio/Mano opponent from Nimba County (Africa Watch May 1990, 18-20).

The armed forces, which consisted mainly of Krahn and Mandingo tribal members (Manchester Guardian Weekly 5 Aug. 1990), were reported to have engaged in extensive human rights violations, particularly against the Gio/Mano tribes. Referring to the recent events in Liberia, a diplomatic source asserted that "[Samuel Doe's troops] are completely out of control, but then, in a way, they always have been" (The New York Times 26 Sept. 1990).

In 1989, severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, association and assembly, as well as cases of arbitrary arrest, detention without trial or charge, and rampant military and police abuse and harassment of civilians reportedly increased (Country Reports 1989, 182-183). According to Africa Watch, torture and extrajudicial execution, conviction on false charges and lack of due process were all characteristic of Doe's government. The judiciary, within which corruption has reportedly been rampant, frequently succumbed to the wishes of the executive branch and the military (Country Reports 1989 1990, 184). The 1985 election which Samuel Doe claimed to have won was described in the U.S. Senate as the "most rigged election in history" (Manchester Guardian Weekly 9 Sept. 1990).


Although the repressive Doe regime has spawned many opponents, it was a small Gio/Mano tribal rebel group led by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, which entered Liberia from Côte d'Ivoire on 24 December 1989, with the aim of forcibly unseating Doe.

Three groups are currently vying for power. The strongest force, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) which consists of about 10,000 rebels led by Charles Taylor, is in control of much of the country. A breakaway faction of Taylor's group, the Independent National Patriotic Front (INPF) led by Prince Johnson, consists of a force of about 2,000 and is spread throughout the capital of Monrovia. About 1,000 remnants of Doe's army remain trapped in Monrovia (The Christian Science Monitor 1 Nov. 1990). In addition, a 6,000-man peace-keeping force (ECOMOG) made up of some members of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), arrived in August (Ibid.). This international force, which Taylor does not recognize, has been drawn into the fighting while attempting to halt NPFL attacks on its troops and on ships used to evacuate refugees (Inter Press Service 19 Sept. 1990).

The conflict has caused the deaths of over 10,000 people and the flight of hundreds of thousands of civilians in search of safety (The New York Times 24 Oct. 1990). According to the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, more than 1.5 million Liberians, or half the nation's citizens, have been displaced and are now refugees (The Independent 29 Oct. 1990; The New York Times 28 Oct. 1990). Unabated violence and lawlessness continue to aggravate widespread malnutrition and disease, which have already claimed the lives of over 10,000 people (The New York Times 24 Oct. 1990). On average, about 50 people die each day from malnutrition and disease in Monrovia (The Christian Science Monitor 1 Nov. 1990).                

Much of the violence has had an ethnic basis. Although the Gio/Mano rebel force which assassinated government border officials and Krahn and Mandingo tribespeople in December 1989 comprised only about 100 people (Reuters 10 Sept. 1990), Doe's military force retaliated with a massive indiscriminate campaign of terror against Gio/Mano civilians. In the ensuing actions, unarmed Nimba County residents were raped, mutilated and massacred, villages were looted and razed and farms destroyed (Africa Watch May 1990, 1). Various reports state that members of the armed forces ignored orders to avoid injury to innocent civilians (Ibid., 28).

Some diplomatic sources believe that Taylor launched his 1989 attack in Nimba County because he anticipated, correctly, that Doe would repeat his ferocious and brutal retaliation of 1985 against Gio/Mano civilians, thus forcing them into the rebel camp (Reuters 11 Oct. 1990). Consequently, the rebel NPFL grew into a sizeable fighting force (The Independent 19 Aug. 1990), equipped and supported by Libya, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire (The New York Times 29 Nov. 1990). The rebel forces are made up of significant numbers of children as young as seven or eight years old, who may be seen carrying grenades if Kalashnikov automatic rifles prove too heavy (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 10).

The rebel forces swept south from village to village, attacking government forces and members of the Krahn or Mandingo ethnic groups. The latter groups included men, women and children, who were treated as legitimate targets for NPFL reprisal, attested to by the number of corpses left strewn along the road to Monrovia (The Independent 21 Aug. 1990). Meanwhile, government troops were involved in their own campaign against civilians. Liberian soldiers have been responsible for the deaths of unarmed displaced persons, civilians in towns recaptured from the rebels and even Gio\Mano members of Doe's armed forces (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 13).

By September, the NPFL had come within 200 yards of the mansion to which Doe had withdrawn (Reuters 10 Sept. 1990). Following the forced retreat of Doe's soldiers and their subsequent desertion and flight, the government conscripted inmates of Monrovia's prisons and forcibly recruited hundreds of civilians (The Independent 19 Aug. 1990).

All the armed groups have been responsible for committing human rights abuses against innocent civilians suspected of holding opposing political views, belonging to the wrong ethnic group, being in an area inhabited by members of a rival tribe, or wearing colours and footwear thought to be favoured by the enemy (The Washington Post 15 Aug. 1990).


The U.S. State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) estimated on 26 October 1990 that there were 280,000 Liberian refugees in Guinea, 206,681 in Côte d'Ivoire, 70,000 in Sierra Leone and about 5,000 in Ghana (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 16). The report further stated that over one million Liberians are displaced within Liberia.

About 37,000 people from many different ethnic groups have sought refuge in U.S buildings and installations throughout Liberia (The New York Times 1 Aug. 1990). Many thousands of Gio/Mano tribespeople fled to Monrovia for safety in makeshift camps (The New York Times 15 July 1990). They have, however, become easy targets for the atrocities committed by members of all parties involved in the conflict. On one occasion, government troops entered a United Nations compound, killed an unarmed security guard and abducted 30 Gio/Mano refugee men and boys whom they later killed (The Washington Post 1 Aug. 1990). On another occasion, about 30 government soldiers entered St. Peter's Lutheran Church where over two thousand people, mostly women and children, had sought refuge. The government soldiers machine-gunned and bayoneted about 600 of them, ordering the survivors to evacuate the premises (Manchester Guardian Weekly 5 Aug. 1990).

Other groups have suffered ill treatment from rebel and government forces. Members of the Mandingo ethnic group, mostly Muslim traders, have traditionally aligned themselves with the government in power, and have thus become targets of reprisal by the rebels (Africa Watch May 1990, 4-5). Because Taylor's rebel forces consider Guineans to be part of the Mandingo tribe and Nigerians to be Doe supporters, they have also been targeted. At one time, Taylor's forces forcibly removed thousands of Guineans and Nigerians from within their respective embassies and left them unprotected in the streets (Reuters 22 August 1990). The armed forces' unexplained slaying of twelve Americo-Liberians, among whom were three prominent persons, further inflamed the six-month conflict which had until then, involved only the region's indigenous groups (The Washington Post 12 June 1990). The killings triggered an exodus of thousands of Americo-Liberians (The Washington Post 14 June 1990).

There are at least two thousand foreigners, mostly Lebanese and Indian traders, in Monrovia (The New York Times 1 Aug. 1990). A report by the Manchester Guardian Weekly on 9 September 1990 stated that most Lebanese, who ran much of Liberia's economy, had fled. A representative of the Arab League in Ottawa reports that most of the Lebanese from Liberia are now scattered throughout the world (Arab League 29 Nov. 1990). According to The New York Times of 5 August 1990, a Lebanese trader became the first foreigner reported killed while attempting to stop government soldiers from stealing his furniture.

Refugees who arrived in Côte d'Ivoire in late June and July 1990 were able to receive full relief packages from humanitarian groups because their numbers were manageable and their health was generally good. However, later arrivals, already starving, received only rice which was quickly depleted. This situation continues and places a burden on the host country which is forced to share its already meagre supplies (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 17). Some areas are struggling to support a Liberian refugee population many times greater than that of their indigenous inhabitants. A case in point is Pekan Houebli, Côte d'Ivoire, where there are over 3,000 Liberian refugees and 300 Ivorians (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 19). In Sierra Leone, food assistance, at half ration in October 1990, has been unable to keep up with the refugee influx (Refugees Oct. 1990, 11).

The fighting in recent weeks in Maryland County and the acute food shortage has increased the Liberian refugee population in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire, to 10,000. Many of the recent refugees are urban dwellers and their difficulties are compounded by the fact that they are ill-equipped to forage for food in the jungle (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 18). The UNHCR is concerned with the number of urban refugees converging on host towns and cities, giving rise to potentially grave economic and social difficulties (Refugees Oct. 1990, 12). According to Africa Watch, the food situation for Liberian refugees in Guinea is the worst among Liberia's neighbours because of its inadequate infrastructure and isolated villages. While soldiers in Guinea have reportedly harassed and held Liberian refugee children hostage in exchange for food or money, civilian authorities have been working to relieve the plight of the refugees (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 19). Refugees fleeing to Sierra Leone along the principal route of the Mano River Union Bridge, have reportedly been stopped, detained and interrogated by the rebels within Liberia. While some men from certain ethnic groups have been forcibly conscripted, others have been routinely killed. The rebels have also sexually abused female refugees. The Sierra Leonean army has, however, been instrumental in gaining the safe passage of many fleeing Liberian refugees (Refugees Oct. 1990, 9). With regard to the Liberian situation, the UNHCR head in Sierra Leone reports that it is not the kind of refugee emergency which will be resolved by a speedy repatriation (Ibid., 12).


The West African group ECOMOG has facilitated the formation of an interim government made up of various political and religious Liberian groups led by Amos Sawyer, a respected scholar. The rebel leader, Charles Taylor, insisting that he is the president of Liberia, has refused to recognize this interim government, installed in Monrovia on 22 November 1990 (Inter Press Service 12 Nov. 1990). The success that ECOMOG has achieved in securing Monrovia and the surrounding area from Taylor's forces as well as the withdrawal of his military support by Libya, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire, may have persuaded Taylor to participate in a dialogue with the leaders of Liberia's warring factions in Bamako, Mali (The New York Times 29 Nov. 1990).

As a result of these Bamako negotiations, an immediate cease-fire was agreed upon on 28 November 1990. Negotiators, however, acknowledge that it is too soon to tell if the truce will last. The consequences of Taylor's latest position, that the Bamako agreement effectively removes the interim government from power, are as yet unknown. He has not responded to Sawyer's invitation to participate in discussions regarding the future of the country (Ibid.).

The fact that all parties will retain their arms for the time being and Taylor's earlier statement that "[he] cannot claim to have total control over [his] soldiers in the field" (Reuters 22 Aug. 1990), indicates that civilians may not yet be safe. Several groups have been pressing the U.S government, both the principal and traditional supporter of Liberia, to become actively engaged in halting the continuing violence, chaos and uncertainty in the country. The U.S., which has viewed the situation as an internal affair, has only recently begun providing humanitarian assistance (Africa Watch 26 Oct. 1990, 25). According to the U.S. State Department, the first ship carrying food and other emergency supplies docked in Monrovia on 25 October 1990 (Ibid., 21). The head of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance indicated that relief assistance to Liberia should continue (The Christian Science Monitor 1 Nov. 1990).


Africa South of the Sahara 1989. 1989. Eighteenth Edition. London: Europa Publications Ltd.

Africa Watch. 26 October 1990. Liberia: A Human Rights Disaster. Washington D.C.: Human Rights Watch.

Africa Watch. May 1990. Liberia: Flight From Terror. Washington D.C.: Human Rights Watch.

Arab League. 29 November 1990. Telephone Interview with Representative. Ottawa.

The Associated Press. 6 August 1990. "Liberia-At-A-Glance."

The Christian Science Monitor. 1 November 1990. "Liberians Face Increased Violence."

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989. 1990. U.S. Department of State. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

The Independent [London], 19 August 1990. "Liberia's War of Charms and Amulets."

The Independent. 21 August 1990. "A Once Proud Nation Looks Wistfully West."

The Independent. 29 October 1990. "Liberians Suffer."

Inter Press Service. 19 September 1990. "Liberia: ECOMOG Pushing Ahead for Peace."

Inter Press Service. 12 November 1990. "Liberia: Interim Government Moving In Wednesday."

Manchester Guardian Weekly. 5 August 1990. "Liberian Troops Massacre 600 in Church."

Manchester Guardian Weekly. 9 September 1990. "A Lobster in Liberia 105: In West Africa's Most Vicious Little War, the Murderous Mayhem is Tinged with a Macabre Humour."

The New York Times. 15 July 1990. "In Besieged Liberian Capital, Hunger and Sleepless Nights."

The New York Times. 1 August 1990. "Fighting Reported near Embassies and President's House in Liberia."

The New York Times. 5 August 1990. "Liberian Rebel Says He'll Arrest Foreigners to Stir World Attention."

The New York Times. 26 September 1990. "Doe's Survivors on a Rampage in Liberian Capital."

The New York Times. 24 October 1990. "Mr. Bush, Liberia Needs Your Help."

The New York Times. 28 October 1990. "Liberia Guerrillas Refuse to Sign Accord at Talks."

The New York Times. 29 November 1990. "Liberian Factions Agree to a Cease-Fire."

Refugees. October 1990. "Sierra Leone: Nightmare Journey to a Land of Peace." Geneva: Public Information Service of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Reuters. 22 August 1990. "Taylor Threatens West African Trapped in Liberia."

Reuters. 10 September 1990. "Liberian President, Reported Dead, Lived Dangerously."

Reuters. 11 October 1990. "Horror of Liberian Conflict Lives On-Even After Death."

The Washington Post. 12 June 1990. "New Slayings Spread Fear in Liberia; Violence Touches Another Ethnic Group; Peace Talks Delayed."

The Washington Post. 14 June 1990. "Liberian Soldiers Put on Trial in Civilian Killings; Court-Martial Seems to Signal Attempt by Doe Government to Curb Abuses by Troops."

The Washington Post. 1 August 1990. "Liberian Troops Hit Back, Retake Part of Capital; Doe Vows to Fight Until Last Soldiers Die."

The Washington Post. 15 August 1990. "Evacuees from Liberian Capital City Describe Battles, Bodies in Streets."

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