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Thursday, August 12, 1999 Published at 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK

World: Africa

Troubled past of Africa's first republic

Liberia has been returning to normality after years of civil war

By BBC News Online's David Stead

For much of the last 20 years Liberia has been one of the most unstable countries in Africa.

Plagued since the early 1980s by coup attempts and later by civil conflict its economic assets were squandered and rival ethnic fighters outdid each other in brutal savagery.

But two years ago, when Charles Taylor was elected President and included former rivals in his administration, it seemed better times were ahead.

[ image: Rebel armies used child soldiers to fight]
Rebel armies used child soldiers to fight
Within the capital, Monrovia, normality has essentially returned since the days when warlords battled for supremacy, but the recent kidnappings are an indication that border areas remain volatile.

Liberia has always prided itself on being the first independent republic in Africa - it shares with Ethiopia the distinction of being the only African state not to be directly colonised.

Its once flourishing economy relied on exports of rubber, coffee and cocoa and it also has important iron ore, diamond and gold mines.

Civil disunity

But much of the country's wealth was plundered during the years of fighting and the government is struggling to regain economic stability.

[ image: Monrovia was shattered by war]
Monrovia was shattered by war
At the root of Liberia's political problems have been the conflicts between the descendents of American freed slaves settled during the 19th Century and the indigenous ethnic groups.

The settlers formed an Americo-Liberian elite which dominated the country through the long presidencies of William Tubman and William Tolbert.

The wide disparity between the wealthy coastal elites and the rest of the population created civil disunity sparking a military coup led by a member of the Krahn ethnic group, Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in 1980.

President Tolbert was killed and 16 of his senior officials were publicly executed.

Doe promised a return to civilian rule and won a disputed election in 1985, however, he failed to win international acceptance and faced internal insecurity.

On Christmas Eve, 1989, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) began a rebel assault from the north-eastern province of Nimba - reaching Monrovia by September 1990.

Doe tortured

[ image: Samuel Doe's interrogation by Prince Johnson's forces was recorded on video]
Samuel Doe's interrogation by Prince Johnson's forces was recorded on video
The conflict forced thousands of Liberians to flee to neighbouring Ivory Coast and Guinea.

Three armed groups competed for Monrovia - the NPFL, a breakaway group led by Prince Yormie Johnson and the Armed Forces of Liberia - AFL - remnants of Doe's army.

It was Prince Johnson's forces which captured Doe, and savagely hacked him to death.

From 1990 onwards there was an escalation of war in Liberia, with new rebel groups establishing powerbases throughout the country.

An African peace-keeping force - ECOMOG - of mainly Nigerian soldiers secured Monrovia and made it a relatively safe haven for civilians but rebel groups continued to control wide swathes of land outside the capital.

Charles Taylor established a rival administration in the central town of Gbarnga, complete with its own currency.

New rebel groups

Continued efforts at establishing peace and re-uniting the country failed and a new rebel movement, the United Liberation Movement of Liberia - ULIMO emerged to challenge the NPFL.

[ image: Prince Johnson broke away from Charles Taylor]
Prince Johnson broke away from Charles Taylor
ULIMO, which invaded from Sierra Leone, succeeded in wresting large areas of Lofa and Cape Mount counties in western Liberia from Taylor's forces.

The movement later split into two - ULIMO J - led by Roosevelt Johnson, which was mainly Krahn and ULIMO K, led by Alhaji Kromah, which was principally Mandingo.

By 1993 another armed faction had emerged - the Liberia Peace Council (LPC) which battled the NPFL in south-eastern Liberia.

Against a background of painfully slow negotiations and numerous attempts to reach some kind of power-sharing agreement atrocities continued on all sides. Each step towards peace seemed to reach an impasse resulting in renewed conflict.

In April 1996, fighting erupted in central Monrovia and 40 Lebanese and 25 Nigerians were seized as US warships headed for the region

Abuja breakthrough

[ image: Charles Taylor - President at last]
Charles Taylor - President at last
The breakthrough came with a peace agreement signed at Abuja in Nigeria in August 1995 and the subsequent deployment of ECOMOG troops throughout Liberia.

Although hostilities continued the ceasefire generally held and rebel fighters slowly began to disarm, returning to Monrovia after years in the bush.

After many last minute hitches on 19 July 1997 Liberia finally went to the polls - with Charles Taylor securing an outright victory.

Shortly after his inaugeration, President Taylor accused ULIMO-K of re-assembling in Sierra Leone with the aim of destabilising his government.

Monrovia, after several troubled years, is now essentially calm, but the government still has much to do to make Liberia an economically effective and politically stable nation.

The porous borders of troubled west African countries, populated by displaced people and disgruntled former rebels are likely to prove a source of ferment for the forseeable future.

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