On December 24, 1989, a group of Libyan-trained armed dissidents, which styled itself the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), attacked Liberian territory from neighboring Ivory Coast. The band of outlaws was led by Charles Taylor, an ex-Liberia government official who escaped from prison in the United States while facing extradition to Liberia for allegedly embezzling nearly one million dollars of public funds. After he fled the U.S. Taylor returned to West Africa, from where he connected with Libya. Sustained by Libyan support, Taylor went to Liberia to spearhead his murderous brand of civil war.
Liberia's dictatorial leader Samuel Doe responded to the NPFL invasion by deploying troops in the conflict area, whose senior ranks were dominated by the military strongman's own ethnic group. The government forces carried out collective punishment against local villagers, killing, looting, and raping, while singling out people from certain ethnic groups whom they regarded as supporters of the invasion by reason of their ethnic identity. The NPFL also targeted members of Doe's ethnic group and other ethnic groups that were seen to be supportive of the government, as well as its officials and sympathizers.
As the war spread from the interior toward the Liberian capital of Monrovia amid widespread death and destruction, the United States responded to the deteriorating situation by dispatching four warships with 2,300 marines to evacuate Americans and other foreigners who were in the country. The U.S. decided not to intervene to contain the unfolding catastrophe. Officials of the George Bush administration maintained that Liberia, which was then America's closest traditional ally in Africa, was no longer of strategic importance to the U.S. Coincidentally, the Liberian civil war started at the time the Cold War was ending.
Located on the West Coast of Africa, Liberia was founded in 1822 by freed black American slaves who were returned to the continent. Their passage was paid by the American Colonization Society, a philanthropic organization, whose members included Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. The Liberian capital Monrovia is named after Monroe, who was president of the United States at the time Liberia was founded. The country's national flag of red, white and blue stripes with a star, bears close resemblance to the American flag. The systems of government and education, architecture and other aspects of Liberian life reflect American taste. Names of places in the country include Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Louisiana and Buchanan. More than anywhere in Africa, spoken English in Liberia echoes the rhythms of Black American speech.
Liberia served as the regional headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and hosted a Voice of America relay station that beamed American propaganda, as well as other major U.S. security installations during the Cold War. The Americans also operated the Omega Navigation Tower, which was intended to track the movement of ships and planes in the region and beyond. Once one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries, Liberia was regarded as a haven for international trade and commerce because of the use of the American dollar as a legal tender. Major U.S. investments in the country included the Firestone Rubber Plantation, the world's largest plantation, which produce rubber for Firestone tires, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Citibank. Pan American Airlines (PAN AM) once operated Liberia's Roberts International Airport, where U.S. fighter jets have landing rights. During part of the 1970s, Liberia's per capita income was equivalent to that of Japan.
Independent since 1847 as Africa's first republic, Liberia's plunge into anarchy began after a bloody military coup that ended the rule of descendants of the freed slaves, who monopolized political and economic power for over a century. During the 1980 coup, President William Tolbert, who tried to institute some meaningful political reforms but was seen to be not pro-American, was butchered in bed at the presidential Executive Mansion. Then 28-year old Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the Liberian armed forces, who seized power, promised Liberians equality and good governance, and he also adapted a very pro-American policy. Over a period of five years, the U.S. provided half a billion dollars in aid to the Doe regime, despite evidence that the regime had become increasingly brutal and corrupt. The U.S. endorsed Doe after he rigged the 1985 presidential elections and unleashed a reign of terror that resulted to hundreds of Liberians being killed. The bloody conflict surrounding the election eventually led to the Taylor-led armed insurgency to drive the dictator from power.
Over the course of seven years of civil war, seven major armed factions emerged, and the country was partitioned. In parts of the country controlled by the various factions, marauding armed thugs terrorized defenseless people. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people lost their lives, and almost the entire country was destroyed. During this period of horror and starvation, people struggled to sustain themselves on an assortment of hitherto inedible leaves and substances. For example, the food situation was very desperate during the early part of the war that dogs literally turned into wolves and survived on eating dead human bodies that littered about. The living ate the dogs when food ran out. Hundreds of thousands of Liberians became refugees in neighboring countries and other parts of West Africa, while almost the entire population remaining in the country was displaced.
The civil war was so peculiarly horrible that some West African countries, led by Nigeria, took the unprecedented step in African history to organize a military force, called ECOMOG for short, to intervene and halt the slaughter of defenseless people, and to restore peace. Other countries that made up the original ECOMOG force, which was supported by the United States and the United Nations, included Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Gambia. The original ECOMOG force entered Liberia about eight months after the war started, and Liberia had turned into a "slaughter house," according to then Gambian President Dawda Jawara, who was chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional organization that groups together 16 West African countries. Senegal, Uganda and other countries later provided troops.
The West Africans also acted out of fear that the Liberian conflict might spill over into neighboring countries and eventually destabilize the sub-region. The NPFL force also included Libyan-based dissidents from some of the West African countries, who were planning their own revolutions to seize power in their respective countries. Some of those revolutionaries had been involved in unsuccessful military coups and armed rebellions to unseat the governments in their countries of origin. Libya, declared by the U.S. as a leading sponsor of terrorism around the world, was known for its military adventurism in West Africa. Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, using his country's oil wealth to spread his staunchly anti-Western vision of pan-African revolution, reportedly hosted and trained hundreds of men, some of whom are now rulers of African countries. Gadaffi also used the opportunity of the Liberian civil war to undermine U.S. influence in Liberia. And Gadaffi may have had good reason for wanting to contain American influence in Liberia. The CIA reportedly used Liberia as a base to attempt the destabilization and overthrow of Gadaffi's regime.
For their part, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast also played pivotal roles in Taylor's campaign of death and destruction. Burkina Faso's president Blaise Campaori, another Libyan protege who seized power by murdering the leader of that country, provided foreign mercenaries and training bases for Taylor's rebels, and his country served as the centra