Liberian Civil War

The repressive regime of President Samuel Doe sparked a revolt of the Gio and Mano tribes in 1989. By December, a group of rebels led by American-educated Charles Taylor invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast with the intent of overthrowing Doe. When other factions joined in the fighting against Doe and his supporters, a civil war erupted that went on for several years.

Summary of Event

On December 24, 1989, Charles Taylor and a group of rebels, many of them trained in Libya as Taylor had been, invaded Liberia with the avowed purpose of overthrowing the repressive regime of President Samuel K. Doe and restoring freedom and equal treatment for the disenfranchised tribes. The government Doe had established in 1980 through a military coup had put him and his Krahn tribe supporters in power and had begun a period of exclusion, corruption, and brutal reprisals against other tribes, especially the Gio and Mano tribes, and against the Americo-Liberians (Liberian Americans of African descent). After suffering Doe’s rule of nearly ten years, the oppressed Liberians formed alliances that led to the invasion and the resulting civil war. Civil wars;Liberia
Liberian Civil War (1989-1997)
Revolutions and coups;Liberia
[kw]Liberian Civil War (Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997)
[kw]Civil War, Liberian (Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997)
[kw]War, Liberian Civil (Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997)
Civil wars;Liberia
Liberian Civil War (1989-1997)
Revolutions and coups;Liberia
[g]Africa;Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997: Liberian Civil War[07500]
[g]Liberia;Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997: Liberian Civil War[07500]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 24, 1989-July 19, 1997: Liberian Civil War[07500]
Taylor, Charles
Doe, Samuel K.
Johnson, Prince Yormie
Sawyer, Amos
Sirleaf, Ellen Johnson-

Taylor, the leader of the initial, small invading rebel group, was an Americo-Liberian—a Liberian descendant of the freeborn or formerly enslaved African American immigrants who founded Liberia in the 1800’s. From its founding, Liberia’s politics were dominated by the Americo-Liberians. When Doe and his military cohorts seized power in 1980, they quickly and greatly reduced the power of the Americo-Liberians.

Taylor, educated at Massachusetts’s Bentley College, had worked as a procurement chief in Doe’s government, but he was dissatisfied with the way the country was being governed. Others were also angry with the status quo, as evidenced by sporadic revolts, even among some of Doe’s assumed supporters. Their anger only increased when Doe’s Liberian army, composed largely of members of the Krahn and Mandingo tribes, retaliated with brutal acts of reprisal against the rebellious Gio and Mano tribes, fueling tribal opposition to Doe.

The Americo-Liberians, chafing from having been virtually shut out of any meaningful participation in the government, recognized a mutual interest and a common objective with the tribes. Taylor orchestrated an alliance among the Mano, the Gio, and the Americo-Liberians, named the National Patriotic Front of Liberia National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Many of the men who were to fight got military training in Libya. Although the actual fighting force was small, Taylor expected that he would have the support of the people as the NPFL moved through the countryside toward Monrovia, the capital, and he believed the force of this alliance would increase as young men along the way joined in the campaign to unseat Doe.

The Libyan government backed his effort, as did Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, which also provided military training for Taylor’s fighters and land routes for the rebels to transport their military supplies. France and Taiwan backed the alliance, as did foreign-based Liberians, including Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became Liberia’s first woman president in 2006.

The rebels invaded from Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve, 1989. Their advance through northern villages full of supporters brought fierce retaliation from the Liberian army, which burned the villages and attacked civilians, maiming and killing randomly. These callous actions by government forces failed to deter either the villagers or the rebels. If the people were not already in full agreement with the aims of the rebels, the Liberian army’s brutal retaliation against innocent civilians served only to inflame them and win them over to the rebel cause.

However, infighting had developed among the rebels’ ranks, made up of several ethnic factions whose differing viewpoints, strategies, and expectations soon led to a split in the alliance. The Gio tribesmen broke away to form their own guerrilla force, led by Prince Yormie Johnson. Johnson was a warlord, a Gio tribal leader who, despite his name, has no royal affiliation. His guerrilla group took the name Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). By the late summer of 1990, Johnson’s forces had taken most of Monrovia. They captured the embattled Doe, torturing and killing him in September, 1990.

A videotape circulated around the world showing Johnson sipping a beer while one of his men dismembered Doe’s ear; this led to wide speculation that Johnson was psychopathic. On Doe’s death, Johnson declared himself acting president of Liberia for three months, until the Interim Government of National Unity Interim Government of National Unity (Liberia) (IGNU) installed Amos Sawyer as interim president in November, 1990.

Taylor refused to accept the IGNU’s decision; as a result, while Sawyer and the IGNU ruled in Monrovia, Taylor controlled the rest of the country. The Economic Community of West African States Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an organization formed in 1975 to promote trade, cooperation, and social development, prevented Taylor from capturing the capital city, recognizing Sawyer as head of state until future elections.

Taylor, however, continued fighting. The war spilled over into Sierra Leone, with the Mandingo and Krahn tribesmen especially targeted since they were longtime rivals of Taylor’s loyalists, the Gio and Mano. By 1992, seven factions were fighting each other for control of Liberia. Conditions in the entire country had deteriorated so much that anyone, including any unlucky foreigners still in the country, risked harassment, unlawful detention, brutality, and death at the hands of the various opposing forces.

In August, 1995, a peace agreement was finally reached in which a ruling council of six warlords was formed, including Taylor and Johnson. Backed by their own militias, the two leaders were given control over various government ministries.

The council was composed of the following: Taylor’s NPFL, Johnson’s INPFL (also known as the Liberian Peace Council), the Lofa Defense Force, and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy. The last of these was split into the Kromah faction, led by General Alhaji Kromah, and a second faction led by General Roosevelt Johnson.

Various national and international groups and agencies had tried to broker cease-fires and truces over the seven years of Liberia’s civil turmoil, including ECOWAS, the United Nations, and the Liberian Council of State. In July, 1997, disarmament of the opposing factions was achieved, and democratic elections were finally held. Taylor won the presidency with 75 percent of the vote.


Liberia had once been considered a safe, democratic country worthy of foreign investment and generally free of the corruption and military coups so common among its neighbors. However, seven turbulent years of civil war caused almost irreparable damage to the population and to its image in the international community. While Liberia was rich in natural resources, with timber, iron ore, gold, and diamonds accounting for exports that earned the country millions of dollars, normal life was so disrupted by the fighting that Liberia’s agricultural and industrial activities were ruined, causing many Liberians to die of starvation.

The competing militias, too often out of control, continued to loot and kill indiscriminately, leaving more than 150,000 dead. What wealth was still to be had from the natural resources was funneled into the pockets of the warlords, whose greed superseded their avowed intent to bring democracy back to the country. Liberia, a onetime haven for freed American slaves, successful in amassing wealth and a measure of prestige as an independent, democratic nation, became a civil rights disaster. It was only a matter of months before civil war broke out once again. Civil wars;Liberia
Liberian Civil War (1989-1997)
Revolutions and coups;Liberia

Further Reading

  • Ellis, Stephen. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Details the extreme brutality of the combatants, including incidents of cannibalism. Also looks at the penchant of some of the fighters for body decoration and women’s clothing. Well-researched and lucidly written work analyzes aspects of Liberia’s religious ideology and culture.
  • Huband, Mark. The Liberian Civil War. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1998. Describes the beginning of the war, as seen by the author days after the conflict started. Includes eyewitness details collected from key figures in the conflict, and offers insight into Doe, his regime, and the effect of the fighting on the Liberian people.
  • Pham, John-Peter. Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State. New York: Reed Press, 2004. History of Liberia focuses on Doe’s and Taylor’s presidencies. Provides some insight into the motivations and excesses of Taylor and some of the other leaders.

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