The State and Ethnic Identity in Liberian Conflict

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    The State and Ethnic identity in Liberian conflict

    LisaLaurine Bondo

    Student ID# 3615804

    10 July 2012

    Thesis MA Politics and Society in Historical Perspective



    Prior to the April 12, 1980 coup led by Samuel Doe which overthrew the then 130 year rule by the dominant minority of Americo Liberians, Liberia was an independent and politically stable country. Western observers (scholars, reports and government officials) in the immediate aftermath of President William Tolbert‟s bloody overthrow in 1980 military coup assumed that

    the post colonial conflicts witnessed in many neighbouring West African states Angola and Nigeria at the time would have been minimal in Liberia. In 1981, Sanford Ungar a reporter with the American newsmagazine Atlantic Monthly commented on political situation in the aftermath

    1of the coup, “The country was coup proof, the African dynasty schooled in western ways.”

    (Ungar) Liberia has long been regarded as Africa‟s oldest republic by its neighbours and Western allies. It was a distinction referenced to Liberia‟s long standing democratic traditions. Civil

    society was commended by Western leaders for avoiding socio-political conflicts within the country despite successive governments marginalization of Liberians outside the capital of

    Monrovia for decades. Within the country, the marginalized majority regarded the military coup as a revolution correcting a long standing injustice. Ungar‟s observation formed into a question

    that would be repeated throughout the Liberian Civil War: how could a violent conflict occur in a multicultural country such as Liberia?

    The West African region and wider African continent have witnessed a cycle of political coups since gaining independence in 1960. American and European media occasionally refers to the instable atmosphere as typical of African states. An observer unfamiliar with African politics often concludes that political instability is unique to African states ignoring similar events occurring in Asia and Latin America. West African states are not endemic to coups, nor is it difficult to understand the origins of instability. Attempts made by Western media to understand Yugoslavia‟s complexity that led its disintegration and the 1990s conflicts can also be applied to many West African states. Several West African civil wars have become well known to the world notably the 1990s Sierra Leone and Liberian civil conflicts. Once hailed as a model of a successfully stable non colonial state, Liberia‟s decade‟s long slide into brutal conflict still

    baffles many.


In this paper, I will seek to address the 1990s Liberian conflicts‟ origins in a socio-political

    context of the post colonial and post-cold war era. The analysis will focus on the state and people‟s transformation in the aftermath of the coup throughout the civil war. As in the case of Yugoslavia and other West African nations, the Liberian state played a crucial role setting the stage for the conflict. The state exploited the most visible marker among its citizens that has served as both a unifying power and a divisive force: ethnicity. It was a gradual process that began within government institutions including the armed forces, than trickled down to civil society, first through ethnic polarization that later transformed into ethnic divisions. What is often overlooked when ethnic divisions are invoked is the fact that the country‟s previous leaders

    had been able to maintain a peaceful, democratic and multiethnic state without emphasizing ethnic differences to a strong degree. The principle question is: to what extent did ethnic visions fostered by the Liberian state lead to the 1990s conflict?

    There are three components which offer explanations. First, the socioeconomic marginalization of rural Liberians by the highly centralized Liberian state was one of the major factors contributing to the tense political environments during the late 1970s under the William Tolbert Presidency. The tension extended to Samuel Doe‟s administrations throughout the 1980s.

    Secondly, the countryside or “interior” as Liberians refer to it was and today still confronts the state‟s preference for full urban and limited rural population‟s participation in national development. Rural Liberians forming the majority of citizens and belonging to the mélange of indigenous ethnic groups have continuously voiced their grievances at being left out of the national building process. Lastly rebel factions during the 1990s civil conflict exploited the government‟s violence toward certain ethnic groups labelled as enemies to garner support from

    their kin or neighbours to eventually overthrow the government. Investigating the political transformation through these three components seeks to help the reader to realize that Liberia‟s ethnic conflict was not a matter of tribalism but of twenty years of the state‟s ethnic polarization.

    The conflict‟s origins continue to have a significant influence in Liberia for three reasons. First, the political transformation‟s relevance from a relatively peaceful multiethnic democracy to highly polarized society divided by ethnicity and government mistrust has the potential to harm the post war nation‟s fragile peace. Second, previous governments‟ failures to continue the


progressive political reforms begun under Tolbert‟s administration which attempted to integrate

    rural Liberians into nation building while reforming the entire Liberian political structure feeds the frustrations of the people it was meant to help. Lastly, some ethnic groups the Mandingos continue to face the consequences of division. Although Liberian citizens, Mandingos continue to be viewed by society as foreigners through rumours that they are more Guinean than Liberian. As recent history reminds us, labelling fellow citizens as foreigners to only affects their standing within society but also leads to dangerous levels of discrimination.

    For a theoretical approach of these issues, I will be utilizing Roger Brubaker‟s article, “Ethnic

    and nationalist violence.” In his article, Brubaker proposes various theories to explain the origins of the ethnic component in wars. Among the theories that illustrate the Liberian conflict‟s ethnic

    component are the culturalist approach and intergroup dynamics. The intergroup dynamics is a theoretical model within Game Theory. The intergroup model determines how persecuted groups react to real and imagined threats. It first manifested itself through the state under Samuel Doe‟s

    presidency as he originally sought to take political power on behalf of all indigenous Liberians away from Americo-Liberians. However his aims soon developed into a personal quest to consolidate power through defining non Krahn Liberians as enemies or threats to the state. Cultural construction of fear emerges from the culturalist approach theory emphasizing the strong role fear plays in cultural symbols, rituals or myths. Outside the cultural context, fear was already being applied by the state long before the war. In Liberia‟s case, the state adapted a

    construction of fear along political lines to fit its own needs of security. During Samuel Doe‟s

    Presidency in 1980s, the state turned symbols of national security such as the Armed Forces of Liberia into symbols to be feared by the general public. Terrorizing citizens with the AFL‟s

    excessive use of force was justified to maintain social and national order. As the political environment worsened, fear became a tool for newly formed rebel forces under the leadership of Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson to garner support from terrorized citizens. A combination of fear and grievances against the state for past injustices gave new recruits to rebel forces enough reason to take up arms against the state. The Liberian state‟s earlier use of fear led to its eventual

    demise in 1990. Rebel forces replaced the state in using fear not only for political aims but in a cultural context. Brubaker‟s culturalist theory suggests that fear can lead states and political factions to construct perceived threats or enemies as others. The Liberian war as witnessed by


    civilians illustrates many instances where rebel factions regarded their former neighbours or rural society as a dangerous other that needed to be subdued or weakened. The rebel forces‟ use of

    cultural symbols familiar to many rural Liberians dominated stories and images related to the Liberian war. These uprooted cultural symbols included decorative masks representing indigenous culture often worn by dancers, the myth of the country devil representing evil spirits or temptation, superstition and legends of indestructible power through the use of shamanic powers. Whereas these symbols have long been used in peaceful ceremonies to promote neighbouring villages and peoples‟ strong links to their communities, these symbols were meant

    to terrify and divide both enemies and victims. The Truth Reconciliation Commission includes many testimonials by Liberians attesting to numerous incidents of state terror on citizens during the past thirty years. The TRC is also mentioned to emphasize the role of cultural construction of fear in the state and rebel forces‟ tactics on civilians caught in the violence. The TRC is a post

    war trial set up in the immediate aftermath of the Liberian civil war to gather testimonials from victims and perpetrators of atrocities committed from 1989-2003.

    The cultural approach will be applied to the state and rebel forces since the theory serves as a theoretical context of ethnic division and political marginalization. From this perspective that the reader may understand that the 1990s conflict did not emerge in vacuum nor was a result of long standing tribalism. Liberia shares the same socio-political complexities with a few well known case studies Yugoslavia and Nigeria.


    Chapter 1 How history shaped Liberian identity and national development History has long been seen by society as a learning experience in understanding the present. In Liberia, as in many countries around the world, history has served as an object of national reflection on equality and social progress for all citizens. Occasionally history also exposes ignored consequences of long standing inequalities within society. A historical overview of Liberia will be provided to aid the reader in better understanding of indigenous Liberians‟ role in

    ththe country‟s early socio political history. I chose to begin Liberian history in the 15 century to

    include the often overlooked and sometimes ignored history of Liberian society and indigenous

    thLiberians prior to the 19 century. Most if not all references to Liberian history begins 1822 when the country was formed as a nation state. There has been little attempt even in Liberian textbooks to include the pre-1822 story of the country‟s political and cultural roots before the Americo Liberians‟ arrival. Through Liberian historians such as Teah Wulah, it is now known

    that indigenous Liberians played an active role in Liberia‟s early history. Liberians participated

    in trade and contact with Europeans. It defies some Americo Liberians‟ stereotype of African peoples in this case indigenous Liberians who needed aid from Americo Liberians or Europeans to learn how to govern their societies. Liberian society was complex and advanced throughout its early history. Overlooking Liberia‟s early history again marginalized indigenous Liberians in a historical context. Furthermore it regards Americo Liberians‟ experiences in Liberia as the

    country‟s sole defining moments in its history.

    If long standing multiculturalism is taken into account, the state‟s use of ethnicity during

    Samuel K. Doe and later Taylor administrations for political aims represents an unforgiving paradox. Historically and still today, Liberia is home to a multiethnic society where many of its citizens speak a multitude of languages and share diverse cultures. There are sixteen indigenous ethnic groups often listed in the following order of size: Kpelle, Bassa, Mandingo, Kru, Grebo and the remaining groups. The sixteen groups compose 95% of Liberia‟s population. Similar to

    the wider West African region, Liberia‟s majority ethnic group do not even form 50% of the

    population as is the case in some Western European countries‟ ethnic makeup. The Kpelle who

    are considered to be the majority in the country only form a third of the population or 20%. The remaining 5% of Liberia‟s population consists of Americo Liberians, Congoes and a small


    number of foreigners namely Lebanese. Pade Badru‟s article on Ethnic conflict and state formation in post colonial Africa illustrates Liberia‟s political inequality with its ethnic

    composition. “The Americo Liberian compromised 2.5 percent of the population with the Congo People (descendants of Slaves from Brazil and the Caribbean) also forms another 2.5 percent.” (Badru 155)

    The adjective indigenous, often used interchangeably with the term native, is an apolitical definition used within and outside Liberia to distinguish the majority from the Americo Liberians and smaller minority of Lebanese the country‟s third largest minority, along with Indians and

    Chinese. In addition, the Lebanese merchant families form an influential “ethnic trading

    minority” (Grossman 162) that runs the majority of businesses in the Liberian capital Monrovia. However, the Lebanese rarely receive attention in most history books or discussions related to Liberian society or identity. Despite the fact that Lebanese families have lived in Liberia since

    ththe late 19 century and many are Liberians by birth, they have not been granted citizenship by the state due to an 1822 clause in the Liberian constitution that only allows “…citizenship and

    land ownership to people of Negro descendant.” (Ch 4, art 27, sec 2) At the legislative and

    judicial levels the state has maintained its stance on citizenship being granted to anyone with African ancestry or their descendants but is still hesitant because of economic benefits Lebanese and other minority groups enjoy. There is still ongoing debate to extend the citizenship to Lebanese Liberians. The Lebanese will be briefly included into the analysis because of their prominent economic role. Additionally some Lebanese businessmen benefited from close ties to both the Doe and Taylor governments often to protect their family businesses. Several eyewitnesses‟ accounts from Truth Reconciliation Commission trial have accused several Lebanese businessmen of financing Taylor regime during the Liberian conflicts. The cultural history between Liberian minority and majority ethnic groups is one of intermingling for centuries. “Intermarriage and internal migration have made it possible for

    many Liberians to invoke more than one tribal affiliation” (Moran 4). Liberian historian Teah

    Wulah in his book, The Forgotten Liberian, illustrates how geography and trade was crucial to

    the country‟s early history as a crossroads region similar to Palestine or Yemen for various

    ethnic groups from the Sahel and Guinean forest seeking safety or beginning a new life in pre


contemporary Liberia. Most of the Liberian tribes migrated (into Liberia) as part of

    demographic adjustments caused by the political and economic upheaval of the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai in West Sudan. There were other peoples such as the Dei, Loma,

    Golas, Mendes and Mano who had settled in the country prior to the collapse of the Songhai

    thEmpire who arrived into the region from neighbouring countries in the 12 century and probably

    earlier. “Most Liberian tribes have an affinity with kinsmen in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. (Wulah 21). The indigenous society had developed a complex political culture and legal systems regarding the rights and roles of citizens living across the country. The TRC‟s

    perspective on rural Liberian society emphasizes that political leadership is tied to extended family and community connections. These connections would later aid Samuel Doe in his rise to power in 1980.

    “These rural communities are generally the centre of extended family, or kinship groups. Ties to an extended family network are critically important in Liberian culture and often form the foundation upon which local and national political governance is built.” (TRC 52)

    In addition to communal connections, rural society has a long history in educating Liberians of all ages and ethnicities in local culture and society. Prior to the introduction of Western education, rural Liberians turned to secret societies Sande (for girls) and Poro for boys to educate generations of children in traditional values and disciplines. The importance of these societies sometimes outweighed the influence of Americo Liberian urban culture in the countryside. Both Sande and Poro societies referred to as bush schools are part of the culture having existed centuries before Liberia became a modern nation state. It is unknown if Samuel Doe might have attended the Poro school. It is not uncommon that some of his government officials might have been educated in the Bush schools instead of the Western educational system via Christian mission schools promoted by the state across the countryside.

    For practical reasons I shall refer to various the ethnic groups as they exist within Liberia‟s current borders as Liberians. The country‟s strategic location on the fringe of both the African and later French empires in a small corner of West Africa has served as both a blessing and curse. Liberia was considered too inhospitable and as unsafe for Europeans.” (Wulah 13) Its entire

    coastline is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conarky from its northern


    and north-eastern borders and Ivory Coast shares the Cavalla River in its southeast region. The dense forest geography and Kru people‟s unwillingness to be disadvantaged from sea trade by

    ththEuropean traders in the mid 15-19 centuries might have saved Liberia from being colonized

    prior to its creation as a modern nation state in 1822. Contemporary Liberia historically was not a long standing state or country in the same manner as Mali or Ghana. It could be described as a region similar to Sierra Leone where each people that arrived were able to settle and govern themselves without a centralized authority. The region maintained its non state form for nearly 500 years until 1822 with the arrival of African American settlers and former Caribbean slaves attempted to create a new nation state from the old Melaguetta Coast.

    It was originally the Portuguese who created names for major towns and rivers along Liberia‟s coast. The names alongside local names are still in use today for instances Cape Monteserrado, River Cestos, Cape Palmas (aka Harper and Cape Mount). Prior to scramble for Africa, there were early attempts by European geographers at defining West Africa through sectioning the region into multiple territories according to Portuguese or English settlements along the West African coast above Liberia or islands of Sao Tome on Spanish and English maps. The Mano River region which includes Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone‟s location was first named

    Guinea with no relations to the two contemporary countries of the same name. Guinea was later divided into Lower and Upper Guinea modelled after the same geographic split as Lower and Upper Egypt. In this case Upper Guinea meant south. Liberia and its neighbours became part of the region of Upper Guinea under the name Grain Coast.

    Portuguese traders sailing along the West African coast were the first Europeans known to reach Liberia. “Although during the sixth century BC Hanno of Carthage in Tunisia is said to have sailed down the coast of Africa with more than fifty ships and some three thousands or more colonialists.” (Wulah 11) So the Europeans may not have been the first foreigners

    Liberians had seen. Following in the footsteps of the Portuguese were the English, French and Dutch. To Europeans the country was known as the Melaguetta (Pepper) Coast and later the Grain Coast after its local peppers dubbed the “Grains of Paradise” which were in high demand

    ththacross Portugal and England at the height of the Spice Trade. From the 16 to 17 centuries

    there was tense competition among the major Western European countries to gain a monopoly on


    coastal trade in the region. The Portuguese blockaded British ships sailing along the coast while the British destroyed Dutch forts inland in hopes of discouraging either party from wanting to do business with Liberians. The relationship between Europeans and Liberians involved land and sea faring trade in gold, locally produced cloths, baskets (from where River Cestos received its name) and gold. The Krus living in coastal villages and major towns are still known as the most sea faring traders and fishermen among Liberian people. English and later French traders worked with the Kru for inland explorations and communication between the two peoples. “During the

    late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europeans frequently recruited Liberian Kru…to work as sailors on European ships travelling between Europe and India via Africa.” (Appiah 20) to

    Although relations between English and French and Kru were diplomatic, tensions increased and relations soured as the Kru, Bassa and Grebo among other Liberians resisted attempts by some European traders seeking to profit from the growing Spanish-English slave trade on the island of Goree in Senegal, Sierra Leone and Angola. Kru fishermen fought Europeans frequently

    thththroughout the 18 to early 19 centuries by attacking smaller slave ships on the coast. In

    addition, slaves from Upper Guinea mostly came from farther inland mostly from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Guinea often sold by their enemies or neighbours collaborating with European traders under a barter system. Africans captured and shipped as human products were meant to replace the dying Amerindian forced labour in many European plantations producing sugar, tobacco and other heavy duty crop cultivation in the Americas particularly Brazil and the Caribbean. According to Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.‟s historical documentary titled Black in Latin

    America, 90% of all slaves sent to the Americas ended up in the Caribbean. (Gates)

    The significance of the Atlantic Slave Trade cannot be overemphasized. Slavery‟s major

    thsignificance was the invisibility and denial of human rights African slaves experienced in 19

    century American society. Americo Liberians (freed and former slaves) were dehumanized in a cultural and social sense that their histories, individual or collective identities, culture and traditions not to mention religions that tied them to mainland Africa were denied by European

    thand American historians until mid 20 century. Few mass migrations of people voluntary or

    involuntary have had a lasting effect on the continent as slavery did. It is estimated that some 12

    million men, women and children were turned into human commodities and exported from the continent.” (Parker) On both sides of the Atlantic, African scholars and their European


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