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Anthropological and archeological research shows the region of Liberia was inhabited at least as far back as the 12th century, perhaps earlier. Mende-speaking people expanded westward, forcing many smaller ethnic groups southward towards the Atlantic ocean. The Days, Bassa, Kru, Gola and Kissi were some of the earliest recorded arrivals.[9] This influx was compounded during the ancient decline of the Western Sudanic Mali Empire in 1375 and later in 1591 with the Songhai Empire. Additionally, inland regions underwent desertification, and inhabitants were pressured to move to the wetter Pepper Coast. These new inhabitants brought skills such as cotton spinning, cloth weaving, iron smelting, rice and sorghum cultivation, and social and political institutions from the Mali and Songhai Empires.

Shortly after the Manes conquered the region, there was a migration of the Vai people into the region of Grand Cape Mount. The Vai were part of the Mali Empire who were forced to migrate when the empire collapsed in the 14th century. The Vai chose to migrate to the coastal region. The ethnic Kru opposed the influx of Vai. An alliance of the Manes and Kru was able to stop further influx of Vai, but the Vai remained in the Grand Cape Mount region (where the city of Robertsport is now located).

People of the Littoral coast built canoes and traded with other West Africans from Cap-Vert to the Gold Coast. Later European traders would barter various commodities and goods with local people, sometimes hoisting their canoes aboard. When the Kru began trading with Europeans, they initially traded in commodities, but later they actively participated in the African slave trade.

Kru laborers left their territory to work as paid laborers on plantations and in construction. Some even worked building the Suez and Panama canals.

Another ethnic group in the area was the Glebo. The Glebo were driven, as a result of the Manes invasion, to migrate to the coast of what later became Liberia.

Between 1461 and late 17th century, Portuguese, Dutch and British traders had contacts and trading posts in what became Liberia. The Portuguese had named the area Costa da Pimenta (meaning Pepper Coast), later translated as Grain Coast, because of the abundance of grains of melegueta pepper.

Settlers from the United States

In 1822, the American Colonization Society (A.C.S.), working to "repatriate" black Americans to greater freedom in Africa, established Liberia as a place to send people who were formerly enslaved. This movement of black people by the A.C.S. had broad support nationwide among white people in the United States, including politicians such as Henry Clay and James Monroe. They believed this was preferable to emancipation of slaves in the United States. Clay said, because of "unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off." The institution of slavery in the U.S. had grown, reaching almost four million slaves by the mid 19th century. Some free African Americans chose to emigrate to Liberia. The immigrants became known as Americo-Liberians. Many present-day Liberians trace their ancestry to them. On July 26, 1847, Americo-Liberian settlers declared independence of the Republic of Liberia.

The settlers regarded Africa as a "Promised Land", but they did not integrate into African society. Once in Africa, they referred to themselves as Americans. They were recognized as such by local Africans and by British colonial authorities in neighboring Sierra Leone. The symbols of their state — its flag, motto, and seal — and the form of government which they chose reflected their American background and diaspora experience. Ashmun Institute, founded in Pennsylvania in 1854 for the education of black Americans, played an important role in supplying Americo-Liberians with leadership for the new nation. The first graduating class of Ashmun Institute (later renamed Lincoln University in honor of the slain President), James R. Amos, his brother Thomas H. Amos, and Armistead Miller, sailed for Liberia on the brig Mary C. Stevens in April 1859 after graduation.

The religious practices, social customs and cultural standards of the Americo-Liberians had their roots in the antebellum American South. These ideals strongly influenced the attitudes of the settlers toward the indigenous African people. The new nation, as they perceived it, was coextensive with the settler community and with those Africans who were assimilated into it. Mutual mistrust and hostility between the "Americans" along the coast and the "Natives" of the interior was a recurrent theme in the country's history. The Americo-Liberian minority worked to dominate the native people, whom they considered savage primitives. The immigrants named the land "Liberia", which in the Romance languages, and in Latin in particular, means "Land of the Free", as an homage to freedom from slavery.

Historically, Liberia has enjoyed the support and unofficial cooperation of the United States government.[18] Liberia's government, modeled after that of the U.S., was democratic in structure, if not always in substance. In 1877, the True Whig Party monopolized political power in the country. Competition for office was usually contained within the party, whose nomination virtually ensured election. Two problems confronting successive administrations were pressure from neighboring colonial powers, Britain and France, and the threat of financial insolvency, both of which challenged the country's sovereignty. Liberia retained its independence during the Scramble for Africa, but lost its claim to extensive territories that were annexed by Britain and France. Economic development was hindered by the decline of markets for Liberian goods in the late 19th century and by indebtedness on a series of loans, payments on which drained the economy.

Mid-20th Century

Two events were particularly important in releasing Liberia from its self-imposed isolation. The first was the grant in 1926 of a large concession to the American-owned Firestone Plantation Company, which became a first step in the (limited) modernization of the Liberian economy. The second occurred during World War II, when the United States began providing technical and economic assistance that enabled Liberia to make economic progress and introduce social change. Both the Freeport of Monrovia and Roberts International Airport were built by US personnel during World War II.

On April 12, 1980, a successful military coup was staged by a group of non-commissioned army officers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe. The soldiers were a mixture of the various ethnic groups that claimed marginalization at the hands of the minority Americo-Liberian settlers. In a late-night raid on the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, they killed William R. Tolbert, Jr., who had been president for nine years, and later executed a majority of his cabinet. Constituting themselves as the People's Redemption Council, Doe and his associates seized control of the government and brought an end to Africa's first republic. Significantly, Doe was the first Liberian head of state who was not a member of the Americo-Liberian elite.

Doe favored authoritarian policies, banning newspapers and outlawing various opposition parties. His tactic was to brand popular opposition parties as "socialist", and therefore illegal according to the Liberian constitution, while allowing less popular minor parties to remain as a token opposition. Unfortunately for Doe, popular support would then tend to realign behind one of these smaller parties, causing them in turn to be labeled "socialist."

In October 1985, Liberia held the first post-coup elections, ostensibly to legitimize Doe's regime. Virtually all[who?] international observers agreed that the Liberia Action Party (LAP) led by Jackson Doe (no relation) had won the election by a clear margin. After a week of counting the votes, however, Samuel Doe fired the count officials and replaced them with his own Special Election Committee (SECOM), which announced that Samuel Doe's ruling National Democratic Party of Liberia had won with 50.9% of the vote. In response, on November 12 a counter-coup was launched by Thomas Quiwonkpa, whose soldiers briefly occupied the Executive Mansion and the national radio station, with widespread support throughout the country. Three days later, Quiwonkpa's coup was overthrown. Government repression intensified, as Doe's troops killed more than 2,000 civilians and imprisoned more than 100 opposing politicians, including Jackson Doe and BBC journalist Isaac Bantu.

1989 and 1999 Civil Wars

In late 1989, the First Liberian Civil War began. The harsh dictatorial atmosphere that gripped the country was due largely to Samuel Doe's rule. Americo-Liberian Charles Taylor, with the backing of neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire, entered Nimba County with around 100 men. These fighters quickly gained control of much of the country, thanks to strong support from the local population who were disillusioned with the Doe government. By then, a new player also emerged: Prince Yormie Johnson (former ally of Taylor) had formed his own army and had gained tremendous support from the Gio and Mano ethnic groups.

In August 1990, the Economic Community Monitoring Group under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organized its own military task force to intervene in the crisis. The troops were largely from Nigeria, Guinea and Ghana. On his way out after a meeting, Doe, who was traveling only with his personal staff, was ambushed and captured by members of the Gio Tribe who were loyal to Johnson. The soldiers took him to Johnson's headquarters in neighboring Caldwell, tortured and killed him.

By then, Taylor was a prominent warlord and leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. After some prompting from Taylor that the anglophone Nigerians and Ghanaians were opposed to him, Senegalese troops were brought in with some financial support from the United States.[20] But their service was short-lived, after a major confrontation with Taylor's forces in Vahun, Lofa County on 28 May 1992, when six were killed when a crowd of NPFL supporters surrounded their vehicle and demanded they surrender the vehicle and weapons.

By September 1990, Doe's forces controlled only a small area just outside the capital, Monrovia. After Doe's death, and as a condition for the end of the conflict, interim president Amos Sawyer resigned in 1994, handing power to the Council of State. Taylor was elected as President in 1997, after leading a bloody insurgency backed by Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi. Taylor's brutal regime targeted several leading opposition and political activists. In 1998, the government sought to assassinate child rights activist Kimmie Weeks for a report he had published on its involvement in the training of child soldiers, which forced him into exile. Taylor's autocratic and dysfunctional government led to the Second Liberian Civil War in 1999.

The conflict intensified in mid-2003, and the fighting moved into Monrovia. An elite rapid response unit of the US Marines known as 'FAST' deployed to the US Embassy to ensure the security and interests of the US. The Marines used US Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk to airlift non-combatants and foreign nationals to Dakar, Senegal. A hastily assembled force of 1,000 Nigerian troops, the ECOWAS Mission In Liberia (ECOMIL), was airlifted into Liberia on August 15, 2003 to prevent the rebels from overrunning the capital city and committing revenge-inspired war crimes. Meanwhile the US Joint Task Force Liberia commanded from USS Iwo Jima was offshore, though only 100 of the 2,000 US Marines landed to meet with the ECOMIL force.

Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

A peace movement called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace was instrumental to the end of hostilities in Monrovia. Organized by social worker Leymah Gbowee, thousands of Christian and Muslim women staged silent protests and forced a meeting with President Charles Taylor and extracted a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghana. Gbowee then led a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process. They staged a sit in outside of the Presidential Palace, blocking all the doors and windows and preventing anyone from leaving the peace talks without a resolution. The women of Liberia became a political force against violence and against their government. Their actions brought about an agreement during the stalled peace talks. As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a 14-year civil war and later helped bring to power the country's first female head of state. The story is told in the 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

As the power of the government shrank, and with increasing international and US pressure for him to resign, President Taylor accepted an asylum offer from Nigeria, but vowed: "God willing, I will be back." Some of the ECOMIL troops were subsequently withdrawn and at least two battalions incorporated into the 15,000 strong United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeeping force. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the civil wars.

Post Civil War

After the exile of Taylor, Gyude Bryant was appointed Chairman of the transitional government in late 2003. Because of failures of the Transitional Government in curbing corruption, Liberia signed onto GEMAP, a novel anti-corruption program. The primary task of the transitional government was to prepare for fair and peaceful democratic elections.

With UNMIL troops safeguarding the peace, Liberia successfully conducted presidential and legislative elections on October 11, 2005. There were 23 candidates; an early favorite was George Weah, an internationally famous footballer, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and member of the Kru ethnic group expected to dominate the popular vote. Though Weah garnered a plurality of the votes, no candidate gained the required majority, prompting a run-off election between the top two candidates, Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist and former Minister of Finance who had been jailed twice during the Doe administration before escaping and going into exile. The November 8, 2005 presidential runoff election was won decisively by Sirleaf. Both the general election and runoff were marked by peace and order, as thousands of Liberians waited in the Liberian heat to cast their ballots.

Upon taking office, Sirleaf became the first elected female head of state in Africa. During her administration President Sirleaf established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address crimes committed during the later stages of Liberia's long civil war.[25] Sirleaf also requested the extradition of Taylor from Nigeria and immediately handed him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which had charged Taylor with crimes against humanity, violations of the Geneva Conventions and "other serious violations of international humanitarian law". The trial by the Special Court is being held in The Hague for security reasons.

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