The Ebola Hotspot: History of the American Colony of Liberia

The Ebola epidemic´s hotspot appears to be Liberia, a country founded by colonial settlers from the USA. The following is a brief overview of the country´s sad history, including the events which led to the health system´s collapse, which in turn allowed the Ebola epidemic to become much more deadlier than in nearby nations.  

Liberia in 1830, map prepared by the American Colonization Society

Founding of Liberia, 1847

The founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States as well as by U.S. foreign policy interests. In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) to deal with the “problem” of the growing number of free blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. 

In 1818 the Society sent two representatives to West Africa to find a suitable location for the colony, but they were unable to persuade local tribal leaders to sell any territory. In 1821, a U.S. Navy vessel resumed the search for a place of permanent settlement in what is now Liberia.

Once again the local leaders resisted American attempts to purchase land. This time, the Navy officer in charge, Lieutenant Robert Stockton, coerced a local ruler to sell a strip of land to the Society.  The local tribes continually attacked the new colony and in 1824, the settlers built fortifications for protection. In that same year, the settlement was named Liberia and its capital Monrovia, in honor of President James Monroe who had procured more U.S. Government money for the project.

Other colonization societies sponsored by individual states purchased land and sent settlers to areas nearMonrovia. Africans removed from slave ships by the U.S. Navy after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were also put ashore in Liberia. In 1838 most of these settlements, with up to 20,000 people, combined into one organization. The settlers attempted to retain the culture they had brought from the United States and for the most part did not integrate with the native societies. Today, about 5 percent of the population of Liberia is descended from these settlers.

The U.S. Government lent some diplomatic support, but Britain and France had territories in West Africa and were better poised to act. As a result, in 1847, Liberia declared independence from the American Colonization Society in order to establish a sovereign state and create its own laws governing commerce.

Despite protests by the affected British companies, London was the first to extend recognition to the new republic, signing a treaty of commerce and friendship with Monrovia in 1848. Because of fears of the impact this might have on the issue of slavery in the United States, Washington did not recognize the nation it had played a role in creating.

The United States finally established diplomatic relations with Liberia in 1862, and continued to maintain strong ties over the years.

The black settlers came to be called Americo-Liberians. They emulated their former homeland, however painful their experience in the New World had been. They used the Declaration of Independence as the vehicle for launching their fledgling nation and the U.S. Constitution as the model for their new government. They designed a flag with red and white stripes and a single white star on a field and used the American dollar as their currency, a practice that continued until the mid-1980s.

1912…US President Taft helps Liberia´s colonial elite end a native rebellion and retain its independence…

In 1912, President William Howard Taft opened a new chapter in U.S.-Liberian relations by sending three black former army officers to train the new Liberian army, then called the Frontier Force, which was charged with protecting the country's border and suppressing internal opposition. An international loan provided temporary relief but failed to solve Liberia's troubles.

 In 1915, the coastal Kru people, who had long resisted Monrovia's authority, rose in rebellion, declaring their loyalty to Great Britain and demanding annexation by Sierra Leone. The USS Chester was diverted to Africa on route home from Turkey to help quash the uprising.

By the early 1920s, Liberia's financial crisis had worsened and the Harding administration proposed a new $5 million loan from the U.S. government. The House gave its approval but the Senate refused, creating what Sawyer calls "a sense of desperation among Liberian officials," who worried that British and French designs on their country might now prove unstoppable. Liberia had become a charter member of the League of Nations in 1919, and Monrovia was determined to safeguard its sovereignty. Instead of a European takeover, however, Congressional inaction opened the way for a new American foothold in the country -- the establishment of the world's largest rubber plantation by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Firestone makes a deal.

During the 1920s, the United States access to rubber was restricted by the European colonial powers (Britain and the Netherlands), which held a monopoly in rubber production. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, considered the rubber resources a vital resource due to its usage for car tires and began working with American rubber companies in order to find a rubber source that was controlled by US interests. 

Firestone is Liberia´s largest plantation owner (photo from the BBC)

In 1926, the Liberian government granted rubber magnate  Harvey Samuel Firestone a 99-year lease for a million acres at a price of 6 cents per acre, Firestone thus had access to land to enable it to create the world's largest rubber plantation. Firestone provided a $5 million loan at a 7% interest rate  to the government to pay foreign debts and to build a harbor needed by Firestone. The loan was given in exchange for complete authority over the government's revenues until the loan was paid.

The loan took a larger and larger portion of the Liberian government's incomes: it grew from 20% of the total revenue of Liberia in 1929, to 32% in 1930, to 54.9% in 1931 and nearly the whole revenue in 1932.

During the Great Depression, as rubber price fell,  Firestone stopped its development of the plantation (using just 50,000 acres and cutting wages in half), and, depriving the Liberian government of tax incomes, the government missed a payment to the loans to the company.

Firestone asked the US government to send a warship to Monrovia to enforce the debt payment, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected the request. The loans to the company were finally paid in 1952.

Let´s jump forward to 1979….the rice riots

Demonstrations in Monrovia  against the increase in the price of rice destabilized Liberian society. The Tolbert Administration increased prices in an effort to discourage the importation of rice (Liberia's staple food) and encourage the production of locally grown rice.   The opposition group PAL, headed by G. Baccus Matthews, called for a massive demonstration through out Monrovia.  

On Saturday, April 14, 1979, hundreds of Monrovians turned out to protest.  The government had called out both the Military and the Police to turn back the demonstrators.  The soldiers stood on the sidelines and watched, refusing to fire into the crowds, the police confronted the demonstrators.  Shots were fired, some people got killed and almost every store, shop and supermarket in Monrovia was looted.  Matthews was arrested and later released.

The end of the Colonization Society´s Settler´s rule….

In the predawn hours of April 12, 1980, President William R. Tolbert   was overthrown by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe and 16 other enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia. 

Tolbert was assassinated along with 27, other government officials.  Thirteen top ranking ministers and members of the Tolbert family were tied to poles on South Beach in Monrovia and shot to death. Their bodies along with the president's, were dumped in a common grave.  During the coup, Foreign Minister Cecil Dennis had sought refuge at the U.S. embassy, but he was refused shelter. He was later arrested and executed at South Beach.

Many high ranking government ministers who survived were tried, beaten up and paraded through the streets of Monrovia without clothes and shoes.   The coup gave the indigenous inhabitants real political power for the first time, but Doe's violent overthrow was condemned by other African countries, allies and trading partners. A flight of capital and the upper class from the country occurred after the coup. 

President Doe´s first policy statement on April 14, 1980, justified the coup with these lines:  "The coup was most necessary, because of uncontrolled corruption; failure of the deposed government to be meaningfully responsive to the problems of the Liberian masses; as well as its disregard of the "civil, human and constitutional rights of the Liberian people". Samuel Doe promoted himself to General and Commander in Chief and managed to survive several coup attempts.

After Ronald Reagan took office in early 1981, support for Doe´s government was increased. In 1982, Doe was invited to Washington for an Oval Office meeting with President Reagan.  As part of the expanding relationship, Doe agreed to a modification of the mutual defense pact granting staging rights on 24-hour notice at Liberia's sea and airports for the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force, which was trained to respond to security threats around the world. 

The government shut down the leading daily, The Observer, in early 1984. It also used a ban on political activity, enacted in the aftermath of the coup, to crackdown on critics. Even after the ban was lifted, the authorities refused to let students engage in political activities.

Prior to scheduled presidential elections, Doe set up an Interim Assembly (with himself as president), changed the election timetable and his date of birth to meet the age eligibility requirement in the constitution, created his own political party, and declared his candidacy for office.

The regime barred two of the largest parties from competing prior to the vote, including one headed by Sawyer, who was arrested for suggesting in an interview with a Monrovia newspaper that Doe should resign his job. When the balloting took place, Doe declared himself the winner by 50.9 percent of the vote, despite ample evidence that he had been defeated. Nevertheless, the Reagan administration accepted the results. 

1989: civil war....

Two dozen armed insurgents quietly crossed into Liberia from the Ivory Coast on December 24, 1989, ushering in a new and tragic phase of the Liberian saga. The 1989 insurgents were led by Charles Taylor, 40, a former procurement clerk in Doe's Army. The rebels expected to quickly garner support and cover the 200 miles to Monrovia in a matter of weeks. Doe's army responded by rushing reinforcements to Nimba County, where the rebel force was advancing, but the soldiers, who were mostly Krahn (Doe's ethnic group), helped stir antigovernment sentiment throughout the area by indiscriminately attacking villages and murdering civilians.

The Liberian Civil War´s savagery 
 inspired movies and a video game. 

During the early days of the Liberian-Civil war, thousands of Gio and Mano Liberians had traveled to Monrovia, many on foot to escape the fighting in their home county of Nimba.  Many of them on their arrival to Monrovia, took refuge in the Saint Peter's Lutheran Church in Sinkor, Monrovia. 

On the night of July 29, 1990, Doe's soldiers walked along the beach to Sinkor and then entered the St. Peter's Lutheran Church. About 200 soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia headed by Charles Julu carried out  a horrible exercise in cruelty and mass murder. When the soldiers were done and the screams were silenced, 600 Liberians had been slaughtered and 150 others wounded.

Eventually US Marines landed in Monrovia to rescue foreign residents, but withdrew once their mission was accomplished.

When hostilities returned to fever pitch in Monrovia, the city became a 'killing field' of previously unimaginable proportions.  

The USA administration gave encouragement to West African mediation and peacekeeping, initiated by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), with Nigeria playing a leading role.

However, before the ECOWAS intervention could start President Doe was captured, tortured and killed on September 9, 1990 by a rebel leader, Prince Johnson, ending his 10 years of rule over Liberia. 

Even by the standards of the time it was a particularly brutal slaying. Before he was killed, Doe was mutilated, his ears sliced off. Prince Johnson supervised the proceedings sitting in a chair while one of his soldiers fanned him. The whole affair was video-taped. Bootleg copies are still doing the rounds in the markets of Monrovia.

Unfortunately, by the time Ecowas was able to organize an intervention force in late 1990, the country's dismemberment was far advanced and domestic division had been cemented with widespread bloody conflict.

The civil war ended in 2003, elections were held in 2005, and the winner was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 29 October 1938).  She took office on 16 January 2006, and she was a successful candidate for re-election in 2011. Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa. Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

Liberia street scene, the end of the Civil 
War didn´t mean the end of poverty 

Liberia´s Health System…

In 2012 Liberia´s Human Development Index Ranking was 182nd out of 187 countries, and GDP per capita was $360. 

Liberia received significant amounts of foreign aid in recent years to strengthen its health programs. However, by 2012 CSIS, a Washington think tank, reported there was little progress due to overall lack of government and foreign aid funds (The Road to Recovery – Rebuilding Liberia´s Health System”, see reference below).

Quoting from the report:  “The overall standard of services remains low”, “funding issues cloud the horizon”, and “Liberia faces a chronic shortage of health workers”. The report concludes by recommending the US government should help Liberia build a stronger health system, train more health workers, and work closely with other governments to ensure a coordinated effort.

2014….The Ebola Epidemic…

Researchers from the New England Journal of Medicine have traced the 2014 Ebola outbreak to a two-year-old girl, who died on 6 December 2013 in Meliandou, a small village in south-eastern Guinea. In March 2014, hospital staff alerted Guinea's Ministry of Health and then the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). By the end of March, Ebola had crossed the border into Liberia. 

The CDC reports over 2200 cases of Ebola in Liberia (this number is probably under reported). The number of cases seems to be growing steadily. 

Girl, sick with Ebola, is taken to a care center in Monrovia

Approximately 4000 US troops will be sent to Liberia to help stop the epidemic. Special arrangements are being made to bring any sick soldiers back to the US for treatment.

The above was copied liberally, redacted, or sourced from the following: 

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