Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, but it became better known in the 1990s for its long-running, ruinous civil war and its role in a rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Although founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves’ descendants comprising 5% of the population.

The West African nation was relatively calm until 1980 when William Tolbert was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe after food price riots. The coup marked the end of dominance by the minority Americo-Liberians, who had ruled since independence, but heralded a period of instability.

By the late 1980s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990. Mr Doe was executed.

At a glance

  • Politics: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became president in 2006 after the first polls since the end of the civil war
  • Economy: The infrastructure is in ruins. The UN voted to lift a ban on diamond exports, which fuelled the civil war, in April 2007. A ban on timber exports was lifted in 2006
  • International: 15,000 UN peacekeepers are in place; ex-president Charles Taylor has been convicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone; Liberian refugees are scattered across the region

Fighting intensified as the rebels splintered and battled each other, the Liberian army and West African peacekeepers. In 1995 a peace agreement was signed, leading to the election of Mr Taylor as president.

The respite was brief, with anti-government fighting breaking out in the north in 1999. Mr Taylor accused Guinea of supporting the rebellion. Meanwhile Ghana, Nigeria and others accused Mr Taylor of backing rebels in Sierra Leone.

Matters came to a head in 2003 when Mr Taylor – under international pressure to quit and hemmed in by rebels – stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. A transitional government steered the country towards elections in 2005.

Around 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s civil war and many thousands more fled the fighting. The conflict left the country in economic ruin and overrun with weapons. The capital remains without mains electricity and running water. Corruption is rife and unemployment and illiteracy are endemic.

The UN maintains some 15,000 soldiers in Liberia. It is one of the organisation’s most expensive peacekeeping operations.


History of Christianity in Liberia

Due to Christian influence of freed slaves from the United States who settled in Liberia, Protestant missions had an early start in Liberia. Two Baptist pastors were among the first to arrive in 1822 and begin church and mission work. American Baptists and Southern Baptists joined their work, and it has developed today into the Liberian Baptist Convention with about 50,000 affiliates.

The first Methodist missionary arrived in 1833. Some of the earliest settlers were also Methodist, and the Methodist Church has developed into the largest denomination in Liberia. Other Protestant groups followed: United Lutheran Church (now known as the Lutheran Church of Liberia), Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptist Mid-Missions, Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA, and Worldwide Evangelization Crusade. Many small Protestant mission societies served in the country prior to the civil war. In fact, at that time Liberia had one of the highest per capita missionary populations in the world.

Although the Portuguese contacted Liberia as early as 1462, no permanent Catholic work was established until 1906. Earlier attempts to establish a mission among the settlers all ended in failure. Catholic work has been marked by greater success in education than evangelism.

In 1952 SIM involvement in Liberia began when the newly-formed West Africa Broadcasting Association (WABA) joined SIM. Radio ELWA, twelve miles from downtown Monrovia, grew rapidly and broadcast in 45 languages, using five transmitters. In 1965 a 45-bed hospital was opened, widening SIM’s ministry. By the late 1970s SIM had started church planting ministries in Tahn and Kolahun.

The civil war started in December 1989. As it progressed, SIM evacuated most of its personnel, leaving behind a skeleton crew to keep the radio station on the air and treat war casualties at the hospital. SIM’s ELWA compound became flooded with nearly 22,000 refugees. The refugees believed the warring factions respected SIM’s work and neutrality and would leave the compound untouched. Finally, in July 1990, even the skeleton crew was forced to evacuate. Within two hours after the refugees learned of this, they abandoned the compound as well. On their evacuation route, however, five missionaries were taken back to ELWA compound by Taylor’s troops. Taylor had the missionaries broadcast over the ELWA radio his victory speech announcing himself as Liberia’s new president.

In the following months, opposing forces sought to control ELWA, resulting in the total destruction of the radio station, print shop, power house, and six residences. All buildings suffered extensive damage and looting. SIM missionaries began to return to Monrovia in January 1991, and their numbers built back up to nearly 40 (adults and children) over the next year-and-a-half. Within a week after Taylor’s new attack on Monrovia in October 1992, all but four of the men evacuated, and half of those who evacuated returned to Monrovia within the next three months. In June 1995, 40 missionaries lived in Monrovia. Because of an incursion in April 1996, the missionaries were once again evacuated. All national staff also left, and the mission buildings were looted and damaged worse than before.

In the meantime, former employees of the hospital, services, and radio moved in to save the campus from total looting. Within a couple of months they reestablished the hospital as a clinic. SIM sent support personnel to consult and provided some funding for capital expenses, and radio ELWA started again in early 1997. In mid-1998 several missionaries moved back into Liberia to work.