The small West African state of Liberia has suffered almost constant civil war since the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, launched an uprising against the Liberian government in December 1989. The civil war quickly became a chaotic conflict with seven distinct factions contesting control of the nation. All of the groups fought for possession of Liberia’s natural resources: iron ore, exotic timber, rubber, and especially diamonds. The resources were used to fund war efforts as the nation’s economy collapsed, and because it had little global strategic importance, aid from major world powers was not forthcoming.
An attempt was made by the Nigerian-dominated Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to mediate and end the violence between 1990 and 1992 through peacekeeping and helping to hold new elections. Charles Taylor’s forces attacked the interim government, derailing the process. A new coalition government was formed by Charles Taylor’s enemies in 1993 but fighting continued as the coalition tried to form a democratic government. In early 1996 Taylor’s forces attacked the capital, Monrovia, destroying much of the city in prolonged fighting. All sides then came together to negotiate and agreed on disarmament and demobilization of their forces. Elections were held in July 1997, and Charles Taylor won using the campaign slogan “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I’ll vote for him.” Many Liberians simply wanted the war to end and believed that Taylor would continue to fight if he was not elected. Peace returned to Liberia, but Taylor cracked down on his former enemies.
A coalition of Taylor opponents formed the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) army in 1999. The LURD invaded Lofa County to gain control of the diamond fields. LURD forces pushed south from northern Liberia toward the capital and captured two-thirds of the country by 2003 before laying siege to Monrovia.
During the course of the Liberian civil war, a rebel group in neighboring Sierra Leone, known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and led by Foday Sankoh, was sponsored by Charles Taylor. Fighting lasted from 1991 to 2002. Taylor used the RUF as a way to destabilize Sierra Leone, which was serving as the base for the ECOMOG peacekeepers who were trying to stop Taylor from winning control of Liberia. The RUF began their terror campaign in 1991, brutally punishing all who were not part of the RUF. They were exceptionally harsh toward civilians whom they accused of supporting the Sierra Leone government. Mass murder, systematic rape, and widespread amputation of hands, arms, and feet were the tools that the RUF used to control the population. Hands were chopped off to prevent voting, which required a thumb for fingerprinting.
To fill their ranks, the RUF also practiced widespread abduction of children. Boys starting as young as nine years old were forced to fight, often under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Girls were used as servants and sex slaves. Like Taylor in Liberia, the RUF targeted the resources of Sierra Leone to fund their war effort. During the course of the struggle against the RUF, several national governments existed, led by military juntas or civilians. Several attempts were made by ECOMOG at mediation, and talks were held to form coalition governments, but the RUF always broke agreements and returned to fighting. Between 2000 and 2002 the RUF was defeated by attacks from government forces, ECOMOG, and Guinean troops. In May 2002 elections were held, and the RUF won no seats in parliament. Over the next three years the fighting subsided and the peacekeepers left. During both of the conflicts, the United Nations (UN) was absent despite evidence of ethnic cleansing.
In August 2003 President Charles Taylor resigned and fled to Nigeria. In the summer of 2006 Taylor was captured and sent to the Hague to be tried for war crimes. Foday Sankoh was arrested in 2000 after his soldiers fired on protesters. Foday Sankoh had stopped fighting after signing the Lome Peace Accord in 1999. He was held in UN custody and died from a stroke while awaiting trial for war crimes.
The legacy of more than a decade of constant fighting has been continuing misery for the peoples of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Both countries have many thousands of amputees who are unable to care for themselves; education has broken down; a whole generation suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder; the economy is ruined; the infrastructure is in shambles; and both nations rank at the bottom of the Human Development Index according to the United Nations.