African Studies Liberia
Adebayo Oyebade
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0112


Liberia is located on the continent’s west coast on the Atlantic. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to the west, Guinea to the north, and Côte d’Ivoire to the east and northeast. Officially known as the Republic of Liberia, the state was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society (ACS) as a colony for American free blacks who elected to immigrate to Africa in search of freedom, believing that full equality as citizens was unattainable in racist American society. Liberia’s colonial history lasted until 26 July 1847, when the colony obtained its independence from the ACS, becoming Africa’s first independent republic. Independence, however, did not preclude the state from being a quasi-colony of the United States for much of its early history. Under the political and economic dominance of the Americo-Liberians, as the descendants of the black American émigrés were known, Liberia existed as virtually an informal colony of the United States. America’s influence on Liberia was primarily economic, with its heavy investment in rubber production in the country from the 1920s. In the post–World War II period, Liberia embarked on modernization, benefiting greatly from America’s wartime investment. Economic underdevelopment has, however, characterized modern Liberia. The state enjoyed relative political stability till the late 1970s, but on 12 April 1980 a bloody military coup d’état terminated age-long Americo-Liberian rule and ushered in a period of military rule. Meanwhile, Liberia witnessed a devastating two-part civil war, initially from 1989 to 1996 and then from 1999 to 2003. Liberia entered a new democratic phase in 1997 following a presidential election won by an erstwhile rebel leader in the civil war, Charles Taylor. However, Taylor was forced to resign from office in August 2003, necessitating an interim national government. Following fresh elections in 2005 won by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, she was inaugurated on 16 January 2006 as the nation’s twenty-fourth president. With her election, she became the first woman in modern Africa elected to head a nation. She was reelected for another five-year term in 2011.

General Overviews

As the earliest sovereign state in Africa, Liberia has a long history, which makes it one of the most studied African states. There are several works that provide a general survey of Liberia’s history. Dunn-Marcos, et al. 2005 is a general overview; Ashmun 1826 and Cassell 1970 analyze the earliest history of the republic; Buell 1947 examines the history of the first century; and Boley 1983 takes the discourse to the capitulation of the First Republic. More contemporary overviews of the history are presented in Dunn and Tarr 1988 and Pham 2004. CountryWatch provides up-to-date general information about Liberia.

  • Ashmun, Jehudi. History of the American Colony in Liberia, 1821–1823. Washington, DC: Way & Gideon, 1826.

    This is the earliest written history of Liberia as a colony under the ACS, written by one of its earliest leaders. It describes the events of the early colonial period and the difficulties faced by the settlers. It also contains Ashmun’s letters sent back home to the United States. Text available online.

  • Boley, George E. Saigbe. Liberia: The Rise and Fall of the First Republic. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.

    Written by a major actor in the political history of Liberia, this book offers an overview of the country’s history up to the Tolbert years in the 1970s.

  • Buell, Raymond Leslie. Liberia: A Century of Survival, 1847–1947. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947.

    A brief history of Liberia by an American, the critical analysis covers the first one hundred years of its history. It examines the country’s prospects for development and the need for a new approach that included bridging the gap between the Americo-Liberian governing elite and the indigenous people. It also calls for a more committed American involvement in the state.

  • Cassell, Christian Abayomi. Liberia: History of the First African Republic. New York: Fountainhead, 1970.

    This is a useful history of Liberia from the period of the arrival of the American black settlers in 1822 to the time of the presidency of William David Coleman in 1900.

  • CountryWatch Profiles: Liberia.

    This piece provides concise, up-to-date political, economic, social, and environmental information on Liberia.

  • Dunn, D. Elwood, and S. Byron Tarr. Liberia: A National Polity in Transition. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988.

    This study covers a wide range of issues relating to the development of modern Liberia. It provides a historical background to Liberia and examines the society, the politics of the first republic, military interregnum, the economy, and foreign relations.

  • Dunn-Marcos, Robin, Konia T. Kollehlon, Bernard Ngovo, and Emily Russ. Liberians: An Introduction to Their History and Culture. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2005.

    This slim volume is a general overview of the history of Liberia and the culture of its people.

  • Pham, John-Peter. Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State. New York: Reed, 2004.

    This is an overview of Liberia’s history from its foundation, with a particular focus on its politics and the events that lead to its civil war and its emergence as a virtual failed state.

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