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Understanding Liberia

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For much of its 164-year history, Liberia has enjoyed a special status among Africa’s nations. Founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean, it was Africa’s first independent black republic, and people across Africa considered it both an inspiration and a beacon of hope. Nevertheless, the relationship between the African-American arrivals, known as Americo-Liberians or “Congo” people,[1] and the many ethnic groups already present in Liberia, bore many similarities to European colonialism in the rest of Africa. To put in context the perceptions and attitudes of Liberians about their priorities for development, peace, and security, this section includes a brief background to the country and its people, a history of the civil wars, and the transition to peace.

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[1] The term “Congo people” or just “Congo” was commonly used first in Sierra Leone and later also Liberia to describe the non-native black settlers, due to the large number of slaves originating from the Congo basin, who arrived in these countries after the British naval forces captured slave ships to release their human cargo. They were later also joined by other settlers of African origin from the West Indies. Neighboring Sierra Leone was where “Black Poor” from Britain were being “repatriated” in as early as 1787, most of whom were former American slaves who sought refuge with the British during the American Revolution. This prompted the American Colonization Society to attempt to find a safe haven for the first group of freed American slaves in Sierra Leone, but eventually drifting further south to settle in 1822 at today’s capital Monrovia, named in honor of US President James Monroe. Until recently, the Americo-Liberians were considered, or at least considered themselves,  distinct and superior to the original Congos and others of African origin, which explains their aversion to the collective term Congo used by “native” Liberians. See Ellis, Stephen (2007). The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimensions of an African Civil War. New York: New York University Press; Cooper, Helene (2008). The House at Sugar Beach. New York: Simon & Shuster.