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The First Phase of the Civil War: 1989-1997

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The first phase of the civil war began on Christmas Eve 1989 with a rebellion against Doe’s government led by Charles Taylor, leading to Doe’s execution, and ended with Taylor’s victory in the 1997 elections. In between these events, Taylor waged a long and brutal campaign for power, and the country split into numerous military groups and factions, mostly along ethnic lines.

Charles Taylor was the son of an Americo-Liberian and a Gola tribe member from Arthington, close to Monrovia. Educated in the U.S., he returned to Liberia in 1980 and served as the head of procurement in Doe’s government until he was charged with embezzlement. He fled to the U.S., where he was arrested and jailed pending extradition to Liberia. Taylor escaped from his Massachusetts jail and made his way to Libya where he received guerilla training and in 1989 returned to Liberia as the head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a hitherto unknown group comprising former members of Doe’s regime. On December 24, 1989, the NPFL attacked government army positions in Nimba County.[1] On New Year’s Day 1990, Taylor announced the attack on the BBC and, without detailing either his own or the NPFL’s ambitions, he urged Liberians to take up arms against the government.[2]

In the first months of the conflict the NPFL was disorganized and poorly armed, and its ranks used it as an opportunity to seek revenge on ethnic groups that the Doe regime had favored. However, the Government’s attacks against civilians drove youth to the NPFL’s ranks and it grew in strength. Taylor soon split from his former ally Prince Johnson, and also killed many of the educated and experienced political figures who joined his camp, leaving no moderate alternatives to his rule.[3] Among those killed was Jackson F. Doe, whom many believed had won the presidential election against President Doe five years earlier. In July 1990, both Taylor and Johnson independently laid siege to Monrovia, causing some of the most violent battles of the war, and ending in Doe’s execution.

For the next seven years, Liberia was besieged by rebellions and counter-rebellions. The interim government, led by Does’s replacement, Amos Sawyer, and others, for the most part did not extend beyond the Monrovia area, and completely depended on West African peacekeeping forces fro the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) for its protection. Taylor controlled the rest of Liberia and set up a parallel government structure with its capital in the second biggest town of Gbarnga, Bong County. This enabled him to control and extract Liberian natural resources, including timber, metals, and diamonds. The proceeds, estimated at about 100 million USD per year, were needed not only to continue the war, but also to ensure loyalty of his commanders and inner circle.[4] At the same time, Taylor got involved in the Sierra Leone civil war by explicitly supporting a proxy force to take control of the diamond mines in that country.[5] Counter-rebellions also challenged Taylor’s control of territory, such as the Krahn and Mandingos’ (who had been favored by Doe) formation of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) in 1991 which later split into two ethnic factions. In 1993, another counter-rebellion erupted in the southeast led by the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), representing the Sapo people.

Following years of battle and attempts to exclude Charles Taylor from any political solution, nationwide elections were finally held, including Taylor as a candidate. Many hoped Taylor’s strong hand would bring stability to the country, and Taylor became the twenty-second Liberian President in 1997 with a full 75% of the vote.


[1] National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

[2] Schuster, Lynda (1994). The Final Days of Dr Doe. Granta, 48, 41-95.

[3] Ellis, 2007, pp. 83-5.

[4] Ibid. pp. 89-91.

[5] Taylor was indicted for his role in the Sierra Leone conflict, and currently (March 2011) awaits the verdict in The Hague in the case against him.