Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Liberia's political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the holding of fair and competitive elections for the presidency and legislature.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf defeated former international soccer star George Weah in November 2005 to become Africa's first elected female president. Weah challenged the results of the election, triggering fears that former fighters who voted for him would resort to violence. International observers judged the concurrent polls for the presidency and National Assembly to be free and fair.
Liberia was settled in 1821 by freed slaves from the United States and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980, when army sergeant Samuel Doe led a bloody coup and murdered President William Tolbert. Doe's regime concentrated power among members of his Krahn ethnic group and suppressed other groups. Forces led by former government minister Charles Taylor and backed by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups-which had been subjected to severe repression-launched a guerrilla war from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire against the Doe regime on Christmas Eve 1989. In 1990, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led an armed intervention force, preventing Taylor from seizing the capital but failing to protect Doe from being captured and tortured to death by a splinter rebel group.
A peace accord in 1996 led to elections in 1997, which Taylor won. However, his victory was more reflective of a vote for peace than for a particular ideology, as many people believed that the only way to stop the war was to elect Taylor president. Fourteen years of intermittent civil war in Liberia brought fighting to three neighboring countries and claimed 200,000 lives in Liberia alone.
The peace accord, however, was not entirely effective. Long-standing grievances were not resolved, and Taylor made little effort to seek genuine reconciliation. Many of his rivals were forced to flee the country. Some formed the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and used neighboring Guinea as a staging ground from which to launch their rebellion against Taylor. With rebels poised to overrun the capital and the United States calling for him to step down, Taylor resigned in August 2003 and accepted Nigeria's offer of asylum.
Taylor's departure from Liberia stopped the war almost immediately. ECOWAS helped negotiate an end to the fighting between Taylor's forces, the LURD, and the rebel Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). West African peacekeepers became part of a 15,000-strong UN-led force that oversaw disarmament and demobilization. Human rights abuses abated considerably following the ceasefire, but some violations have continued, especially in the countryside.
Delegates to the peace talks in 2003 chose businessman Gyude Bryant as Liberia's interim president. He and a transitional National Assembly ruled the country until the 2005 elections.
Twenty-two candidates contested the presidency in the first round of voting in October 2005. Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate George Weah, who had risen from the slums of Monrovia to become a local hero as an international soccer player, won
28.3 percent, followed by Harvard-educated economist and Unity Party (UP) candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf with 19.8 percent. Lawyer Charles Brumskine came in third with 13.9 percent, and Winston Tubman, a former UN special envoy, finished fourth with 9.4 percent. Turnout was nearly 75 percent, including a substantial number of women. In the November runoff, Johnson-Sirleaf captured 59.4 percent of the vote, compared with 40.6 percent for Weah. Weah registered a challenge with the National Electoral Commission over the fairness of the vote, and there were fears that some of the former fighters who supported him would resort to widespread violence. Chanting "No Weah, no peace," militant Weah supporters clashed with UN peacekeepers in Monrovia.
Dozens of parties contested the concurrent legislative polls. Twelve parties, including those of former warlords, were voted into office, as well as a handful of independents. Weah's CDC won 18 seats-the highest number for one party; Sirleaf's UP captured 11 seats.
A report by the London-based research group Global Witness in June 2005 accused Taylor of controlling or helping to finance several of the political parties contesting the 2005 elections. He has been charged with war crimes by the UN- and U.S.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone for allegedly helping arm Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for diamonds. Efforts by international human rights groups to convince Nigeria to hand him over to the court have been unsuccessful. Johnson-Sirleaf, who backed Taylor during his initial invasion of Liberia in 1990, spent time in prison under Doe and lived in exile in Cote d'Ivoire during much of the 1990s.
In September, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that Liberia could slide back into war by the end of the decade unless the international community made a long-term commitment to help rebuild the country and serious efforts were made to fight corruption. The group maintained that "anything less than full commitment to reintegration and reconstruction in Liberia will most likely contribute to a new, wider conflict" that could envelop neighboring countries. Indeed, Liberia's stability is not guaranteed. The nation faces daunting challenges under its new government, including changing a culture of impunity, rehabilitating the justice system, and rebuilding the country's infrastructure. The nation lacks electricity, running water, a functioning educational system, and proper medical facilities.
Citizens of Liberia can change their government democratically. Presidential and legislative elections were held in October 2005. In the first round of voting for the presidency, 22 candidates participated. Hundreds of international observers determined that the vote was free and fair. The country's legislature consists of the 30-member Senate and 64-member House of Representatives; senators serve nine-year terms, and representatives, six.
Johnson-Sirleaf has said that fighting corruption, which has been at the root of many of the country's problems, will be a main goal of her administration. In June, the UN Security Council extended a ban on the export of diamonds and timber by Liberia for another six months on the grounds that the transitional government had failed to improve transparency. A three-year antigraft plan-the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Plan (GEMAP)-was drawn up for the new government by international donors. It aims to install foreign experts in key rev-enue-generating institutions, such as the port, airport, customs office, and forestry commission, for an initial term of three years. Western governments have warned Liberia that funding for reconstruction will be withheld if corruption is not addressed. Liberia was ranked 137 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Liberia's independent media have survived despite extensive self-censorship during the civil war. Employees suffered from constant surveillance, harassment, threats, detentions, and beatings. The country's independent media are now thriving. Several private newspapers are published, and there are at least five FM radio stations, including Radio Veritas, the shortwave station of the Roman Catholic Church. Star Radio, which is backed by the Swiss-based Hirondelle Foundation, began broadcasting again in 2005 after Taylor shut it down five years earlier; it has both local and shortwave broadcasts. Nearly two-dozen newspapers publish in Monrovia with varying degrees of regularity. Call-in radio talk shows are popular and frequently feature both government and opposition viewpoints. There are three local television stations.
Religious freedom is respected in practice. Muslims have been targeted in the past because many Mandingos, who were a key ethnic component of the LURD, follow Islam. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and respected, although authorities in 2005 banned demonstrations ahead of the elections to thwart potential violence. The transitional government in January imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the port town of Harper following two days of riots related to a suspected outbreak of ritual killings. Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country.
The right to strike, organize, and bargain collectively is permitted by law, but there is little union activity because of the lack of economic activity. Forced labor exists in rural areas, and child labor is widespread. Civil servants in July went on a three-day strike to demand 18 months of salary arrears. Some of the money that was to be used to pay them went instead to buy Jeep vehicles for politicians in the transitional National Assembly, according to the country's budget director.
The judiciary is subject to executive influence, corruption, and intimidation by security forces, which operate with impunity. New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in September said corruption and the absence of functioning courtrooms, prosecutors, and public defenders were fostering impunity in Liberia. The rights group stated that if a return to armed conflict is to be avoided, the new government must ensure that those responsible for past atrocities are brought to justice and that human rights abusers are kept out of the police, army, and civil service. In some rural areas where the judiciary has not been reestablished, clan chieftains administer criminal justice through the traditional practice of trial-by-ordeal.
Authorities in the Netherlands in March arrested and charged a Dutch businessman with war crimes and smuggling weapons. Guus van Kouwenhoven, a close Taylor associate, managed a timber company and five-star hotel in Liberia. International human rights groups had campaigned against his activities, saying he was a key player in the instability in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Human rights workers have been allowed access to prisons, where conditions are harsh and sometimes life-threatening. Arbitrary detention and brutality by the police are problems. The police force is being restructured under the 2003 peace accord. New recruits have been trained by the United Nations, but HRW said there were problems in the vetting and removal of rights abusers from the force. As part of the peace accord, a new national army is being formed. However, it will have only 2,000 soldiers-half as many as originally planned-because of funding shortages. In June 2005, soldiers looted their barracks in Monrovia to protest salary arrears. HRW said in April that West African mercenaries, including Liberians, would continue to fuel regional conflicts unless they were provided an alternative livelihood.
Societal ethnic discrimination is rife. Ethnic groups fought one another during the civil war. Tensions exist between the Krahn, Gio, Mano, and Mandingo ethnic groups. The government in 2005 ordered Gios and Manos to abandon Mandingo homes in the northwest that they occupied during the civil war; they refused, and a court case ensued.
Police, mainly at checkpoints, occasionally extort money and goods from citizens.
The treatment of women varies by ethnic group, religion, and social status. Many women continue to suffer from physical abuse and traditional societal discrimination, despite constitutionally guaranteed equality. During the civil war, women and girls were often abducted as laborers and sex slaves, while others joined rebel groups or militias to protect themselves. The UN Development Program said about two out of three Liberians-mostly women and children-had suffered some form of sexual violence during the war. Women have the right to inherit land and property. The former transitional government strengthened existing rape laws.