Liberia’s Path from Anarchy to Elections

Reprinted with permission from Current History, May 1998, vol. 97, no. 619, pp. 229-233

On Christmas Eve 1989, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front for Liberia entered northern Liberia from Ivory Coast with the intention of overthrowing the authoritarian government of President Samuel Doe. The seven years of conflict that ensued were marked by brutal fighting and the collapse of the Liberian state; one-tenth of the prewar population of 2.5 million people died, one-third became refugees, and nearly all the rest were displaced at one time or another.

In response to the destabilizing threat the conflict represented, a West African peacekeeping force intervened in 1990, but only in August 1996 was a final peace agreement signed. This was followed by an election on July 19, 1997, in which Liberians voted to implement the agreement and overwhelmingly selected Taylor to lead the postconflict government.

While it undoubtedly represented a transformation of the Liberian conflict, the significance of the election is open to question. Liberia now has a constitutional government that maintains order across the country, but a series of challenges remain: rebuilding the basic infrastructure of the state, repatriating hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons, creating reformed security forces, and institutionalizing the rule of law and democratic governance.


On April 12, 1980, a group of noncommissioned officers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew Liberia’s single-party regime. Doe’s regime came to rely increasingly on a military dominated by his Krahn ethnic brethren. In 1985, the regime held an election marked by large-scale fraud; a failed coup in the aftermath led to massive reprisals against the Gio and Mano peoples, who were considered supporters of the coup leaders.

In response to Doe’s increasingly authoritarian measures, Charles Taylor, a former official in Doe’s government, organized the National Patriotic Front for Liberia and staged his 1989 Christmas Eve invasion. As the NPFL advanced, Doe’s military unleashed a scorched earth campaign in the north, further terrorizing the Gio and Mano ethnic groups and pushing them into the NPFL camp. By July 1990, the insurgents had advanced to the outskirts of Monrovia. Chaos in the capital, with widespread looting and ethnic killings, convinced Liberia’s neighbors in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to intervene in August. The operation, known as the ECOWAS Cease-Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), began (and largely remained) a Nigerian initiative presented as a fait accompli.

Taylor rejected ECOMOG’s intervention from the start, arguing that it shored up Doe’s tottering regime and denied him the position of power he had earned. NPFL forces attacked the West African troops as they landed in Monrovia, forcing ECOMOG to adopt a peace-enforcement mission. When ECOWAS-sponsored peace talks selected Dr. Amos Sawyer, the leader of the Liberian People’s Party (LPP), to head an interim government, Taylor refused to participate in the talks or in the interim government.

In September ECOMOG began a military campaign that drove Taylor back from Monrovia and then brokered a cease-fire in November 1990. The agreement created an uneasy peace, with “Greater Monrovia” governed by the interim government and protected by ECOMOG while the rest of the country was controlled by Charles Taylor from his “capital” in Gbarnga, in northern Liberia.

The next five years, however, saw a series of failed peace agreements and an expansion of the conflict. New militias formed to engage in looting and to win a place at the table in negotiations to create a new government. The United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), organized with the assistance of Sierra Leone, fought Taylor in the north and west. ULIMO eventually split between its Mandingo wing, led by Al-Haji Kromah (ULIMO-K), and its Krahn wing, led by Roosevelt Johnson (ULIMO-J). An additional Krahn-based faction, the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), led by George Boley, controlled areas in the southeast for a time. Taylor’s NPFL also split and the plethora of factions and rivalries made reaching a negotiated settlement difficult.

In addition, many of the factional leaders profited from the war and risked losing power and wealth in any peace agreement. Taylor, ruling 95 percent of Liberia, managed his own currency and banking system, ran his own radio network, and engaged in international trade in diamonds, gold, rubber, and timber. Much of the fighting between the NPFL, ULIMO, LPC, and ECOMOG was over control of economic assets such as mines and ports that served to finance and sustain the armed factions. Only rarely did organized militias confront each other. The war was largely fought between unarmed civilians and ruthless gangs, often composed of child soldiers, looking for loot or to secure economically important territory.

ECOMOG and Nigeria in particular identified Taylor as the obstacle to peace and attempted to defeat him. The West African forces formed alliances against the NPFL with ULIMO and the former Liberian army. At the same time, ECOMOG participated in the market of looted and expropriated goods, perpetuating the war economy that allowed the factions to exist.


Efforts by West African leaders to construct a workable interim government went nowhere until a June 1995 meeting between Taylor and the head of Nigeria’s military government, General Sani Abacha. Under pressure from an increasingly impatient ECOWAS, the factions signed an agreement in Abuja, Nigeria, in September 1995. The Abuja Accords created a new six-member Council of State that included the top leaders of the NPFL, ULIMO-K, and the LPC, along with civilian representatives from political parties, traditional leaders, and a university professor.

The accords called for disarmament by January 1996 and elections by August 1996, a very short timetable. As with earlier agreements, however, implementation stalled; disarmament quickly fell behind schedule, and ECOMOG could not deploy throughout the country. Roosevelt Johnson and his ULIMO-J faction defected from the agreement and attacked ECOMOG peacekeepers in December 1995.

Violence reached new heights in April when another round of vicious fighting erupted in Monrovia. Taylor and his ally of the moment, ULIMO-K head Kromah, dismissed Johnson from the interim government and moved against his largely Krahn militia. The ensuing fighting destroyed the city and ended hopes that Liberia could hold an election in the near future.

In the course of the April 1996 crisis nearly every humanitarian organization, UN agency, government office, and commercial establishment was looted, with special attention paid to destroying the human rights groups, the Catholic radio station, and other elements of the small but courageous civil society in Monrovia. In response, nearly all-international humanitarian workers evacuated. In response nearly all international humanitarian workers were evacuated.

The collapse into murderous anarchy forced Liberia’s neighbors to again reassess their policies toward the conflict. A further round of talks in Abuja in August 1996 resulted in a revised agreement. Abuja II reaffirmed the Abuja I framework but extended the timetable for implementation by nine months and threatened sanctions—including a prohibition against running for elective office and prosecution by a war crimes tribunal—against any leader who violated the agreement. Under Abuja II, disarmament was to begin in November 1996 and elections were scheduled for May 1997. A new cease-fire was declared on August 20, 1996, and Ruth Perry, a former senator, became the new chair of the reformed Council of State, and Africa’s first female head of state.

Cease-fire violations during the fall threatened to derail the Abuja process. Despite the evidence that factions were violating the agreements, ECOWAS decided not to invoke sanctions for fear that parties singled out for punishment would withdraw from the peace process, compelling ECOMOG to return to peace enforcement.

Although disarmament began slowly in November 1996, it picked up momentum toward the end of January 1997. ECOMOG collected large quantities of weapons, and for the first time in years factional roadblocks became rare and guns were not visible on the streets except in the hands of the peacekeepers. While many arms were collected, demobilization in terms of breaking the command and control structures over fighters was far less complete. Scarce resources and poor planning reduced demobilization to a 12-hour process whereby former-combatants simply turned in a weapon (or even a handful of bullets), were registered, and then left. Few doubted that the most reliable fighters avoided demobilization while the young and inexperienced went through the process in the hope of obtaining social benefits.


A newly created independent commission, consisting of representatives from the three main factions and from civilian parties, women’s and youth groups, and unions, struggled to organize the 1997 elections under extremely tight time and resource. Most political parties and civic organizations pressed for a delay in the election date but Taylor and ECOMOG continued to call for adherence to the May 30 deadline.

On May 16, ECOWAS finally agreed to a delay until July 19, providing just two more months to organize the elections. Refugees in neighboring states, estimated to number 800,000, could vote only if they returned to Liberia. Given the lack of facilities to receive them, most were effectively disenfranchised.

At the end of February, several factional leaders who were running for office converted their militias into political parties. Charles Taylor transformed his NPFL into the National Patriotic Party (NPP); Al-Haji Kromah disbanded ULIMO-K and established the All Liberian Coalition Party (ALCOP); and LPC leader George Boley eventually became the standard-bearer for the late President Doe’s former party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). Roosevelt Johnson, the ULIMO-J leader at the center of the April 1996 fighting, announced that he would not seek office.

A number of previously established political parties also began organizing for the upcoming campaign. These civilian parties founded the Alliance of Political Parties and held a contentious convention in March. Allegations of vote buying and competition among various leaders, however, led several parties to withdraw. The Unity Party left the Alliance and nominated former United Nations official Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its candidate.

Sirleaf and the Unity Party soon appeared to be the leading challenger to Taylor and his National Patriotic Party. The Alliance of Political Parties crumbled; the other parties were either regionally or ethnically identified or were small, with only a limited capacity to campaign in the countryside. Taylor’s NPP, however, had enormous financial and organizational advantages, building on the structures developed during the war and the resources controlled as a result of the conflict.

Both Sirleaf and Taylor spoke of reconciliation, reconstruction, and economic revival but the campaign did not stress differences in platforms. The overriding issue was peace. A great many Liberians believed that Taylor would return to war if he lost the election, his commitments in the Abuja Accords and to ECOMOG notwithstanding.

On election day, July, 19, 1997, Liberians turned out in large numbers, with an estimated 85 percent of those registered voting. Approximately 500 international observers watched the election and generally commended the process. The United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia and ECOWAS issued a joint certification that declared the electoral process was “free, fair, and credible.” Taylor won the presidency in a landslide, with more than 75 percent of the vote, followed by Sirleaf, who took 10 percent.

Some leaders from Sirleaf’s Unity Party, along with Kromah’s ALCOP and Boley’s NDPL, protested that the elections commission and ECOMOG had engaged in widespread fraud and that the results were not credible. As the size of Taylor’s margin became more apparent and positive observer reports were issued, Sirleaf moderated her statements and began to urge her supporters to prepare for a role as a strong and constructive opposition. On August 2, 1997, Taylor was sworn in as president of Liberia.


Taylor also had far greater resources than his competitors. In a country with few vehicles, Taylor had the money to bring in Land Rovers, buses, motorcycles, and trucks and to lease a helicopter. Taylor controlled the formerly state-owned short-wave radio station and thereby dominated the airwaves through which most Liberians outside of Monrovia received their news. The NPP distributed rice to prospective voters and engaged extensively in patronage politics. While the electoral code of conduct placed limits on campaign spending, the lack of enforcement mechanisms allowed Taylor to spend freely. No attempts were made to force the former guerilla leader to give up resources he had seized during the war.

Taylor campaigned widely and his rallies matched political speeches with popular entertainments, including music, dance, fashion shows, and games. After so many years of grim warfare, Taylor’s campaign offered a return to the normal pleasures of the past. Taylor was a master of highly visible generosity and won publicity by paying to fly Liberia’s national soccer team to the African Nations Cup tournament, funding the Charles Ghankay Taylor Educational and Humanitarian Relief Foundation, and donating ambulances to the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia. In his speeches, Taylor promised expansive new programs to address the full range of social needs. His populist message resonated with many of Liberia’s poor who regarded Sirleaf as the candidate of the educated, cosmopolitan elite. In some parts of Liberia, Taylor was a popular figure who was remembered for defending communities against attacks from rival militias and who maintained relative order in his zone of military occupation during the war.

While financial and organizational advantages were critical, they were least important in populous Montserrado County (the area around Monrovia) where easy transportation, FM radio, and a wide range of newspapers were available. Taylor won Montserrado with 55 percent of the vote to Sirleaf’s 22 percent, suggesting that far more than the resource imbalance explained the landslide.

Perhaps most important, memories of seven years of brutal conflict and the consequent fear clearly shaped how many voters viewed the election and the choices available to them. The issue of peace dominated the July 1997 election and most voters seemed determined to use their franchise to maximize the chances of stability. Many Liberians believed that if Taylor lost the election, the country would return to war. Taylor’s rivals pointed to his violent past during the campaign but could not propose credible actions to contain him if he refused to accept the results. With ineffective demobilization, weak measures to prevent a spoiler from challenging the results, and statements from ECOWAS reiterating its intention to leave quickly after the voting, Liberian voters would have risked a return to conflict by electing someone other than Taylor.

For elections to be fully meaningful, however, they must provide voters a significant choice. Given the legacy of the recent conflict and the pervasive fear that Taylor would fight if not elected, many Liberians made a calculated choice that they hoped would more likely promote peace and stability. One Liberian said “He [Taylor] killed my father but I’ll vote for him. He started all this and he’s going to fix it.” While a significant number of voters identified with Taylor and his populist message or patronage, many simply seemed cautious and war-weary. In the end the elections ratified and institutionalized the political topography and imbalance of power created by seven years of war.

The means by which Taylor’s power was ratified, however, mattered. Taylor won international, regional, and local acceptance for his government through a process of elections rather than through a military victory or a negotiated agreement among factional elites and regional powers. To win the election Taylor converted his military organization into an effective mass-mobilizing political party, replacing guns with patronage and roadblocks with rallies. In addition, the election and return to constitutional rule placed legal limits around the new regime’s power. The extent to which Taylor’s organizational base will act as a democratic political party and the degree to which the new administration will adhere to constitutional constraints remains, of course, open.


The July 1997 elections marked the successful implementation of the Abuja peace process and brought to an end seven years of bloody fighting. It is too early to judge whether the new institutions will be able to prevent a resurgence of violence, although the experiences of other postconflict countries and Taylor’s own past behavior suggest that constitutional constraints on power and the ability of voters to hold their leaders accountable often are not sufficient. In its first few months in office, the new regime’s record was mixed, with a number of developments providing continuing and perhaps growing grounds for concern.

Taylor’s government faced tremendous hurdles following its inauguration. The treasury reportedly contained $17,000 while the government had $200 million in domestic debt (notably back wages for civil servants who had not been paid in many cases for over a year) and $2 billion in foreign debt. Refugees were beginning to return but little was in place in the countryside in terms of housing or jobs to receive them. The war left a legacy of fear and distrust, along with destroyed infrastructure, looted factories, and ravaged communities, that will take generations to overcome. Conditions in Liberia would challenge any government.

Taylor pledged to rule on behalf of all Liberians, appointed a few opponents to minor cabinet positions, and established a human rights commission and a reconciliation commission. But other actions raised fears. Harassment of the media, for example, suggested that the new regime will resist accountability and will not allow criticism.

International observers applauded some government appointments, such as the selection of former World Bank official Elias Saleeby as finance minister, but were concerned about others, such as the choice of NPFL stalwarts Joe Tate as chief of police and Joe Mulbah as information minister. The economic challenges of reconstruction remained daunting, and international donors and international financial institutions waited, skeptical and hesitant.

The role of ECOMOG in Liberia following the elections added to the difficulties. Although the Abuja II Agreements mandated that ECOMOG build a restructured Liberian army, Taylor asserted his rights as duly elected head of state to create his own military. Many reported that the new security forces were filled with old NPFL fighters while other groups, particularly the Krahn, were systematically purged from the army.

Regardless of the longer term outcome, the implementation of the Abuja Accords through the July 1997 elections transformed the nature of politics in Liberia. But Taylor’s electoral victory was attributable in part to the material advantages he derived from his role during the war and to the pervasive fear that unless he won, conflict would return. An assessment of whether the elections served as the beginning of a democratic era will have to wait until future elections in which the voters are given a choice among viable candidates rather than a choice between war and peace.