Liberia Aims for Peace on 166th Independence Day

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes to foster the process of national healing during this year's celebration.

Posted: 07/26/2013 10:30 AM EDT

(Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images) 

Liberia made history on July 26, 1847, when it became the first African colony to declare independence. On the 166th anniversary of this historic event, this year’s theme, “Consolidating Peace and Reconciliation for Transformation,” points to the West African nation’s war-torn past and tumultuous present.

Liberia had been colonized by freed African and Caribbean enslaved peoples — otherwise known as Americo-Liberians — with the help of the American Colonization Society in 1820. Though the founders issued both the Declaration of Independence and the constitution which established the independent Republic of Liberia, they continued to rule the country.

In 1980, a series of riots following a planned increase in the price of rice disrupted the relatively calm period the nation had been experiencing. The subsequent coup that signaled the end of the minority Americo-Liberian’s rule also ushered in a bloody 14-year-long civil war, infrequent leaders, a mass exodus and an economic collapse. An estimated 250,000 people were killed and millions were displaced in neighboring countries during the conflict.  

Only when international powers intervened in 2003 and forced former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor out of power did the government begin to stabilize through elections in 2005. The Harvard-educated former Minister of Finance Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected, becoming Africa’s first female president a year later. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also established to investigate human rights abuses between 1979 and 2003.

Despite being recommended for prosecution by the Truth Commission for her previous support of ex-President Taylor in 1989, Sirleaf was reelected in 2011, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and has since steered a nation suffering from economic ruin, corruption, an excess of illegal weapons and illegal logging throughout Liberian forests. The UN has kept nearly 15,000 soldiers in Liberia to maintain peace.

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