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Analysis of the Liberian Conflict

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3079 words Published: 9th Jan 2018

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Background to this Conflict Analysis

The Liberian conflict began in 1979 with civil unrest and ended in 2003 with the forced exile of the then president Charles Taylor. During this 24years period, Liberia has had a number of significant turning points: two regime-changing coups (1980 and 1990) and with them the assassination of 2 presidents, two civil wars, the first in 1989 – 90, the second from 1997 – 2003, and two elections, 1985 and 1997. The period was marred with systemic violence and human rights violations which resulted in the death of 150 – 250,000 people and 1.5 million people displaced (FRTRCLDP, 2009: 3) this is startling given a pre-war population of 2.8 million.

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However, if we examine the period from the rice riots of 1979 and the 1980 coup we find a steady escalation in direct violence starting from that period. Furthermore there is substantial evidence of structural violence in pre-79 Liberia. The means of financing the regimes of Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe and the True Whig Party, from 1979 to 2003 were very different during reign (Reno 1999,pp102 103 ), but nevertheless the political, hierarchical structures endured throughout this time, albeit with different leaders. This continued to allow a ruling elite to exploit the subjugated masses as it had done for the previous century. Furthermore, the lack of loyalty towards Taylor, by the wealthy elite, is comparable to the lack of support for Doe’s administration, by the same elite, during Doe’s final years in office.

The similarities between Taylor’s reign, the Doe era and the period of rule prior to 1979 demonstrate a cyclical nature to the conflict. Therefore, unless the period under review in this conflict analysis is based around one of the turning points noted above, the selection of a time is almost arbitrary if chosen during this period. Furthermore, if one tries to analyse the conflict at the time of the first civil war or post 1990, the discourse leads to an examination of the conflict and structures during Doe’s rule, and ultimately, this leads to an analysis of the societal structures and conflict potential prior to the 1979/80 uprising. In order to provide a time frame for evaluation, this analysis will focus on the period of 1979 – 1989 because what comes thereafter is very much a product of what came before.

Conflict Analyses

The aim of a conflict analysis is to provide a better understanding of the causes and drivers of a given conflict. Several leading development agencies have designed conflict analysis tools to help them to better target their development work and to ensure that they do not aggravate a conflict situation through that development. A summary of few prominent conflict analyses can be found at Appendix 2


The aim of this conflict analysis is to gain an understanding of the root causes and manifestations of violence in Liberia over the period 1979 – 1990, in particular focusing at the country level. The analysis will also identify and analyse sub-national, regional and international actors that affected the conflict.

The DfID Strategic Conflict Assessment consists of three parts:

  • Conflict Analysis;
  • Analysis of responses to the conflict;
  • Strategies and options for dealing with the situation;

The Conflict Analysis Framework of the assessment examines the following areas:

Table 1 – DfID Conflict Analysis Framework

Conflict Analysis

(i) Structures

(ii) Actors

(iii) Dynamics

Analysis of long term factors underlying conflict:





Analysis of conflict actors:




Peace agendas


Analysis of:

Long term trends of conflict

Triggers for increased violence

Capacities for managing conflict

Likely future conflict scenarios

(Great Britain, DfID, p10, Table 1).

The DfID framework provides a tool which is easily transferable to analyse the Liberian conflict within the parameters set. A secondary aim of this analysis is to see whether we can shed any light on the greed versus grievance debate and to help assess the predominance of one set of motivating factors over the other in the case of the Liberian conflict.

Greed and grievance

The principle greed arguments focus on the economic benefit that might motivate an individual, or group, to fight and then continue fighting (Mac Ginty 2006: 69)

Three pre-conditions, have been identified, by Collier, as conflict catalysts in greed based theories. These are access to primary commodities, the proportion of young men in society and the amount of education available (Collier 2000, 93). Collier goes so far as to rank the importance of these factors but does not suggest that all three need to be present at the same time.

Grievance theories of conflict emphasise arguments of ideology, ethnicity, human needs and inter-group competition (Mac Ginty 2006: 71). Idoelogy and ethnicity are often used by the layperson in explaining conflict causation, but a fuller analysis often identifies these as sustaining a conflict rather than initiating it, leaders might use ethno-religious calls to ‘rally the troops’, but this is often not the underlying cause (Barash and Webel, 2002: 15) .

Based on statistical research, Collier argues (2000: 96) that grievance theories of conflict causation “are so unimportant” compared to the prevalence of greed based motives, that, “grievance based explanations of civil war are so seriously wrong”. However, he does admit that that under the right circumstances (such as following and economic slump) grievances motives can be explained.


Societies that are socially fractionalised along ethnic or religious divides are significantly less prone to conflict (Collier, 2000: 98). Social division in Liberia lay between 17 groups (FRTRCLDP 2009: 51). The first group consists of the original settlers from the US – freed slaves who arrived in Liberia in 1822, this group were known as the Americo-Liberians; together with the Caribbean freed slaves they constituted 5% of the population. The remaining groups were formed from 16 separate indigenous tribal groups.

There were further splits along religious lines. The US settlers brought with them Christianity which spread amongst the population. Liberia also had an Islamic population from the African-Arabic slavers of the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1980, this provided a blend of approximately 40% Christian, 20% Muslim, 20% indigenous religions (and a number of individuals practicing some form of hybrid religion). According to the hypothesis, Liberia would be very unlikely to collapse into civil war due to its non-homogeneous nature. This was in fact the case rprio to the arrival of the Americo-liberians; A study by Olukujo (as cited in the FRTRCLDP 2009: 51) notes that for hundreds of years the 16 tribes had lived in relative peace with “intermarriage, modern education and westernised Christianity, Islam and other foreign influences” blurring tribal ethnicity. Furthermore, each family had a family head and each village a council of elders who would resolve conflicts.

However, when analysing the Liberian political and economic structures prior to 1980, we find that it is difficult to untangle the two strands; this is because the Liberian system was very hierarchical with a ruling elite and a proletariat; there was limited, if any middle class. The establishment of the Liberian political system, in the 18th century, was based on a US constitutional model (Outram, 1999: 164) with a Senate and a House of representatives. However, only the Americo-Liberians were allowed to vote. The political elite passed laws which kept the indigenous people subjugated, both politically and economically,

Evidence of this self-perpetuation can be seen in the fact that the True Whig Party was the only political party that held officer from 1877 until the coup in 1980, even the previous President, President Tubman, remained in office for an unbroken period of 37 years. It is very unlikely that the True Whig Party would have been voted out prior to the coup, as the indigenous population did not have the right to vote, until a constitutional change in 1984.

Therefore those who had political positions were also either economically power or financially well connected. Those without money or power were subjugated by this ruling elite known as a patron-client relationship (Outram, 1999: 165). The President had a significant amount of power vested in him, as both the Chief of State and Head of Government. President Tubman consolidated power in his position, just as Doe did 10 years later, and both following unsuccessful coups. So the evidence suggests that the ruling elite in society were able to exploit self interest and so were motivated by greed.

We shall now turn our attention to the motives of the subjugated. When a rebel organisation has the potential to gain sufficient size that the prospect of a conflict has a realistic chance of success, then individuals will be more likely to bond together for grievance based reasons (Collier, 2000: 99). So, if Liberia is viewed through the lens of the masses, then the society is much less divided; with split of 95% indigenous population to 5% ruling elite (FRTRCLDP 2009: 5). This allows us to evaluate the grievance theory model due to Liberia’s homogenous nature and therefore its propensity to civil war for grievance reasons.

The following lists examples of laws that were passed that demonstrate the lack of rights tahts wereexperienceed by the indigenous people


Examples of the laws passed by the government included: the 1864 Ports of Entry Act, which restricted foreign trade with indigenous people, the indigenous weren’t granted citizenship until 1904. In 1926 the government leased 1 million acres of land to the firestone company, land which was inhabited, they then conscripted local labour for the company and other neighbouring countries. In 1931the Government of Liberia was requested to defend its position over allegations from the League of Nations of svaling the indigenous population. .


1864 passed laws baning trade


US constitiional arrangement

Single party from1877,

Political eltie


Access to education forced adoption

referred to as barbarians

no tribal problems

Unification attempts – but more for popular support – context of the regional issues at the time.

Indeed when Samuel Doe rose to power in the 1980 coup he did so onthe back of a wave of local grievances.


Manifestation of Violence

Defintion of direct and structural Violence, definition of peace and conflict

Comparison or 1985 Vs 1955

Structural: no right to vote, land taken away, human salvery and conscript labour, not even citizens til 1904

Quotes form TRC

Ref topdown and bottom up

Mac ginty p 77, 3rd feature of conflict…..


Issues regarding money and support for wealthy elite

Issues of 23 million to release Ellen and the 400m in aid.

Table 2 – Comparison of Violence

Pre 1980

Post 1980

• Ruling Elite (Americo Liberian)

• No right to vote for masses

• Power vested in the President

• President is Chief of State and Head of Government

• Army used as security

• Suppression of uprising 1955

• Huge personal financial incentives to stay in power – foreign investment

• NO Ethnic tensions (Olukoju 2006)

• Ruling Elite (Krahn tribe)

• No Right to vote for the masses

Voting overturned

• Political structure remains the same

• Power vested in the President

• Army used as security

• Harsh suppression of coup by Gen Quiwonkpa 2985

• Huge financial incentives to stay in power

• Escalation of Structural violence and direct violence

• Inter-ethnic fighting

• Corruption increases as a survival mechanism


Violence escalation table

The following table summarises the level of violence during the period and notes the factors that sustain or escalate the violence.

Table 3 – Violence Manifestation


Manifestation and Explanation


• ‘Colonial’ structures and exploitation in Liberia lead to

→ Localised grievances and structural violence,

Create opportunities for


• Individual actor’s greed

→ nepotism to galvanise own support

→ fractionalisation leads to ethno-tribalism

• No structural change takes place

→ continued marginalisation / HR violations

Which creates:


• Further grievances which fuel the conflict

→ Direct Violence as a survival mechanism

‘Poverty and lack of opportunity, intensified by the war have helped promote the attractiveness of fighting as a means of survival’ (Atkinson, 1997)

The story of Liberia between 1979 and 1990 is one of action, inaction and reaction: action by the proletariat and ruling governments (pre and post 1979), inaction by the international community and reaction by regional actors to the.

The violence during this period escalated from societal structural violence in 1979 to overt direct violence against the civilian population and opposition groups in 1990. This resulted in an increase of displaced persons, frustrating neighbouring countries threatening to de-stabilised the region. The actions by regional countries coupled with the frustrations of the masses provided the circumstances which could lead to a second coup, and the first civil war in 1989.

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The DfID Conflict Analysis Framework provides a useful tool with which to analyse a protracted conflict such as Liberia. By examining the structures and dynamics in play at both national and local levels it has been possible to see that the Liberian conflict shows signs of greed and grievance motivations with each playing off the other. The ruling elite motivated by the prospects of substantial wealth and pursuing a desperate attempt to hold onto power, and grievance by the oppressed masses with little prospect of anything better unless they rise up and rebel against the elite.


The greed and grievance cycle, as discussed in the background to this analysis continued to play out during Charles Taylor’s reign. Taylor has suggested that his motives for staging a coup had been to force regime change of a brutal dictatorship (Ref). That might have been his altruistic outward cry, indeed “narratives of grievance play much better with this [the international] community than narratives of greed.” (Collier, 2000: 92). It is clear now that Taylor’s coup was heavily supported internationally, and regionally (Ref).

What is also evident now is that within the first 6 months of Taylor’s charge for Monrovia, he had not only gained control of 90% of the country, but had also amassed a personal wealth of USD 3.6million. It is also estimated that during the period 1991 – 1994, Taylor had a personal income of USD 420 – 450 million per year (REF). In this context it of difficult to see how greed rather than grievance was not his motivating factor.

The economics of a war torn society, (particularly one which has an abundance of extremely profitable primary commodities) has an ability to sustain conflict. Once the shackles of a oppressive regime are unable to control the population, the rise of strongmen and warlords is possible . Then, fuelled, by the potential of substantial wealth, they will strive to keep the inferno of conflict burning.

Conflict Analyses

The World Bank Conflict Analysis Framework. This uses 6 variables (social and ethnic relations, governance and political institutions, human rights/security, economic structure and performance, environmental and natural resources and external factors) which are analysed against given criteria. These are graded and then linked to their impact on the conflict and on the country’s poverty level. This framework allows for the extraction of underlying causes and the opportunities for conflict.

The US AID Conflict Assessment Framework focuses on Means, Motives and Opportunities and also includes regional and international factors. The framework therefore allows for a holistic approach and also provides an understanding of the prevalence of greed or grievance agendas in conflict zones. Like the World Bank conflict analysis it highlights causes and opportunities for conflict.

The Department For International Development (DfID) Strategic Conflict Assessment (Great Britain, DfID) is a tool that was developed by DfID to assess:

  • risks of negative effects of conflict on programmes;
  • risks of programmes or policies exacerbating conflict;
  • opportunities to improve the effectiveness of development interventions in contributing to conflict prevention and reduction.

The assessment criteria allow the assessment to focus on programmes or projects, or at a strategic level on a country or region (Great Britain, DfID, p6).


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