Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


Mass atrocities against civilians occurred during the first Liberian civil war (1989 – 1996), fought between pro-government groups (ECOWAS, Armed Force of Liberia, LPC, ULIMO-J) and anti-government groups (NPFL/LDF, ULIMO, INPFL, ULIMO-K, NPFL-CRC). Fighting occurred not only across this major schism, but also within each side and as individual groups splintered. Civilians became the target of violence in three main patterns: during the conduct of the war as various armed groups trying to claim, consolidate or expand areas of control; competition between armed groups for control over economic resources and extracted resources from the civilian population; and deliberate targeting of ethnic groups associated with different armed groups. However, we note that separating violence against civilians from that amongst combatants is difficult in a case like this given widespread recruitment of children, and the often hastily assembled and ill-disciplined armed forces.

In 1980, Samuel Doe came to power in a coup, setting off a period of contested leadership that ultimately culminated in two civil wars (1989 – 1996; 1999 – 2003). Doe’s center of gravity was the Krahn ethnic group[i], which also composed the bulk of the country’s military, the Armed Force of Liberia (AFL); over his time in office, other groups came to harbor deep resentments against them. Several coups were attempted against Doe, with large-scale violent contestation of his power beginning on December 24, 1989, with the invasion of 100 insurgents composing of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor. Taylor’s NPFL was composed largely of ethnic Gio and Mano people previously displaced into Côte d’Ivoire, and supported by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Burkino Faso’s Blaise Campaore.

As the NPFL progressed into Liberia, their numbers grew as those disaffected by the Doe regime joined the effort to overthrow him. Further feeding insurgent recruitment was the AFL’s counterinsurgency campaign of killing, raping and looting, particularly against the Gio and Mano peoples. The NPFL also embarked on a campaign of targeted killing of Krahn civilians.[ii] This ethnically-tinged, counter-insurgency conflict was further complicated when, in July 1990, the NPFL splintered as Prince Johnson created a separate Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). The pattern of regional meddling, cross-boundary insurgencies and splintering rebel groups—at one point, there were some 28 different factions–would characterize the conflict throughout.


The war in Liberia is often described as an anarchic battle of warlords who preyed on the civilian population with armed forces composed of drugged-up, incontrollable, rag-tag soldiers, many of whom were children, themselves victims of the war. Among the violations reported are forced displacement, killing, assault, abduction, looting, forced labor, property destruction, robbery, torture, arbitrary detention, rape, forced recruitment, sexual abuse, disappearance, sexual slavery, and amputation, among other acts. Across the two civil wars, as noted by detailed analysis of witness accounts in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched by rebel leader Charles Taylor in 1989, is responsible for more than three times the number of reported violations as the next closest perpetrator group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).”[iii] While this is not necessarily the same distribution of murders attributable to groups, it is indicative of overall responsibility for violence.

In the first phase of the conflict, from the beginning of the fighting through the stabilization of the capital, Monrovia in 1990, an estimated 20 – 25,000 people were killed (Ellis 313). Across the entire country, 1990 was a year characterized by a sharp increase in all forms of violence, with the Armed Forces of Liberia and the NPFL as the main perpetrators.[iv] The AFL was unable to halt the NPFL, who closed in on the capitol, Monrovia. Doe distributed weapons to the Krahn population, who targeted Gio and Mano peoples, and requested help from the regional organization, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Fueled by a range of interests to back the government, ECOWAS responded with a peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) led by Nigeria, that arrived in Monrovia on 24 August 1990.[v]

Thus was the government able to keep Monrovia from completely falling to rebels, despite the limited areas they controlled. But on 9 September 1990, while embarking on mediation efforts, Doe fell into the hands of Johnson’s INPFL, who tortured and killed him.[vi] Taylor’s NPFL managed to consolidate the country, except for key areas of Monrovia held by either ECOMOG or INPFL. ECOWAS brokered the Bamako Ceasefire between the INPFL, AFL, and NPFL in November 1990, creating a weak government headed by a former Doe political opponent and unrecognized by the NPFL. Nonetheless, the number of civilian fatalities declined, creating a temporary lull in the war. Major massacres during this first phase of the conflict occurred in Nimba County, the battle for Monrovia, Buchanan, and at Bakedu.[vii]

This pause did not hold. The second phase of the conflict began as Taylor’s NPFL expanded the war into neighboring Sierra Leone (by sponsoring a rebel group, the RUF, in 1991). In May 1991, the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) formed in Sierra Leone out of ex-AFL soldiers and Krahn refugees in response to attacks by the NPFL-backed RUF. In September 1991, ULIMO invaded Liberia from Sierra Leone, taking partial control of Western Liberia. The NPFL refrained from major military operations until the launch of Operation Octopus on October 15, 1992, their second effort to claim Monrovia. In response, ECOMOG joined forces with remnants of the former AFL and other armed group associated with Doe and the Krahn ethnic group. While the NPFL was repulsed from Monrovia, they controlled almost the entirety of the country outside the capitol. Causes of heightened fatalities in 1992 include when Ulimo entered Liberia from Sierra Leone and the second battle for Monrovia during which at least 3,000 people died.[viii]

The third phase of the conflict, 1993 – 1997, witnessed the signing of a ceasefire in Cotonou, Benin, which had the perverse effect of accelerating the splintering of rebels groups as individuals vied for positions in the transitional government, including Ulimo which broke down along ethnic lines.[ix] The period also saw the rise of several other rebel groups. Fighting between groups often degenerated into attacks against civilians. For example, Charles Taylor and fellow warlord, Alhaji Kormah, attempted to arrest a third warlord, Roosevelt Johnson, allegedly responsible for the killing of 600 people killed at Carter Camp in June 1993 (in the Firestone Plantation), resulted in fighting in Monrovia. As Victor Tanner writes, this effort produced a spike of fighting that pitted Taylor and Kromah against an alliance of ethnic Krahn militias.[x] When they failed to capture Johnson, the forces turned from fighting to looting in what “Monrovians refer to […] as the ‘pay-yourself’ war.”[xi] Between 3,000 and 6,000 people were killed in this third battle for Monrovia.[xii] A small UN observer mission was deployed in September 1993 (UNOMIL).

According to witness testimony collected for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1994 represented another spike in violence (of all forms, not just killing), not as high as the one in 1990, with ULIMO-J, vigilantes, ULIMO-K, ULIMO, and the Liberian Peace Council playing significant roles in the perpetration of violence.[xiii]

By May 1996, ECOMOG forces re-established order in the city, and in August, the leaders of the main fighting groups were summoned to Abuja, Nigeria for peace talks. Notably, the peace talks involved all of the major regional players and the Accords creating sanctions against groups that violated the ceasefire, and set a timeline for elections in 1997. Some rebel groups continued to operate and kill civilians up until the end of 1996.[xiv]

The UNHCR estimates a total of 1.9 million people, or roughly half the national population at the time, were displaced by 1996; 1.2 million internally and 700,000 extraterritorially; 235,000 refugees in Guinea, 160,000 in Cote d’Ivoire, 17,000 in Ghana, and 14,000 in Sierra Leone.[xv]


We draw on two major sources for fatality data. Stephen Ellis provides an exemplary review of the casualty and death estimates of the war in his The Mask of Anarchy[xvi] arguing that the most accurate range is 60,000 – 80,000 people killed from 1989 to 1997. Nonetheless, this number is arrived at by adding best estimates from various periods: 40 – 50,000 killed between 1989 – 1992 and 20 – 30,000 deaths from the period 1993-1997. The numbers include both civilians and combatants, and are produced by comparing detailed information about periods of heightened lethality and discrete massacres, with information gathered from various other on the ground sources, and discussed in context of the evolution of the armed conflict.

The second source is analysis of testimony gathered for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, which found evidence of 28,042 murders over the period 1979 – 2003.[xvii] They graph all reported incidents of violations (not just killing) as reported to the TRC:

Liberia all violence TRC

Source: Cibelli, Kristen, Amelia Hoover and Jule Krüger 2009, 7. Note: this graphs presents all reported instances of violations to the TRC.

Both sources of numbers are both imperfect: Ellis’ is arrived at by combining data about known massacres and the expert insights into the patterns of the conflict[xviii], and Cibelli, Hoover, and Krüger is based on in-depth analysis of violence included in TRC witness testimony, a subset of the total number of possible violations.[xix] We are not able to further disaggregate the data.

Ellis elucidates why much higher fatality figures are commonly used for the Liberian conflicts, ranging from 300,000 at the highest end, to a more commonly cited 150,000 – 200,000, based on UN figures. The UN number, however, includes all casualties (including those wounded and killed); however, once mis-cited by the UN Secretary General as reference to people “killed in fighting,” it subsequently became the most commonly cited fatality figure.[xx] The discrepancy between the other numbers may be attributed to the inclusion of a wider range of lethal phenomenon beyond killing: starvation, malnutrition and disease as a result of the conflict.[xxi]


The war and related civilian atrocities ended in 1996 through an internationally mediated peace process, premised on an accommodation between Nigeria’s leader, Gen. Sani Abacha, and Charles Taylor. The agreement set the stage for national elections, won by Charles Taylor of the NPFL, who became President of Liberia in May 1997. While Taylor was widely viewed as responsible for launching the war, his electoral bid, while far from “free and fair” was successful for at least two reasons. First, his coalition was more diverse than other contenders, who relied on a single ethnic group.[xxii] Second, the population viewed the vote as a contest not primarily between candidates, but rather for war or for peace. The vote for Taylor was a vote for peace, following the logic that he represented the most powerful presence in the country and the only one capable of ending the fighting.[xxiii]

Nigeria played a critical role in creating, funding, and managing ECOMOG, which itself played a crucial role in moderating the violence of the conflict.[xxiv] (Its biases towards any and all anti-NPLF forces and internal corruption, of course, could also arguably be said to have prolonged the conflict). Nonetheless, the Abuja Accords effectively ended the war, and, thereby, its atrocities. Julius Mutwol speculates that these Accords succeeded where the others had not because:[xxv]

  • Inclusion of all rebel groups involved in the war
  • Secret deals between Charles Taylor and Nigeria regarding the agreed status of NPFL-ECOMOG relations
  • Government power sharing amongst all rebel groups
  • Support for the Accords amongst all backers of all rebel groups
  • Third party mediation of the agreement by parties that deployed resources in support of the agreement (including funds and assistance from the United States, European Union, various Francophone countries, and all ECOWAS members)
  • Strict and clear sanctions against any violator of the Accords


We code this case as carried out as planned, designating the incursion of a non-state actor (also coded this factor), the NPFL, as the instigation of mass atrocities, an event that aimed to place Charles Taylor at the head of government. However, unlike most of the “as planned” cases, we do not code this case as ending through normalization, which we limit to cases where the regime in power at the start of an atrocities period remains in power at the end. In this manner, Liberia is anomaly case, akin in our dataset only to China during the civil war period (the partition of India also resulted in two separate new regimes at the end of the atrocities period, but in terms of the central role played by a nonstate actor, China is the more salient parallel). However, we do also include the moderating influence of international actors as contributory to the ending. While international actors played many roles over the course of the conflict, in the end, it was a regional decision to broker a peace deal that ended the conflict and its pattern of atrocities. We further code for multiple victim groups and note that the armed conflict as having reached a stalemate, as it cannot be said that any one force, despite Taylor’s control of much of the country, definitively won the war.

It is possible to foreground the international role in in ushering in elections that brought Taylor to power, which prompted him to make a strategic shift in the use of violence against civilians. To capture this interpretation, we offer a secondary coding of ‘strategic shift.’

Works Cited

Abdullah, Ibrahim. 2004. Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Adebajo, Adekeye. 2002. Liberias Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG and Regional Security in West Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers and the International Peace Academy.

Baù, Valentina. “Media and Conflict in Sierra Leone: National and International Perspectives of the Civil War.”Global Media Journal 4.1 (2010): 20-27. Print.

Cibelli, Kristen, Amelia Hoover and Jule Krüger. 2009. “Descriptive Statistics from Statements to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Benetech Human Rights Program
for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. June 2009, Available at: Accessed 13 April 2015.

Dick, Shelly. 2003. “FMO Country Guide: Liberia.” Forced Migration Online, June. Available at: <>. Accessed January 4, 2017.

Dorman, Andrew M. 2009. Blair’s Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone. Farnham, England: Ashgate.

Ellis, Stephen. 1999. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Relgious Dimensions of an African Civil War. London: Hurst & Co.

Gberie, Lansana. 2005. A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Kaldor, Mary, and James Vincent. 2006. Evaluation of UNDP Assistance to Conflict-Affected Countries; Case Study: Sierra Leone.   <>.

Lahneman, William J. 2004. Military Intervention: Cases in Context for the Twenty-first Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Leboeuf, Aline. 2008. “Sierra Leone: List of extremely violent events perpetrated during the War, 1991-2002,” Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, published on 5 March 2008, accessed 28 October 2013, <>.

Lyons, Terrence. 1998. “Peace and Elections in Liberia” in ed. Krishna Kumar. Postconflict elections, democratization and international assistance. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Mutwol, Julius. 2009. Peace Agreements and Civil Wars in Africa: Insurgent Motivations, State Responses, and Third-party Peacemaking in Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Amherst, NY: Cambria.

Schneider, Gerald and Margit Bussmann. 2013. “Accounting for the Dynamics of One-Sided Violence: Introducing KOSVED”. Journal of Peace Research 50:5, 6335 – 644.

Tanner, Victor. 1998. “Liberia: railroading peace.” Review of African Political Economy 25:75, 133 – 147.

Weissman, Fabrice. 2004. In the Shadow of ‘Just Wars’: Violence, Politics, and Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.


[i] Mutwol 2009, 51-52.

[ii] Adebajo 2002, 42-43.

[iii] Cibelli, Hoover, Krüger 2009, 19.

[iv] Cibelli, Hoover, Krüger 2009, 9.

[v] Ellis 1995, 169.

[vi] Ellis 1999, 1-13.

[vii] Ellis 1999.

[viii] Adebajo 2002, 110.

[ix] Ellis 1995, 172.

[x] Tanner 1998.

[xi] Tanner 1998, 133.

[xii] Ellis 1999, 314 – 315.

[xiii] Cibelli, Hoover, Krüger, 2009, 21 – 22.

[xiv] Schneider, Gerald and Margit Bussmann 2013.

[xv] Shelly Dick, “FMO Country Guide: Liberia,” <>.

[xvi] Ellis 1999, 312 – 316.

[xvii] Cibelli, Hoover, Krüger, 2009, 24.

[xviii] Ellis 1999, 312 – 316.

[xix] Cibelli, Hoover, Krüger, 2009, 4.

[xx] Ellis 1999, 315.

[xxi] Ellis 1999, 313.

[xxii] Boas, 83.

[xxiii] Lyons 1998, 192.

[xxiv] Adebajo 48-54.

[xxv] Mutwol 2009, 157-159.

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