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Any moment now American Marines may wade ashore in Liberia's port capital of Monrovia with orders to stabilize what has become a cruel civil war with devastating consequences for the nation's 3 million inhabitants.

A unified chorus of world leaders, including George W. Bush, has called upon Liberian President Charles Taylor to relinquish leadership of the war-torn nation. The world community is hopeful that Taylor's exile would open a window of opportunity to negotiate some measure of peace for a land that has known only intermittent calm during the last 15 years.

At first Liberia's conflict recalls the broken record of African intertribal violence. Then again, this West African coastal nation also boasts a unique and fascinating history of African-American oligarchic rule, syncretic secret societies, groundbreaking missionaries, and ill-fated gold mining ventures bankrolled by American televangelists. In order to understand what the Marines will encounter when they step ashore, a little context will explain why this conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars.

Liberia traces its official state history to 1822 when freed African-American slaves immigrated to the West African coastline. By 1847 they drafted a constitution and launched the first independent state in non-Arab Black Africa. The freedmen modeled their government on the United States and adopted the name Liberia, which is Latin for "place of freedom."

But civics wasn't all they learned during their years in North America. The Liberian founding fathers were composed of Protestant ministers who created their nation as a Christian state with laws explicitly crafted using Christian principles. However, the constitution also ...

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Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present
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July 2003

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