Alternative names: “Honorables”, “Congoes”
Location: mainly Monrovia and coastal cities
% of population: 2.5-5%
Americo-Liberians are the descendants of ex-slaves from the USA who were settled in the area which is now Liberia from 1822 onwards by the American Colonization Society, which had been formed with the purpose of returning freed black slaves to their homeland in West Africa. In 1847 Liberia’s American Governor declared it an independent republic — Africa’s first — although it was not recognized as such by the US government until 1862. During the next 50 years it lost territory to British and French colonies but in the twentieth century saw the establishment of rubber plantations, diamond and iron ore mines and international shipping links to Monrovia.
Americo-Liberians have until recently formed the main elite group in Liberia, despite their very small numbers. Economic, social and political power was in the hands of the Americo-Liberian community, whose True Whig party was in power for over a century until 1980. The government was composed largely of Americo-Liberians and the civil service and diplomatic corps were almost totally Americo-Liberian. Almost the only way in which wealth and status could be acquired was through membership of the minority elite, although there was also a small immigrant community of Lebanese and Asians who controlled much of the commercial sector.
The non-Americo-Liberian indigenous population, the vast majority of the population of Liberia, comprises 16 major tribal groups which come from three main language families, the West Atlantic, Mende and Kru. The West Atlantic group includes the Kissi and Gola tribes from the mountainous north and west of the country; the Mende group of Vai, Mono, Kpelle and Don tribes in the centre of Liberia; and the Kru and Bassa tribes from the south and the coast on the border of the Ivory Coast. The Kru are the largest single tribe.
The indigenous peoples were not given Li-berian citizenship until 1904 and were not granted the right to vote until 1944. However this right was restricted to property owners or those who paid a “hut tax”. The non-Americo-Liberian peoples have generally received little economic benefit from developments such as agricultural improvements and foreign investments. One area where they have dominated through sheer weight of numbers is the armed forces; however for many years any signs of unrest amongst its ranks were effectively dealt with by imprisonment. Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, an indigenous Liberian, in April 1980 seized power from the corrupt regime of President William R. Tolbert, who though pledged to give a share of “civil office” to the indigenous majority had failed to do so.
Sergeant Doe ruled Liberia through a “People’s Redemption Council”, dissolved in 1984, and was the first indigenous Liberian to become State Leader. Liberia was returned to civilian rule in October 1985 when elections were held but only four legal political parties were able to contest them and power is still effectively in the hands of President Doe, despite a number of coup attempts against him. An attempt was made to draft a Constitution which would provide for full equality for all peoples of Liberia and a draft Constitution was approved in a referendum of 1983. The most common criticism of the old Constitution was the restriction on the right to vote which was widely seen by indigenous Liberians as a device for continuing Americo-Liberian dominance.
Despite attempts to place indigenous Liberians in positions of power in the government and private sector, there have been reports that lack of education and skills have been instrumental in the reinstatement of the Americo-Liberian elite in vital areas. But by the late 1980s the economy had collapsed, civil liberties were non-existent and many educated Liberians — including Americo-Liberians — had fled abroad.
(See also Creoles of Sierra Leone)