by Dr. Timothy Nevin, Cuttington Universtiy, Liberia
With a special focus on the development of the National Cultural Center at Kendeja (home of the National Cultural Troupe – NCT), and the political events surrounding the Liberian civil wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003)
1822: With the assistance of the American Colonization Society (ACS), the first shipload of colonists arrives from New York. Most of these colonists are from the free black populations found in urban areas of the east coast of the US. Later, formerly enslaved individuals, largely from southern states, also choose to emigrate. When they arrive, they meet local African communities who have long-standing commercial relations with European shipping merchants.
1824: This new colony is named “Liberia,” which means “land of the free” in Latin. The capital city is renamed Monrovia after US President James Monroe, a member and supporter of the ACS.
1847: Liberia declares independence from the ACS, with a new constitution modeled after that of the US and a new flag that is strikingly similar to the American flag, but with only one “lone” star.
1926: Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company, based in Akron, Ohio, signs a planting agreement with the Liberian government to establish the world's largest rubber plantation, leasing up to one million acres of land for a bargain price. Overnight, Firestone becomes the country's largest employer, and natural rubber (latex) production becomes the backbone of the Liberian economy.
1944: William V.S. Tubman from Harper, Maryland County (in Liberia's southeast) is elected president. The True Whig Party (of which he is a member) by this time has an effective monopoly on political power.
1951: Women and indigenous property owners vote in a presidential election for the first time.
1964: The brand new National Cultural Center at Kendeja (located 14 miles southeast of Monrovia on the highway leading to Roberts Field Airport) is dedicated by President Tubman and cultural ethnographer Bai T. Moore. Roger Dorsinville, a Haitian writer in exile, is appointed as the first artistic director of the Liberian National Cultural Troupe (NCT) based at Kendeja. This National Cultural Center eventually includes a high school for younger troupe members, an artisanal village for the manufacture of hand-made arts and crafts, an outdoor stage and a gift shop where the arts and crafts could be purchased by visitors. The idea for creating a national cultural center came from President Tubman after he had visited newly-independent Guinea and watched the Guinean national troupe perform in Conakry. Other professionals involved in the research and promotion of Liberian culture, including Bai T. Moore and Jangaba S. Johnson, were most likely urging President Tubman to create a national cultural center and to sponsor a national cultural troupe for Liberia, since neighboring African countries were already forming their own. Guinea and Senegal in particular were taking the lead in this respect, so in order to showcase Liberia's African cultural heritage on the world stage, and be perceived as “modern” in an era of Pan-African ideology, Liberia had to scramble to catch up to her neighbors in terms of sponsoring nationalist African cultural productions. The National Cultural Troupe, by winning awards at international cultural festivals, brought prestige to Liberia and represented an institution that ordinary Liberians could be proud of. On the other hand, pessimists might insist that the troupe primarily existed to welcome visiting heads of state at the airport and to provide live entertainment for governmental “big shots” on weekends. Over time the quality of the musical and dramatic stage productions did increase, following intense rehearsal schedules and the artistic visions of the directors.
1966: The Liberian NCT participates in first World Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal. This is the first major cultural festival staged in Africa during the independence era of the 1960s, a time when many African countries are being formed as the colonial period comes to an end.
1967: Iron ore and rubber production are booming thanks to President Tubman's Open Door Policy, which welcomes foreign-owned concessionary companies who largely pay low “unskilled” wages to local Liberians. This process is termed “growth without development” by a team of economists from Northwestern University.
1969: The Liberian NCT wins a bronze medal in the first Pan-African Cultural Festival held in Algiers, Algeria. Despite the fact that the Republic of Liberia was founded by African-American settlers with assistance from the American Colonization Society, at this stage, the Liberian government is attempting to showcase it's indigenous cultural heritage as a truly African country, and not simply an offshoot of 19th century American society, to an international audience.
1971: President Tubman dies following surgery in London and is succeeded by his vice-president, William R. Tolbert Jr. President Tolbert proceeds to support the promotion of Liberian culture through the auspices of the NCT more than any other Liberian president.
1972: Haitian director Roger Dorsinville’s contract expires and President Tolbert appoints a Liberian, Kona Khasu (Emmanuel Roberts), as director of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs as well as artistic director for the NCT based at Kendeja. Khasu makes some important changes: He decides that all of the cultural troupe members will learn all of the songs and dances of every ethnic group in Liberia despite their own ethnicity. Previously only Vai dancers performed traditional Vai dances, only Bassa singers sang Bassa songs, etc. The troupe is thereby transformed from a collection of regional performers to a truly national troupe in which all members can perform traditional songs and dances from across the entire county.
1973: Under the patronage of President Tolbert, the Liberian NCT participates in the Organization for African Unity (OAU) anniversary festivities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, alongside other African cultural troupes from across the continent.
1974: Government accepts aid from the Soviet Union for the first time, but also joins the “non-aligned movement” of “third world” nations during the Cold War.
1975: Work continues on construction of a concrete stage and amphitheater at Kendeja. These infrastructural improvements underscore the commitment of the Liberian government to the promotion and showcasing of Liberian culture through the NCT.
1976: Tokay Tomah is selected to join the NCT. She moves to Kendeja from her home in Nimba County.
1976: The Liberian NCT promotes tourism to Liberia while on tour in London, England. At this time, most British tourists visiting West Africa would vacation in the former British colonies of The Gambia and Ghana (formerly known as the Gold Coast).
1977: The Liberian NCT participates in the Second World Negro Arts Festival called FESTAC ’77 in Lagos, Nigeria, as part of a larger Liberian contingent, which includes sculptors, drama groups, popular musicians and the choirs from the University of Liberia and Cuttington University College. This is a gigantic, month-long festival underwritten by the petroleum boom in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. The aim of the festival is to showcase the brilliance and originality of African performing arts traditions on an international stage. Another aim is to boost Nigeria's status as an emerging regional superpower. The Liberian contingent wins many awards and the festival is viewed as a success, even though it is boycotted by Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti for political reasons.
1978: Liberia signs trade agreement with the European Economic Community.
1978: Fatu Gayflor is selected to join the NCT. She moves to Kendeja from her home in Lofa County.
1979: Zaye Tete is selected to join the NCT. She moves to Kendeja from her home in Nimba County.
1979: Unemployment among educated youth becomes quite high as the trend of rural to urban migration quickens. Tensions over the pace of political reform explode during the “rice riots” in April, and more than 40 people are killed by police. The rioting followed a proposed increase in the price of rice and a ban on political demonstrations. President Tolbert calls in the Guinean military to restore order because Liberian soldiers largely joined in the looting that took place during the riots. Later that year President Tolbert spends extravagantly to host the annual conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) of which he is chairman.
1980: A junta of 17 junior enlisted soldiers carries out a surprise military coup. Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe is declared the leader of the group because he is the highest ranking of the soldiers, even though he is only semi-literate. President Tolbert is captured in the Executive Mansion and killed. Ten days later 13 of Tolbert's cabinet members are publicly executed on the Barclay Training Center beach. The People's Redemption Council (PRC), headed by Samuel Doe, is formed, and they suspend the constitution (ending the first republic) and assume full powers, creating a military dictatorship. Funding dries up for the NCT and Kendeja. Cultural troupe members are no longer fed three meals per day. The National Cultural Center at Kendeja goes into a slow and steady decline.
1981: The Liberian NCT wins a bronze medal (for third place) at the El Mogar African Festival in Morocco. They are featured and praised back home in Liberian newspapers such as the Daily Observer.
1984: The Liberian NCT represents Liberia, the only African nation to participate in the Louisiana World Exposition, commonly referred to as the “New Orleans World’s Fair,” in New Orleans, USA. Liberian troupe members are stranded when the government of Liberia stops sending rent payments for the Liberian pavilion, known as the Palaver Hut. Many of these stranded troupe members decide to stay in the US and seek alternative employment. Other members of the Liberian NCT not in New Orleans participate in the Seoul Folklore Festival in Seoul, South Korea.
1985: After promising to turn over power to a civilian government, Commander-in-Chief Samuel Doe decides to form his own political party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), which is neither national nor democratic and steals the presidential election by controlling the process through outright fraud, claiming to have won 51% of the total votes.
1985: Fatu Gayflor leaves the NCT and Kendeja and launches her own ensemble, Daughters of King N’Jollah.
1985: Former General of the Armed Forces Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former member of the PRC and former Doe ally stages a coup attempt with a small number of fighters, crossing into Liberia from Sierra Leone. He is from Nimba County (the second most populous county) and extremely popular within the army. His coup attempt fails to overthrow the Doe government after taking control of the national radio station. He is betrayed, captured and killed. Doe launches a punitive mission to Nimba County, burning down villages, torturing and killing civilians of the Mano and Gio (Dan) ethnic groups. This military action leads to the ethnicization of the conflict and sets the stage for the Liberian civil war.
1989: On Christmas Eve, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a small rebel group whose leaders received military training in Qaddafi's Libya, led by Charles M. Taylor, invades across the border from Cote d'Ivoire through the village of Butuo, Nimba County. This represents the beginning of their armed struggle to topple the Doe government. Many young men from Nimba County join the rebels to avenge atrocities committed by Doe's soldiers in their county. Child soldiers are also recruited as the NPFL blazes a path of destruction and mayhem, seizing territory on their way to Monrovia. Civil war ensues between forces loyal to Doe and those opposed to him. Later, the rebel movement splinters into several smaller rebel groups including the INPFL, LDF, ULIMO-J, ULIMO-K, which fight among themselves for land and resources while targeting civilians and looting their possessions. Rape is also widely used as a terror tactic during this time; many young women are forced to become cooks and “bush wives” of various rebel factions.
1990: The National Cultural Center at Kendeja is overrun by Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels and various troupe members are killed for being from the “wrong” ethnic groups. Most other Kendeja residents flee for their lives. This leads to the complete breakdown of operations at Kendeja. Many of the members of the Cultural Troupe will not only be displaced from their homes, losing all of their material possessions in the process, but be forced to become refugees in other countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and the US. Many of those who relocated to the US have yet to return home to Liberia for various economic and family reasons.
1990: Both Tokay Tomah and Zaye Tete leave Kendeja as they flee the fighting.
1990: Marie Nyenabo joins the Cultural Ambassadors Dance Troupe.
1990: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), largely dominated by regional superpower Nigeria, intervenes with a peacekeeping force called the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). President Samuel Doe is reduced to controlling only the immediate neighborhood of the Executive Mansion. Doe foolishly attempts to leave the mansion with a large convoy of elite soldiers to officially greet the ECOMOG commander at the Free Port of Monrovia. While there he is captured after a long gun battle with Prince Johnson of the INPFL rebel group. He is then tortured and dies from his injuries. Charles Taylor, who heads the largest rebel force, does not agree for Johnson to assume power, and sets up his own dominion outside of Monrovia called “Greater Liberia” with his own capital at Gbarnga. The fighting then continues, with ECOMOG supporting an interim government in Monrovia that is imposed from outside. There are several battles for control of Monrovia in which thousands of civilians die and the city is destroyed. Several ceasefires are agreed to by warring factions only to be violated later.
1996: Another ceasefire is announced, leading to the scheduling of national elections.
1997: Charles Taylor threatens to restart the war if he is not elected president. He wins. International observers declare the election free and fair.
1998: Fatu Gayflor moves to the United States.
1999: During the Charles Taylor presidency, a much smaller contingent of the Liberian NCT attends the Pan-African Festival in Tripoli, Libya, sponsored by Taylor's ally Muammar Qaddafi.
1999: Ghana and Nigeria accuse Liberian President Charles Taylor of actively supporting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone who become infamous for their terror tactics of amputating hands and feet of civilians in order to cause widespread panic and seize control of the diamond fields in the Kona District in the north of the country. Britain and the US threaten to suspend aid to Liberia. In reaction to the destabilizing actions of Taylor in his quest for wealth and power, new rebel groups are then formed in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire with the avowed mission of invading Liberia and toppling Taylor.
2000: The Liberian government reports first attacks by rebels who identify themselves as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in Lofa County, who have crossed over from Guinea in order to overthrow Taylor's government. A second rebel force called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) invades southeastern Liberia from Cote d'Ivoire with the same purpose. Both head towards Monrovia, burning villages and looting the entire way.
2001: The UN Security Council re-imposes an arms embargo to punish Taylor for trading weapons for “blood diamonds” from RUF rebels in Sierra Leone.
2003: Peace talks in Ghana aimed at ending the second Liberian civil war are overshadowed by an unsealed indictment from the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing President Taylor of war crimes over his alleged backing of rebels in Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, the fighting in Liberia intensifies; rebels battle for control of Monrovia. Several hundred people are killed. The West African regional group ECOWAS agrees to provide peacekeepers once again.
2003: Nigerian peacekeepers arrive in August. Charles Taylor is pressured to leave Liberia after handing power to his deputy Moses Blah as rebel forces enter the Monrovia metro area. Interim government and rebels sign a peace accord which gives various government ministerial positions to rebel leaders. Businessman and Taylor ally Gyude Bryant is chosen to head the interim administration. Rebels begin the disarmament process. The civil war is effectively over. In total, an estimated 250,000 Liberians died during the civil wars which lasted from 1989-1996 and 1999-2003.
2003: In September, the United Nations authorizes the creation of the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) a major peacekeeping mission deploying thousands of troops from member countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria and Namibia. An international police force arrives (called UNPOL) to train and support local police.
2003: An estimated 700,000 Liberians are uprooted as of mid-2003, including at least 500,000 within the country (called Internally Displaced People- IDPs) and more than 200,000 living as refugees in other West African countries.
2004: Zaye Tete moves to the United States.
2004: Riots in Monrovia leave 16 people dead; the UN says former combatants were behind the violence in which some mosques and churches were burned.
2005: Former political dissident-turned-economist and technocrat banker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wins the largest number of votes in a run-off election, defeating football superstar George Weah, which makes her the first elected female president not only in Liberia but in all of Africa.
2006: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the South African TRC is set up to investigate human rights abuses that occurred between 1979 and 2003.
2006: Former president Charles Taylor appears before a UN-backed special court in Sierra Leone on charges of crimes against humanity. In June, the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court (ICC) agrees to host his trial.
2006: In July, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf switches on generator-powered street lights in the capital, which has been without electricity for 15 years, as a temporary solution to the energy crisis.
2007: Charles Taylor's war crimes trial begins in The Hague.
2008: The land of the National Cultural Center at Kendeja is sold and the cultural center is bulldozed for the construction of the exclusive RKL Kendeja Resort Hotel run by African American billionaire Robert “Bob” L. Johnson. Even though the campus at Kendeja had reached an advanced state of decline, controversy ensues as the Liberian NCT is displaced without a ready-made alternative location to house it. Almost ten years later, the Liberian cultural troupe is still homeless and has splintered into various smaller cultural troupes.
2009: President Johnson Sirleaf testifies to Truth and Reconciliation Commission in February that she mistakenly supported and raised funds for then-rebel leader Charles Taylor when he launched his invasion that instigated the 14-year civil war back in 1989.
2009: In July, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission submits its report to parliament, recommending the prosecution of 200 people and listing others who should be barred from public office for a period of thirty years, including President Johnson Sirleaf.
2009: The UN Security Council votes in September to extend the mandate of the UN forces in Liberia (UNMIL) into 2010 in order to assist with the 2011 elections.
2010: Tokay Tomah moves to the United States.
2011: President Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian anti-war activist Leymah Gbowee are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with a third women's rights activist from Yemen. This announcement comes just days before the national elections.
2011: President Johnson Sirleaf wins re-election for a second six-year term. Her main rival, Winston Tubman, boycotts the second round of voting.
2012: Ex-president Charles Taylor is found guilty of war crimes for aiding and directing rebels in Sierra Leone after a lengthy trial. He is sentenced to 50 years in jail, to be served in Britain.
2012: Two former directors of the Liberian NCT pass away in Liberia; first, Jallah K.K. Kamara, and then Peter “Flomo” Ballah, who was also a gifted actor and storyteller.
2013: Marie Nyenabo moves to the United States.
2013: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) completes a program that helped more than 155,000 Liberians return home, hailing it as evidence of the return of peace after the civil war.
2013: The non-profit group Global Witness says half the forest in Liberia is being logged illegally, in spite of government promises to halt such activity.
2014: Liberia announces emergency measures to combat the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). Many Liberians believe the disease is a hoax created by the government to receive international aid. The outbreak has spread from Guinea to both Liberia and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization (WHO) says the spread of Ebola in West Africa is an international public health emergency, and calls for a coordinated response. U.S. President Obama announces that 3,000 US military personnel are to be sent to West Africa to build new health facilities and to train health workers.
2016: After a long fight against the disease which included awareness raising and behavioral changes, the UN declares Liberia and the whole of West Africa provisionally free of Ebola. More than 11,000 died of the disease in West Africa since December 2013, 4,809 of them in Liberia alone.
2016: UN peacekeeping forces in Liberia (UNMIL) hand back responsibility for security to the country's army and police. The mission was first deployed in 2003. Elections are planned for October, 2017, after which the remaining UNMIL peacekeepers are scheduled to leave Liberia for good.
2017: There are several cultural troupes in Liberia that periodically perform on special occasions but no single national cultural center is in operation. There are plans for a new cultural center on the road to Marshall, but this project remains in limbo. There is also a cultural village at Besao that awaits funding. A number of formerly active Liberian National Cultural Troupe members are currently living in the United States.