The Republic of Liberia is a small country on the coast of West Africa, and the only place in Africa that has never been under European control. It began as the dream of a black American minister named Robert Finley, who founded the American Colonization Society to take blacks back to their ancestral homeland, where they wouldn't face discrimination. The first settlers arrived in 1822, and in 1847, they drew up a constitution patterned after their home country's, making Liberia an independent state.

The descendants of the Americans, known as Americo-Liberians, ruled Liberia until 1980, when a Krahn army sergeant named Samuel K. Doe staged a coup. Doe's authoritarian regime lasted until 1989, when the National Patriotic Forces of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, took over and ousted Doe's Armed Forces of Liberia. Doe was executed in 1990, but the battle between the two sides continues today.

Much of the conflict is ethnic in nature. The Americo-Liberians now account for just two and a half percent of Liberia's three million citizens: the rest is divided among fifteen indigenous ethnic groups, most of whom have aligned themselves on one side of the war.

In 1996, a group of West African governments got the two sides to sit down in Abuja, Nigeria, where a peace agreement was hammered out. Fighting died down but continued at a restrained pace. The next year, Taylor was elected president with 80% of the vote, most of which was allegedly obtained through intimidation tactics. By 2002, a year before the next election was scheduled, fighting had returned to the streets of the capital, Monrovia.

In the meantime, Liberia is one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita GDP in the neighborhood of $500. Most of the country's meager wealth comes from gold and rubber exports: there are also diamonds in Liberia, but the United Nations has embargoed them since 2001, when Taylor was found to have been supporting militants in nearby, equally broke Sierra Leone.

The biggest economic influx in Liberia's history came from Firestone, which owned a huge rubber plantation there employing up to 15% of the country's labor force. After Taylor used the plantation as a base for raids on Monrovia, most of its rubber trees were damaged and the entire operation was abandoned and left to rot. While Bridgestone has expressed a desire to return, the political situation has precluded it.

Crime is endemic, as it is in most of West Africa, and much of the infrastructure that Westerners take for granted simply doesn't exist. Roads are generally unlit stretches of dirt, and the only way to get electricity or potable water is to make it yourself. To get there, you have to drive overland from Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Cote d'Ivoire (paying generous bribes to customs officials along the way), or fly in from Ghana.

The American influence, however, is still there. The flag is a Stars and Stripes with one star and eleven stripes, and English is the official language. Many Liberians feel that their relationship with the US has crumbled in the past two decades, and many Americans feel that peace in Liberia may have the potential to spread peace through one of the world's most war-torn regions.

Incidentally, Liberia also has one of the world's largest shipping fleets: over 1,500 large ships are registered there, adding up to 80 million deadweight tons. Most of these ships are only Liberian as a flag of convenience, however, and are owned by individuals or firms overseas.

thanks to wrinkly for details on Liberian rubber