A Looming Rice Problem In Liberia

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MORE THAN FORTY TWO YEARS after the April 14, 1979 rice riots brought the William R. Tolbert government to its knees, rice Importers are launching an appeal to the current government headed by President George Manneh Weah to permit an increment on the price of rice due to rising cost of importation.

THE RICE IMPORTERS ASSOCIATION OF LIBERIA say the increase in price of rice is necessary due to a worldwide increment in freight and the rapidly rising increase in fees for services at the National Port Authority (NPA).

THE IMPORTERS FEAR that if the fees are not increased there is a likelihood that there may be a shortage of rice on the market.

THE CALL FOR INCREASE comes just three years into the George Weah-led government’s reign. In February 2018 meeting with importers, President Weah secured an agreement with importers for the price of rice to be reduced between US$2-4.

PRIOR TO THE REDUCTION, the price of 25kg bag of rice was US$16.00. Since February 2018, rice price has been US$13.00.

DURING THAT MEETING, President Weah said: “If government-imposed tax is an issue, you can rest assured that my government is more than ready to grant reasonable adjustments in the tax regime to
make the reduction of rice price possible.”

AT THE END of the negotiations, officials of the Association of Liberian Rice Importers consented to effect a reduction of the price. The Association of Rice Importers headed by their Chairman, John Bestman, agreed to reduce the price of the 25Kg bag of rice by US $2.00 while the price of 50kg bag of rice will be reduced by US $4.00.

THE ONGOING ISSUE regarding the price of rice is reminiscent of the events leading to the April 14, 1979 rice riots.

AT THE TIME, PRESIDENT TOLBERT TOLD a New York Times interview shortly after the riots that the rice issue was merely an alibi, put forth by men “whose principal idea is to change our system of government” and leaving the regime no alternative but to assert its authority.

THE RICE SAGA of 1979 was seen at the time as an inevitable consequence of the policies of the Tolbert administration.

AS THE NEW YORK TIMES pointed out in ‘79, not much has changed since with much of the power in Liberia concentrated in the office of the President, “surrounded by too many ministers who are more interested in the perquisites of power than the welfare of the people.”

THE ISSUE OF RICE, the staple food of Liberia has been a thorn in the flesh of governments both past and president. The issue will likely remain as long as policies continue to go against those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder, to the government’s own detriment.

IN 1979, when rice was an explosive issue, rice was sold for $US22 for a 100-pound bag, representing a major expense for a family in a country where the average wage is $80 a month.

AT THE TIME, Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth argued that increasing the price to $30 a bag would stimulate local rice farmers, who say they are losing money, to increase production and hasten Liberian self‐sufficiency.

TODAY NOT MUCH has changed.

IN A COUNTRY, heavily reliant on the importation of rice, very little effort is being made to push agriculture and sustainable farming as the key to the future.

INSTEAD OF AGREEING to an increase in the price of rice, the government must revisit its policies and work toward decrease port charges for rice importers in a bid to alleviate some of the burdens on struggling importers and local businesses.

THE LESSONS of April 1979 should serve as a deterrent for the future and government must work toward making the business climate friendly to investors and businesses.

THIS IS THE only way the economy will remain vibrant and the only way importers will feel comfortable and encouraged that the government is standing by them in these crucial times when life for many is becoming harder and harder and more difficult to make a decent living.

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