WHY IS COMMERCE MINISTRY SILENT AMID RICE SHORTAGE

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RICE IS LIBERIA’S staple food and is the most widely consumed in the country. Rough estimates indicate that Liberia spends more than two hundred million (US$200 million) annually on rice importation from predominantly Asian countries.

THIS RELIANCE ON RICE importation is in the wake of fertile soil in the country with vast land for cultivation. In times past there were small communal farmers who helped produced small quantities of rice in the interior parts of the country thereby reducing the reliance on imported rice mostly in the interior of the country.

RURAL-URBAN migration, shifting cultivation, and other variables have made communal rice farming in the interior part of Liberia almost non-existent.

WITH LOCAL RICE production now limited in the interior parts of the country, rural dwellers have to purchase imported rice from cities thereby increasing the demand for imported rice all across the country.

THIS IS WHY RICE importation is one of the most profitable businesses in Liberia, along with petroleum products. Importers have seized the opportunity to make some good money from a population that is heavily reliant on rice.

IN RECENT WEEKS, getting rice at the various warehouses at the Freeport of Monrovia has been complete warfare, with people having to sleep in the cold to be able to get served the next day. Yet, some spend days in the cold without getting served as importers in an apparent move to make more money and seem to be hoarding the product for the price to skyrocket.

LIBERIANS HAVE BEEN running around in recent days in search of rice and the country’s Chief Executive, President George M. Weah who was out of the country when the rice crisis started, upon return allayed the fears of Liberians by announcing that there is enough rice in the country.

PRESIDENT WEAH said upon arrival at the Roberts International Airport last week.

“We need not to always listen to the gossip of the streets. This is not the first time it has happened. Those responsible for importing rice say we have rice up to next year. I don’t believe there’s rice scarcity I believe there is rice,” President Weah said.

THE STATEMENT BY the Liberian leader led to many rekindling the days of former President Charles Taylor who would publicly give an ultimatum declaring that businesses hoarding commodities will have themselves to blame if they do not drop prices immediately. As was the case, whenever President Taylor made such pronouncements, upon speaking, prices of commodities would immediately drop as former the former president was never taken for granted by these businesses.

FOR PRESIDENT WEAH, it seems the Ministry of Commerce and Industry does not care about a presidential statement as since President Weah made a public declaration that there is enough rice in the country, the rice crisis has even escalated the commodity price galloping from between US$13 to 15 to now US$30 and even higher.

THROUGH LEGISLATIVE enactment, an amendment to Section 1 Chapter 21, of the Executive Law, entitled: Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Transportation, was amended on August 25, 1987, creating the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Section 651 of the amendment to the Executive Law creating the Ministry of Commerce and Industry amongst others provides that the functions of the Ministry shall include “the promotion, development, regulation, control, operation and expansion of commercial, industrial enterprises, and activities in the Republic. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry shall exercise broad powers with respect to the protection of the public interest and the achievement of national goals through the establishment and enforcement of standards for commodities and for trade”. 

THE AMENDMENT also provides that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry shall develop plans for the movements of goods and people within and without the Republic and perform such other functions as may be assigned from time to time by the President.

IN SPITE OF THIS BROAD mandate of the Commerce Ministry coupled with the recent public announcement by the President, the Ministry remains very mute in ensuring that there is action relating to the ongoing rice crisis.

THE MINISTRY is yet to make any public statement in line with the declaration by the President to bring the situation under country, thereby leaving Liberians at the mercy of businesses who are arbitrarily and capriciously increasing the price of rice and at the same time introducing other unorthodox means of selling rice.

SOME RICE DEALERS are compelling Liberians to buy another commodity, either television, milk, and others along with the rice as a pre-condition before selling rice to these Liberians.

THE SITUATION has become graver to the extent that people also queue to buy rice by cups at various shopping places across Monrovia and its environs. The rice situation is further compounding the already harsh economic realities existing in the country where the cost of living has gone so high, including the cost of transportation, tuition, and fees at various secondary schools and universities as well as prices of other commodities.

THE INACTION by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in the wake of the ongoing serious rice crisis is making President Weah appear like a toothless President who speaks with no firm action accompanying his public statement. 

IN TIMES OF CRISIS, the people rely on the leader to ensure swift action and Ministry of Commerce is letting the President and the Liberian people down.

THE HISTORY OF RICE in Liberia is very terrible to the extent that a small increment in the price of rice on April 14, 1979, led to a major riot dubbed the “Rice Riot” which led to deaths and destruction of properties.

HISTORY is clear in April 1979 when Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. It became a very chaotic situation with widespread looting with property damaged estimated at $40 million and the death of at least 40 civilians with more than 500 injured.

THE RICE SITUATION this time looks terrible than 1979 as a 25kg bag of rice is now being sold in Liberia for around four thousand Liberian dollars (LRD4,000), more than US$25 in a struggling economy.

IT IS TIME TO ACT now to avoid history from repeating and the muteness of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry is very worrisome.

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