Liberia: Rice Importers Reportedly Hoarding, Being Selective in Their Sales; Retailers Protest
MONROVIA – Hundreds of aggrieved rice dealers during the early morning hours of Tuesday, March 29, staged a violent protest on the Bushrod Island, outside Monrovia by setting road blocks over the unfavorable business practices and the scarcity of the country’s staple food on the local market.
The marketers, mostly elderly women, were seen chanting anti-slogans like “We want rice; No Rice, No Car Going, Your Open Your Stores, We Want Rice”, among others.
They also held placards with inscriptions: “Enough is enough, we want rice; Where is the rice; Local rice dealers are tired of paying transportation for rice; No rice, no work; Government please give us rice, We are hungry and out of business”, among others.
They also blocked the main entrances of two major rice importers – K and K and Fouta Corporation in Vai Town-accusing the owners of allegedly hoarding and creating artificial shortage of the commodity on the market. They also claimed that the importers are reportedly planning to increase the price of a bag of 25kg rice from US$13 to US$15 in the midst of extreme hardship and poverty in Liberia.
K and K Trading Company belongs to top Lebanese business tycoon George Haddad, a former closed associate of ex-Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor. His company enjoyed monopoly over the sale of rice for several years during the regime of Mr. Taylor.
Fouta Corporation is being owned and operated by Mr. Cherif Abdallah.
The two companies are among the highest importers of rice in the country.
The aggrieved marketers claimed that though some of them have already paid for several bags of rice a the companies, the managements have allegedly refused to supply them their goods.
They complained that the situation is imposing hardship on them and their respective family members because they continue to pay transportation fares on a daily basis to either receive or purchase their respective goods.
They claimed that for sometimes now, they have been out of businesses due to the scarcity and hoarding of the commodity by importers.
The aggrieved marketers added that ahead of the commencement of second semester for the current academic school year, they would be unable to pay the fees of their children at various schools if the situation persists.
The marketers alarmed that importers of rice, especially K and K and Fouta Corporation are allegedly engaged into selective sale of the commodity on the local market.
Instead of serving on a first come, first serve basis, the local rice dealers, complained that the importers are allegedly in the constant habit of serving their loved ones, friends, relatives, and some government officials, making them to go away empty handed.
“Every day we coming from faraway places to buy our rice, but the Fula and the Lebanese people will tell us no rice, no rice. But you will see them loading trucks to sell rice to other people who they know. Why they should be treating us like this in our own country,” Binta Diallo stated.
She added: “You will see some of them coming and making telephone calls to some big, big people in here. They will pass by us and enter the fence and we will see them coming outside with rice. But because they do not know some of us, they will refuse to even allow us to enter the fence”.
Rice turning to gold dust?
The availability and rush for rice in various shops, stores and other commercial areas, appears like a search for gold dust.
Marketers and customers continue to move from one trading center to another in search for the commodity.
In recent times, the price of rice has abruptly increased on the local market.
Importers were reported to be holding series of meetings to increase the price of the commodity as a result of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which they claimed is globally affecting the economy.
The previous price of a 25kg bag of rice which was US$13 previously has astronomically increased to US$15, US$16 and US$17 respectively on the Bushrod Island and other areas.
Local traders are even catching hell to purchase the commodity from wholesalers at a reasonable price to in turn sell at the various business centers in the communities to make a profit of at least US$1 or US$2 on each bag depending on the cost of transportation.
The marketers are accusing the importers of escalating the prices of the various brands of rice at their will and pleasure, with the government sitting supinely and doing nothing about the situation.
“These people can always decide when to sell rice to us knowing fully well that rice is the staple food of every Liberian. Whether you are President, minister or whosoever, you will eat rice on a daily basis and they are saying that they will not serve us rice”, a young lady only identified as Marie stated.
Plea to government
She continued: “We want the government to tell us whether the importers are the ones who have control or the final saying”.
The aggrieved rice dealers want government put in place stringent measures to curtail or prevent the hoarding or halt the arbitrary increment in the prices of the different kinds of rice on the local market.
They observed that the selling price given to importers are not being adhere to, and as such, “government officials should not receive bribes or kickbacks” to ignore their plights.
“Why are they hiding the rice? They want kill us in this country and they know that we Liberians are surviving on rice? I really want the government to act on this because that’s what we are selling to survive and for our children to go to school”, another protester stated.
She maintained: “The importers told us that they are coming to carry the rice price up, and we are willing to buy it at any price they carry it up to. They have enough rice in their warehouses but they don’t want to sell to us. Today is my third day here and they have not served me”.
Another protester identified as Christo Varfley observed that the two importers have been engaged into doing business with partiality.
According to him, the offices of the entities are most often shut to local traders who normally gather during the early morning hours to purchase the commodity.
He observed that the current situation is intended to ensure that the importers maximize profits by hiking the prices of the various brands of rice to the detriment of both the local traders and consumers.
“Government should know that the fall of this country always come from rice issue. We were standing here and the police came and start issuing that kind of harsh warning. Even though they didn’t us, but they threatened us. That is not the right way to stop a protest when people are angry”.
“I been buying from Fouta for a very long time but, they want to carry the price of rice up to US$15. And in business, when one person speaks, all the other people will follow. All of them have the same plan and Fouta is the highest importer of rice in this country. But before their plan works, Fouta should be the one to address it”.
Meanwhile, the local rice dealers have vowed to stage unannounced actions to destabilize the country if government fails to act.
They maintained that government should “speak now” to compel the importers of the nation’s staple food to stay in line with its designated prices for various varieties of rice, instead of hiking the prices by creating artificial shortage for their own benefits.
The violent protest staged by the aggrieved marketers paralyzed normal working and commercial activities in Central Monrovia, Vai Town and Clara Town communities for nearly the entire morning hours.
It also created a huge traffic, which lasted for several hours, on the Bushrod Island Some passengers were compelled to disembark commercial vehicles and tricycles to trek to their respective destinations.
Owners and managers of various trading centers in the areas were skeptical of opening their businesses on time for fear of their goods being looted by criminals.
The violent protest later subsided following the intervention of the Liberia National Police (LNP).
This writer visited the Fouta Corporation on the Bushrod Island for the management to respond to the allegations of allegedly being engaged into selective sale, hoarding or hiking the price of rice from US$13 to US$15.
Speaking to one of the managers identified as one Emmanuel Blamo via telephone while in the company premises, our Reporter was told that bosses at the company were not willing to respond to the allegations levied against Fouta by the aggrieved local traders.
But in a live video, the Manager of Fouta Corporation Omaru Barry was seen informing the aggrieved local traders that his company was not selling rice for now.
“We are not selling rice now because we still have plenty invoices that we sold since Saturday. So, we have to serve those people-when it finished before we start to sell again. We still have between 2000 to 2500 bags to be served and so, we can’t start serving again”.
He claimed that “it takes time for the rice to come from the port and so, it’s just a matter of probability”.
“Rice supposed to come today but because of the situation here, we cannot bring rice. The way the road is clear now, I will tell them to bring the rice but I can’t give you a definite time when we will start selling. The people who were here, that’s their right to protest and me too, I have right to my property”.
At the K and K Corporation in Vai Town, outside Monrovia, the Administrative Manager of the company only identified as one Mr. Ballah referred our Reporter to contact one Counselor Gibson at the Freeport Branch of Fouani Brothers Inc after being briefed on the matter.
Efforts applied by our Reporter to get in touch with Cllr. Gibson did not materialize as he was told that the Counselor was not in office to respond to the allegations.
In September of last year, FrontPage Africa reported the scarcity of rice in the country after noticing that several shops and stores were without the commodity. But the government, through the Ministry of Commerce refuted and claimed that sufficient rice was in the country.
The Rice riot
Rice riot or protest has a negative history in post-conflict Liberia.
It can be recalled that in early April 1979, the former Liberian Minister of Agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from US$22 per 100-pound bag to $26.
Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce rice as both a subsistence crop and a cash crop, instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations. However, political opponents criticized the proposal as self-aggrandizement, pointing out that Chenoweth and the family of President William Tolbert operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.
The Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase.
On April 14, 1979, about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion.
The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 “back street boys,” causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction.
Widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses ensued with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million.
The government called in troops to reinforce police units in the capital, who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rioters. In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 500 were injured. In 2008, former General Coordinator of the People’s Redemption Council, D. Kaine Carlo testified before the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the around 300 members of the PAL alone were killed in the crackdown. Hundreds more were arrested.
The latest violent protest stage by the aggrieved local rice dealers should serve as a wake up call to the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) led-government of President George Manneh Weah to act swiftly before the situation escalate to chaos and claim the lives of citizens and the destruction of properties.
Already, huge percentage of the rice being consumed by Liberians and others are imported into the country with the government falling short of putting in place a clear-cut agriculture plan to boost food sufficiency in the nation.