The April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration: Who Was To Blame, The Government Or The Protesters?


This article is intended to throw some light on the present misinterpretation of the April 14, 1979 (414) Rice Demonstration by the ruling Coalition of Democratic Change (CDC) and other Liberians to prevent the June 7, 2019 planned demonstration.  In fact, the deliberate distortion of the fact of 414 started before Ambassador George Weah’s recent election as President of Liberia in 2017.   That’s why it’s very important to de-mythicize April 14, 1979 so that that tragic event of Liberian History will not be wrongly used to promote fear, violence, insecurity and war in the country. 

By Zehyu Buehyu Fiahmahn Saymahn Wuduorgar,  [email protected], Contributing Writer

About 3 or 4 months into 2019, Henry Costa, host of the popular Roots FM Radio Talk Show, proposed a peaceful march in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. The proposal went viral and instantly received overwhelming approval and support at home and abroad. An organizing committee, called The Council of Patriots, was subsequently set up, and June 7, 2019 was selected as the date for the peaceful demonstration. The purpose, according to the organizers and supporters, is to present to President George Weah a checklist of critical concerns relating to the deteriorating state of affairs of the Country in the sincere hope that the government will put into place appropriate measures to immediately remedy the alarming situation. 

But quite interestingly, from the onset of Costa’s announcement to the present, the government has not taken kindly to the proposed peaceful protest. Nevertheless, the right of the citizens to peacefully assemble and petition their leaders on matters that affect their safety and wellbeing is guaranteed under Article 17 of the Constitution.  As such, no government can or should deny the people that fundamental right in any form and manner. To do so would be a violation of that Constitutional Provision. But, from all indications, the government is knowingly and desperately bent on doing just that.  It has therefore embarked upon a vicious propaganda campaign to achieve that objective. For example, the jamming of Roots FM has been blamed on the government. But the government has either denied or has remained mute on the issue.  But regardless of who did or who did not do  the jamming, the following effects of the action cannot be refuted: 1) It  denies the management  of Roots FM the right to freely operate its legally registered business;  2) It violates management’s right to disseminate information for public consumption; 3) It denies the right of the public unhindered access  to such information;  4) It misleads  the public by replaying Costa’s reference to employ armed security guards at his radio station in the aftermath of two arm attacks on the station to imply that Costa is buying guns for use by the  protestors on June 7;  5) This misleading information has led to some naïve and blindfolded callers on radio talk shows to call for  Costa’s arrest; and 6) Counts 4 and 5 have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity in the country, particularly in Monrovia to the extent of individuals deciding to store enough food stuffs and other basic needs, while others are deciding to leave the city or country before June 7.

  The first question is, what actually gave rise to the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration in Monrovia little over 40 years ago? It all started with a proposed increase in the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $23-$30 by the Government of President William R. Tolbert. The proposed hike was reportedly recommended by Florence Chenoweth ,  then Minister of Agriculture . The justification was threefold : 1) To encourage and jump-start the abundant production of local rice for domestic consumption and export; 2)To minimize or stop the importation of imported rice; and 3) To discourage the preference for imported rice over that which is locally produced.

The progressive groups, which included the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), the University of Liberia Student Unification Party (SUP) and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) agreed that the reasons given by the Government made sense. They however maintained that the reasons were fundamentally flawed and unattainable under the prevailing circumstances of lack of investment capital, education and training for farmers to undertake mechanized rice farming. As such, the proposed hike would benefit the President only, since he was already enjoying the unfair advantage of monopoly as the sole producer of rice on a large scale. Most importantly, the activists, PAL in particular, informed government that rice price increment would adversely affect the already poor and disadvantaged masses. The bulk of them was unemployed and couldn’t provide a square meal for their families, let alone to buy a $30-dollar bag of rice. Also, the net pay of those employed was not enough to purchase the rice. So, the arbitrary hike in the price of the nation’s staple needed reconsideration in the supreme interest of the people. PAL brought these glaring facts and observations to President Tolbert’s attention with an earnest appeal not to implement the proposal because it would worsen the already precarious situation of the masses.   But the government refused the appeal and insisted on implementing the hike, no matter who was affected.

The second question then is, what happened next? The answer is that, Baccus Matthews, the head of PAL, met with the membership of the organization to decide on the next course of action. They concluded that a demonstration was necessary to create national and international public awareness. The international community needed to be informed about the negative effect the price hike in the nation’s staple would have on the already economically challenged masses who elected the government to improve their living standard, but which was bent on denying them from buying a bag of rice at affordable price.

The Rice Demonstration, which was organized by PAL and also supported by MOJA and SUP, was finally scheduled for April 14, 1979. Early that Saturday morning the crowd of protestors gathered in their thousands at PAL headquarters in downtown Monrovia.  After receiving final briefings from comrade Matthews and other organizing members, the crowd began the peaceful and orderly march toward the Executive Mansion up Capitol Hill to present their petition on the hike in the price of rice to President Tolbert.  While on its way to the Mansion, the crowd was joined by additional demonstrators.  So the group became a sea of people before it reached the outskirts of the Mansion.

When those ahead of the crowd reached the foot of Capitol Hill, in front of the former Labor Ministry to be exact, they were stopped by heavily armed police and other paramilitary forces deployed there and also at the Information Ministry.  They informed the demonstrators that the President said he didn’t want to meet with them; therefore, they should turn back. But the protestors insisted on meeting President Tolbert to present their petition, which was the objective of the demonstration. The security allegedly relayed the message to Tolbert who reportedly ordered the security forces to prevent the protestors from reaching the Mansion by any and all available means.

 The next important question is, what happened then? The next thing that happened was horrifying, shocking and unbelievable because the security forces (the police in particular), suddenly opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. The first fatal shots were reportedly fired by Police Director, Varney Dempster. After he opened the gory floodgate of bloodbath, his principal deputies and other senior officers, including Trokon Pritchard, Dalmeida, Peter Y. Wilson, Gerald Richards, Filmore Johnson, Samuel Killen, Major Wallace, Rocheforte Padmore, among others, joined in the ensuing mayhem. The paramilitary forces also followed suit. That’s how hell broke loose at the foot of Capitol Hill just a few blocks away from the President. And that’s how the confused crowd went helter shelter to save their lives. Many of them mustered the courage to rescue their injured comrades. 

The episode was indeed shocking and unbelievable to the demonstrators because the shoot- to- kill order came from the President who was under constitutional obligation to listen to the grievances of his hurting people. It was shocking and unbelievable because Rev. Tolbert, who was also President of the Baptist World Alliance, knowingly and remorselessly violated the 5th of God Holy Laws, which forbids the willful killing of our fellow human beings.  What was equally shocking and unbelievable up Capitol Hill on April 14 was the realization that the lower ranking members of the security forces whose net pay couldn’t allow them to buy a $23 bag of rice, let alone a bag at $30 and who also belong to the disadvantaged masses in whose behalf the Rice demonstration was being staged were the ones killing their brothers and sisters who were protesting in their interest. 

This sad April 14 scenario was an example of the ugly picture painted about black people in Botha’s Secret Speech that leaked. In that speech, Pete Botha, the racist President of South Africa, maintained that, although black people look like human beings, but they are more animals than humans.  He said all that is needed to prove him right is to dress a black man in police or military uniform and, for example, put few dollars in his pocket, give him a gun and ask him to shoot his mother. He will instantly shoot his mother dead without asking any question. But what made the April 14, 1979 the worst case scenario of Botha’s analogy is the fact that those who shot their own people in cold blood had no need to ask Tolbert why he gave them the order to do so.  The fact is that they already knew that the demonstration was also in their favor. Yet, they went ahead to prove Botha right that black people don’t actually think and act as intelligent human beings.   But thank goodness the AFL soldiers proved Botha wrong on April 14, 1979. They didn’t shoot the protestors because they knew that they were demonstrating for a just cause. So before and after the crowd went amok, the soldiers did their best to protect them. Had the soldiers joined the police and other security forces to shoot the protestors, the death toll would have been very high. 

I have briefly pointed out the fact that the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration was peaceful from downtown Monrovia until the protestors reached the foot of Capitol Hill. There, they were shot at by the security forces, allegedly upon the orders of President Rev. Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr. They didn’t throw petro- bombs, bottles, stones and other objects at the state security to have provoked the and unwarranted mayhem against them.  Even when the crowd went helter shelter to save their lives, they didn’t resort   to street battle with the police and the other forces. What needs to be admitted is that widespread looting ensued, mainly against Lebanese stores, when the crowd went amok. That’s when Tolbert also ordered the Lebanese and other foreign business entities to protect their businesses. And that’s also how the death toll of April 14 became high. 

But all that could have been avoided had the President allowed the demonstrators to present their grievances to him as an exercise of their constitutional right. By the same token, he should have graciously received their petition and assured them that it would be given prompt and deserving consideration as a leadership obligation on his part. But his refusal to meet with them and receive their petition was a violation of their right and a breach of his duty to be informed and act upon the issues affecting the happiness and wellbeing of the people. Worst of all, by ordering the shooting and killing of unarmed citizens, the President, as a temporal or political leader, committed a heinous crime of mayhem against his own people. So he should have been impeached, removed and prosecuted. Also, as a pastor and globally exalted man of God, his pastoral license should have been revoked and his ecclesiastical or ecumenical title of President of the Baptist World Alliance withdrawn because his hands were contaminated with the blood of innocent people. This was a terrible sin, a blatant violation of the 5th Commandment, “Thou shall not kill’. (Exodus 20:13)

These and other truths about 414 are the realities which those against the June 7 protest have refused to reveal to the public and the world. Instead, they have deliberately chosen to resort to poisoning the minds of the public by presenting April 14 as a terrible act of the demonstrators. This brings us to the next item on the anti-June 7 propaganda agenda.  According to them, Baccus Matthews and those who organized the April 14,1979 Rice Demonstration were self-seeking politicians who  used the young people and older folks for their selfish gains and who ran away when the demonstration failed.  They are claiming that the June 7 organizers have foreign passports and will run away from Liberia when June 7 fails just like how Baccus Matthews and others did when April 14 failed. 

This again, is a blatant lie. Although the organizers and supporters of April 14 could have used the brief period of silence that followed that bloody and chaotic Saturday to leave the country, but they refused to do so. For them, the brutal repression of the demonstration by Tolbert’s government was a wake-up call that the struggle had just begun. The struggle, for example, to replace 157 (1822-1979) years of Americo-Liberian oppressive one-party minority rule with multi-party democracy had begun in earnest. The struggle to end or reduce poverty, illiteracy, disease and marginalization of the majority had just started. The struggle for social justice, economic and political freedom remained irreversible. How then did Baccus Matthews, Chea Cheapo, Oscar Quiah, D. Kahn Carlos, etc., of PAL, together with SUP and MOJA militants like Siafa Blackie, George Klay Kieh, James Logan, Ezekieh Pajibo, Wou Tapiah, Weewee Debbah, to name a few, were jailed, flogged  and tortured shortly after April 14 run away?  In fact, there were grapevine rumors that Tolbert had ordered that Baccus and others be executed in prison during his   absence from the country on a scheduled trip to South Africa. But Baccus and the other comrades were saved by the skin of their teeth as a result of the April 12, 1980 coup.  How then did Baccus run away when he was appointed Foreign Minister immediately after the coup? How did Fahnbulleh, Tipoteh, Quiah and Cheapo, flee the country when they, too, were appointed as Ministers?

Yet, instead of using the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration or “Bloody Saturday”, as it was called by the international community, to memorialize the death of their innocent brothers and sisters who died in advocating for those who could not afford a bag of rice at $30, the anti-June 7 propagandists are demonizing them as trouble makers who were used by selfish politicians who ran away when Tolbert refused to received their petition. Instead of appreciating  Baccus Matthews and those who organized the Rice Demonstration for making April 14 a wake-up call on the minority ruling class to give in to the multi-party democracy Liberia enjoys today, they are now insulting and branding  them as indoctrinators of young people’s minds and as political flunkies. Were the progressives, including Baccus, political flunkies for their role in helping to give the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) the political relevance that eventually resulted into the election of Ambassador Weah as President? The story goes on to include the freedom of speech, of expression and peaceful assembly we enjoy today, which resulted from April 14.  

What then is the conclusion of the matter? The conclusion consists of an entire history book, which should contain the following chapters in summary forms: We must stop distorting the real facts of the April 14, 1979 Rice Demonstration, which is an inseparable part of Liberian history when it’s rewritten, perhaps by Blamo Nelson, Sam  Jackson and other stalwarts of PAL; We must stop using April 14 as a vicious propaganda tool to cause fear, pandemonium and insecurity in Liberia with the aim of promoting  our own interest; We must recognize April 14, 1979 as a terrible mistake of President “Speedy” William R. Tolbert and We must avoid misleading Ambassador Weah, the beloved President of the masses, to repeat the terrible mistake Tolbert made as implied in the ongoing campaign to disallow the June 7, 2019 protest march; Let us learn from the ugly past of history and do what is right and honorable in lifting the humanity of the masses and in working sincerely and committedly for the long, overdue growth and development of our country. Like the saying goes, “A hint to wise is quite sufficient.”