Reminiscing Rice Riot: April 14, 1979 – Was It Tolbert’s Mistake?


Monrovia -Today April 14 marks an important day in Liberia’s history. Thirty-seven years after the bloody rice riot in 1979 that subsequently led to the coup in 1980.

Former Information Minister, Rev. J. Emmanuel Z. Bowier, in an exclusive interview, said President Tolbert’s downfall started with one of his former official, Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, a Foreign Service Officer. Then Bowier served as Assistant Minister and Special Assistant to Information Minister, J. Jenkins Peal.

“Before President Tolbert became President, all money made from consular fees at the Liberian UN Mission in New York, was used to pay staff and the balance was sent to the Liberia,” he said.

“When President Tolbert assumed the presidency, his brother Stephen Tolbert became Finance Minister. He changed the rules, and directed that all fees collected at foreign missions be forwarded to Monrovia, and that diplomats be paid directly by the Finance Ministry.

Bacchus Matthews initially complied, and sent the fees to Monrovia. Problems developed when there were frequent delays in the payment of the Liberian UN Mission staff.

This aggravated Mr. Matthews, who defiantly took the consular fees and paid himself and the staff, and sent the rest of the money to the Finance Minister, Stephen Tolbert, who saw Matthew’s action as an act of insubordination. In reaction, Tolbert charged Matthews with embezzlement and dismissed him.”

Rev. Bowier furthered narrated that Matthews’s next move was to form a group in the US to oppose the Tolbert government. This group was called the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, (PAL).  Upon Matthew’s dismissal from the government, he returned to Liberia and commenced political activities at the grass root level.

Why April 14, 1979 Rice riot happened

In her annual report of 1979, former Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth recommended an increase in the price of imported rice in order to give the local farmers the incentives to grow more rice, as a way of promoting the government’s green revolution program.

PAL used the Minister’s annual report as the spring board for an offensive against the government. PAL vowed to stage a demonstration against any increase in the price of rice. The government reacted by informing the public that the Agriculture Minister had recommended that the price of imported rice be increased and not the price of locally grown rice.

PAL declared that because some members of the Tolbert family and other high government officials were involved in the importation of rice that was why there was an increase in the price of rice. Therefore it declared the date, April 14, 1979, to demonstrate against the government.

“Two days to the demonstration, Justice Minister Oliver Bright issued a press release on April 12 and sent it to the Ministry of Information to be broadcasted on ELBC radio. The release said the following:

The government was advising all parents and guardians to keep their children off the streets on April 14, 1979, because the government was not going to tolerate any demonstration planned by PAL. That the government was going to deal with the demonstrators decisively on the streets.”

He said the press release was sent to Information Minister J. Jenkins Peal through him Bowier, because he was the then special Assistant to the Minister of Information.

But when he took the release up to Minister Peal, he said Minister Peal instructed him to take it upstairs to ELBC which operated on the top floor of the Information Ministry to be broadcasted.

“I, Bowier, told Minister Peal that I did not think it was wise to broadcast the release because at the time, the public was not informed about a pending demonstration. Only Matthews and his supporters were aware of their planned demonstration, so if the government was going to broadcast it, the government would be popularizing a demonstration that the government did not want to happen.

The reason was that, ELWA, a religious station, would not have broadcasted that kind of message, and ELBC, the government’s station was not going to air any pending demonstration. Minister Peal saw sense in what I was saying and called Justice Minister Bright and told him what I had explained in his own words.  

Minister Peal told me, that Justice Minister Bright had said Matthews and his group were no threat to the government, because the police riot squad, which had just completed training in March 1979, would deal with Matthews and his group decisively.”

Bowier said, he then photocopied the press released that he currently has in storage abroad, and took the original copy to be broadcasted. He disclosed that the press release was broadcasted on April 12, and 13 1979.  By the morning of April 14, the group of demonstrators had assembled at the intersection of Camp Johnson Road and UN Drive.

“I walked from the Information Ministry, to Buzzy quarters to see the crowd, who were stopped by the Police, who were using force and tear gas on the crowd to stop them from going to the Executive Mansion.

When the soldiers saw the police maltreating the demonstrators, they turned on the police in defense of the demonstrators and pushed them away from the crowd. This is what I was trying to explain to Minister Peal that during an uprising, the public usually side with the underdog or the weaker force. And at that time, the demonstrators were the weaker force, while the government was the stronger force, because they had arms.

“I believe that the 1980 coup would have happened on that day of the rice riot if the army had not broken all the locks from the Lebanese and Indians stores in town by noon, providing an opportunity for widespread looting of valuables, such as Ice boxes, stereo sets, television sets, food and other valuables.

By that time, Matthews, who could not contain the crowd, left David Kahn Carlos in charge and went into hiding and shaved his afro because an arrest warrant was out for him.”