Wednesday October, 12, 2022
Listening to President George M. Weah, the leader of the people who has the country at heart, perhaps more than any other Liberians, now craving on bended knees; as far as side-stepping the sacred elections’ rules governing the proper manner and form in which election must be conducted to begin with the reflection of free, fair and level playing field in the wake of a tremendously creeping “Bleak Scaring” Alert On National Radar, upon being quizzed by journalists, when he arrived in the country from the UNGA in New York, USA; about the reported shortage on rice on the Liberian market; not just the staple, but mostly claimed, with deep-rooted emphasis on ”political commodity”, and without first conducting an in-depth investigation, opened out as “street talk”; is not only confusing, regrettable and sad, but most o all very troubling for the President to answer in such a loose, reckless and disturbing fashion especially when the nature and its attending character of such issue is bordered on national security.
No Joke Is In Snake’s Mouth
History is, and continues to be an honest and clearly- open reminder to the Liberian population, that no matter how loved you could be seen, no matter how greatly you are admired and how well cherished you may appear to be accepted as leader(s); make no mistake directly, indirectly in any form manner and style to fumble or toy with the consistence ant and persistence availability of rice on the market; about the affordability, that’s another topic for discussion later, but the cardinal interest rests with availability; and anything at least resembling disdainful simmering information regarding shortage without proper, and authentic officially convincing explanation, will not be easily welcomed, moreover digested even with bouquets of flowers or babysit to see that while the oxen starved as the grass is plentifully greener just across the fence domiciled the elites and privileged few; obviously, the governing system is bound to have some angry guests because there is no joke in snake’s mouth; note also without mistake; a hungry person is an angry person. and an angry individual based on hunger can be a distress offspring. While nobody has the appetite for chaos any more or any expectation of even passing that route; equally so, let April 14, 1979 rice riot always be a sober reminder for any leadership.
Insecurity And Greed: Fertile Breeding Soil For Corruption
Quite frankly, the nation being shockingly griped by an unfriendly wave of alleged shortage of rice continue to point at the inhumane and nefariously entrenched taste and habit as a result of lack of moral, self-control, self-respect and integrity thereby becoming an untrustworthy guinea pig and a very weakness found in the character of some individual coupled with being a renowned helpless slave to insecurity and greed; the fertile breeding soil for corruption.
Accusation vs Denial
As the alarm about the purported rice shortage refuses to be kept far deep in the back ground with heavy struggle to place same in the belly of a silencer, as most of the frustrated citizens paralyzed with total helplessness roamed the streets and warehouses in and around Monrovia craving for rice to buy, despite the huge hiked in price for the limited amount barely surfacing here, there and yonder; the commitment to ensuring the availability of the staple both in the country and on the local market by the government through cash to the rice importers as subsidy, it would appear that tireless entrenched “uncle corruption” deep embedded footstep is reportedly being seen between the corridors of the Ministry of Planning Development and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in an accusation and denial tussle without factually and actually knowing just who is telling the truth. Regarding the subsidy, Finance’s heavy weight claims to have given US$7.5 million to Commerce for onward distributions among the four major rice importers; whereas Commerce denied ever provided with US$7 million as subsidy for importers instead it only received US$3.5 million from Finance official as subsidy. However, why pundits are critically digging up everywhere to find out about who is responsible, and why did the US$4 million short land; some of the importers are crying foul that they were not incorporated in the disbursement and in keeping with mutual understanding, the government owed them, with some claiming US$4m.
Moreover, pundits are also pondering over why crunch regarding rice, the staple of Liberia always kicks in under the leadership of female; not holding the feet of all Liberian ladies over the fire, just concerned about the unique history for such looming national embarrassment when female heads the Ministry of Agriculture- Firstly, the looming rice riot that became heavily politicized, was under the stewardship of Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth under the deposed administration of late President William Richard Tolbert in 1979; and today, the nation is undergoing another looming rice fiasco with again under Madam Cooper as the Minister of
Agriculture, and by extension, featuring Commerce Minister Mawine Diggs, which for her (Diggs) is not the first time when the nation was seized with the spreading news that an alleged rice shortage has hit the country; something which prompted the Chief Executive to immediately regimented journalists on a hot pursuit of touring several warehouses owned and operated by, mainly the major rice importers; and finally, the latter were duly inspected by the President who, despite having an appointed and assigned Minister to promptly perform such vigorous task to restore public trust and confident in the government’s ability to not only be on top of things, but to be in full control. Again, this sad and scaring signal is obtaining under the soccer legend, President Weah who is profoundly begging the people to give him another six years mandate to be their President in the pending 2023 presidential and general elections, which will become his second term; something similar to knowingly drinking a cup of hemlock, but with different motive from that of Socrate.
“The Day Monrovia Stood Still”
That was the title of an article written And published by the famous late Albert Port as we reflect on the Daily Observer’s edition of the story of April 14, 1979 publication. (See below the article).
Veteran politician, Senator Conmany B. Wesseh, has remarked that April 14, 1979 rice riots occurred as a result of extremism — the intolerance of those who did not want the people to exercise their democratic right of peaceful assembly.
The River Gee County Senator, who entered politics as a student activist, was a member of the Liberia National Students Union (LINSU) during the 1979 rice riots.
Sen. Wesseh on the 43rd anniversary of that deadly event, which he refers to as the “March for Rice and Rights (not rice riots), argued that: “People were killed as a result of extremism. The organizers were not to blame; it was just the intolerance of those who did not want the people to exercise their democratic right of peaceful assembly. Those who were in the leadership of our country at the time — they said Tolbert was a weakling and a show of force would be necessary to control the situation.”
The rice riot, which is one of the bloodiest days in Liberia’s history, came after the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) had called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest a proposed increment in the subsidized price of rice from US$22 per 100-pound bag to US$30.
But the protest ended in chaos with at least 41 demonstrators protesting the proposed increase in the price of rice being shot and killed by army and police forces here, triggering a wave of anarchy that resulted in property damage estimated at $35 million. More than 400 people were injured.
In the days after the riot, at least 40 people were arrested, including Mathews, and he and 13 others were charged with treason, a capital offense, on April 19, three days after the protest. The government announced that the price of rice would not be raised.
The aftermath of the riot, according to Sen. Wesseh clearly shows that the government did not listen and this happens because extreme elements within the government were demanding the then President Tolbert to show strength – leading to a terrifying day where people lost their lives without justifiable cause.
He said though Matthews could have gotten on air and called off the protest, the extremists in the government did not want to even so much as let Matthews have that opportunity, for fear that it would create the impression that he had more control over the situation than the President and his administration.
“The government did not listen, and its extreme elements within the government took over, saying that President Tolbert is weak, and should show strength. On the other hand, the organizers — Bacchus Matthews — you know, he lost it. Because Albert Porte and Dr. Sawyer were going back and forth, talking to everybody, including the government, advising all sides to not go through with their respective planned actions,” Sen. Wesseh disclosed.
“But Bacchus said he could not call off the protest because his followers were already mobilized to take to the streets,” the senator added. “And while he reasoned with peace-brokers to scale down the tension by redirecting the march to the PAL headquarters to have his supporters assemble there, there were also extremists in his group who decided to march straight to the Executive Mansion, determined to demonstrate as originally planned.”
However, according to Sen. Wesseh, the people had already been mobilized by the government propaganda machine. “It was a government propaganda machine, using ELBC and ELWA — the two most widely aired radio stations at the time — to threaten those who would get in the streets to demonstrate.”
Sen. Wesseh added that the bloody outcome would have been avoided if the government had not opened fire — on unarmed protestors.
In May 30, 1979, New York Times article, titled, ‘After Liberia’s Costly Rioting, Great Soul-Searching’, in which slain President Tolbert was interviewed — says that days after the shootings, the President described the leaders of the demonstration as “wicked, evil and satanic men” who wanted “to bring chaos and disorder in the country with the eventual objective of overthrowing the Government.”
In the Times interview, President Tolbert reiterated his view 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.
“When they did not check the demonstration by using water or tear gas, then the next thought was to fire in the air. That made no effect. Not until they were very near to the mansion with whatever plans they had in mind to do, then someone got injured from the security side.”
“I said, ‘Well, in that case, if you have to.’ They wanted to get the authority to retaliate. I said, ‘If you have to fire, fire’ — a firing in the air wouldn’t suffice —‘fire down in the extremities,’ so that there wouldn’t be more danger, that is, more fatal activities. That made no difference. Then everything got out of control.”
Rice – before the riot was already an explosive issue – since US$22 for a 100-pound bag was a major expense for a family back then as the average monthly wage was US$80. Most of the rice consumed was imported; its consumption was a significant drain on foreign reserves, earned through the export of the country’s natural resources.
Since most of the rice is imported, its consumption also repr esents a significant drain on foreign reserves, earned through the export of iron, rubber, timber, and diamonds and the registration of many of the world’s ships under a “flag of convenience.”
In a bid to stimulate domestic production, the then Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth argued that increasing the price to $30 a bag would stimulate local rice farmers – claiming that farmers were losing money, to increase production and hasten Liberian self-sufficiency – a recommendation which President Tolbert was looking into before the riot occurred.
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
In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 400 were injured – protesting the proposed increment in the price of the country’s staple food.
Meanwhile, the account by Sen. Wesseh reflects that of the late veteran politician and scholar of political science Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer. Dr. Sawyer, in an interview with the Daily Observer just months before his death, argued that the 1979 rice riots and 1980 coup could have been avoided, had the government listened and given the needed attention to its people.
Dr. Sawyer explained that the PAL had no idea of what their protest against the increment in the price of rice could have done to the country’s peace.
“There was never a need for violence,” Dr. Sawyer explains. “The Liberian government then failed to negotiate with the people on the increment of the price of rice, the country’s staple food. PAL called the demonstration but had no idea of how it could have gone. People came out in their numbers and flooded the streets. The police went out fighting.”
He said before the demonstration, he spoke with Matthews and asked him to call off the protest to avoid the unexpected. According to Sawyer, Matthews agreed but decided to wait until the following morning, April 14, 1979, to call off the protest via radio announcement. However, by the morning of April 14, people from all walks of life had crowded the streets, ready to protest, in adherence to the original announcement.
“The leaders of PAL had thought that there would have been a different scenario. They never had a way to control the people. It was an unfortunate situation,” the late Dr. Sawyer explained in the Observer interview. Lots of top people went out to advise PAL to stop the demonstration. There is also this thing about our government. They think that no one should challenge them or question them.”
Albert Porte, according to accounts from his famous article, “The Day Monrovia Stood Still”, as reflected upon in his nephew Kenneth Y. Best’s book, Albert Porte: A Lifetime Trying to Save Liberia, recalled that he (Porte) managed to convince the PAL to commit to calling off their demonstration and instead have a peaceful assembly at the PAL headquarters.
He then communicated this new development to President Tolbert. “Mr. President, I have things under control,” Porte told Tolbert. “PAL authorities are asking for one ‘assurance’ from the government — that the government keeps the security in the background and they would call off the demonstration.” Mr. Porte then suggested a compromise.
“Government cannot compromise!” the President responded, in what Mr. Porte described as a tone of ‘stubborn determination.
Porte tried to reason with the President that the compromise would enable both parties to scale down the tension and that the President and his administration would save face and, most of all, avoid a national crisis.
While this was going on, a police riot squad had already descended on the PAL office and ransacked the place with tear gas, breaking up furniture and seizing equipment and documents, and dispersed those who were gathered there.
With the current impasse between the manner regarding the form in which the government has elected to engage the “Bleak Scaring” Alert On National Radar With-Alarming Tale Of Rice Shortage being conducted in total silence on one hand and the pathetic wailing and frustrated voices of the people in their quest to laying their hands at least a bag of 25kg bag of rice which in reality is in a very acute shortage as government is in no hurry of responding to the cry and demand of the people in a meaningful way; disturbed pundits have termed as government’s negligence to address very swiftly and proactively with positive clues has within itself amounts to an imposition of rice sanction on the people by the struggling government practically out of solution and gravely taken to task by reneging on its constitutional mandate and obligation-to ensure that the people are fed; either you (government) provide or create the enabling environment for the existence of the commodity (rice) at the rate of being available and affordable; something now seems too far away from reality as the angry people keep pressing on for government to change the corner meaningfully.
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