The Importation of Rice to Liberia

By J. Patrick Flomo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 27, 2007


Rice,” is Liberia’s political secret cow; and, he/she who controls it controls the Executive Mansion.“

April 14, 1979 is remembered as the most infamous day in Liberia’s 20th century history. On this date, April 14, 1979, G. Baccus Matthews and his cohorts challenged the government in the most massive demonstration against the increase in the price of rice. The government response was reckless and can be described as the rise of Gorgon enveloped in the thickest of the mist that descended upon Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Before the mist could clear, she had pulverized the city leaving behind several hundred dead over a peaceful protest in opposition to the rise in the price of a “bag of rice.” Before 1980, Liberia had not experienced such a massive protest turning violent, and even more, to have the government response in a reckless manner with the loss of civilian lives.

This act of the government was the single most cataclysmic event that shattered the core of the Liberian elite that enjoyed power and privilege since 1847. The fallout [of the rice riot] pursuant to this deadly event of 1979 shattered the country and led it into a “fail state” by the turn of the 21st century. While the pictures of that tragic day are still vivid in our minds, what seems more heart-rending is that the Liberian people and the government especially has failed to formulate a comprehensive solution to the problem that set off that fire and brimstone that pulverized the nation in the aftermath of the 1979 rice massacre.

Rice is a strategic issue in Liberia. Rice is a security issue in Liberia.
Therefore, taking into account the fragility of our current situation in Liberia,
Taking into account for ensuring that our people, the consumers, were protected,
We are obliged to pay particular attention, monitor, and manage this situation of rice in Liberia.”

Minister King-Akerele
Minister of Commerce

The aftermath of a cataclysmic event or man-made disaster usually generates a serious debate on the question of causes. It is through such a debate the best ideas are explored; ideas with potential to thwart future occurrences of similar events. Moreover, such a dialogue has the proclivity to air other social issues with the propensity for other major problems. In the case of the rice massacre in Liberia on April 14, 1979, the government did not, nor the society at large, convene such al debate to explore the root causes of the massacre nor acknowledge the wrongful deaths of countless civilians and to find solution to the rice riots causes. What is most ironic is that since the rice massacre of 1979, Liberians at home and aboard have never committed themselves to a serious and honest discussion on the evolution of the rice massacre, the first ever in the 20th century, nor how to maintain a strong inventory (produce domestically) of rice so that history will not repeat itself. Minister King-Akerele calls rice a “strategic and security issue in Liberia.” If we accept the minister’s assertion that “rice” is a strategic and security issue, then one would think the first order of business for any government coming to power would be the resolution of the supply of this strategic commodity to meet the growing urban demand. When a commodity is considered strategic to a country, the country usually does everything in its power to protect the source and the flow of that commodity i.e. US and Middle East crude oil. In the case of Liberia, the question of uninterrupted flow of rice for Monorovians is a precarious state of affairs because Liberia has neither the means nor the power to ensure their rice import.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that India, where most of the rice comes from, and Pakistan were to have irreconcilable international political differences, or if India were to have another Bhopal India chemical accident? What would happen to our rice supply? I think leaving the supply Liberian rice to the whims of market forces outside Liberia without a government strategic reserve is a future political firestorm gathering woods for a social inferno.

I began pondering the question of rice importation to Liberia two weeks ago in an attempt to see if the present government has begun to address the question of domestic rice production. I began scavenging the web and other sources to see how the debate on this important question was progressing. With the leisure to examine the findings, I have found to my amazement, they were disheartening to say the least, when taking into account the horrific event of the April 14, 1979 rice riot.

The current rice debate is about what company gets the rice import contract, not how can we encourage domestic rice production. I share the government concern about the strategic nature of rice in Liberia, but what I found most problematic and dangerous is the government’s monopoly on what company gets the right to import rice. We have a free market system and the essence of a free market system is competition. In order to ensure competitive prices for a bag of rice, all companies operating in Liberia with the capacity to import rice should have the right to do so. The idea that the government should award the importation of rice to a single company is ludicrous and contrary to the free market system. The importation of rice should be left to the market place to ensure competition so that price competition exists for the consumer. Without competition of rice imports, the sole contractual company has a monopoly on the price of Liberian rice. Rice, despite its strategic nature and thus the importation, should be left to the whims of the market place rather than the government. If the government has sole power to award contracts for importation of rice, will government award contracts for the importation of all commodities?

Under the aegis of the late G. Baccus Matthews, Liberians of all ages demonstrated in deviance of the government, to challenge the rise in the price of rice in 1979. The government reaction to this demonstration led to the massacre of countless people by the army. The aftermath of the violence on April 14, 1979, shocked everyone including the government. It has been 28 years since that day that will to live in infamy in the history of Liberia.

What is most troubling is that we are still debating the question of how to meet the demand of rice in Liberia. The question for today should be: how can Liberians produce local rice to meet the local demand? But that is not the question being debated; rather, we are bickering about what company has the right to import rice. Liberians are addicted to rice, more than any other food item. Like Americans are to oil, we are forced to spend large portions of our budget on rice. But the money we spend on rice does not circulate in the country but flows out the country like water flushed down a toilet. The outflow of this hard currency deprives the country of needed money for crucial infrastructure projects which will develop schools, roads, and hospitals.

With the minor improvement in security since the end of the second civil strife, people are slowly moving back to the interior. I had thought that the government would encourage more farming by providing small loans to grow rice and gradually limit the importation of rice with a gradual increase in the “rice tariff.” According to The Analyst (January 8, 2007), the Sinkor Trading Company (STC) reported that the company had imported one million bags of rice. At $30.00 a bag, $30 million went right out of the country. Let’s say for the sake of argument that 25 percent of this amount of rice was domestically produced, that means Liberian rice producers would have had $625,000.00 for reinvestment into producing more rice and additional hard currency for domestic circulation. The compelling argument in this article is that since “rice” is our most desirable commodity, the government should have a compelling interest to ensure we have the capacity to produce enough to meet our demand. Hunger is the greatest threat to a nation’s stability (i.e. The French Revolution by Charles Dickens in A Tail of Two Cities). A nation that cannot feed itself is a nation destined for perpetual instability.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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