After Liberia’s Costly Rioting, Great Soul‐Searching

 

April 14 1979, is some 38 odd years ago, an important day nonetheless in Liberia’s trajectory and troubled recent history. We bring verbatim a New York Times piece of what actually happen on April 14, 1979

 

New York Times, MAY 30, 1979

By Carey Winfrey

MONROVIA, Liberia, May 26 — The event is remembered here simply as “April 14.” On that day last month, at least 41 demonstrators protesting a proposed increase in the price of rice were 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.

“April 14” has also triggered a period of national soul‐searching, debate and discussion. “It’s a free‐for‐all,” says Peter Naigow, the Deputy Minister of Information. “It really opened things up. You can say anything now.” What most Liberians are saying is that the Government fatally miscalculated the depth of opposition to its proposed price increase, the docility of the people and the degree of their frustration and resentment.President William R. Tolbert sees things differently. The day after the shootings, he characterized 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.”

Florence Cheneweth Agriculture Minister, Under Pres. Tolbert and Sirleaf

Personally Authorizing Firing

In an 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. But for the first time, he acknowledged that he had authorized the security forces to fire into the crowds.  Diplomatic sources here said they viewed the demonstration as almost an inevitable consequence of the policies of President with a limited tolerance for dissent and limited economic imagination. They say that power is too concentrated in the office of the President, and that he is surrounded by too many ministers who are more interested in the perquisites of power than the welfare of the people.

They add that while he inherited a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy when he came to office in 1971, and has worked to reduce it, corruption and inefficiency remain endemic. Although the President has increased opportunities for the 1.7 million tribal people who constitute 95 percent of the population, power continues to reside in the 45,000 descendants of freed American slaves who founded the nation in 1847 with a flag and constitution modeled on that of the United States and with the blessings of President James Monroe, after whom this capital city is named. The United States dollar remains the national currency; and America remains a special friend.

A Single Political Party

While President Tolbert, a Baptist minister, has encouraged freedom of expression, he continues to govern mainly by fiat. His True Whig Party, the nation’s only political party, selects all candidates for office who are then ratified in “elections.” Still, Liberia’s human‐rights record is among the most exemplary in Africa. It was the President himself, in fact, who invited the leaders of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, an organization founded by Liberian students in the United States, to return to their homeland to register as the first opposition party since 1955.

Diplomatic sources here suggest that the leader of the Alliance, Gabriel Baccus Mathews, saw in the debate on the price of rice an opportunity to strengthen a languishing drive for signatures required for party registration. Long before the first shot was fired, rice had become an explosive issue. As staple in the Liberian diet, $22 for a 100pound bag represents a major expense for a family in a country where the average wage is $80 a month. Since most of the rice is imported, its consumption also represents 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.”

Stimulate Domestic Production

Image result for carey winfrey
The author /www.filomagazine

Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth argued that increasing the price to $30 a bag would stimulate local rice farmers, who say they are losing money, to increase production and hasten Liberian self‐sufficiency.  In March, while the President, himself a major rice farmer, pondered the recommendation, Mr. Mathews, the Pro- gressive Alliance leader, was denied permission to hold a rally to protest any price increase. After meeting with Mr. Mathews, the President said that while citizens had the right to meet peaceably and to petition, they did not have the right to demonstrate. The collision course was set when Mr. Mathews, now supported by students and some professors at the University of Liberia, announced his intention to go ahead with the rally on April 14. Although the rally was not scheduled to begin until 3 P.M., a crowd began to gather at the alliance’s headquarters on Monrovia’s main street shortly after dawn. By 10 A.M. it had swelled to more than 2,000 people.

Water Hoses and Tear Gas

Soldiers, some of them in tanks, were dispatched to the area with water hoses and tear gas, neither of which proved effective. Led by students, a group of demonstrators broke away from the main body and headed toward the Executive Mansion, where the President was directing the security forces.

In the interview, the President gave this account of what happened next:

“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 on 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.”

Looting in 163 Stores

When the police and army began to disperse, the looting began. In all, about 163 stores, particularly groceries and appliance stores, were stripped.  In the days after the riot, at least 40 people were arrested, including Mr. Mathews. He and 13 others have been charged with treason, a capital offense. The rest have been released. On April 19, the Government announced that the price of rice would not be raised. Three days later it announced that the university would be closed until further notice.

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Gabriel Matthews

The President appointed a commission to recommend measures aimed at preventing a recurrence of the disturbances. The commission, which lacks subpoena power, has solicited the views of private citizens.  In one statement to the commission, Amos Sawyer, an assistant professor of political science at the university, attributed the disturbances to the disparity between rich and poor. On one side, he said, were people “characterized by affluence and an ostentatious life style,” and on the other side were people “parched by the wretchedness of poverty, dazzled by the endless possibilities available to the affluent, languishing in the squalors of the city and the harshness and austerity of the rural village.”

Cost of Living Defended

President Tolbert said in the interview that he was aware of economic hardships but he insisted that “the cost of living in Liberia is much lower than in most of our neighboring countries.” He said many economic problems, particularly inflation, were beyond his control. He also said that he had always stood for “peaceful, reasonable, rational change” and that he would consider the commission’s report “most sincerely and objectively, and where it is timely that we should make changes that would reflect actions in the best interests of the people of the country, we will do it courageously and effectively.” Patrick L. Seyon, a commission member and an associate professor of education at the university, said he was counting on the President to keep that promise.

“If the Government doesn’t do anything,” he said, “they are asking for more people in the streets. And this time it won’t lust be in Monrovia.”

Main Pic: Pres. Tolbert

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