By Joaquin M. Sendolo
When Liberians begin to chronicle major events in their existence, they cannot escape the month of April and its records. They are always reminded about major historical occurrences that began in 1979 April 14 when the first major protest characterized by human casualties and massive looting took place.
In fact, many commentators say April 14 sets the basis of Liberia’s collective history when on this day, the ordinary Liberians outside of the realm of the ruling elites demonstrated how they felt about the century-old oligarchical system of governance they had lived under since the country became an independent state.
On the day in 1979, thousands of Liberians, fearing the consequences of increasing the price of imported rice announced by the government through Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth, took to the street in protest against the Tolbert Administration following several failed negotiations to halt the protest. The government in its wisdom decided to implement the proposal in order to encourage local productivity and discourage the importation of the commodity.
Accounts by eyewitnesses and some of the protesters also indicate that after the announcement that never came to fruition, the only opposition political party rising up at the time, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) of Gabriel Bacchus Matthews, countered the proposed increase in the price of the country’s staple food on grounds that it would deprive low-income earners and the poor citizens of affording food. Furthermore, PAL argued that increasing the price of the commodity would only enrich the elites especially some members of the Tolbert family who were in the business of rice importation.
The government and PAL, amid a series of discussions with the involvement of Liberian prolific writer Albert Porte and others, did not reach any consensus until Saturday, April 14, when protesters converged at the intersection of UN Drive and Camp Johnson Road.
University of Liberia’s campus-based newspaper editor, James Fromoyan, narrates that prior to reaching a point of decadence on that day, the government had deployed officers of the National Guard (now Armed Forces of Liberia) along with the police all over Monrovia including the campus of the University of Liberia.
According to Fromoyan, it all started when Police Director, Oliver Bright, ordered the police to get the protesters out of the street and clear it totally. The use of force, therefore, led some to die and to sustain injuries, which exacerbated the situation to the extent of looting and damaging of properties—the first for the country to experience since it became independent in 1847.
John Stewart, a Progressive and political commentator, says the army was one group earning less than $40.00 at the time, did not exert any force to shoot civilians as the well-treated police force did.
What did it leave with Liberia?
From his analysis about April 14 Rice Riot as popularly referred to in Liberian history, Reverend Emmanuel Bowier, former Information Minister and historian believe that this day and event did not make any meaningful progress in Liberia but brought frustration, regret, and bad historical reflections.
“April 14 was just a bad day that came upon Liberia, and it does not mean that the month itself is a bad month; it is just a month in which certain bad things were set to occur in Liberia. April 14 as a case only brought destruction, frustration, and regret to Liberia and there is nothing it brought to be proud of,” said Bowier.
Rev. Bowier, however, does not rule out lessons that April 14 and subsequent events in April have taught. He warned that Liberians, especially those in leadership, have to always be reminded of this day every year not to underestimate the people because on this day they demonstrated their power after encountering oppressive and repressive regimes dating from the day of independence.
“It happened in a regime that may not be responsible for all the tyrannical events that the people experienced, but Liberians in power should know from April 14 that the people can come out when they are hurt, and those at the helm of leadership have to be careful what they do while serving. The marginalization in this country is too much, and this is what April 14 must teach us,” Rev. Bowier added.
While this event should serve as a historical lesson to divert the minds of Liberians from wrongdoings, Bowier says all things have just remained the same. “There is a lesson to learn, but we have not learned our lesson. Marginalization is still here at its highest level; corruption rampant, and we have not been able to feed ourselves.”
For the Progressives and members of the Movement for Justice in Africa who organized and participated in the first-ever mass citizens protest in the existence of the First Republic, April 14 sets the basis for much of the rights Liberians enjoy today, and had they not organized the protest, the proposed hiking price of rice would have deprived the ordinary people of their human dignity and right to life.
A member of the Progressive, John Stewart, views the position of the protesters as a constitutional right that must be protected at all times, and the government’s intolerance demonstrated at the time depicted its disregard for the right of the citizens.
Known for his acerb writings and assertive speaking, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner says the right citizens have to vote in Liberia today comes from the effort of the Progressives in relation to the April 14 protest, while also noting in consonance with Bowier that marginalization, corruption, nepotism and all those social vices that came along with the birth of Liberia remain prevalent at an overwhelming level today.
“Today you see Zogos (disadvantaged youths) voting in elections. That never used to be. We suffered in tyrannical regimes including that of Tubman, and because of what we stood for, Liberians have some freedom today,” Stewart argued.
In addition, James Fromoyan, a member of MOJA and former Chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC), sees April 14 as a day that brought a new dynamism to Liberian politics. He claims that a government can be better and yet falls short of certain things for which citizens demonstrate.
He, like Stewart, argues that if the price of rice were increased from US$22.00 to $26.00, those who earned $30.00 and below would not have afforded to pay rent and meet other necessities after purchasing rice. He added that it would have also benefited only the importers who were in the elite class and the impoverished Liberian farmers remained poorer.
“I don’t like to call that protest ‘Rice Riot’ as many can say. The protest was not organized to go against the Tolbert Administration, and I can say Tolbert by my evaluation was the only best President of Liberia. But what happened was a policy that the government wanted to implement and people went against it because of the perceived consequences,” Mr. Fromoyan said.
Justifying the reason for the protest further, he added, “Liberians were still carrying out the same subsistence farming that could not sustain the population, and there was no plan disclosed whether or not the government would introduce mechanized farming to increase productivity.”
Regarding what the April 14 protest brought for Liberia, Mr. Fromoyan said not much has been done to change the situation. He attributed the slow pace of Liberia’s development to a leadership problem.
Meanwhile, the commodity which price brought the miserable political cloud over Liberia on April 14, 1979, is still produced at a low and subsistence level today. In fact, subsistence farming is rapidly declining while import is at a highly increasing pace. About 75 percent of Liberia’s imported rice comes from India, Thailand, and China, while at least two percent of the 75 percent comes from the United States and circulates among the elites. Cassava and yam complement rice in the daily diet of Liberians
According to an official of the Ministry of Commerce, Liberia imports over 300,000 tons of rice every year.
Main Photo: James Fromoyan