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The Politics of Rice and Elections in Liberia: A Dangerous Political Seed, a Medium for Corruption and Bullet for the Demise of Governments
Jerry M’bartee Locula
July 04, 2011
This article discusses the implications of the 1979 rice riot on Liberian politics, especially the increased use of rice by politicians to buy the votes of citizens. Locula argues that this practice has led to corruption of the political class and manipulation of the electorate. The author suggests that the government should pursue a policy of domestic rice production to ensure political stability and greater autonomy, and regulate the campaign behavior of political aspirants.
Many countries situated along the West Cost of Africa are consumers of rice, perhaps none more than the Liberians. Cultivation by indigenous peoples occurred many years before the settlers arrived on Liberian soil and up to the foundation of the state in the 1800s. Rice has been an important political commodity in Liberia for many years, however, it took the center stage in April 1979 during the William R. Tolbert, Jr. administration, leading directly to the decline and fall of that regime.
The villainous rice riot was triggered when a proposal was presented to the Liberian cabinet by the then government’s Agriculture Minister, Florence Chenoweth, with the hope to increase the price of 100 pounds bag of rice from US$22.00 to US$26.00.1 The proposal was seen as an enticement for Liberians themselves to produce more locally grown rice instead of leaving the countryside to travel to the city in search of urban jobs2 when in fact metropolitan employments were scarce, and the city was becoming over populated.
The proposal was not taking lightly by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), the first legally registered opposition political institution to muscularly oppose the endeavor of the Tolbert regime. Over 2,000 activists and street boys3 including other protesters took the streets to demonstrate against the proposal on grounds that Minister Chenoweth and the Tolbert family stood to personally benefit from the deal. When they took to the street in protest, the government authorized the military to shoot at the protesters as a way of disbursing them. More than 40 persons were killed and over 500 persons were injured in the incident.4 This uprising by citizens and disreputable reaction on the part of government brought the regime to unpopularity and its subsequent downfall.
Since the 1979 rice insurgence, the commodity has being used as an apparatus to ascend leaders to prominence and also as a foremost factor to destroy regimes in Liberia based on the provision and unavailability of the commodity on the state level.
Interestingly, the events in Liberia are not without precedent. In 1918, a major rice insurrection took place in Japan5 in what was considered the largest upheaval in Japan, when wartime inflation caused the price of rice to double within a short period of time. Thus we can see that rice is a major commodity for the growth of individuals and communities as well as nations, not only in Liberia, but in major countries around the world.
Rice in Liberian Society
Rice is Liberia’s stable food, and has been consumed by the citizens from the inception of the political history of the country. Rice is so adored that the typical Liberian will swear that they have not eaten the whole day, even though they have consumed other varieties of food including the locally grown yam, eddoes, potatoes or cassava that other nutritional food are produced out of. Be assured that this is not a matter of exaggeration, but a cultural reality in Liberia.
Despite the likeability of rice by Liberians, the lack of sustainable rice farming in Liberia continues to push the country and its people into a vicious cycle of subsistence farming and hunger, crisis and poverty. Therefore, the employment of an ambitious agriculture installation solely for larger rice production must be encouraged by the government as early as possible. As a result of experience from the background of stability and the provision of rice, it can be observed that rice nurtures peace in Liberia. Therefore, to have peace in Liberia, you must first have rice, because the two are interwoven, but rice comes first.
Moreover, most Liberian families even begin feeling their children with rice as early as between six months and one year old; especially those families who have no better financial power to keep on with powder milk and other kids feeding cereals for the growing child. With this introduction during early childhood, it becomes very difficult for the child to adopt different favorite foods. In scores of quarters in Liberia, rice is often consumed as breakfast, lunch, and dinner with no regret nor hesitation. Rice is crucial to the survival of Liberians in general; which of late the government of Liberia has attempted attaching some importance as noted by Former Minister of Commerce, Olubanke King-Akerele. The Minister said: “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, we're protected, We are obliged to pay particular attention, monitor, and manage this situation of rice in Liberia.”6 This is where I feel that government must work harder to make it's presence felt and keeping the peace since the issue of rice should never be taken lightly.
Rice is critically important in Liberia and to everyone during all seasons. Views from a number of persons have been outlined as to how they regard rice in totality and as part of their lives:
Considering these testimonies and deep feelings, the readers can imagine how essential rice is to the Liberian people. Rice is indisputably Liberia’s staple food. However, it is not widely grown in Liberia on a sustainable foundation as I have eluded earlier. Instead, Liberia depends on imported rice from Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan, and America. The American pale boiled rice is usually issued by the management of the Firestone Rubber Plantation (the world’s largest rubber company)The pale boiled rice is issued to local laborers for their feeding, but is often sold on the local market despite the inscription that it should not be sold.
In rural Liberia; especially Bong, Lofa, and Nimba, the counties where more rice is grown by local farmers, it is only done on a subsistence basis. It is of no secret that Liberia strongly depends on those three counties for rice and other food production. Since more local rice growers fight hard to control consumption in a bid to have some kept in their kitchens for replanting purposes during the proceeding farming season, they are compelled to approach the local markets for imported rice. Worst of all, most of these local rice producers who have no income besides the one subsistence farming source, and also take a portion of their rice to the market in order to purchase ingredients including market cube, table salt and other important elements for the preparation of their daily food.
Rice and Elections in Liberia
During electoral campaigns, without the issuance of rice to potential voting communities and families as well as individuals, the chances of winning for any political parties or aspirant can be very slight. The politics of rice has humiliated and treated Liberian voters in an indecorous manner during the period of elections.
In fact, not only voters but great majority of the people see the rice giver as a life giver. They believe that having eaten, it would be a curse upon them not to vote for the rice giver. With such a commitment from the voters, I wonder why politicians, especially those in congress, do not demonstrate sincerity to the locals and give them just development in return for their political victory. Instead, politicians have seen this as weakness on the part of voters and have exploited them for years.
The politics of rice is also a dangerous venture in the political system in Liberia. Precarious in the political development because the process has become a commercial enterprise, for the fact that politicians who purchase votes with rice have the audacity to squander development funds as a way of regaining whatever financial sources they expanded in the campaign process in the direction of rice.
It is observed that corruption and enormous embezzlement have always followed political leaders after campaign period in the electoral and political history of Liberia. Let it be a known fact that most of the rice that is donated to individuals and voting communities can later be well calculated and deducted from the community development funds after elections by the winners.
Based on this fact, I am hereby proposing that in future election laws of Liberia, rice distribution in electoral campaigns be criminalized so as to restrain the business and corrupt practices that usually emerge at the aftermaths of elections in Liberia. Considering the magnitude of the rice issue in Liberia, another most important solution I can advance is for the government to invest a large sum of money in the agriculture sector and encourage mechanized farming so as to foster more rice production in the country all year round. With this development, the government could begin to initiate discussions with its international partners.
Personally, I believe that it is important to teach people how to fish, rather than to give them fish all the time. By this, I mean, it is vital for the government of Liberia to begin liaising with major rice producing countries and donor nations including China, United States, Taiwan and Pakistan to introduce actual rice production in Liberia instead of importing rice. Intergovernmental agencies like the European Union (EU) that are interested in strengthening the economic agenda of poorer nations can also be approached to support this project. And I am sure, the EU as part of its bilateral mission will grant listening ears. I would also judiciously propose that the government enforces a policy whereby Liberians can begin to appreciate the eating of other locally produced commodities instead of relying solely on rice.
A particular regime or government may be hailed for several reasons; either for conducting free and transparent elections or for upholding and providing physical security for its people as part of its democratic process. On the contrary, a regime may receive widespread condemnation as a result of its poor economic ideology in which corruption may take the lead. This is where I have argued that from the electoral perspective and the broader political context, rice has been a dangerous political seed, a medium for corruption and a bullet for the demise of government, as we saw in 1979.
Let me state here, categorically, that Liberians need to see beyond the falsehood of rice for votes and demand a political commitment to development. As rice consumers, it is important for us to get back to the soil, as suggested by the late President Samuel Doe, and grow more food for ourselves.
In March 2011, I was in a taxi cab with three other riders heading for downtown Monrovia and a conversation surfaced among us relative to Liberian politicians, campaign promises, and rice distribution during elections. As the discussion got fertile, a lady, one of the passengers, began to share her experience. The lady narrated that one of the politicians, a representative aspirant, visited her community and someone directed him to her house as being an influential person in the community who could make things happen in his interest. According to the lady, in his meeting with her, the aspirant promised that after elections, he was planning to let the community benefit from fifty bags of rice monthly, but he was sending the initial twenty-five bags of rice for the community in the meantime. In light of this promise, the lady supported this man in her community as the best for the job among the aspirants.9 My first question was: “before this time, had he ever visited the community with such a promise?” She said, “No.” I then asked the second question: “You think why now?” There was no answer. I declared that Liberian politicians have over the years distributed rice to voters and communities during elections period, yet the condition of the communities remain the same. And worst of all, to pay regular visits to the communities which they once needed most becomes very difficult after their elections.
Since the infamous 1979 rice riot, the importation of rice and its all year round availability for citizens’ consumption has remained an accomplishment for the governments in power; yet it has brought about serious political bankruptcy at the electoral poll. I also consider this as a depravity that has engulfed the Liberian political climate. Until politicians deal fairly with the population, and issues of food security and development are taken seriously, Liberians will continue to languish in the midnight of poverty and corruption, and regimes will meet their unexpired demise on the basis of the government's inability to feed its citizens with this wonderful rice.
1 Military, The Rice Riot, GlobalSecurity.org, available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1985/liberia_1_riceriots.htm (accessed on May 16, 2011)
2 Ibid (accessed May 16, 2011)
3 Ibid (accessed May 23, 2011)
4 Ibid (accessed May 23, 2011)
5 1918: rice riots and strikes in Japan, available at: http://libcom.org/library/1918-rice-riots-strikes-japan (accessed on May 16, 2011)
6Patrick Flomo, The Importation of Rice to Liberia, The Perspective, Atlanta, Georgia, available at: http://www.liberiaitech.com/theperspective/2007/1127200702.html (accessed on May 16, 2011)
7 These are voices and views of people in different quarters in Liberia as to how they regard rice to be in their daily and entire lives. The views were collected by the author on March 21, 2011.
8 International Labor Rights Forum, available at: http://www.laborrights.org/stop-child-labor/stop-firestone (accessed on May 23, 2011)
9 This was a March 2011 interaction among passengers on a taxi cap running between Sinkor and Central Monrovia in Liberia. The conversation was centered on the forthcoming political campaign and subsequent election slated for November, 2011.
Jerry M’bartee Locula - Human Rights and Governance Officer, Lutheran Church in Liberia – Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program.