1 NOVEMBER 2022
By Gerald C. Koinyeneh
Monrovia — A disagreement over a request to infuse US$50 million into fiscal year 2023 national budget to boost rice led plenary of the House of Representative to invite heads of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Liberia Agriculture Commodity Regulatory Authority (LACRA) to proffer solution to Liberia’s rice crisis.
Rep. Dixon Seboe (CDC, District #16, Montserrado County) had written plenary to pump in US$50 million in the budget for growing rice across the country as solution to reduce Liberia’s dependence on imported rice.
“We do believe that this concrete action is a long-term remedy that will help us to be self-reliant on our most consumed staple food. It is without any doubt that we have the soil and available farmland to enhance this action as other nations across the world are doing,” he said in his communication read in plenary last Thursday.
Hike in Rice Price Invokes Memories of 1979
Liberia, for the first time, felt the pinch of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine which have caused food shortage and increase in major commodities’ prices. Much of October saw an unprecedent increase in the price of rice due to its shortage on the Liberian market. Retailers formed endless queues at the Freeport of Monrovia to get a limited quantity from importers and in term sold at high price to consumers across the country.
At some point, the price of a 25kg bag of rice increased from US$13 to US$30. The situation reawakened fresh memories of the 1979 Rice Riot.
Rice, viewed as a political commodity took center stage in April 1979 during the administration of William R. Tolbert, Jr. when the opposition Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), led by the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews and other progressives staged a violent demonstration that many historians believe led to the downfall of the Tolbert regime.
The protest was triggered when the Agriculture Minister, Dr. Florence Chenoweth presented a proposal to the Liberian cabinet by with the hope to increase the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from US$22.00 to US$26.00.
In the eyes of Minister Chenoweth and her team, the proposal was seen as an incentive for Liberians themselves to produce more locally grown rice instead of leaving the countryside to travel to the city in search of urban jobs when in fact metropolitan employments were scarce, and the city was becoming overpopulated.
However, the proposal was construed by the PAL as a scheme intended to benefit Minister Chenoweth and the Tolbert family at the detriment of the suffering masses; hence the launch of the protest which claimed dozens of lives, damaged properties worth millions of dollars and rendered the government unpopular.
Finding The Solution
Despite successive governments since 1979 making ambitious agricultural plan and trumpeting the ideas of supporting rice production in Liberia as a solution to Liberia’s dependence on imported rice, more than US$200 million is being spent on rice importation with some US$15 million going to rice subsidy to stabilize the price.
Rep. Seboe said it was now time to find a concrete solution, beginning with his US$50 million proposal.
“We have cried continuously that the only remedy to our rice crisis is for us to produce rice in abundance… We must find the money in the budget; we cannot continue to say we want to grow rice and we can’t take the action to do that. There is no way can sustain the issue of subsidy to keep the price of rice down continuously.”
He suggested that the government can initiate a private public partnership to make it proposal workable.
However, his proposal garnered diverse views. Rep. Larry Nyonquoi (District #8, Nimba County), in a stiff resistance said while a long-term solution to the age-old rice crises was paramount, the timing of the huge budgetary allocation was not appropriate.
“Mr. Speaker, I stand here to say that as much as I agree with Liberia making frantic effort to become a rice producing country to be self-sustainable, and even export, I equally disagree with the manner in which the Honorable man is proposing, for our acquiescence,” he said.
Continuing, he stated: “I want for this Honorable man to withdraw his proposal, and let it be accompanied by a well laid out plan that will be accepted. This is election year; the money would go towards election campaign. We want to be very careful with the minimum resources we have. As much we want Liberia to produce its own food, we need a well-planned program to get us there, not to put money in the budget overnight for people to run campaign with it.”
He called for the proposal to be tabled until 2024, at which time the elections would have passed. He argued that the rice issue is a sophisticated problem that cannot be solved in a simple form; especially at a time Liberia allotted US$15.5 million for rice subsidy and that amount has not been accounted for.
In what appeared to be a back-and-forth argument, Rep. Seboe fired back and said the subsidy has kept the price of rice at US$13. He also accused his colleague of being disingenuous in his assertions by politicizing a very cardinal issue.
In an attempt to break the deadlock, Rep. Samuel Kogar (District #5, Nimba County), chairman of the House’s Commerce Committee suggested that the heads of MOA and LACRA should be invited to proffer a comprehensive long-term plan to address the rice problem.
His suggestion inspired Rep. Sampson Wiah of Sinoe County to file in a motion inviting the officials to appear next Tuesday and was accepted by plenary thorough a unanimous vote.
Seboe ‘Not Disappointed’
Meanwhile, Rep. Seboe said while his request to inject US$50 million in the upcoming budget was not outrightly approved by plenary, he is not disappointed. According to him, his colleagues understood the urgency of the situation and that is what prompted plenary’s decision to summon authorities of MOA and LACRA. He expressed hope that a tangible and workable plan will be derived to address Liberia’s ageless rice crises.