River Gee County Senator Conmany Wesseh a loyal progressive and strong participant of the infamous 1979 Rice Riot in Monrovia that led to loss of lives and destruction of properties expresses his deepest regret about the demonstration.
Addressing a news conference in Monrovia over the weekend, Sen. Wesseh notes that those who masterminded the rice riot did not have the intent to have seen lives and properties destroyed, but the government of slain President William Richard Tolbert panic about the demonstration, and there were key influential officials that he claimed inflamed the situation to an uncontrollable stage.
The senator, who is a member of the former ruling Unity Party, explains that the Liberian government might have had good intention for self food productivity, but the information was not rightfully dissimilated among the citizenry thereby, creating gap of lack of information which led to scuffle between the police and unarmed citizens.
If the information was equally shared, he continues, the causalities would have been minimized, if not avoided. However, he intimates that the 1979 Rice Riot was a day that the Liberian government exposed young people to violence that followed the country during the 80s and subsequently resulted to the 14 years civil conflict.
According to Senator Wesseh, the protest was about rejection of the expected increment in the sale of the nation’s stable food, rice, and Liberians were eager to have their civil rights respected and observed by the government, something, he notes was difficult to achieve under the True Whig Party-led government.
He recalls that the demonstrations organized by the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the student community were aimed at battling for multi democracy and equal justice.
PAL was formed in 1975 as the first legally recognized opposition party in Liberia in the 20th century, a period otherwise dominated by the True Whig Party. The party was initially formed among Liberian Diaspora in the United States; it was led in Liberia by the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews, an activist who espoused a quasi-Marxist ideology of militant African nationalism.
In early April 1979, then Minister of Agriculture, Madam Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce rice as both a subsistence crop and a cash crop, instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations.
However, political opponents criticized the proposal as self-aggrandizement, pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family of the President operated large rice farms and would therefore; realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.
The Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase. On April 14, 1979 about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion. The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 “back street boys,” causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction.
Widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses ensued with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million.The government called in troops to reinforce police units in the capital, who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of rioters. In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 500 were injured. Hundreds more were arrested. The late President Tolbert’s credibility was severely damaged by the Rice Riots.
By E. J. Nathaniel Daygbor-Editing by Jonathan Browne