By William Q. Harmon and Robin Dopoe, Jr.
It is often said that a nation and people who do not learn from their history are bound to repeat mistakes of the past, and most times these have deadly consequences. It is against this backdrop that the government of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) is endeavoring to put an end to what it considers the “Reign of Imported Rice as a Political Commodity.”
According Finance Minister Samuel Tweah, who served as this year’s 171st National Independence Day Orator, the issue of rice being a hotly discussed political topic in the country must be addressed. “We must put an end to the importation of rice in this country,” he declared.
Rice, which is the country’s staple food, has an infamous history in Liberia as it is the very commodity which contributed to the civil unrest that overwhelmed the entire country for decades, leading to the death of over 250,000 Liberians and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure.
It all started in 1979, when then President William R. Tolbert, Jr., attempted to increase the price of imported rice to protect domestic rice production, Tweah narrated.
Politicians, according to him, used this to incite a demonstration, accusing the Tolbert regime of increasing the price on imported rice so that his private domestic rice venture could profit from the increase.
Minister Tweah further argued that, “Granted this was true, had this been possible, the Liberian economy would have benefited. The capacity to grow rice domestically would have been resident with Liberians and the monies generated from this production would have supported the domestic economy.”
What Minister Tweah did not mention was that Daniel Tolbert, brother of President Tolbert, was a major importer of rice, giving the two brothers checkmate power over the commodity such that, either way, one of them benefited handsomely.
Minister Tweah believed what has emerged from the April 14, 1979, episode is the enthronement of imported rice as some kind of “political commodity,” whose procurement is largely in the hands of non-Liberians, because governments in the past have tended not to trust Liberian entrepreneurs to import the commodity.
He noted that the CDC Government must debunk the myth that imported rice is a political commodity by moving swiftly to scaling up investment in domestic rice and food production.
According to Minister Tweah, the government should work with key stakeholders in the private sector and development partners to achieve this outcome because it makes both macroeconomic and food security sense.
“To make Liberia a food secured nation remains one of the biggest ambitions of the government’s Pro-poor Agenda for prosperity and development,” Mr. Tweah said.
“Today, we import about 26 million bags of rice every year at the cost of about US$110 million. Assuming a population of four million rice-eating Liberians, this amounts to more than six bags of rice per person per year,” he told his audience, comprising diplomats and development partners.
“We can grow this rice in Liberia. According to the experts, we have more than 600,000 hectares of land conducive for rice production. Studies show that with the right investment and the development of a rice value chain, we can achieve food security over the next six years. This is one of the biggest ambitions of the Pro-poor Agenda to develop the country,” he said.
To achieve this goal, Tweah noted that it will require Liberians to begin shifting their diet toward home-grown food and their preference for locally manufactured products.
He indicated that the government intends to partner with the private sector and development partners to develop agriculture value chains across the major food crops in Liberia – rice, cassava, vegetables, plantain etc.
Prior to the 1940s, rice importation was banned in Liberia, “so we do know Liberians have not always depended on imported rice,” he said.
“Once the means of transformative domestic production are assured, and the domestic market becomes competitive, the optimal policy would be to raise the tariff on imported rice to protect the domestic rice markets,” Minister Tweah added.
Under such a policy, he said, rice importers would have the incentive to invest in domestic rice production, leading to the ultimate solution of the politics of rice in the country.
Minister Tweah assured Liberians that the government is committed to helping local agro-entrepreneurs to improve their production.
He said government, in the next several weeks, will launch its Pro-poor Agenda for prosperity and development plan into which all stakeholders are currently making their final input.
“This agenda provides the roadmap for addressing Liberia’s long term economic problems. It will bring all actors in the Liberian economy together to address the problem of value addition and expansion of the private sector,” he said.
No problem bigger than corruption
As of yesterday, President Weah and lieutenants had yet to declare their assets, which would have been the first test of ensuring transparency and accountability in the new administration, in spite of Minister Tweah’s assurance that the CDC government will intensify the fight against corruption.
“Corruption has been a root cause of the conflicts that have run through our history. This generation of Liberians and this new government must renew its pledge to fight and end corruption,” he said.
The first step toward this goal, he noted, is to abolish the culture of impunity that has surrounded the misuse of public funds. “This means we have to give more teeth and meaning to anti-corruption institutions. These institutions are the watchdogs that ensure we spend public resources for the benefit of all Liberians,” he said.
He said President Weah has promised that under his leadership, those who misuse public funds will have no place in his government. “Such persons must face the full weight of the law. This is certainly reassuring to all our countrymen and our development partners who provide important resources for our national development.”