A Look at the 1979 Rice Riots and Political Unrest in Liberia

In light of what appears to be an inevitable protest on December 30, 2019, in Liberia, the team here at Globe Afrique decided to offer a historical view of the 1979 Rice Riots.  We want our readers to juxtapose or place the events that led to the 1979 riots side by side with events taking shape today in Liberia.

While we strongly believe that President Weah is a firm advocate for peace and reconciliation, we see members of his security forces along with unauthorized operatives who are loyal to President Weah operating beyond their instruction and creating chaos that will reflect poorly on the President.

It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” We believe that those who do heed the lessons from history are visionaries and avoid repeating the same mistakes. In hindsight, we know that during the 1979 riots, the Government of Liberia gravely misjudged the power of the people and frustration with the government.

Still, if history is any indication then-President Weah needs to take immediate action to avert the protest slated on December 30, 2019, lest he falls victim to poor decisions and advice from his inner circle.

We begin by offering a New York Times interview with President Tolbert. This interview took place on May 26, 1979 – a month after the riots. We feel that by first offering the interview, our readers will be able to compare and contrast Tolbert’s decisions that led to his eventual downfall and look at what’s happening today in Liberia.

With that being said – we pray that the government and members of the COP come to an amicable agreement to avert the protest.

Tolbert’s Views on the 1979 Rice Riots

Days after the riots and fatal shootings of dozens of civilians, President Tolbert branded the leaders of the protest as “wicked, evil and satanic men” who wanted “to bring chaos and disorder in the country with the eventual objective of overthrowing the Government.”

President Tolbert went on to say that he believes the protest was an alibi, put forth by the opposition “whose principal idea is to change our system of government.” It was during this interview that President Tolbert finally admitted that he had ordered the security forces to fire into the crowds.

1979 riots in Liberia where 140 people laid dead in the streets

Additionally, American diplomats in Liberia stated they believed the protest was almost inevitable because of the policies President Tolbert put in place that lacked economic imagination. Diplomats stated, “that power is too concentrated in the office of the President, and that he is surrounded by too many ministers who are more interested in the privileges and benefits of power than the welfare of the people.”

They added that while President Tolbert had inherited a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy when he came to office in 1971, and had worked to reduce it. Still, corruption and inefficiency remain endemic throughout Liberia.

These statements resonate with today’s thoughts and feelings amongst citizens in Liberia – particularly when the Finance Minister snaps that the President was not elected to pay civil servants their salary or keep money in the banks.

Tolbert Defends the Cost of Living in Liberia

President Tolbert said in the interview that he was aware of economic hardships, but he insisted that “the cost of living in Liberia is much lower than in most of our neighboring countries.” He said many economic problems, particularly inflation, were beyond his control.

An Unclassified Report by the U.S. Army War College and the U.S. State Department

In the Summer of 1979, William R. Tolbert would host the Organization of African Unity conference in Monrovia. As he prepared for the conference, the dark storm clouds of political unrest were just over the horizon.

People began to talk about excessive expenditures and some asked where Tolbert was getting all his money.

Tolbert was going to retire at the end of his term in 1983. In preparation for retirement, he started construction of a new home in Bentol, a suburb of Monrovia. He made several trips to Europe, placing money in a Swiss bank.

People began to talk about excessive expenditures and some asked where Tolbert was getting all his money. His son, A. B. Tolbert, added to the gossip, spending wild sums of money and throwing wild parties.

Under rumors of graft and corruption at the highest levels of the Tolbert government, the construction of the OAU conference site became a major issue of contention. By tradition, the new chairman of the OAU would host the heads of state convention in his country.

Organization of African Unity meeting (L-R) President of Chad Felix Malloun, President of Togo Gnassingbe Eyadema, and Liberian President William R. Tolbert

President Tolbert wanted a first-class conference area. The site selected was owned by several Liberian businessmen. It was located twenty miles west of Monrovia, over sixty miles from the International Airport. The original cost of $35 million quickly escalated to well over $100 million (that’s roughly $384 million in today’s dollar).

In a nation where the Gross Domestic Product was $927 million in 1976 and the FY 79 budget was only $340 million, the cost of the OAU conference center was devastating.  Tolbert had to rob Peter to pay Paul.

If the financial problems were not bad enough, 1979 emerged as the beginning of political opposition to the True Whig Party. Doctor Togba Nah-Tipoteh was elevated to the position of Chairman of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA). MOJA is a multi-national African organization predominantly involving West African Nations. It claims no political affiliation and has a goal of establishing a new society in favor of the masses.

As a former Professor of Economics at the University of Liberia, Doctor Tipoteh had battled the Tolbert Administration from 1971 through 1974. He was responsible for several student demonstrations and was an outspoken socialist who openly demanded change through revolution. By 1974 he had been dismissed from his position at the university and began working full time for MOJA.

With Doctor Tipoteh’s knowledge of economics, he was quick to point out the excessive expenses for the OAU site and its future impact on the National Debt.

While MOJA rattled their swords, Gabriel B. Matthews returned to Liberia. In the early 1970s, he had started the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). Matthews viewed PAL as espousing the principles of African Socialism.

He saw a future society based on the traditional values of the people. In 1979, President Tolbert invited Matthews and five of his colleagues to return to Liberia, even paying their fares. The President envisioned Matthews forming an opposition party. He was confident of a True Whig victory in 1983 but felt that PAL would add credibility to Liberia becoming a two-party system. He underestimated Matthews’ popularity. Within one year of his return, both PAL and MOJA were openly speaking out against the Tolbert Administration.

1979: Liberia’s Rice Riots

Following the annual report of 1978 rice production, PAL and MOJA reached a collision course with the Tolbert government. Chenoweth, the Minister of Agriculture, recommended that the price paid for “paddy,” or rough rice, be increased from 12 cents a pound to 19 cents.

President Tolbert had established a goal of rice self-sufficiency and Liberia was currently importing 50,000 tons of rice a year, 25 percent of her consumption. Chenoweth felt that such an increase would stimulate farmers to grow more rice. The suggested price increase would also drive the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $22 to $30.

1976, September 21 – Oval Office – The White House – Washington, DC – Gerald R. Ford, William Tolbert – seated near fireplace, talking, smiling, gesturing – Meeting with the President of the Republic of Liberia

In a country where the average unskilled laborer earned $50 per month and consumed 100 pounds of rice per month to feed his family, an eight dollar increase was a disaster. Word of the price increase hit the street in January 1979.

Both PAL and MOJA jumped on the bandwagon, accusing the government of poor management and claiming that the cost of the OAU site forced the Tolbert Administration to raise the price to pay the bill. Fuel was added to the fire when MOJA leaked to the press the fact that Tolbert and other Liberians had tons of rice in their warehouses. The eight dollar price increase would net them millions of dollars.

1979: Gabriel Matthews Applies for a Permit to Protest

On 1 April 1979, Gabriel Matthews applied for a permit to demonstrate against the price rise. The government refused the permit and Matthews announced that PAL would march on the Executive Mansion with or without a permit.

The Minister of Justice broadcast strong warnings to anyone daring to demonstrate that they would be dealt with severely. The Minister of National Defense approached the Chief of the United States Military Mission to Liberia (LIBMISH) and asked for advice on effective control of demonstrators.

The United States Military Mission to Liberia had been advising the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) since 1951. During the mid-sixties, LIBMISH had provided over twenty advisors down to the battalion level. By 1979, LIBMISH numbered six officers and under the 1951 Treaty provided advice to the General Staff of the 5,200-man AFL.

In addition, they managed a $250,000 International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of approximately $2.6 million. Recently, LIBMISH had questioned the leadership within the AFL. Carefully considering the strengths of the AFL units, LIBMISH recommended that the second battalion stationed at Tubman Military Academy be used for crowd control. Currently being trained by a U.S. Army Special Forces Mobile Training Team (MTT), it was the best-disciplined battalion in the AFL. The government of Liberia elected to employ the Executive Mansion Guard Battalion (EMG) in lieu of the Second Battalion. The EMG lacked the formal training, but President Tolbert felt that they would work better with the National Police. Security Forces consisting of the EMG, the Armored Scout Platoon, and the National Police were prepositioned around the Executive Mansion and key government facilities.

Wishful Thinking: An Error in Judgment by President Tolbert

The government crossed its fingers and prayed that PAL would cancel its planned demonstration. But, on the morning of April 14, 1979, PAL supporters began to assemble in several locations in downtown Monrovia. Their plan was to march to the Executive Mansion where Matthews would present a petition to President Tolbert asking him to stop the proposed price increase of rice.

Within one hour, the Government of Liberia had lost complete control of the situation

Schools were out for spring vacation and, within a short time, 2,000 students, reinforced with PAL supporters, gathered two blocks from the Executive Mansion. The crowd continued to swell, reinforced by more students and local shoppers.

According to some estimates, the crowd reached well over 12,000. The outnumbered Security Forces were instructed to intervene only if the mob attempted to enter the Executive Mansion grounds. Additional Army units were alerted. At some point, Security Forces fired tear gas into the crowd. Then soldiers began firing their weapons, most firing into the air, but some firing into the crowd. The mob panicked and began to move toward downtown Monrovia. As they surged past Barclay Training Center (BTC), soldiers from BTC joined the crowd. Mass riots broke out. Shops were looted, cars burned, and the violence spread throughout the entire city.

Within one hour, the government had lost complete control of the situation. Unable to control not only the population but members of the armed forces, some key members of the Tolbert Administration actually began to plan their escape from the country. The American Embassy was shocked by the sudden loss of control and the potential collapse of the Tolbert government. LIBMISH found it difficult to work with the limited leadership of the AFL. Confusion continued to reign and a dusk to dawn curfew was ordered.

The riots were a disaster.

The only previous occasion when Monrovia had witnessed mass demonstrations was in 1961 when 10,000 striking workers from the rubber plantations converged on the Executive Mansion. But President Tubman had invited 1,500 of the demonstrators to meet him at the Executive Pavilion. Imbibed with massive quantities of refreshments, the workers agreed to negotiate, and no injuries occurred. This demonstration was different. Millions of dollars in damage had been inflicted on the capital, 400 had been injured, and 140 lay dead in the streets.

To President Tolbert, the riots were a disaster. Only three months remained before the opening of the OAU conference site. To establish law and order, 33 members of PAL, to include Gabriel B. Matthews, were arrested and charged with treason.

No expense was spared to prepare for the OAU. By 21 June, a visitor to Monrovia could detect no damage caused by the 14 April riots. To everyone’s surprise, the OAU Conference came off without a hitch. President William R. Tolbert emerged as the new Chairman of the OAU and by August 1979 it appeared that he had weathered the disaster of 14 April 1979, but this was only the eye of the storm.

Liberian President George Weah attends the opening of the Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government during the 30th annual African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 28, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA
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Globe Afrique Research and Analysis

Globe Afrique’s Research and Analysis (GARA) is the primary wing of Globe Afrique Media and Communications that investigates certain research work and analysis, its results and impact, with the goal of discovering useful information, suggesting conclusions, and supporting decision-making for the clarity of the reading audience. With this, we seek to help the reading audience and the public rely on evidence ––based research and analysis and rigorous evaluation to interpret political, social, economic, scientific and cultural conclusions, developments, events, threats as well as promote effective policies and strong management.
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