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The economics of rice politics in Liberia and Weah’s role in it

With General and Presidential Elections scheduled for October 10, 2023, the government of Liberia, through the Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) on January 13, 2022, posted what it calls the “Years-in-Reveiw” of President George Weah from 2018-2022. The post, among several other achievements of President Weah, stated, “President Weah kept the price of rice at US$13 per 25kg bag for almost five years.”

The claim on the first roll of the fifth section of the post, captioned “RICE PRICE STABILITY”, was of paramount interest to DUBAWA because of the significant place rice occupies in Liberia’s politics of economics.

In April 1979, the rice riots in Liberia were believed to have toppled the William R. Tolbert government. There has since been no turning back for political actors in their bid to control the rice conversation, its prices and all other related matters.

Early last year, the Deputy Minister for Budget Development at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, Tanneh G. Brunson, is reported to have said, “Rice is Liberia’s staple food, but we don’t produce it.

DUBAWA decided to explore the price changes of Liberia’s popular staple food and the government’s role in it. 

To begin with, the Director of Press and Public Affairs of the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) was contacted through a local telephone call on January 17, 2023, to provide documented evidence about the price changes of rice. But Lawrence Fahnbulleh said, “we (MICAT) are not the ones that make up the document. It came from the sector ministries. So if you want to find out after that document that is up, go to the sector ministry.”

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI)’s official website was then visited to verify the trend of rice prices from 2018 to 2022. Still, the information surrounding that could not be established, as “trade reports”, “administrative regulations”, and “annual reports,” among several other reports, were seen to have lastly been posted almost mid-2018, of which the price of 25kg bag of rice could not be seen.

On Thursday, January 19, 2023, the Director of Public Affairs of the MOCI, Jacob Parley, was contacted and informed about the current state of the MOCI’s official website. He affirmed the state of the website, saying, “it was since 2018 we updated that website.”

Parley was then asked to provide documentation surrounding MICAT’s claim, and he referred DUBAWA to the Deputy Minister for Commerce & Trade, George Wolo, who also failed to assist. When DUBAWA went back to Parley for further and better information on the rice price changes, he said the minister who would help provide the data  “is engaged with a lot of things right now.”

Nonetheless, several local dailies and international news reports were checked to verify the trend of rice prices from 2018 to 2022.

In its June 9, 2021, report, AllAfrica reported that “rice importers launched an appeal to the current government headed by President George Manneh Weah to permit an increment in the price of rice due to rising cost of importation, due to a worldwide increment in freight and the rapidly rising increase in fees for services at the National Port Authority (NPA).”

The report revealed that “In a February 2018 meeting with importers, President Weah secured an agreement with importers for the price of rice to be reduced between US$2-4.

“Prior to the reduction, the price of a 25kg bag of rice was US$16.00. Since February 2018, the rice price has been US$13.00.

“At the end of the negotiations, the Association of Rice Importers headed by their Chairman, John Bestman, agreed to reduce the price of the 25Kg bag of rice by US $2.00,” the news report said.

The Daily Observer’s October 10, 2022 news report  also showed that a 25kg bag of rice was sold between “L$5,000 (US$33) and L$6,000 (US$40), respectively, in Nimba.” 

The report further showed that “the government of Liberia has been striving to maintain the retail price of a 25kg bag of rice between US$13.50 and US$14.00.”

It recorded the World bank as saying,“ In 2021, when the global price of rice fell by 7.8 per cent, the average price of a 25 kg bag of imported rice in Montserrado counties soared by 26 per cent to US$19 in 2021, up from US$15 in 2020, according to the World Bank.

A leading rice importer in Via Town, Bushrod Island,  explained to DUBAWA that “the price of rice increased from US$13 to US$17 as of the end of last year.”

The importer, who requested anonymity, said, “the increment in the price of rice is due to the pandemic and the ongoing Russian and Ukrainian conflict and some national efforts, also.”

The operator of Wesley Business Center in Waterside, a retailer, also disclosed that he buys a 25kg bag of rice for US$17 from a US$13 price as of late 2023.   

Though the AllAfrica news report showed that the Weah-led government made some efforts to keep rice prices at US13$ from 2018 to early 2021, DUBAWA’s conversations with some retailers and importers, as well as news reports also showed that from mid-2021, the price of a 25kg bag of rice saw some variations in prices. 

The Daily Observer news report by the World Bank shows the price rose to US$15 in 2020 in Montserrado alone and further up to US$19 in 2021.  In 2022 at Nimba, it was sold at US$33 and US$40. October 10, 2022, the news report of Daily Observer also showed US$13.50 and US$14 in 2022. 

Conclusion

Based on the checks, it can be said that rice prices have seen some variations over the last few years, contrary to MICAT’s claim that “President Weah has kept the price of rice at US$13 per 25kg bag for almost five (5) years.”

The researcher produced this explainer per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship in partnership with The Stage Media, Liberia, to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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