Liberia’s opposition Liberty Party has called on the government to reduce the cost of rice and other basic commodities to assure what it calls “food security.”
A party statement said the government can fund the reduction in basic commodity prices by “using various fiscal mechanisms, such as granting temporary duty free importation of rice, [the] temporary elimination or reduction in the tax on gas,” [and the] “suspension of government discretionary spending, especially in the areas of vehicle purchase and travel.”
Rice is a staple food in Liberia and its price has been linked to controversy. A proposal by former Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth to increase the price of imported rice as a means of encouraging domestic production led to the infamous 1979 rice riots during which more than 40 people were killed.
Liberty Party National Chairman Israel Akinsanya II says ordinary Liberians are feeling the pinch of higher basic commodities prices.
“During our district by district tour, we encountered a lot of hardship that the Liberian people are facing due to [the] escalating increase in the price of basic commodities, especially rice and other edible items. You have a bag of rice when Madam Sirleaf came to power in 2005 that was around $20 to $22 now being sold for $70 on the market. You have a cup of rice that was sold for $5 just a few months ago now being sold for $30 Liberian dollars,” he said.
Akinsanya II said the situation is worrisome for many ordinary Liberians.
Commerce Minister Miatta Beysolow, however, says the call to reduce the price of rice is unjustified because Liberian rice is the cheapest in the West Africa subregion.
“If you look around the neighboring countries, you will find that in Liberia rice is selling at the lowest price possible. In Guinea, we have a price differential of $10 to $15 and, as a result, our rice is being smuggled into Guinea,” she said.
Beysolow said a 25-kilogram bag of rice is selling for between $15 and $17.50, while a 55-kilogram bag of rice is selling for $30 to $35.
“Also we have some unscrupulous business people who [are] hoarding rice, especially a taste for the Firestone rice and that rice is marked on the bag ‘Not for Sale,’” she said.
She accuses Liberty Party of playing politics with the price of rice.
“Rice has always been a political commodity and every political party wants to use it as a campaign issue, and we have made sure that it will not be a campaign issue. We have brought into this country sufficient [rice] to last us through September on the ground in warehouses,” Beysolow said.
Akinsanya II denies his party is playing politics with the price of rice.
“I would disagree with that. We did not create the situation [the 1979 rice riots]. What we are saying is that today’s reality on the ground is that a bag of rice is now sold for $75. The cheapest bran of rice, which is the butter rice, is now sold for almost $45. So, we are calling on the government to act now because the people are suffering,” Akinsanyan II said.
He says some of the players during the 1979 rice riots included both President Sirleaf and Florence Chenoweth.