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The Rice Riots

Early in 1979 Tolbert's minister of agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, made a proposal to the cabinet for increasing the subsidized price of rice from $22 for a 100?pound bag to $26. She rationalized the increase as an inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce food for themselves and for sale instead of leaving to work for wages in the cities or on the rubber plantations. Political opponents noted, however, that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family were large?scale rice farmers and stood to profit handsomely from the price increase. To protest, the PAL called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia, and on April 14 about 2,000 activists were assembled to march on the Executive Mansion to protest the proposed price rise. They were joined enroute, however, by more than 10,000 "back street boys" who quickly transformed the orderly procession into an orgy of destruction. Widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses occurred during the so?called Rice Riots, and damage to private property was estimated to have exceeded $40 million. Troops were called in to reinforce hard?pressed police units in the capital. In 12 hoursof violence in the city's streets, at least 40 demonstrators and rioters were killed by ill?trained policemen, and more than 500 were injured. Hundreds more were arrested, and police were ordered to storm the PAL headquarters. Neighboring Guinea, whose president, Tour, had signed a mutual defense treaty with Liberia only three weeks earlier, dispatched several hundred troops to assist in restoring order in Monrovia.

Holding the PAL responsible for the destruction done by the mob during the Rice Riots, Tolbert rounded up PAL leaders and many other political dissidents. The old guard in turn blamed Tolbert for his earlier leniency toward political opponents of the regime, charging that he could have acted sooner to check unrest by cracking down on their subversive activities. Under pressure

from hard liners in the True Whig Party, Tolbert closed the university and suspended due process. Chenoweth was replaced as minister of agriculture after admitting publicly that she had erred in proposing the price rise. Tolbert reassured the country that the subsidized price of rice would be kept at $22 per 100 pounds and subsequently reduced it to $20.

In June on the eve of the OAU meeting in Monrovia that was to mark the opening of the new conference center, Tolbert granted amnesty to those who were still held in connection with the April rioting and reopened the university. His government, however, had clearly shown itself to be vulnerable both to hardline critics within the party and to the growing opposition movement that was forming outside it. The political consciousness of Liberians appeared to have outstripped institutions fashioned in another era. Tolbert's efforts at reform, impeded by traditionalists within the party, were insufficient to stem the growing momentum of the opposition forces.

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