It was on Saturday, April 14, 1979; the day hundreds of Monrovians turned out to protest. The man who called this demonstration, “the Rice Riot” into action was Gabriel Baccus Matthews. He had just returned home from the United States where he went to college. He quickly formed an opposition group called the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) to the government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. But what is April 14 without Gabriel Baccus Matthews?
April 14 became synonymous to the name “Gabriel Baccus Matthews.” At the height of his popularity, he was the most recognizable and feared politician in the country. His followers grew in huge number. He, often said, “In the cause of the people the struggle continues.” They were carried away by whatever he said. They grew to like and admire him. They copied his dress style and some even carried long hairy bears like him. They saw him as a savior and the dawn of a new era.
Mr. Gabriel Baccus Matthews called for a massive demonstration through out Monrovia. The week before the plan demonstration, the Tolbert administration made several public service announcements against the demonstration, but they were all ignored. It led to a day to be remembered in the history of Liberia. It was the country stood still; it was the government operations were paralyzed; several private people lose their lives and several others were injured; it was a day to remember. What is it to have April 14 without Gabriel Baccus Matthews? But first, how did it all happened?
It all started in 1979 when Florence Chenoweth, Tolbert’s minister of agriculture, submitted a proposal to the cabinet for increasing the subsidized price of rice from $22 for a 100 pound bag to $26. The rational was for rice farmers to increase the production of rice, Liberian’s stable food.
Baccus Matthews, then a young man without a clear vision and direction as to where he wanted to lead his followers, thought this was an opening to score some political points.
He claimed that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family were large scale rice farmers and stood to profit handsomely from the price increase.
Mr. Matthews and his PAL movement 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.
More than 10,000 “back street boys” joined the demonstration and it soon turned into a one of the largest riot Liberia as a nation had ever experienced. It was no longer peaceful as almost every store, shop and supermarket and warehouses in Monrovia was looted.
Troops of the AFL were called in to reinforce hard pressed police units and restore peace and harmony to the capital. The soldiers stood on the sidelines and watched, refusing to fire into the crowds, the police confronted the demonstrators. In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, close to fifty demonstrators and rioters were killed by ill trained policemen, while more than 500 people were injured.
The police were ordered to storm the headquarters of the PAL. Mr. Matthews and other top members of his PAL organization as well as other political dissidents were held responsible for the destruction carried out by the mob during the Rice Riots and were rounded up the Tolbert government.
On the other hand, Tolbert himself was blamed by the powerful in True Wing Party for his earlier leniency toward political opponents of the regime. They believe he could have acted sooner to check unrest by cracking down on their subversive activities. Under pressure, 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.
President 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 hard-line 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.
Following the April 1980 coup in which Tolbert was overthrown and Samuel K. Doe came to power, Matthews became Minister of Foreign Affairs for the first time. Matthews was Foreign Minister until 1981. He later fell out of favor with Doe, who became increasingly dictatorial.
cap024.jpgcap025.jpgHowever, during the 1980s, he was the main opposition politician in Liberia. In 1990, Matthews again became Foreign Minister, as Doe was overthrown the country was left without a stable government. Matthews was instrumental in bringing the ECOMOG Peacekeeping force to Liberia. He remained foreign minister until 1993 when he was replaced in a cabinet reshuffle. At the end of the civil war, Matthews stood unsuccessfully as the candidate of the United People’s Party in the 1997 presidential election.
On September 7, 2007 Gabriel Baccus Matthews met his demise after a brief illness at the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital in Monrovia. It brought a closure of another chapter in the history of the Republic of Liberia. He is remembered as the young man who led the dissident movement against William R. Tolbert, the 19th president of the Republic of Liberia.
Today we unofficially observe “April 14” as the ‘rice riot day’ Liberians remember so well. As we look around there is no trace of Gabriel Baccus Matthews. His power voice is silent forever. He is now got from labor to rest. He is laying in some lonesome grave yard. Today is April 14 and there is no riot, not ever a rice riot, there is no G. Baccus Matthews. But you are here. What lesson did we learn from this day? What can you do to continue his legacy? April 14 is just a date, it is just a day. It is what you do with it or on that day that matters
Yes, he is gone forever to lead no more demonstration. Another April 14 has arrived, but there is no G. Baccus Matthews! “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues.” May his soul rest in peace. Amen!