Will Tweah Face Senate’s Axe? -As Agri Minister Shows Rice Production Roadmap

MONROVIA – The trending rice crisis in Liberia, for which President George M. Weah was compelled to set up a special task force to investigate and provide solutions, has now claimed the attention of the National Legislature, to the extent that the Minister of Finance, Samuel D. Tweah, has left the Senate with no other option but to wield its legislative authority against him for failing to appear yesterday in Plenary to answer questions regarding the troubling shortage of the Nation’s staple food (rice), coupled with specific provision in the current Budget in the amount of US$11 million in general subsidy to importers of rice.

According to the Senate’s letter of citation dated October 26, 2022 to the two officials of the Weah-led Government whose appearance the Senate found germane to answering questions about the rice crisis, the Senate had outrightly rejected Finance Minister Tweah and Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper’s excuse for failing to honor the appearance that was originally set for Tuesday, October 25, 2022 at 12 Noon. The Senate therefore mandated the duo to appear before Plenary yesterday, November 1, 2022 to show reasons why they should not be held in Contempt of the Senate as ascribed under Article 44 of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Surprisingly, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah again failed to attend yesterday’s hearing which was however graced by the presence of Agriculture Minister Cooper. As the Analyst reports, Finance Minister Tweah’s contempt fate might be influenced from a higher order, as the President of the Senate, Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, was seen interrupting Madam Cooper’s deliberation to engage the presiding officer in a harried tete a tete.

Agriculture Ministry out of Budget Loop for Rice Production

Presenting a solid case for rice production, Agriculture Minister Cooper disclosed that her Ministry has very little or anything to do with imported rice.

“We are not included in any of the discussions on rice subsidy. I learned about the rice subsidy from the newspapers like every other citizen. Secondly, for 43 years public policy has chosen to support imports of our staple food over production of our staple food. I was one of those in the private sector who first decided to tackle commercial production of rice. In 1989, 1990 I was in the process of establishing first commercial depot in Kakata because I felt it was high time we did so,” Minister Cooper stated.

The well-versed Minister who spoke extemporaneously said for every single budget year from 2020 to 2022, she made requests for public sector investments towards rice production.

“Those requests were never appropriated to my knowledge. Before me, the Minister of Agriculture in 2019 made similar request for the 2019 to 2020 budget year. That request was appropriated but was not expanded. Supporting rice production is something we have all talked about. We usually talk about it and only put in money when there is a crisis. The Ebola may have taught some of us some lessons, that we cannot depend on people are far away, to produce the staple food that we eat.

“Nevertheless, we do have the capacity to mobilize resources through the development projects that we manage. Some focus on cocoa, rice, cassava, vegetables, oil palm. I came to this job on the platform of rice. Rice is where I have invested my life savings. I put my entire savings into the rice sector investment. We were the first, and we were the largest. We produced rice not only for local production but also export, and I am very proud of that.

“However, when we realized that public sector funding for the rice sector was not being forthcoming, given the multiple priorities of government budgetary allocations, I and my Ministry did a conscious effort to mobilize resources targeting rice production. These efforts have begun yielding fruits this year. We have been able to mobilize resources and directed them to supporting rice farmers. Today, you can speak to rice farmers in Lofa County, Nimba County, Bong County, and we are receiving not only equipment; they are receiving supplies, building materials. They are receiving different kinds of grants from the government because of the efforts we are making,” Minister Cooper stated.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Madam Copper said, despite the shortcomings the Ministry faces in ensuring rice production for national self-sufficiency, the rice situation in Liberia can be solved. “We can grow rice and eat. In 1960, we imported 23,000 metric tons of rice in Liberia. In 2021, we imported 100,000 metric tons of rice. Our consumption is 520,000 metric tons using a five-year period. People in Liberia grow rice, but it is mainly for household consumption, in a miniscule proportion to the rice that is imported. If farmers that grow rice are supported, we can grow and produce rice in sufficient quantity through smallholder farmers throughout the country,” Madam Cooper intoned, noting, that part of her Ministry’s main effort toward ensuring rice production for local consumption and export is resource mobilization effort.

“We have asked the World Bank that the entirety of the $20million for Crisis Response be put towards rice production. The African Development Bank had a team here last week, and we visited with them. They also have US$30million to bring in, and we have asked them to put all of that towards rice production. Other partners are coming to support rice production.

“I hope we will have a hearing or discussion for all of the decision makers and stakeholders on rice. We can’t shy away from it. This crisis has brought it to the front. 43 years after the rice riots, I believe that it is time. In that regard, I have asked my team to prepare along with the partners, a symposium over rice production. We can be self-sufficient in rice production. It is doable. Thank God the President has set up a task force to deal with the rice crisis. Rice is everybody’s business,” Madam Copper insisted.

Senate Concurs

In response to the wonderful summation from the agriculture minister, the Senate Plenary concurred that, indeed, rice production is the best way out of the current crisis the nation faces.

Wondering whether it is possible for the government to redirect rice import subsidies towards rice production, Senator Saah Joseph queried Minister Cooper, to which she replied cautiously:

“It is possible, but risky; because our production is not at the level of self-sufficiency yet. It should be done in a phased approach. We are among few countries in Africa, if not the world, that we are giving subsidies to rice importers to stabilize price and supply on the market.”

For the most part, the senators were of the general consensus that they must exert all efforts in compelling the Executive Branch of Government provide the necessary budgetary allocation targeting private sector investments in rice production as expounded by Minister Cooper, even if it means setting aside portion of the rice import subsidy to fund rice production.

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