On April 14, 1979 a major uprising erupted in Monrovia as police attempted to suppress a planned early morning demonstration march against the proposed rice price increase. The Rice Riots (also known as the “riots for rice and rights”) or “the day Monrovia stood still”occurred during Easter Weekend, which had major religious and symbolic significance in this predominantly Christian country, including the obvious reference to the metaphorical resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
Tragically, the situation rapidly deteriorated as police fired live ammunition into the crowd as widespread looting ensued with many soldiers joining in. All commercial ventures on downtown Broad Street and Camp Johnson Road were looted and ransacked, including music supply stores. Eddie Gibson remembers that the instruments from the Electro-Lite Music Store on Broad Street were for sale all over the city after they had been looted during the Rice Riots. At that time there were no window bars in place, just glass windows on the shops up and down Broad Street and Camp Johnson Road, the other main commercial shopping street.77 According to Emmanuel Dolo, the Rice Riots were a “seminal event” in Liberian political life which temporarily led to “complete state paralysis.”
The Rice Riots shattered the notion of “Liberian exceptionalism;” the notion that Liberians were somehow different than citizens of neighboring West African nations. During the Rice Riots, Levitt tallies “40-140 civilian (mostly student) deaths, 400 wounded, and roughly $40 million in property damage. George Kiah argues that during the Rice Riots, the army (AFL) was passive in response to President Tolbert’s shoot-to-kill orders and the “crisis of legitimacy reached a crescendo.” Testing the newly signed Mutual Defense and Non-Aggression Treaty of
the Mano River Union (MRU), President Tolbert called on Guinean troops to restore order in the aftermath of the riots.
The Rice Riots were a manifestation of critical social, economic, and political shortcomings with deep root causes within the national polity. The rallying cry following the Rice Riots was “In the name of the people, the struggle continues!” To many observers, these riots represented a “culmination of more than one hundred years of national leadership that appears to have eroded its constituent’s participation in a meaningful way.” Liberian journalist Samuel Slewion observed “In the end, Tolbert’s presidency can be likened to a restaurant that gets a new paint job and hangs a big sign out front proclaiming ‘Under New Management’ then stages a Grand Opening. However, when the customers arrive, they quickly discover that the menu remains the same and the cooks are the same people, offering the usual fare.”