Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monologue With Farmers Tour: The politics of rice

"If anyone is selling a bag of rice at D900, take him to the police because it is unlawful.  I recently agreed with major importers of rice into the country on the maximum price of a bag of rice to be at D800, which will start by June/July 2008. Therefore, anyone selling a bag of rice at D1,000 should go to jail.  In fact, from now against September 2008, government will make sure that the price of rice is stabilized."

These were the words of Yaya Jammeh on Monday May 5th, 2008 during his Dialogue with the People's Tour.  The warning was directed at district Chiefs, village heads, Governors (Commissioners) and cabinet ministers who were threatened with dismissal of those "who fail to stand firmly in support of poor farmers against exploitation by rice dealers and retailers.

It was at that same meeting in Kerewan, North Bank Division when Jammeh declared, unilaterally and without consultation, that henceforth government was no longer going to provide 'free' fertilizer to farmers which, according to a furious dictator, which were then sold at weekly markets or 'lumos'.

Farm input subsidies were either withdrawn outright or phased out over time in 1986 with the advent of the Economic Recovery Program (ERP).  There was always an element of subsidy as regards fertilizer but by playing politics with agriculture, Jammeh declared that henceforth fertilizer was going to be free.  His actions in 2008 were simply reverting to what obtained prior to his unilateral actions.

He did not only withdrew the fertilizer subsidy, he also informed the farmers of Kerewan that he was also going to withdraw subsidies on tractor services because farmers were misusing them.  Henceforth, the 500 tractors he has in stock will be sold without telling farmers that these tractors were procured on loan from Ex-Im Bank of India which the farmers will have to pay for within a 20-year period.  The tractors belongs to the farmers and not Yaya Jammeh.  

Back to the astronomical price of a bag of rice, six years after the Kerewan meeting, a bag of rice has more than doubled in price to D2,000, and out of reach of ordinary Gambians who earn, on average, less than D1,800 per month.  The Gambian staple food has reached price levels that can only cause problems for a regime whose political fortunes have dropped so precipitously, it has left Jammeh worried.  The price of bread of D8 per loaf only makes matter worse.  However, it is the price of rice that is definitely driving this year's Tour agenda.

Of the 30-odd stops on the tour, 25 stops on the Tour are to rice fields, from Jurungku in the North Bank to Kafuta in the Western Division.  There's a visit to a poultry farm and a lunch and visit stop-over at the International Trypanotolerant Center at Kiang Keneba, and about three stops to visit Jammeh's private farms that are farmed using, what can only be described as involuntary labor because those who refuse to 'volunteer' their labor are subject to harassment and risk the label of 'saboteur' of the regime.

Jammeh has promised Gambians self-sufficiency in rice since he seized power in 1994 but all his actions have been anything but encouraging dependence on imported rice, and no amount of visits to rice farms that have received little support from the regime will change the current imbalance.