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May 08, 2008

Gambia to clamp down on rice over-charging

Gambia's president has threatened to lock up traders who sold rice at more than the going rate in an effort to stop them profiteering from high world food prices.

Yahya Jammeh, who has brooked little dissent since he seized power in mainland Africa's smallest country in a 1994 military coup, said he had reached a deal with rice importers to sell rice at a maximum of 800 dalasi ($39) per sack.

"I will use send businessmen to jail, those who are bent on selling rice at 1,000 dalasi," Jammeh told residents in the northern town of Farafenni, some 120 km (75 miles) inland from the coastal capital Banjul. "If anyone is selling a bag of rice at 900 dalasi, take him to police, it is unlawful," he said.

Rising world prices for staple food commodities such as rice and maize have caused unrest in some African countries, and some governments have accused traders of cashing in on so-called "agflation" to gouge ever higher prices from poor customers.

A group of rice importers in Gambia said in a statement they were cooperating with the authorities to ensure regular imports and reasonable retail prices. "Rice stocks are plentiful in the country and more quantities are expected. Please refrain from panic buying as this is unnecessary," the importers said. "We shall spare no effort to keep the prices at the lowest possible levels."

Jammeh, who is making an annual 10-day tour of the former British colony, a thin sliver of land which stretches into French-speaking Senegal, urged his people to increase their farming output to counter the problem of high world prices.

Gambia has few major sources of hard currency apart from European package tourists, growing peanuts and fishing, and most of its people depend on subsistence farming to survive. Nevertheless, Jammeh has assured his countrymen in the past that the country has commercially viable reserves of oil, uranium and other valuable minerals, and has vowed to transform the quiet backwater into Africa's hi-tech "silicon valley."

He also says his herbal treatments can cure AIDS -- an assertion dismissed as untrue by medical experts.


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