FROM HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST TO POLITICIAN
What Is Next For Minister Samuel Kofi Woods?
Clara K. Mallah, email@example.com
It was a bright, sunny January afternoon when Minister of Public Works Samuel Kofi Woods made an unexpected trip to lower River Cess County. As the convoy pulled into the village of Gbodowhea, women and children looked up from their work, patting mud onto the side of a neighbor’s home, and ran to greet Woods. Unassuming in blue jeans and loafers, the 47-year-old Woods had come to deliver good news – a bridge that had long been damaged would soon be repaired, and a road connecting their village to Buchanan would be paved. The women and children sang and danced, rejoicing. Woods joined them. Villagers said they felt neglected, so many miles from Monrovia and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Woods promised that when the road was paved, the president would be among the first to visit.
Woods made a name for himself as a student leader and then a human rights advocate, representing victims of Liberia’s 14-year civil conflict. These days, Woods is mostly preoccupied with repairing Liberia’s severely battered roads and bridges. Woods says the two jobs are not so dissimilar – he says he tries to infuse human rights principles into his post as Minister of Public Works.
“Construction of roads is helping to reduce poverty,” he says from his plain office at the Ministry of Public Works. “It’s going to enable businesses to reach where they could not reach and will enable them to bring their products in the market for sale rather than walking for four or five days just to reach the market place.”
In a salmon-colored shirt and neatly-trimmed beard, a blue blazer and jeans, the father of five looks more like a professor than a bureaucrat. His office is sparsely decorated with a portrait of President Sirleaf and a Liberian flag. He traded in two leather chairs for wicker patio furniture. “They were cheaper,” he explains. His work day begins at 7:30 A.M. “I believe new models for exemplary leadership become important,” he says.
Woods’ experience in leadership dates back to his days as a University of Liberia student in the early 1980s. For his work as a human rights attorney, he’s received awards from the University of Minnesota, the American Bar Association and even Pope John Paul II. More recently, he’s become among the most high-profile ministers in government by paving roads in poor areas of Monrovia like New Kru Town, Cece Beach and West Point, an expression, he says, of his commitment to human rights. Woods grew up in these communities and takes a special pride in their improvement. He says he has inserted a human rights agenda into public office, though some critics say his identity as a civil servant is bereft of any signs of his former life as a student activist and human rights attorney.
As a student activist, Woods led an anti-government movement that helped to lay the groundwork for the military coup of 1980. The sitting President Tolbert and his cabinet were summarily executed, and a 27-year-old non-commissioned officer in the Armed Forces of Liberia, Samuel Kanyon Doe, was put in power. Though Woods had been part of a movement that helped make Doe’s rise to power possible, activists were soon weary of Doe’s military regime, in which many freedoms were suspended.
Woods and other activists started agitating for the return of civilian rule. In 1981, at 17, he was thrown into jail for the first time. He saw it as a “moment of opportunity.” “Those who arrested me recognized that the movement was meant to change the society. And I knew whatever happened to me at the time would create opportunity not only for me but for many others in the Liberian society,” Woods says.
Discarding a childhood dream of pursuing a career as a civil engineer, after being arrested, Woods settled on law school.
”As a victim I thought I could transform a system of abuse into a vehicle for change,” he says.
He was arrested many times after that, and finds it hard to say whether things were worse for him under Doe or under the warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor. Woods helped to form the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (JPC). The commission represented pro bono some of Taylor’s former generals who Taylor had detained, as well as the family members of victims of Taylor’s administration.
In September 1998, some members of the Krahn tribe were massacred on Camp Johnson Road. The government denied wrongdoing and said there was no evidence. After the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and Médecins Sans Frontières put forth documentation of the atrocities, he began to receive death threats. He went into exile in Belgium and Ivory Coast. While in Belgium, he was charged with sedition; he was told his house would be ransacked and his daughter and her mother would be raped. (They were not attacked.) He studied international law in the Netherlands and was hired by a Washington, D.C.-based NGO to provide technical support in the establishment of a special court in Sierra Leone to try Taylor for war crimes. It was not until Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in 2003 that Woods returned home.
Three years later, President Sirleaf was elected and Woods was named Minister of Labor, a post he served until May 2009, when he became Minister of Public Works. After working for so many years as a human rights activist, he says he began to realize the need to transform institutions of governance. “I felt it was time to get on the other side of the table – let them test my convictions,” he says. As the labor minister, he worked to repeal a law dating from 1980 during military rule that prohibited workers from striking. As a human rights attorney, he had facilitated the first union election at Firestone, the Akron, Ohio-based rubber company, in 80 years. The U.S. Steelworkers’ Union was so impressed it flew him to Nevada to honor him with an award.
J. Twaplayfano Dohr, dean of the college of liberal arts at AME University in Monrovia and a political science professor at the University of Liberia, says Woods the minister is a far cry from Woods the activist. He says President Sirleaf and others were duped into believing Woods would carry his pro-worker agenda into office. “Mr. Woods did not function well at the Ministry of Labor, and never spoke actively for the workers as he did as a human rights activist. He is now a politician, not a human rights activist any more. Mr. Woods wanted to get into government so he used his advocacy knowledge to get into the government. As far I am concerned he is no longer the human rights activist he was,” Dohr says.
Roosevelt Woods Jr., the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights and Dignity, sees Woods differently. He says whether activist or bureaucrat, advocacy is in Woods’ blood, but as a minister, his agitation has to be far more subtle.
“He is a human rights activist, but his level of advocacy has to change since he is in government now. It does not mean that he cannot advocate, but in government, advocacy is more or less silent in terms of working with policy makers to get things changed. Minister Woods does talk to the president and other cabinet ministers, advising them on issues quietly,” the executive director says.
As Minister of Public Works, Woods’ preoccupation has been roads. The road he's most proud of leads to a now closed prison camp in Belle Yalla, where some of his fellow student activists were sent. "I spent five days and nights in the forest working to get to that prison camp," he says, beaming.
Joe Wilson, the secretary general of the University of Liberia Student Union, says Woods’ actions as minister reveal his background in activism. “His actions speak of his orientation as a human rights activist because of what he’s been involved in and what he is doing now, like the social services to the Liberian people constructing roads and bridges,” he says.
For Woods, arriving at the public works ministry is in many ways coming full circle.
“In fact my father worked at public works and that is where he met my mother. Even though I did not become an engineer which I dreamed of becoming a long time ago, in a strange twist of fate, I am now working at the Ministry of Public Works,” he says.
Will he run for office in 2016, as many speculate? To this question, he takes the advice of veteran American journalist Mike Wallace, who interviewed him for the American network television show "60 Minutes" in 2003. "I'll leave my options open," he says.
Clara K. Mallah is a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting female journalists in Africa.