Liberia: “…We Have Failed To Build Strong and Viable Institutions Because We Continue To Glorify Personalities…” Kofi Woods

Prominent Liberian lawyer and human rights activist Mr. Samuel Kofi Woods recently served as keynote speaker at the installation of officers of the National Labor Center in Monrovia.

As part of  its community service, West African Journal Magazine is publishing a copy of the speech.






Samuel Kofi Woods
Samuel Kofi Woods


Mr. President –elect and Officers of THE National Labor Center

Officials of Government

Official and members of Affiliating Unions

Invited Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

People of Liberia

The last time I had an opportunity to speak at the installation of leaders of an organization was few months ago when I interacted with the Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL). During that program, I stated clearly and maintain the same view today that Liberia is plagued with the scourge of a Leadership Deficit. I hold that to be true then and do so now.  The Liberian Government condemned my statement and I came under personal attacks from their operatives.  Ideas and opinions must be contested to prevail.

I was clear in my vision and thought and today there’s ample evidence to prove that there’s no Elders in our land.  Liberians tend to give the impression that it is a liability or crime to work in government and no one can leave government without the scar of corruption and theft. There is also a view that when you served in government you must never comment on any issue affecting our people. I have a different view. We must serve our government because in service to government we perform the highest moral responsibility. However, this must be done with the highest degree of commitment and integrity. Government is often seen as the center for exploitation and ill-gotten wealth. Hence, people’s desperation is not to serve but to acquire wealth at the sufferings and agony of our people. This is also true for our various organizations. Our reference to leadership deficit is not limited to the Presidency but all levels of society: our family, religious institutions, professional bodies, etc.

I served in two capacities in government and I challenge all and sundry about my stewardship. I am on record as the only living Minister whose term at the Ministry of Public Works was audited twice and yet stand tall without any scar of abuse of the public trust. I still live in Liberia and await any judicial process to question my stewardship. I have the patience and time not to be confronted by gossips and rumors but facts and evidence that can be contested in the proper forum deemed by law. When I realized that there was a contest to my conviction, I voluntarily resigned. I was not forced to resing and resignation was not a compromise for anything.

As Minister of Labor and under our stewardship we started the review our labor laws, which led to the decent work bill. We are disappointed that the decent work bill was modified beyond our original intentions. We repealed the prohibition on strike (Decree 12A); we amended 1508 (3) © which gave employers the right to hire and fire without cause. We sought and commenced improvement in the lives of workers and families in plantations around the country. We were honored at home and abroad when the United Steel workers of America declared at their convention that I was the first Minister of Labor to address their convention. Under our leadership we supported the formation of this national federation. We are convinced that an organized labor will dignify our workers, dignify our society and give our nation a human face. We provided institutional support to ensure that your capacity was enhanced. I am therefore proud of our record.

However, our work was not completed and we had to move on because in said capacity we work at the will and pleasure of the President. I come back to you today as a true friend and ally of the workers’ movement.  As you seek to organize rather than agonize. I come to join you in this endeavor.

As a friend and ally, speaking to you and the public can be a interesting undertaking because I do so from my heart guided by the deep conviction, love for my country and the passion I hold for justice and respect for human dignity.

My Dear Friends, Workers are the engines of production, of the economy of any society. Workers produce the goods, provide the services, deliver the goods to the market place and even manage the market place. No country will survive without a workforce. Workers, thus, have a potential reach and impact that is greater and far-reaching to improve the social and economic conditions of our nations. Yet in Liberia, workers remain one of the most downtrodden and abused.

Workers are paid less, made to work under slave-like conditions, are not given health care or insurance benefits and often do not have a voice in the decisions that affect them.   On the economic front, people depend on work to fulfill their need for income to better their lives and the lives of their families, to escape poverty, ignorance and disease, enjoy recreation and achieve status. Work also involves the production or creation of things that make life better and more fulfilling.

This is why we insisted on the need to review our labor laws and provide decency in the work place. This is why social dialogue among workers, government and employers remain a viable vehicle for progress.

It is my thesis that workers in Liberia continue to suffer the wrath of poverty and treated with a large measure of disdain because we have failed to organize, because we have refused to come together into strong labor movements rather than small, briefcase labor organizations.   We cannot have the force and effect necessary to transform the sector and make workers proud if we do not unite and organize

No government however responsive, no minister however patriotic can offer you the dignity you deserve. It is by organizing and building institutions larger than yourself and your ego that will provide you the freedom and dignity you deserve.

Until you organize ourselves, until you focus on building strong union federations and strong solidarities, your real potentials cannot be realized. It is only when we organize that we are able to build power and to change our conditions.

The relationship between capital and labor, i.e., employers and workers, is an inherently adversarial. The primary motivation of employers in operating their businesses/firms is to maximize profits. And to do so, they are inclined to want to spend less on labor cost, on safety and health in the workplace, on protecting the communities and the environment, on providing education and healthcare, etc. This means that they will want to pay you less, not provide you with healthcare, and with workplaces that are safe and healthy. The explosion in LAC — in which six individuals/workers were reportedly killed because the company refused to invest in safety in their factory, is a classic example.

LAC, according to the government’s investigation in the explosion incident, reconfigured a rubber processing equipment so as to speed up production, knowing that an explosion could result. LAC also failed to implement basic safety standards such as having marked emergency exits. As a result, six workers were killed.  In other places, LAC would have paid millions to workers but in Liberia with reports of allegations of government’s complicity, workers disorganization and community intimidation, LAC did not pay its full share. An organized and strong workers union would have advocated for more than what LAC offered.

Workers want to be paid well for their labor; not only do they want a bigger share in the products of their labor (Ehrenberg & Smith, 2015) they also want their workplaces to be healthy and safe; they want a voice in the decisions that affect them, as human beings, not as tools or instruments. Workers also want work to contribute to the social advancement of their communities.

When we organize, we build power and we put ourselves in a better position to get what we want. A renowned union organizer once defined a union as a group of workers coming together to use their power in numbers to make their employer to do what the employer would otherwise not do. If we agree that organizing gives us power then it is a no brainer that WE MUST ORGANIZE, for our economic survival, the preservation of our dignity as human beings, our health and safety on the job. Our future depends on organizing.

If we fail to organize we are doing our families and ourselves a dis-service. We will be unable to engage in collective bargaining, to strike or to engage in other forms of mutual aid and, consequently we will not be able to get the economic and social benefits- the pay, the healthcare, the right working conditions, and the dignity and respect that we deserve.

As some of you may have already experienced, when workers stand-alone and approach their employers as individuals they are less likely to achieve what they want and the employer succeeds.   Organizing gives workers social cohesion, group support and mutual defense and protection.

Beyond being concerned with workplace issues, unions are important civil society organizations. Sociologists break the term “society” down into a number of different overlapping spheres of social processes in which people interact and cooperate for various purposes. I will briefly talk about three of those spheres, namely the economy, the state, and civil society. The economy is the sphere in which we produce and buy things.  The state is the sphere in which we govern our collective affairs, and the civil society is the sphere is which we get together voluntarily in organizations to pursue common purposes.

Workers are, or can be very important players in all of these spheres. In the economic sphere workers produce the goods and services; in the state, workers are citizens who are involved in the governance of our collective affairs, and in the civil society sphere workers, when organized, are empowered, not only to pursue, but are able to achieve their common purposes.

Accordingly, sociologists place labor unions, the combinations that workers form when they organize, in the realm of civil society organizations defined as the collective associations that people form based on shared interests and solidarity and rooted in shared gains and shared sacrifices. As civil society organizations labor unions can play a very important role in attacking the inequalities, crime and corruption that have sadly taken over our country today.

Unfortunately, Labor Unions themselves have fallen prey to this pervasive menace. Labor unions should challenge, organize and vote against corrupt politicians, they can insist on the equitable distribution of the national wealth, they can promote education and healthcare for all and they can insist on justice, accountability and the rule of law; essentially they can create a social justice movement and become a force for change.

Democracy simply means rule or governance by the people. But when citizens choose to live their lives as separate, discrete individuals, going their separate ways, acting exclusively as self-contained, self-interested individual persons, then the idea of democracy as “rule by the people” will not become a reality. People may vote in elections – although even for that, many people will ask themselves “why bother since my vote isn’t going to make a difference?” – but beyond voting they will do little to create a “will of the people”, let alone help to actually translate that “will” into real power.

History teaches us that whenever people organize, they are stronger and have been able to accomplish their goals. The contrast to that is, when people refuse to organize or to stand together, they often perish.

Democratic societies bestow upon citizens some basic civil liberties such as freedom of association and speech which must be fully upheld and practiced without hindrance. Labor unions play a pivotal role in upholding and protecting these rights and serve as incubators of democracy by building solidarities that promote democratic engagement.

In this politically charged election period in our country, the role of organizing and of the labor movement in politics could not be more relevant.   The relationship between union, economic and political interests is undeniable and this is the motivating factor for union engagement in politics. Labor’s participation in politics is indispensable to the survival and progress of the labor movement.  Through engagement in politics unions have not only been able to win benefits for their members, but also to protect their very essence and existence. This is why I have an issue with Article 81 & 82, which tends to exclude labor unions from canvassing directly or indirectly and making contributions to political parties. A better interpretation and/or amendment will have to be sought in the future.

An officer of the United Food and Commercial Workers based in the United States made the case more cogently when he described union organizing, collective bargaining and political participation as “three legs of a stool”, arguing “politics affect our ability to organize, and to be successful in collective bargaining… and if we cannot organize, it is harder to protect our numbers.

When unions engage in politics one of their objectives is to pressure government to enact legislation or support policies that would lead to better wages and benefits, shorter work hours, job security, among others. As taxpayers (contributors to the public coffers) and as voters, those who decide who holds public office, unions hold tremendous political power and influence over the decisions and actions of government and government officials.

Labor’s organizing and engagement in politics have been critical to building democratic societies, to winning civil and human rights guarantees for oppressed groups, and to transforming the overall social, economic and political structures, policies and programs in various countries.

Unions’ political participation dates back to the early labor movements and has its roots in the conditions that necessitated unions in the first place; the very abuses those workers, their families and communities face in Liberia today. In as early as 1878, the founder of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, Uriah Stephens, made the following point regarding union political engagement. “All the evils that labor rests upon are matters of law and are to be removed by legislation….Is the eight-hour law, or prison labor, or universal education, or child and female labor or the machinery question or land and landless….political questions? Can you discuss the interest of labor in any manner without running into political economy….Our order is not a political one… but we must in a fraternal manner discuss the economics of our condition….shall monopolists have politics all to themselves?” Urias’ comment laid a foundation for labor’s engagement in politics.

The Workingmen’s parties, one of the earliest labor movements also pursued a social, political agenda, one directed at creating a more democratic and socially just society.

Another early labor movement, the Knights of Labor, believed that the best way to address the problems of wages and benefits of union members was to seek the institution of broad reforms in society. As far as the Knights were concerned, the control that employers exercised over employees in the workplace as well as the problems of low wages and unsafe working conditions were traceable to the economic and political policies and structures of society (James, 1954, p. 75).  Accordingly, the Knights contended that the best way to address those problems was to tackle the very societal structures, which constituted the basis for those problems (Nicholson, 2004).

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a critical role in the passage of the Wagner Act, known as the American labor movement’s Magna Carta, in 1935 and the played an important role in furthering the cause of civil rights, anti- poverty and social welfare programs. CIO leaders provided political and material support to the civil rights movement and collaborated with Civil Rights leaders in demanding the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The South African labor movement was very instrumental in ending Apartheid and instituting democracy in South Africa. And after the institution of democracy in South Africa the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) the largest trade union federation in South Africa was very instrumental in winning pro-worker legislation, such as the NEDLAC legislation that provided for the establishment of a joint commission of trade unions, government, employers, and civic organizations known as NEDLAC, the National Economic Development and Labor Council.

The Nigerian labor union movement was launched as part of the anti-colonial movement for independence from Great Britain. Nigerian labor unions, as a result of their liberation agenda, exercised significant power in the liberation struggle and the political discourse of the country. The militancy of Nigerian labor unions accelerated the attainment of independence.

Liberian Workers, Our National Federation Where are you in all this? Liberia has reached a checkpoint not a crossroad. We have seen institutionalization of violence and the criminalization of the state in Liberia. We have seen state plundering and the bastardization of our institutions for personal gains. We have seen evil lurking in the shadows of our politics. If you don’t organize and become strong, your future and the future of our people will be in jeopardy.

I live and act as a human rights lawyer.   In this public manner, I would like to publicly condemn the arson attack on the home of journalist Smith Toby; the intimidating tactics meted out at Henry Costa and the regular reports for scare tactics and intimidation allegedly being employed in the political environment. This must not be allowed to go unchecked. These cowards like Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members use the cover of darkness to hatch and implement evil in our society. This creeping menace is a threat to our democracy.  An attack on any Liberian must be an attack on all of us. There must be no conspiracy of silence and Liberians will not be cowed into fear. We have a history of fighting tyranny. Where ever and from whosoever it rears its ugly head, we must fight it peacefully. I certainly may not agree with Journalist Smith Toby neither do I agree with what Costa may have said or continue to say but we must collectively defend their rights to say what they want to say. There are also allegations that political appointees and civil servants face intimidation and threats of dismissals due to political affiliations. This is wrong. If it is due to the violation of the law then it must be equally applied without discrimination. In this our collective liberties will be guaranteed and enhanced.

Over the years, we have failed to build strong and viable institutions because we continue to glorify personalities. Our political, social and economic institutions have become small cartels of motley individuals whose sole purpose is to exploit our people and abuse their innocence. Our problem is being compounded by new elements of tribal and group affiliations rather than the quality and value of character. Honest men and women have become enemies of the state.

Here lies the Liberian Problem and here lies the problem of organized labor in Liberia. This new leadership must seek redemption and offer labor what it deserves. Union dues collection is not the sole purpose of unions. We must work to educate workers and fight for the working class. They are at perils. Deep in our plantations, in our factories, in our homes, in our workplaces lies the unending specter of slavery and servitude.

Our nation has been reduced to young and old zombies looking for direction in a directionless abyss of hopelessness yet people think they can find salvation in a wrecked political order but not in sound collective action and decisions.

No leader how patriotic will save our country individually. It will be our collective will to reform, love for one another and love for country. Educated people and intellectuals did not fail Liberia. It is greedy and selfish individuals who did. Educated or not if you have no values, no integrity and no love for country, it will make no difference. The value we place on materialism and wealth corrupts us and denies our nation of what it deserves.

Our youths have been abused on the battlefield: fought as child soldier. They have become adults without hope and purpose and now you say to them and their children that they don’t need education to compete. You are deceiving them with this slogan while you keep your kids abroad in good schools receiving education to qualify them so they return and govern and continue to abuse them.

As a kid, my mother who did not finish high school or obtained a masters’ degree advised me that my key to success was something called EDUCATION. I listened to her. As an educated man, I have been able to traverse the world and compete on the basis of ideas not might. I have been able to interact with people far and near. I have listened to others even when we disagree and not bully, intimidate or brutalize them. My world is not limited. I must therefore speak for myself.

As an educated man, I have not failed Liberia. I have made Liberia proud like many of my compatriots. Let nobody fool you. Education is good. This is why some of our children are abroad where they enjoy good education, health care and an environment where they can be anybody they want to be. Those who want to be leaders must now set good examples. If you want to be our leaders, bring your families home and let us collectively endure the messy educational system, broken health system and twisted value-system like our compatriots. Let us join and fix them together.

We did not develop this policy in the past but the lessons learnt require that we adopt a policy that requires those who serve in appointed positions confirmed by our senate to bring their families home.

We need to tell our people how salaries will be re-structured and how waste in government will be addressed to invest more in education. We must not discourage their aspirations to liberate themselves.

We must teach our children that the new Liberia depends on them and we must all be ready to develop it together. Let us help them understand that education is not the problem. The problem lies in our selfishness, our envy, our innate greed and our blind and inordinate ambition. We must not abuse their gullibility because of our ambition. We must tell them how we will improve our education and health systems to guarantee that they can work and live in dignity: put bread on their own table and care for themselves.

After years of illusive peace, tenuous transitional justice (the Truth and Reconciliation process) and cosmetic national reconciliation, our attempt to consolidate our democratic credentials is under threat because we failed to properly reform our institutions. We undermined our institutions and compromised them. We used them for personal rather than collective ends.

Our nation’s pride is once more under scrutiny, as international interlocutors must now come to our aid. They must tell our President to stay out and stop interfering in elections. They must dialogue with political parties to stabilize our elections. We cannot continue to be a problem child. We must grow up and become responsible adults taking care of each other and building our nation.

Our hope ultimately lies in our judiciary, which must now redeem our country. God give us men and women whose integrity will be unblemished, whose love for nation will be tested and whose faith in you will lead them to give purpose and meaning of their existence. All of us must respect the rule of law. The pursuit of no man’s ambition is worth a drop of human blood.

Dear Friends and compatriots, the complexities our nation face will not require cosmetic solutions. It requires radical and deliberate attempts to fulfill the ideals of nationhood. It will lie in a responsible leadership not led by those in the shadows.

Organized labor must demand from those who want to lead us to provide an agenda for workers. You must not agonize but organize.  You must seek redemption and change. In this you must built strong institutions and develop an agenda to liberate the million of workers in our country. You must be transparent, accountable and inspire. YOU WILL NOT BE BETTER OFF IF YOU CANNOT WORK FOR THE DIGNITY OF ALL.



Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely that of the author and are not necessarily shared by West African Journal Magazine.

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