SPECIAL FEATURE: Attorney Kofi Woods Address To NGO Coalition On Forest Governance In Liberia

STATEMENT AT THE OFFICIAL LAUNCH OF ADVOCACY STRATEGY OF THE NGO COALITION ON FOREST GOVERNANCE IN LIBERIA

CORINA HOTEL, SINKOR, MONROVIA

OCTOBER 19, 2018

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am deeply honored by your invitation to join you in launching your advocacy strategy.

Attorney Kofi Woods - File Photo
Attorney Kofi Woods – File Photo

This strategy I am told seeks to, among other things, address complaints from forested communities on the lack of knowledge on social contracts signed between various forested communities and contract holders. And when fully implemented, host communities will begin to have access to final copies of contracts and social agreements. This will further enable them demand their just benefits as far as their knowledge on the contract is concern.  Additionally, the strategy aims to minimize tension, mitigate challenges in implementation and help community members take ownership of the social agreement between them and contract holders.  These are noble undertakings for a sector that has historically been a contentious aspect of our conflict history and bane to the development of our society. This approach tends to expand the frontiers of human rights advocacy in Liberia.

I would also encourage you to include and interact with lawyers, legal practitioners and law students to encourage their full participation as it relates to legal questions as well as the provision of legal advice and redress of grievances emanating from this sector. On this note, I offer my personal expertise and support as a long-standing human rights lawyer and advocate.

Let me pay tribute to those who initiated this approach and strategy. This is a major first step in developing a coalition or undertaking collective   action to address various anomalies. The significance of a collectivity is to demonstrate that you seek to affirm that the ideals you espouse is far greater than yourself and transcends the narrow bounds of individualism, thereby elevating your discourse to national and international levels.

This strategy must therefore seek to ensure that people, particularly those who are most vulnerable will be in the position to:

  • Have their voices heard on issues that are important to them,
  • Help to defend and safeguard their rights, and
  • Have their views and wishes genuinely considered when decisions are being made about their lives.

Such rights-based approach will require an advocacy that identifies, assesses, and uses evidenced based research findings to inform, educate and influence policy decisions. In this regard, a strategy cannot be effective without a framework to ensure implementation and monitor its impact.  The most important component is to ensure that communities and people can advocate for themselves – and do so based on knowledge.

Aerial Forest View in Liberia
Aerial Forest View in Liberia

The launch of this strategy will fill a long-standing gap in our national advocacy in Liberia.

For years, we have witnessed the sufferings, pains and agony of a large section of the population hidden behind the dark shadows of our forest.  For many years, our communities have remained hapless and sat helpless as they faced deprivations associated with conditions imposed upon them by the exploitative nature of forest mismanagement due to government’s insatiable quest for rent and at times complicity of some community leaders on one hand, and the excessive greed of some concessionaires on the other. -Whether it is through the looting of the 90s, during war and corruption, or  the Private Use Permits, the complicity of government officials and the onslaught of greedy individuals on our forests, the now proverbial “resource curse” stares us in the face. A classic example is the misuse and abuse of opportunities in the forest sector. The ownership of logging companies by government officials, the Carbon Credit imbroglio and other forms of criminal forage in our forests is a bane of resource development and advancement in Liberia.. The bleeding of our forests must come to an end. I know this is a cliché, but our natural resources must cease being a curse; it must be a blessing!

This strategy you are employing should offer our society (the supply chain) and the international community (the demand chain) redemption from years of pillage, plunder and the callous disregard for our communities, our environment, our land use and our forest. Our unique species of wildlife, Flora and Fauna are being destroyed and it is now time to act for the good of posterity.

We as a nation must understand and this strategy must help us appreciate the connectivity between human survival, the use of our forests and our environment in general and the overall impact on climate change and weather patterns not only in Liberia but around the world.

We have failed to realize that the abuse of our forest is an abuse on human civilization and the threat to our forests and environment represents a threat to human civilization.

“Studies have shown that forests provide protection against flooding. Therefore, the unabated loss of forests in Liberia due to the illegal logging which has become common may exacerbate the frequency of flood we are currently experiencing. It may also increase related disasters with severe negative impact on the environment and inflict havoc on the economy. Sadly, illegal logging without reforestation is bad news for glaring and galloping effects of global warming.”

Researchers and other forest advocates have warned that “Liberians should not sit reluctantly and wait for their government to take action first, but instead every Liberian must begin to create an environmental conscious culture through research, education and people centered grassroots initiatives like environmental restoration, ecosystem rehabilitation and planting trees campaign in every community across the country.”

 

The forests are of vital importance for the livelihoods for millions of West Africans and provide key ecosystem services of local and global importanceLiberia’s Upper Guinea forests (about 43-45% of sub-Saharan forest) are exceptionally diverse, with very high rates of endemism. Liberia holds some of the last remaining, intact forests in West Africa and so reducing deforestation quickly and efficiently would be important in global climate change mitigation.

The Land rights bill has affirmed that all land owned and occupied by communities for hundred of years belong to them, and that their ownership is effective upon its passage without regards to whether they have a deed to it or not. It says that these communities do no need deed from the Republic, because the Republic never owned their land, and so the Republic does not have ownership that it will transfer to them.

The law reaffirms the provisions of the Constitution that the mineral belong to the Republic, but says that the ownership of the surface land belong to the communities (as to community land) or private individuals (as to private land) and government (as to government land. The law also says that community land will also be treated equally as private land. These are recent and interesting developments for your advocacy.

Logging in Liberia - File photo courtesy of PBS
Logging in Liberia – File photo courtesy of PBS

Simply banning the timber trade or establishing reserves will not be enough to salvage the worlds remaining tropical rainforests. In order for the forest to be preserved, the underlying social, economic, and political reasons for deforestation must be recognized and addressed. Once the issues are brought into the light, the decision can be made about what should be done. If it is decided that rainforests must be saved, then the creation of multi-use reserves that promote sustainable development and education of local people would be a good place to start. Currently about 6 percent of the world’s remaining forests are protected, meaning that over 90 percent are still open for the taking. However, even this 6 percent is not safe if the proper steps towards sustainable development are not taken. If possible, reforestation and restoration projects should be encouraged if we, humanity, hope to come out of this situation. Contemporary environmentalists have proposed some measures such as:

    • Expanding protected areas
    • Increasing surveillance of and patrols in protected areas
    • Building research facilities for training local scientists and guides
    • Establishing programs that promote sustainable use
  • Compensating displaced people
  • Involve indigenous people, where they still exist, in park management.
  • Promoting ecotourism
  • Ensuring economic success does not result in increased deforestation
  • Encouraging entrepreneurship

I would therefore like to formally launch this strategy with some concluding comments.

  1. We must encourage partnership between our government, communities and interested groups, civil society and investors. We are undertaking an endeavor that affects our lives. Collective investment and participation in advocacy will require shared funding and support.
  2. Government must continue to see itself as providing the needed leadership in regulating the sector. The review of guidelines for negotiations and standard-setting in the areas of infrastructure development, health services, labor relations and dignity, law enforcement to curb illegal logging and mining activities, education and other services are critical to improving the lives of our people and creating wealth.
  3. Our nation, our government and our people must seek to end impunity through the rule of law. Years of pillage whether under the guise of war, looting, historic lack of political will, complicity, lack of integrity, lack of accountability, mismanagement and illegal activities in the sector must not go unpunished.  Justice for this sector is a must. Recommendations on economic crimes in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Report must be implemented to ensure reparations for affected communities and possible repatriation of profits. No one must be spared: Liberians and non-Liberians past, present and future. I therefore speak of justice for the alleged victims and those accused until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.
  4. The inextricable link between all elements of nature and the environment is indisputable. Our land, our forests, our wildlife of different and unique species is all connected. We breathe fresh air and live healthy lives when our land, air and sea are treated, as we want to treat ourselves. This is why I advise that our government and all of us must prevent the erratic interventions in our swamps, our wetlands, sand mining in our rivers beds and our forests or we risk an environmental catastrophe. I therefore urge our government to review its decision on the new development intended for the Bali Island, the Sarpo National Park, forest reserves and other areas. Any interventions must take into account proper assessments, analysis and advice on the environmental impact. We must take into account various international agreements and commitments, invite the UN Environmental Protection Agency and other professional bodies to ensure full compliance or risk punishment.
  5. As a long-standing advocate, I am guided by consistency on values and principles. IF IT WAS WRONG THEN, IT IS WRONG NOW! This country and all that lies within it is on loan to our generation by the future generation, we are under obligation to mange it well. Let me now add my voice to what is refer to as the Resource Swap. We should not begin any discussions in the absence of a public assessment, accounting and disclosure of our natural resource endowment.  No buyer should determine our price but rather negotiate our price. We risk intractable conflicts if we proceed without the necessary safeguards required to ensure distributive justice and wealth creation at all levels of our society. We should have a national resource accounting program that evaluates and determine the bankable nature of our natural resources, not leaving our desperation to be exploited by   unscrupulous people. We might be down now but not out. We might be broke now but not poor.
Political Map of Liberia
Political Map of Liberia

In conclusion, my dear friends and colleagues, People cannot be developed but develop themselves.” With the new thinking, development cannot be viewed as a product made by the “unilateral transfer from an agent (whether a donor or a state) to a passive recipient. The delivery approach to development through assistance is disempowering to citizens, which relegates them to the role of  “subjects” to change or transformation. For it to be an empowering process, development must be seen as a social contract (or compact) among citizens themselves, citizens and the State, The State and donors and citizens and donor.

In the abundance of wealth, we cannot be poor!  Our strategy must help address this paradox.

When I was a child – and I believe every child experiences such – whenever I had the opportunity to express my thoughts about an ambition, I was asked the questions “WHY?” It was common for a child to be asked “why” if they expressed the desire for a professional undertaking such a doctor, lawyer or even president. I believe the “Why” question stems from viewing a child’s ambition from the prism of perceived challenges and impossibilities. From now on we must cultivate the notion to ask “why not” when a  child from anywhere tells you he/she wants to be the President of Liberia or Secretary-General of the United Nations, Let them realize and appreciate the possibility of what is possible or what can be. I therefore ask you to say “WHY NOT” in pursuing this noble enterprise.

Our nation, our government and our people must seek to end impunity through the rule of law. Years of pillage whether under the guise of war, looting, historic lack of political will, complicity, lack of integrity, lack of accountability, mismanagement and illegal activities in the sector must not go unpunished.  Justice for this sector is a must. Recommendations on economic crimes in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Report must be implemented to ensure reparations for affected communities and possible repatriation of profits. No one must be spared: Liberians and non-Liberians past, present and future.

I therefore speak of justice for the alleged victims and those accused until proven guilty by a court of competent jurisdiction.

I thank you!

Speech By Attorney Kofi Woods

West African Journal Magazine

Liberia: ANC Leader Alexander B. Cummings Keynote Address To ALJA Convention In Minnesota

Mr. President and officials of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the United States, my fellow Liberians, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.

ANC Leader Alexander B. Cummings Jr
ANC Leader Alexander B. Cummings Jr.

I am deeply honored by your invitation to speak to you today.

Given the current state of affairs in our country and the unique role that journalists play in a democratic society, I thought to speak to you today about how we can use journalism as a tool for promoting accountable governance and development in our beloved Mama Liberia.

As I gave thought to my speech, it dawned on me that exactly 73 years ago this month—on October 24, 1945—Liberia was among the countries that led the world in founding an organization that, despite its many flaws, has been in the vanguard of the fight for democracy and development across the world:  The United Nations.

In 1948, just three years after its founding with our country Liberia as a founding member, the United Nations held its Conference on Freedom of Information that declared access to information an essential freedom.

Let’s ponder this for a moment.  In 1948, the United Nations had been in existence for barley three years.  It was still faced with the daunting tasks of pulling the world out of the rubble of the Second World War and providing basic services–food, housing, health care and education—to tens of thousands of war survivors.

Yet, the United Nations found the time to focus on the importance of the right to information—the right to know.  Why?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that freedom of information is a freedom that underpins all of the other freedoms we hold dear.

Access to information promotes transparent and accountable governance.

When there is transparency, when people know what is going on, they can monitor and assess the performance of government; they can hold public officials accountable.

When there is accountability, government is more responsive to the needs of the people; it is more attuned to protecting their rights and providing them with basic social services.

Information Minister Eugene Nagbe and ALJA President Moses Sandy
Information Minister Eugene Nagbe and ALJA President Moses Sandy

So how do you as journalists fit in here?  Well, the journalist is the vital link between policy makers and the people.   When you perform your jobs well, you are the conduit through which the people communicate with the government and the government communicates with the people.

And what a crucially important role you have to play here.  An independent media that represents plural points of view plays an essential role in delivering the information people need to participate in the debates and influence the decisions that shape their lives.

A media sector that reaches and gives voice to the broad populace can create informed citizens who can better monitor the performance of their leaders.

In short, by helping provide the public access to information about the workings of public institutions, the media vests the people with the power to demand quality performance and accountability from their government.

A strong, free, and independent media that monitors those in power and provides accurate information to citizens can also serve as an effective check on corruption—by exposing private and public sector corruption, a free media allows voters to hold corrupt politicians to account.

And we can point to very recent examples of how the media can play a very effective role in exposing corruption.   Take the case of the missing containers of money.   It took intrepid reporting by independent journalists to expose the fact that somehow our government printed millions of dollars that suddenly went “missing” and cannot be accounted for.

We will depend on you, journalists, to follow up on this story so that the government provides answers to questions that demand answers:  who ordered the printing of the missing money?  How much exactly was printed? Where was it printed?  Who took charge of the money once it entered the country? Did it go through the proper channels and processes at the Central Bank before being injected into the official money supply?  How is it that at one point the government can tell us that millions of dollars is missing and identify individuals who are under investigation  for the missing money, but yet at another point the government through its Finance Minister and the Central Bank Governor can announce that there is no money missing?  Which version is true?  Does this suggest a cover-up at the very highest levels of government?  Is the missing money the result of incompetence or outright thievery or both by government officials?

These are crucial questions you can help the Liberian people answer by shining the bright sunrays of fair and objective reporting as a disinfectant on the processes of government.  And it is important that we get answers to these questions because as much as we have heard about corruption in previous government, we have never seen anything on this scale:  the literal disappearance of tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars that belong to the Liberian people.  If there is anything that defines corruption, this is it

ALJA Members
ALJA Members

In addition to taking on corruption, your focus should be on providing the kind of information that helps the public evaluate government programs and policies.

Above all, you want to provide information that allows the public to reach sound conclusions about whether public pronouncements actually become sound public policies.

This may require a sea change in the way you operate.  You must move beyond a fixation on the sensational.  You must resist the temptation to politicize your stories, or to make them just about personalities.

Instead, your stories must focus on issues—issues that matter in the lives of  your audience and help them to both understand and affect the policy choices their government makes.

You must also follow up on your stories to see whether the policies announced today are producing the desired effect tomorrow.

Additionally, you must write or broadcast your stories so you provide your readers or listeners the background and context they need to fully understand the issues at stake.

Recent developments in our country again provide useful examples about how journalists can go about doing this.  Very recently, apparently as a result of the injection of the millions of missing dollars into the money supply, we saw a significant increase in inflation.   Indeed, the President himself told us that the Liberian dollar decreased by about 25 percent under his watch, meaning that ordinary Liberians must now pay 25 percent more for everything they consume.  The President proposed to solve this problem by announcing a series of measures, including the injection of $25 million dollars into the economy.

As journalists your duty should be to objectively examine the initiatives proposed by the President and ask critical questions to determine whether they have produced or can produce the desired results: Did the government actually inject $25 million into the economy?  How did it do so?  Have we seen an appreciable resultant decrease in inflation?   Are the policies announced by the government capable of addressing the long term structural economic challenges we face or do they represent at best only short term ephemeral gains?

As you go about asking these questions and examining the results of actions taken by the government you should also examine and educate the public about the merits of alternative proposals for getting us out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves as a nation.

For example, unlike the President, we in the opposition put forward a set of policy ideas that, if implemented, can produce some immediate positive results while simultaneously and more importantly addressing the long term structural impediments to growth and development.  It is worth quickly summarizing the key features of the policy proposals we put forward:

Maintain Sound Fiscal Discipline: First, we called on the government to ensure that we live within our means as a nation and avoid unwise debt we cannot afford. There are some indications that the sharp decline in the Liberian Dollar since the President came to office is a result of financial markets already taking into account the strain that servicing over $1 billion in new debt sought by the government will place on our meager national budget. We should thus look to smartly grow—and not borrow—ourselves out of the country’s current economic morass.

Adopt Smart Growth Inducing Tax Policies:  We also proposed that the government focus on tax policies that can spur rather than stymie growth.   It is often the case that acting out of desperation for cash to fund what amounts in many cases to unwise and ill-conceived initiatives,  the government maintains a regime of relatively high tariffs and other taxes that inhibit the risk taking so essential to wealth creation.  Moreover, tariffs on essential imported commodities are among the most regressive taxes, adversely affecting the poor whose cause the President claims to champion.  Smart tax policies, including targeted reductions in tariffs and other taxes, can stimulate growth and, in the process, add more revenues to the government’s coffers than the current regressive tax regime.

Eliminate Monopolies:  Additionally, we urged the government to do away with monopolies and exclusive licenses. The average Liberian knows that if the government gives only one person the right to import “chicken soup” or tomatoes that person, because he has no competitor, can charge supra competitive prices or bring in inferior products.   There is no net economic benefit we derive as a nation from giving only a few persons or entities exclusive licenses to import essential products like rice, chicken soup, and other consumer goods.  Opening the market to more people with a focus on Liberian business people, would result in lower prices and better product choices for consumers.

Enhance Environment for Exports/Import Substitution:  We further stressed the need for the government to adopt sensible, cost-effective regulations and policies to increase local and foreign investment in export/import substitution sectors.   Regulations and policies could include:

Creating a food safety inspection unit along with relevant regulations so that our farmers’ produce can meet standards for export to European and other markets: There are many stories of our development partners trying to help our farmers export crops such as okra, pepper or eggplant only to be stopped in their tracks because of the absence of something as basic as a national food safety inspection system or unit. Small investments in establishing such a unit could pay huge dividends.

Establishing industrial parks in coastal cities like Buchanan and Harper with built in advantages such as sea ports and easy road access to airports and Monrovia:  These advantages would serve to attract investors looking to manufacture for export or local consumption.

Improving the value chain for key agricultural products like rice:  Pilot projects funded by international donors around the country amply demonstrate that improving the rice value chain by, for example, helping Liberians entrepreneurs establish rice mills can produce huge results—enhancing  the quality of locally produced rice and creating a market for local producers.  Scaling up these projects could help us reduce the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend annually on rice imports—money that could go to build schools, hospitals and roads.

Implement Reforms that make it easy to move goods In and Out of our Ports: Moving goods in and out of our Ports is unnecessarily cumbersome, complicated and expensive. Reforms to simplify moving goods in and out of our Ports should be implemented to enhance ease of doing business and to help ordinary Liberians.

We now urge you to do these policy prescriptions of ours the same thing we urge you to do to the policy ideas announced by the government:   Subject them to rigorous and critical scrutiny.   Examine their potential upsides and downsides and report stories that educate and inform the public and policy-makers accordingly.

ALJA Convention Dignitaries
ALJA Convention Dignitaries

We are convinced you will conclude that while they do not provide a panacea or a magic wand that instantly cures all of our development challenges, the ideas we have advanced offer us a chance to successfully set ourselves on the journey to development.

Let me now talk briefly about the role of the media in promoting development itself.

The notion of development journalism rests on the premise that the media has the power to make positive change possible.

If there is one thing that characterizes development journalism, it is a singular focus on deliberately and actively pressing for change; on mobilizing the broad populace to pursue a development agenda.

So what do you need or what must you do to be an effective development journalist?

I believe that to be a development journalist, you must first appreciate the unique role the media can play in the development process.   You must then be dedicated to using your professional skills to educate, to teach, to pass on knowledge and skills that enable others to contribute to the development of your country.

But to play this role effectively, you yourselves must be thoroughly versed in the relevant development issues and challenges.  You must have the ability to evaluate the upsides and downsides of specific policy initiatives.

Much of this you can gain from reading, learning, and thinking through the critical development challenges our country faces.

To be a good development journalist also means that you must be able to target and reach the people most affected by or in need of development programs.

In our country, Liberia, those people live mostly in rural areas. To make development journalism meaningful we thus need to focus on the needs and aspirations of the rural poor.

To understand their needs and aspirations, you must spend time with them.  It is not enough to report about them from the comfort and safety of Monrovia or other urban areas.

A good development journalist will also ensure that the people who are affected by development programs will have their voices heard and their views known to policy makers.

A preference for profiling innovation and success stories that motivate people and inspire them to work for change is also a very good attribute of a development journalist.   You must further have a knack for presenting people with the various development options and letting them understand the pros and cons of these options.

There is more you can do.   You can show why development issues are important by giving them prominent placement in your newspapers or in your radio or television newscasts.

You must also put emphasis on evaluating and reporting on how specific development projects are relevant to the needs of local communities or the nation as a whole.

So development journalism does not merely mean reporting about something that happened, about a speech, or a project. It is reporting about trends, processes, policy choices and their broad implications.

Development journalism is not about championing or promoting a political party, a government, or a specific personality.

Development journalism is about telling stories, publishing articles, and providing information that foster fundamental social and economic change—that help people make the right health choices; that educate farmers about emerging market trends, and how to employ improved farming methods; it is about exposing national policies that discriminate against the vulnerable—women, girls, the poor—and what can be done to remedy societal ills.

I must admit it is a difficult task but it’s doable task.  You have your work cut out for you.

But before you give up and think it is too hard, let me remind you of how hard those that came before you had to work to bequeath us the country we have today.

Many of our founding fathers were journalists. Hillary Teage, who wrote our declaration of independence, edited the first newspaper ever founded in Liberia–The Liberia Herald, which was founded in 1826.

The Herald was the principal source of news about the new country; it provided what we will call development news today, exhorting its readers about what they could do to improve their lives.

Another of our great early fathers, Edward Wilmot Blyden, will go on to  serve as the Editor of the Herald from—using its pages to promote the causes he held dear—integration between the settlers and the indigenous tribes.

Many of those who came before us willingly sacrificed their freedom, and chose the jail cell over the comfort of their homes because they steadfastly refused to compromise their journalistic integrity.  You know them better than I do:   Tuan Wreh, Rufus Darpoh, and Albert Porte.

Then there were those who paid the ultimate price in the performance of their journalistic duties:  Moses Washington, Tommy Raynes, Klohn Hinneh, Sekou Kromah; Charles Gbenyon.

So every time you are tempted to throw in the towel and give up because you believe your working conditions are not the most optimal; or because you believe that powerful forces are out to frustrate your efforts to inform and educate your audience, think about these men; think about the powerful examples they set for you; the heroic roles they all played in making it possible for you to enjoy the freedom you enjoy to practice your craft today.

And as you do so, I have no doubt that you will resolve to carry on—to be the best possible journalist you can be; to practice your craft in service to a larger goal:  building a stable,  truly democratic  and prosperous  Liberia that serves the interest of all of its people.

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.

KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED BY

SAMUEL KOFI WOODS, II

LEGAL CONSULTANT– LIBERIA LAW SOCIETY

ON THE OCCASION OF THE INSTALLATION OF

THE LEADERSHIP OF THE NATIONAL LABOR CENTER

Samuel Kofi Woods
Samuel Kofi Woods

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2017

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.

SOLIDARITY FOREVER! SOLIDARITY FOREVER! SOLIDARITY FOREVER! FOR THE UNION MAKES US STRONG!

I THANK YOU

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