Samuel Kofi Woods
Photo by Eddie Adams
"I saw a society yearning to be convinced about the essence of conviction. I saw a society where there was a vacuum. I saw a society that required more sacrifice and understanding. There is a universal contest between good and evil. And I believe that eventually good will triumph over evil. But good cannot triumph over evil by retreating from evil - good must confront evil."
Founding director of the foremost human rights organization in Liberia, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Sam Woods managed on a shoestring budget to write and distribute to the international community reliable reports of abuses in the midst of a brutal civil war. His work led to the liberation of more than fifty inmates at the Central Prison in Monrovia, many of whom were held without charges after arbitrary arrests. The human rights radio program he established broadcasts reports of arrests and extrajudicial executions, and educated tens of thousands of Liberians about their rights. Woods, his family, and his staff were under threat from government authorities, and he was forced into hiding and exile on several occasions. Though many of his colleagues were murdered, Woods returned again and again to his work for justice and peace.
He is currently Liberia’s Minister of Public Works and has also served as Minister of Labor.
Woods joined with other defenders including Bishop Desmond Tutu to speak at an August 2008 Speak Truth to Power event in Cape Town, South Africa and returned to Liberia with the Speak Truth to Power campaign in 2009.
I was born in a zinc shack in a suburb of Monrovia; a place called Bushrod Island. It is a place of squalor as a result of migrants from the rural areas coming to seek job opportunities. I was one of twenty or so children of my father—that alone created difficulties—no educational opportunities, no housing. And those conditions imposed upon me a perception of the world—the perpetual conflict between good and evil as expressed through political, social, and economic systems.
Liberia comes from the word "Liberty." Our capital city is Monrovia, named after one of the American presidents, James Monroe. Our first president was Joseph Jenkins Roberts. I am told he has a monument in Virginia. There is a deep link between the United States and our country.
We have always been an American protégé. Back in 1821, a group of freed slaves entered Liberia’s shores and settled on a place called Providence Island. Most of those people were mulattos, products of relationships between slave masters and slaves of the households sent back to Liberia by a group called the American Colonization Society, a philanthropic organization in the abolitionist movement. Our constitution, our laws, our way of life, everything that we attempted was modeled after American society. The hope of these freed slaves was to create a paradise in Africa for all people seeking freedom and liberty. As a result, we’ve had a number of different settlers in Liberia, which in fact is part of the problem. Those from North America were considered skilled politicians, because they were related to the slave master and had the opportunity to be close to the family. Those from South America were basically unskilled plantation workers. There were those from the West Indies, from the Congo, and others recaptured by the British warships and American ships when the abolitionist movement was very strong. Within that group there were contests for power while at the same time erecting a political and social system that marginalized the vast majority, who were indigenous. Add this to the racial crisis: if you had lighter skin you were considered superior to those of darker skin, which was reflected in the social relationships and in the political relations.
Not until the 1870s did the first dark-skinned black president emerge in Liberia. His name was Edwin James Roye. After a few years he was overthrown and allegedly murdered. The Liberian crisis has roots in the problem of identity, of those who came into the country, those whom they met in the country, and those who felt marginalized by the legal, political, and social processes. Legitimacy was an issue and the government tried to assert its authority in the rural areas by imposing rule by force. In that process, a lot of violations occurred: a lot of internecine wars where so-called indigenous people were killed. This division grew over the next century.
In 1980 there was a coup in which the president was killed, and a leadership of the so-called indigenous came to power. Those who carried out the coup were from the army. The military in our country was generally illiterate, and for ten brutal years Liberia submerged into violence, chaos, and anarchy.
When the coup occurred I was still in high school, agitating for change. We thought it had finally come. Within a year, we students called for the government to establish a timetable to return the country to democratic elections—we became the enemy. In time, student leaders were arrested. A campaign of intimidation, harassment, and arrests followed that period. We also began a campaign for academic freedom and social justice. I personally participated in a number of demonstrations between 1981 and 1985, until I was elected student president of the university, and a leader of the national student organization in 1986. I was hunted on many occasions for my position on national issues. I went into hiding many times for my life. In November 1995, the first military invasion of Liberia occurred. It was brutally crushed by the late Samuel K. Doe. An orgy of killings and disappearances ensued. He used the opportunity to pursue his perceived enemies. A group of armed men stormed my home in search of me. I miraculously escaped. When I completed my university degree in economics and management, I was arrested two days after graduation. The government unofficially banned me from employment and travel. I couldn’t find a job. I was denied the right to travel. I was virtually a noncitizen. It was difficult to get jobs from the private organizations, because they were all afraid. My documents from the university were censured. I remained in Liberia in spite of repeated calls to leave the country for exile. I totally rejected this idea.
I decided to take the government to court. I felt that my situation should be pursued in the court of law. I consulted many law firms. No one wanted to represent me. Everyone was afraid. I was compelled to enroll at the law school with the intent to defend those who would face a similar predicament in the future. In March of 1986, I got arrested and went to prison. That experience opened my eyes to the horrible situation in the prison. I encountered people who were detained illegally, without charge, without due process, without the right to lawyers, with nobody to represent them. I was seriously motivated. When I got out, I went right to law school. By 1989, we had a civil war on our hands, and I was continuously harassed to join one of the many factions because I was a student activist. I refused to believe that violence was the solution.
In November 1991, I met Mike Posner of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. He had just had a discussion with the archbishop, Michael Francis, who is a very committed man, about trying to institutionalize the idea of respect for human rights. He asked me to start the Justice and Peace Office of the archdiocese. I had no road map, no training, just a desk and a typewriter. It was a difficult situation. Liberia was experiencing war, and the concept of human rights was new to the population in general.
Upon reflection, after seven years, I am proud to say that ours has become one of the strongest Catholic Justice and Peace Commissions in Africa and probably internationally. We have been able to provide free legal service to indigents—people who cannot afford legal fees for their defense. We represented journalists and political prisoners. We represented factional leaders who were detained illegally, people who were killed or reported missing. We ran radio programs on human rights and reconciliation. We have now been able to conduct training for journalists on conflict resolution, human rights, and peace building. We have been able to do it for youth, for women’s organizations, the police, and the law enforcement institutions. And more than that, we have served as a central link in civil society. Because of that I have suffered a lot of attempts on my life.
In April 1996 during street battles among factions for the city, I was pursued by some of them. My hideout was ransacked twice one night. By God’s guidance, I was not in. The American marines subsequently evacuated me from Liberia. A month later, after fighting subsided, I returned—much to the astonishment of many. I had been warned by friends and relatives not to return. For the past ten years, I have slept in a different place every night, for security reasons. I have been moving from place to place, often sleeping only two hours at a time for well over a decade.
It doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t make you a normal person. But you are propelled because you are doing a good deed. You are trying to sacrifice so that other people can survive, so they see hope and meaning in living. In June 1998, last year, the Liberian Information Ministry declared me an antigovernment agent while on a visit to Europe, and I was told by my European friends not to go home. I went back. And strangely enough, when I arrived at the airport, there were citizens waiting for me to work on their cases and to stop any attempt to have me arrested. It was said that the government intended to charge me with sedition for statements that I have made against forced child labor in the southeastern parts of our country. The purported charge was never effected.
In September, government troops reportedly killed some people while attempting to arrest a former warlord. I condemned it and called for an investigation. The statement was issued on October 9, 1998. I had to travel for a three-day meeting in Brussels. While I was away, the police impounded my office vehicle and the driver was flogged. It was reported that I would be arrested for treason upon my return based on official allegations levied against me by some officials of government. Everyone advised me not to return again. I said I would return and plead my case if there was any. And I went back to Liberia after about a month. When I went home, my mother (my father died a few years ago) was shocked to see me. She couldn’t believe I was in the country—she had written me a letter saying not to return, that even if she died, I should not return for her funeral. My office, the entire leadership, wrote me a letter too, also urging me not to return to Liberia. My colleagues, my friends, everyone wrote to advise of the potential danger of my return.
But I saw a society yearning to be convinced about the essence of conviction. I saw a society where there was a vacuum. I saw a society that required more sacrifice and understanding of my conviction. I wasn’t frightened because I believe that life means nothing if the pursuit of the truth cannot be achieved. We don’t want to be heroes or to be foolish. We want to be normal people. And to be normal people is to pursue the truth, though it’s very difficult. There is always a universal contest between good and evil. And I believe that eventually good will triumph over evil. But good cannot triumph over evil by retreating from evil—good must confront evil.
At some point in your life you are confronted with the fear of death. You walk into the corridor of death and you know this moment might be your last. And everything about life leaves your body—yet you survive. It takes time but then life returns and you see how meaningless you are as a human being—how much you can gain by sacrificing for others. I went through this.
I went to prison one time and while in prison one of the guards came to me and threatened my life. He pulled out his gun and put it in my mouth. And he said to me, "Who do you think you are?" It was late and this guy was drunk. I didn’t have clothes on. I was powerless. The gun was already in my mouth. I could have died and each time I reflect on it, it’s like—I was gone, gone.
My life has always been, at every moment of the day, every moment, a surprise. I walk to different places and people hold my hands and can’t believe that I am still living. Because all that was heard about me was that I would be killed in a moment. Society needs people who can help by their sacrifice, by their conviction. Because when you confront evil you provide a moral alternative for society. When a nation is so consumed in evil, it’s difficult to see alternatives, unless people of conviction stand up! Sometimes you can even convince other people to join the struggle. You can even convert those of evil heart to good. I have seen that happen.
In July 1997, Charles Taylor was elected president. In November, a former ally who had broken away from him (along with his wife, his cousin, and his bodyguard) was killed on the highway. Everyone was afraid. It happened on a Friday when he disappeared. This man had been one of the most serious critics of the Justice and Peace Commission, of my work, and of the archbishop. And his family could go nowhere else but to me. His children were afraid to say that he was arrested and subsequently killed by agents of the government. They needed a voice. And I became their voice. We filed a case against the government to produce the bodies. We provided evidence that it was the security forces that arrested this man. We launched a sustained international campaign. We insisted on investigation. We went to court. I personally led the defense until President Taylor was forced to admit that the man was actually killed at the hands of the security forces. In this man’s death, he was confronted with the truth: in his grave he was confronted with a reality that we have no malice against anyone.
We also sent a signal that we will stand up for anyone’s right to due process. And this is what motivated us. This is what keeps us going. We do it with a clear conscience. President Taylor didn’t understand why I would take the government to court. I told him, "Mr. President, I am doing this because I want you and many others to know that human rights are universal. Everyone is entitled to them, no matter how high or low she or he is. And we must be here to ensure that those guarantees exist. So even you, Mr. President, if you are arrested in this country, we will defend you." Taylor couldn’t understand it. He offered me a job on the National Human Rights Commission set up by the government. In some cases, I was offered money. I said no. I have said to many people that he has been able to defeat a lot of people because they have sold their souls, they have compromised their convictions.
I became Catholic in 1992. But I have never been a good churchgoing Catholic. I have seen religion as my relationship with God and my fellow man—for me this is religion. And I believe that the divine mystery is how I have been delivered many times. How I have decided to sleep in one place one night, and I stayed until about midnight and decided to change all of a sudden. And then that very night it was attacked. There’s no answer. I don’t have any special powers that lead me to understand how I survive these things without arms, without violence, without security protection. But I have a deep and abiding confidence and faith in God.
My life has a toll in terms of keeping the family going. At some moments you almost feel that you are sacrificing them in pursuit of your conviction. Sometimes it appears as if you are being very selfish, for these young children have not developed enough to have convictions of their own. The instability in their lives, the movement from one country to another: they were in Ghana and they went back to Liberia and now they are in The Hague. They had to leave Liberia, using different travel documents. My daughter had to deny that she was my daughter. A young girl of about eleven had to say, "I don’t know that man." How painful it is for children to go through this! And you call your son on the phone and he says, "Don’t come home, the police are looking for you."
My fiancée has been with me for a long time. She suffered a similar fate. She has been a driving force in trying to propel me in what I have to do. She is convinced that it is right. She has motivated me in that direction. She has been helping me to understand where the children are involved. They are growing in understanding and are helping me, too. They have been so molded by this experience that, rightly or wrongly, they too have been consumed by this conviction. There were times that we were not able to be so close because I was always on the run, always away from them. But we have become very close and even closer now. My friends, coworkers, relatives, Liberian people, and the international community have been of great inspiration, too.
You are not motivated because you are a decent person, no. Sometimes it is a calling. And when there is a calling, there is no explanation for what motivates you. There is no explanation for your action, or what propels you. It has to be a vocation. Every one of us has been born into this world with a mission. It has to be fulfilled. Whether I like it or not God intended to use me in society in this way. I hold no malice against anyone. I believe hatred blurs the human sensibilities and diminishes the spirit. Those who hate me, criticize me, and vilify me, purify my conviction and strengthen my courage.
We all live in different societies. We all have to face our different circumstances and challenges. But we must find our common ground. We must work together. And I think we can all make this world a better place. When I attend funeral ceremonies and have to say something, this is my favorite quote by Etienne de Grellet: "I know I shall pass this way but once. And if there is anything I can do, any kindness I show, any good thing I can do, let me do it now, for I shall not pass this way again."
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)