By D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh* (first published in several dailies in January 2015)
Little known William Gyude Moore, Liberia’s new Public Works Minister-designate, has a stocky challenge if he passes through the scrutiny of the Senate. Little known? Yes, not much is known about him in public square. Moore’s challenge and measurement of his achievement will be bordered on doing more of either of his two immediate predecessors: Attorney Samuel Kofi Woods, II and Dr. Antoinette G. Weeks.
From Knuckles To Donzo
Whether Moore intends to do more or not in the infrastructure hot seat, his appointment represents one more change. It signals another regime, a new disposition, and a new-fangled epoch at the Ministry which represents the heart of the country’s infrastructure development agenda. Take it or leave it.
Moore’s appointment brings to four the number of ministers President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has appointed to head this very significant agency of government since she took office in January 2006.
For the record, immediately upon democratically capturing state power, the President named veteran sports journalist, the late Willis Knuckles, to head the government’s most demanding agency. Knuckles’ reign was momentary. No records. And Knuckle was more or less a “John The
Baptist” preparing the way for one of Liberia’s “greatest” construction engineers—Luseni Donzo. This renowned engineer would flop on the job in three years. In spite of his degrees and records of successfully heading construction projects costing hundreds of millions dollars in the United States, Donzo failed to replicate his feat on home soil.
Donzo would be dumped out of government after his poor oversight of President Sirleaf’s first major road reconstruction project—the pavement of the Jallah Town Road. About US$2 million went wasted! The records are there. President Sirleaf pulled him down and made him advisor to her on infrastructure development. How could a man who had failed to do a single infrastructure project becomes an advisor on infrastructure is anybody’s guess.
After Donzo, the story of Public Works Ministry was too remote from finish. Two more ministers would be appointed—one, an administrator and workaholic and the other a non-performer and public nuisance—in persons of Attorney Samuel Kofi Woods and Dr. Antoinette G. Weeks respectively.
Woods To The Woods
With Donzo gone, President Sirleaf named her former Labour Minister Samuel Kofi Woods to take over the spoils at Public Works. The appointment of Woods instigated serious public criticism. Kofi Woods was misplaced, the public, the media lambasted. He was a human rights lawyer and social justice advocate—that is all he knew—with no knowledge in engineering, the critics, including this writer who has extensively covered infrastructure development, protested. Surprisingly, Woods would prove us (his critics) wrong. He would shortly make understand the harsh reality that, as an administrator, he did not need to have degrees in engineering to become an excellent Public Works Minister—in fact, the best in post war Liberia.
Appointed in May, by December 2009, Woods was making history and proving that his appointment was no mistake. On Christmas Eve 2009, Woods was leading, via road, President Sirleaf, US Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield and Chinese Ambassador Zhou Yauxia to Liberia’s historic notorious prison town of Belleh Yellah. This was the beginning of what was to come, and in three years, the Ministry of Public Works and its activities would be known across the country—from the hot and congested politically-charged city of Monrovia to the cold and tranquil woods of Lofa, Gbarpolu and RiverGee, among others.
Woods magnificent work spread from the steep Goma Hill in the thick jungles of Gbarpolu to the deadly Kambo Hill in the dense forest of Vaihun in Lofa. It would spill from the crumbled and resurrected bridges of Timbo and Sanquin in Rivercess and Sinoe and to the inaccessible Fish Town-Harper road in southeastern Liberia. Woods refused to sit behind his desk in his huge comfy office and chose to spend days in the field across the country checking on road projects and nudging contractors to build better roads. On these missions in the countryside, Woods described himself a special messenger of the President. “The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has sent me here to see about your roads, to make it better so that you people too can be able to move freely just as the other people in Monrovia,” he would always say in Zwedru, Barclayville, among others.
There may not be sufficient space to list Woods’ achievement, but the New Kru Town and Logan Town son’s stewardship is remembered for the reconstructed Monrovia-Buchanan Highway and the Vai Town Bridge (renamed King Zolu Duma Bridge). A horde of farm-to-market roads in Lofa, Bong and Nimba counties (in the woods) became accessible under Woods reign, thereby enabling rural dwellers to take their products, with much ease, to the nearest markets for transactional purposes. This was life changing!
Back to Monrovia and its environs, implemented projects included the current traffic lights in the city, rehabilitation and pavement of several neighbourhood roads such as the GSA, Neezoe-Necklay’s Town-Parker paint, Caldwell-Louisiana, Duport road to Parker Paint as well as Duport road –Du River, Police Academy and many more roads. I could go on endlessly naming many other roads and projects initiated by the workaholic patriotic Liberian. His stewardship at Public Works, in the midst of daunting financial challenges, made the ministry one of the most, if not the most responsive and productive arm of government that greatly contributed to the re-election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2011.
With such remarkable feat, evidenced by scores of local and international awards, Woods resigned abruptly in the second quarter of 2013, after his spiritual father and mentor, Catholic Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, passed away. The weeping Woods said he was leaving government to return to what he had been taught by the late Bishop—campaign for social justice, human rights and defending of the masses. Woods’ abrupt departure hurt, and those who could not appreciate him while he served later recognized the role the former student leader and now human rights lawyer played in the Sirleaf administration. Woods served well!
Weeks Made Public Works Weak
Woods left behind a big shoe to fill. President Sirleaf needed another Kofi Woods-like Minister to keep her agenda of better roads for the people on course. To continue from where Woods had stopped did not just require anyone, but one who had a better knowledge of the country’s infrastructure dilemma and an administrator who would work with those on the ground. Names of emotionally-workaholic Mary T. Broh, quiet-honest Ramsey Kumbuyah and several other names were suggested by the Public as the best to replace Woods, but the President could not relegate her responsibility to the people who elected her to office. She knew how to get the “best” from among the rest.
So the President searched amidst speculations, and three months later, Dr. Antoinette G. Weeks was named Public Works Minister. There were mixed feelings as always after such appointments. Weeks had been at the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), where sources claimed that she was on poor term with others. Carrying a degree in engineering from abroad, like Donzo, Weeks’ tenure at Public Works became apparently the worst, bringing the once bolstering government agency down to its knees.
Her administration was characterized by total non-cooperative posture with everyone—her deputies, assistant ministers, junior staff and civil servants. Weeks embarked on a fruitless venture of reforming the Ministry and condemned all that her predecessors have done and broke down the entire system and chain of communication. The once excellent and very responsive Communication Division was reportedly barred from speaking to the media on anything from the Ministry. The division became dormant! Weeks and her deputies were at war; a fist fight and mother-insults ensued between her and one deputy (Victor Smith, who the President fired), while she engineered the removal of two other deputy ministers (Yekehson and the late Christian G. Herbert) and some assistant ministers including Andrew Kear. Those were Ministers who had long-term experience at the Ministry and helped Woods achieve the feat he achieved.
Weeks broke the civil service law by demoting directors and never rescinded her decision, despite warning by the civil service agency. Nothing happened to the President’s daughter! President Daughter? Yes, that how many Liberian called her. Element of the media referred to her as “Super Minister”, while other used the “controversial minister.” She reportedly threw insults at senior and other staff and refused to sit in her office, but shared office with Deputy Ministers Victor Smith and Claude Langley. She reportedly turned on their personal computers, in their absences to dig out information, while she is reported to have yanked their phones to monitor conversation on ground that she was the Minister! Imperial she was! They would fall off. Use of four-letter words on colleagues and junior staff was reportedly common. She did not even spare the media. Ask former Sky FM talk-show host Tete Gebro.
During the first few months, President Sirleaf told Weeks at her (President) birthday party that she had not seen the Minister’s footprint. A year later, Weeks would have turned the Ministry of Public Works upside down, and causing public nuisance—showing the President her true footprint. While Woods and other would have respected religious leaders and protected the sacredness of the church and mosques, Weeks would walk into a church, yank a microphone from worshipers and smash same to the floor. Reportedly through the intervention of President Sirleaf, it would take the Liberia Council of Churches to issue an apology on Weeks’ behalf.
I would go on explaining how Liberians protested her stewardship, how she fell off with dedicated contractors, how major donors kept away from the Ministry and how she made the media her enemy, and how President Sirleaf endorsed her feat of making Public Works insignificant in the eyes of the Liberian people. Woods’ resignation brought tears, but Weeks’ sacking resonated joy. Indeed, Weeks made Public Works weak.
Can Gyude Moore Do More?
Actually, not much is known about Gyude Moore in the Liberian body politics. So, with all due respect to his personality, he remains little-known. But in the coming months, if confirmed by the Senate to take the critical post, he would be a well-known public figure whether he follows the leadership style of Woods, Weeks or introduces his own dynamics. I must admit, folks, it’s not going to be easy for Moore. Public Works is broken, and the expectation from the Liberian people is very high. He will need to bring back the donor and public confidence. It would not be easy to bring back the donors’ attention to infrastructure development immediately since Weeks and the Ebola Virus Disease shift their attention to bettering the health system. But again, we cannot improve the health system in the absence of better road infrastructure. So, there’s a connection the Moore can tap on.
Whatever the case may be, all eyes are on Moore to do more—to surpass Kofi Woods by being productive, constructive and winning the confidence of the Liberian people (first President Sirleaf) and the donor community, or outshining Weeks in further disintegrating the Ministry, weakening the government infrastructure agenda or shrinking the remaining donor confidence.
Who is This Moore?
According to background research, Moore is former Bread staffer and board member who grew up in Liberia in the 1980s. He attended school and had dreams of a bright future. Moore stopped attending school and spent his teenage years selling palm oil, dried fish, and alcohol made from sugar cane to help support his family. He finished high school in the Ivory Coast as a refugee. In 2000, Moore was visiting a friend who had pamphlets from Berea College in Berea, KY, offering scholarships for tuition. Moore went online and applied, unsure of what the application would bring. To his great joy, he was granted admission and a full tuition scholarship.
Moore became a student activist, rallying others around justice and hunger issues, and started working with Oxfam America and Bread for the World as a student representative. He also majored in political science with a focus on international affairs.
Moore left Bread to attend graduate school in foreign affairs at Georgetown University. Upon graduating, he moved back to Liberia to serve as a special assistant to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As the president’s special assistant, Moore serves a special function of aiding the president, but also providing support in her policy decisions. Before his appointment to Public Works, he served as Deputy Chief of Staff/Head of the Program Delivery Unit at Executive Office of the President since 2012.
Like Woods, Moore does not have degree in engineering, but President Sirleaf is said to trust his abilities having closely interacted with him for years now. The die is cast! Woods took Public Works to the Woods, Weeks Made It Weak: Can Gyude Moore Do More? Let’s watch the match.