Liberia: A former Youth Advocate Who Fled Ex-President Taylor’s Web Embraces Underdog Role in Race for Senate
Monrovia – Kimmie Weeks has come of age. Since his early days as a youth advocate and child rights activist, Weeks has established himself as a strong voice against children’s rights.
Only 14, and matured beyond his years when he heard about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a young Weeks began organizing community initiatives to promote the CRC and the concept that “children should be seen AND heard, starting with early projects that were small community-based initiatives, which he and groups of children his age carried out to help their own community.
Convincing Disenchanted Voters a Challenge
Weeks’ advocacy has inspired a new generation of youths like Abraham Keita and Satta Sheriff who are carrying on the torch and speaking truth to power.
Now, 38, Weeks, running as an independent, is hoping that his body of work as an advocate and activist will translate into victory when he contests the upcoming Senatorial race to fill the vacuum created in the aftermath of the death of Senator Geraldine Doe-Sheriff.
Over the past few weeks, he has taken his message to small communities in and around Montserrado and making a strong case as to why he deserves to be in the Senate.
“I decided to step into the Senatorial race because over the last several months I had heard the complaints from too many people in the county who were simply disappointed and frustrated with the Senators and Representatives who they had elected,” Weeks says.
He adds: “People complained that their elected officials were severely underperforming, not delivering on campaign promises and were simply not visible. As a result, a lot of people had decided that they would no longer even vote in elections.”
It is a challenge Weeks and others looking to upset the ruling party are facing, convincing disenchanted voters to show up at the polls which many predict would be a low turnout.
The candidate says while Montserrado has many which must be tackled concomitantly, he will prioritize the issues of education, health and the lack of jobs for young people – critical areas, he says must be addressed and focused on. “Security is also critical considering the rise in crimes and sexual based violence. This is why we must focus on increasing budget line items to ensure that our security forces are better equipped and better prepared to fight crime.”
For Weeks, the unsettling realities are becoming obvious. “I came to realize that a lot of the people who have been elected in the past have gone to the Senate not with an interest in benefiting the people but on benefiting themselves. I decided to run to make the difference and to work hard in the interest of the people and in a way that would demonstrate how a great Senator should conduct themselves. I have the vision, passion, dedication that can transform this great county.”
But even Weeks knows convincing residents of capital is a daunted task for which he is giving his best shot. “The people of Montserrado can entrust me with the votes because I have a long history and track record working to make a difference in the lives of the Liberian people. I co-founded my first organization back when I was fourteen years old and have continued my work to develop the lives of the people since. Our people have a saying that if the Christmas will be good, you can tell from the eve. Considering the many, many years I have worked on human development projects in Liberia there is 100% certainty that I will continue to work in the interest of my people when I reach to the Senate.”
Broadly, Weeks says he plans to focus on three areas at the legislature: education, health and the creation of jobs because he believes that people invest in these areas, it would pave the way for creating a better Liberia.
Grounded in Advocacy During Taylor’s Reign
Weeks who co-founded Voice of the Future Inc. (VOF) in 1994 along with Richelieu Allison, is hoping to bring the same organizational skills to the Senate. VOF set its mission to work as an advocacy organization for the rights of children in Liberia. Over the years, it developed close connections with the United Nations and worked as an implementing partner for the United Nations Children’s Fund(UNICEF). VOF provided informal health care and education to children across Liberia through a network of more than 4,000 volunteers.”
In 1996 Weeks, founded and chaired the Children’s Disarmament Campaign. With support from UNICEF, the campaign lobbied a deadline for the disarmament of child soldiers, meeting warring faction, political, spiritual leaders and heads of civic societies to set a date for the disarmament of child soldiers. Several marches, indoor programs and publicity campaigns were also held to attract attention to the cause.
In 1997, with the holding of general disarmament in Liberia, Weeks established Liberia’s first children’s information service, The Children’s Bureau of Information, which worked alongside Search for Common Ground/Talking Drum Studio to produce radio programs aimed at reintegrating child soldiers into the community. The 15-minute weekly broadcasts are aired on three local radio stations.
In 1998, the Liberian government of Charles Taylor made several attempts to assassinate Weeks because of a report he issued on the Liberian government’s involvement in the training of child soldiers. Fearing for his safety, Weeks went into hiding for more than three weeks before crossing into neighboring Ivory Coast under an assumed name and disguised as a traditional dancer. Only 17 years old when he fled his country, he was granted political asylum in the United States.
Top Priorities for Weeks: Health, Education, Jobs
For Weeks, who many see as the underdog in the race, his body of work is a living testament to what he knows he brings to the table in his quest for the Senate “Our people have a saying that if the Christmas will be good, you can tell from the eve. Considering the many, many years I have worked on human development projects in Liberia there is 100% certainty that I will continue to work in the interest of my people when I reach to the Senate.”
He says if elected he will push for annual increment in the budget for education with special focus on early childhood and vocational training, strengthen Free and compulsory primary education law, lobby for the prioritization of funding for teacher training and improved salaries for public school teachers, establishment of an all-female vocational training center and work toward the creation of a National Youth Service Program.
Weeks says he will also advocate for annual increment in the budget for health with special focus on referral hospitals and community-based clinics, push to classify health care as a major priority and mandate 100% disbursement of the health budget, ensure budget allocation to build a health facility for people with physical challenges especially children and work toward the establishment of a special fund and require major garbage landfills like Wein Town to have a facility to process waste to be use as compost and eventually for plastics to be recycled.
Tapping into his youthful experience, Weeks says he will work toward requiring businesses to provide internship/job training opportunities to high school and college students, agriculture incentives and subsidies for farmers producing on more than 5 acres of land advocate for broader support for tourism, which will create more jobs. He says he will also reduce interest on microloans institution to attract them to Liberia and strengthen and propose legislation that help small and medium businesses start and grow.
Weeks says he will also push for the reduction and place a cap on the salaries of all legislators and reinvest the savings in education, health and the creation of jobs. “I will push for regular audits of the Legislature before each election cycle, to ensure transparency and accountability and support referendum to shorten the terms for Senators and Representatives.
Weeks says he will also hold broad based consultations and support bills to protect girls and women, advocate for a budget line item to support the development of the arts (music and movies) and also advocate for a budget line item for the creation of a national athletic sports training center.
Lessons from a Hard Life
Lamenting the recent wave of attacks and abuses against women, Weeks says his platform will directly impact women. “The pillars outlined in my platform are all areas that directly impact and are important for women in Liberia. When we improve the quality of our educational system and provide more vocational training options our women benefit. When we improve our health care delivery system it ensures that our women are not dying during child birth or from preventable and curable diseases. When we invest in creating jobs it gives our women decent and meaningful employment. When we invest in growing small and medium enterprises and of course providing interest free micro-loans our women also benefit and are able to see their markets and business grow and expand. From my overall background of starting and running various women empowerment program through Youth Action International I will continue to champion causes for women at the level of the Senate.”
Weeks, who grew up in Paynesville with a single mother, Estenia Ntow, who was not well for most of his life, is counting on his upbringing and boyish adolescence he hopes will convince voters that he understands what it is to go through pains and struggles.
At the onset of the civil war, when he and his mom were forced to leave their home and taken to Fendall campus, Weeks recalls a near death experience from starvation and disease. “It was during that time that I dedicated my life to make making a difference in the lives of others. I was nine at that point and did not know how or what I would do, but that became my life-long passion.”
He attended the Isaac A. Davids School and later went to the Rock International Christian Academy. “By the time I was seventeen and in the 12th grade, I was at loggerheads with the government of former President Taylor regarding a report I had released on its involvement in the training of child soldiers. Subsequently, a friendly international government help me leave Liberia and I ended up in the United States.”
In the US, Weeks received full scholarships and completed his high school education at a private boarding school, did his undergrad at Amherst College, rated the #1 liberal arts college, and did his advance degrees at the University of Pennsylvania.
Once it was safe to do so, Weeks returned to Liberia in 2007 to start an organization called Youth Action International which over the years has impacted thousands of people across the country.
He has also served as Corporate Communications Strategist for Cellcom and later Orange Liberia and in 2012, he was appointed Chairman of the Board for the Liberia Water and Sewer where I served until the transition of government in 2018.
Weeks says his education, track record of executing humanitarian projects, contacts around the world, experience in the private, public and non-profit sector sets him apart from the rest of the candidate, boasting, “I cannot be matched in those areas”.
Honestly, Fearing No Foe
In addition, Weeks says, there is no other candidate who has been working to address national issues since they were fourteen years old. “There is also no candidate who has committed that they will give 100% of their salaries and benefits to community development projects, which leads me to believe that the other candidates are like everybody else and are simply trying to get to the Senate to pocket lots of money.”
Confident in his credentials and pedigree, Weeks, when asked which one of his rivals he fears the most, declared: “In all honesty, there is no rival that I fear this is why people are starting to see me as the dark horse in the race. I believe that those with political party affiliations are weighted down by the baggage of their parties and political leaders. Most of the other independent candidate have name recognition and other challenges so there is nobody I really worry about. My greatest challenge is about continuing to get my message and platform out to the masses.”
For the foreseeable future, Weeks is looking toward changing perceptions about the legislature and breaking the distrusts many Liberians see amongst those currently occupying the corridors of the legislature. “We as a nation are in trouble,” he says. “The Legislature should be the first and most powerful branch of government, but I believe they have lost their way. They are passing laws like EBOMAF and ETON which are not in our best interest, they are confirming law school students as judges and they are impeaching sitting justices on groups that are not impeachable.”
Weeks says the fact that lawmakers have no problems taking home US$17,000 in salary and benefits in a country where a lot of people are struggling to put food on the table, pay their kids fees or where hospital and clinics lack drugs. is outrageous. “Why should a poor country like ours spend so much money on lawmakers? We need to drastically reduce and cap their salaries. People should go to the Senate to serve and not to make money. This is also why I am surprised that all of the other Senatorial candidates are taking weak or no stance at all on the issue of reducing salary and benefits for legislators.”
In addition, the state of the economy deeply worries the candidate who says he is concerned that the government is not doing enough in the short and long term to fix it. “We need to really focus on a long-term plan and start to put it in place to ensure that we do not continue to nose dive.”
Fighting Graft on Agenda
Additionally, Weeks says, Liberians continue to take corruption lightly. “We are still taking corruption lightly. If we are to begin to work to address it then we must elevate the LACC and give it prosecutorial powers. We must also open a special court specifically focuses on matters of corruption so that perpetrators can be tried rapidly.”
More importantly, the candidate says, it would be key for authorities to explore ways to find savings in the budget. This is why he says he is proposing to cut the salary and benefits of Senators to $1,500 per month, thus ensuring that our Senators receive less then Senators in the State of Iowa which has 9 billion in tax collections, but pay their Senators $3,100. “We also must increase revenue by slapping on a sin tax to alcohol and tobacco, which will race more revenue while at the same time serving as a deterrent for young people.”
Plea to Voters: Don’t Vote on Party Lines
Weeks says unless the country nursing a struggling economy begins to take the agriculture sector seriously, it is going nowhere. “We import approximately 200 million dollars in rice. That hard currency we are sending to China and Thailand and elsewhere when we could be growing that rice right here. By investing in agriculture, we ensure food security, create job opportunities, and take away some of the strain on our foreign exchange reserves because we won’t be importing as much.”
This is why he says he decided to throw his net in the sea of candidates looking to fill the void in the Senate. “The legislature needs somebody like me who is able to reach across the aisle and convince or cajole the other Senators to come behind bills that work in the favor of the people of Montserrado.”
As an independent candidate, he says, it makes it easier to reach out to the other Senators and breach the divide. “Because when they see me, they see an individual they can trust and not a political party that they might be suspicious off. There would therefore be more room for open dialogue and cooperation on the bread and butter issues. I am going into the Senate with a wealth of experience, background and a long history, because I am going there to focus on the issues and not to enrich myself, the difference will be very pronounced.”
Weeks says the time is ripe for the Senate to transform its image. “No longer must the workings of the Senate be clouded in darkness and secrecy. I will therefore be updating my constituents on a weekly basis as to what is going on in the Senate. Our people have the right to know what we are voting and how we are voting. We must also ensure as with other branches of government, the legislature too must be subject to an annual audit to ensure that the people’s money is being spent wisely and is accounted for.”
Declaring himself hands down as the best candidate for the job in terms of education, experience and track record, Weeks hopes voters turn out to vote while acknowledging his status as the underdog in the upcoming race. “There are some voters who worry that I do not have the numbers, so they rather vote for one of the opposition parties but a recent survey shows that a majority of the registered voters in Montserrado will vote in my favor. Secondly, we know that even political partisans who do not really like their party’s candidates are not going to vote blindly or strictly on party lines. Most of the people who are in the streets must show loyalty to their parties, but we know that most of those people are going to vote for me when they are alone in the ballot box because at that point whatever they vote is between themselves and their God.”