From football pitch to presidency, Liberia’s President-elect, George Weah, comes to reckoning with an uncommon privilege to set an all-new record, both in his sojourn in life and the political trajectory of his country, writes Olawale Olaleye
After some pretty long wait, Liberia’s ex-international football superstar and candidate of the Coalition for Democratic Change, Mr. George Weah, was recently announced winner of the country’s presidential run-off. With the results, Weah clearly beat the sitting Vice-President and standard bearer of the Unity Party, Mr. Joseph Boakai, in the first democratic transfer of power in decades, after two shattering civil wars.
As it is, Weah will be replacing the incumbent and first female president in Africa, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who took over the affairs of Africa’s oldest republic in 2006 and served two terms dictated by Liberia’s constitution.
Liberia’s National Election Commission (NEC) claimed Weah won an insurmountable 61.5 per cent of the votes, which was delayed several weeks after a legal challenge from Boakai. The NEC said with 98.1 per cent of all votes counted, the vice-president had only secured 38.5 per cent support in votes.
Expectedly, however, the streets of Liberia were immediately thrown into weird jubilation ahead of the official announcement of results. Liberians had streamed to the polls on Tuesday, December 26 to finish off what they started in October of last year but which ended in a stalemate as they tried to elect a new president. The campaign to replace Johnson-Sirleaf was indeed testy.
Although Weah won the first round in October with 38.4% of the vote, while Boakai received 28.8%, the National Elections Commission could not however declare him winner, because neither of them garnered more than 50% of the vote as required by the constitution of the country. A runoff, which was initially scheduled for November 7, was called off following claims of fraud and “gross irregularities” filed by Boakai’s party and another smaller party. Soon, those claims were dismissed and a December runoff date was set.
With a population of 4.6 million people, Liberia had been ravaged by civil war, the Ebola virus and a systemic corruption , coupled with the fact that it hasn’t had a democratic transfer of power since 1944. After Johnson-Sirleaf took office in January 2006, she oversaw years of peace and stability despite sprouting problems and challenges, especially alleged corruption.
In 2011, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Liberian activist, Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni rights activist Tawakkol Karman. They were chosen “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
However, Boakai, 73, has a long history in government, with service to the nation spanning more than 35 years. He had served in various positions in government, private sector, agro-related, church and even civil society. And in all of those responsibilities, Boakai was believed to have exhibited exemplary qualities, which typified his background. As Sirleaf’s running mate in 2005 and 2011, he had served as the country’s agriculture minister and managed entities such as Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation.
But in spite of his well-off resume, Liberians sought change and would rather Weah, 51, was elected president, moving forward in their tottering democratic journey. Weah, who became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1997, has had a longstanding commitment to humanitarian activities. The former AC Milan soccer star has worked to publicise immunisation campaigns and promote vocational training schools where former child soldiers and other war-affected youth could learn new skills.
Interestingly, Weah’s election this year marked his third bid to lead Liberia. His choice became very popular especially amongst the youths, because they believed he could build on Johnson-Sirleaf’s major achievement in office, which is keeping the country out of war and together. Yet, Sirleaf’s government has been plagued with corruption charges, high unemployment and a poor health system that is yet to find its footing after the devastating 2014 Ebola epidemic, which killed more people in Liberia than anywhere else around the world. Although Weah is coming into office with limited experience in public service, he has a huge responsibility to turn the tide for Liberia, riding on the assertion that there is nothing esoteric about governance for as long as sound and effective leadership is delivered.
His only experience in government has been his three years as a senator, representing Monrovia, a time during which his opponents criticised him for failing to speak up during legislative sessions. Whilst in his personal capacity, Weah might be unable to call on an international network of allies to help as Sirleaf could and did, that may not be anything to worry about anymore as he would be able to pull strings in his capacity as the President of Liberia.
Whether or not his opponents like it, fate has dumped on his laps, the challenge of rewriting the history of Liberia. A typical rags-to-riches story, Weah emerged from the slums of Gibraltar with some eerie ability to weave behind a soccer ball all the way up the pitch, and eventually gained fame as a world-class striker for AC Milan, an Italian team. He won the soccer world’s greatest individual honour, the Ballon d’Or, and was named by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as the African Player of the Century.
But he never got to compete in the World Cup, because Liberia was at the time engulfed in civil war, instigated by President Charles Taylor, during the height of his soccer years and was therefore unable to muster up 10 other players good enough to qualify. Ironically, Taylor is now locked up in a British prison for war crimes. Strangely, Weah’s vice-president elect is Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor. With ‘Team Weah’ now in the State House, Liberia has begun a new journey in her quest for yet a new beginning. Whilst the election of Weah is being interpreted to mean a verdict on the Johnson-Sirleaf presidency in some way and without underwriting her achievements, expectations are high too that Weah would justify his election and tenacity of will by setting new standards and record in the administration of Liberia. Nothing but fate has brought Weah thus far and it is yet to be seen how much of God’s hand he is able to spot in his election victory in spite of his palpable inexperience.
Yet, to move Liberia forward from where it is now, Weah must deliver on certain indicators. The first is the economy otherwise called the “wheelbarrow economy”. What currently obtains is more or less a grounded economy. Although questions about his knowledge of the economy keep coming up, he would have to live up to billings he desires to change the Liberian story for good.
The other indicator is the scourge of corruption. Like most African countries, Liberia is plagued by corruption, which has remained its undoing. In spite of Johnson-Sirleaf’s spirited effort to change things, her government was still reduced significantly through allegations of corruption, which took the shine off it. There is also the fear of having to tame certain people tagged anti-development elements. These are individuals who tag along with every administration regardless of who is in power or which party brought him onboard. These are also individuals with history of conspiracy against the prosperity of Liberia. Some of them have been identified to include allies of Johnson-Sirleaf and former president Charles Taylor.
Although he recently vowed to tame corruption as well as repair the failing economy, Weah must admit that talk is cheap and it is for that reason he must always walk his talk if he must be seen to be the change that Liberia seeks.