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Liberia's new leader | The World Weekly

A football stadium once again proved a place of victory for George Weah. On Monday, the former AC Milan striker strode across a football pitch in Liberia’s capital Monrovia to the familiar chants of enthusiastic fans. Yet, this was no sports match. This was the day the former footballing star became his country’s president. 

The Samuel Kanyon Doe stadium provided a familiar setting for the rather unfamiliar event. Liberia has not experienced a peaceful, democratic transition of power in over 70 years. However, this was not the sole reason for the sense of novelty that hung over the stadium that day. 

The man in the limelight was Liberia’s own international success story, the only African footballer to have won FIFA’s world player of the year award. Mr. Weah is now the only footballer in the world to have become a head of state.

Hailing from one of the poorest areas of Monrovia, Mr. Weah was signed to play for AS Monaco at the age of 21. He since enjoyed stints at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Paris Saint Germain, AC Milan, Manchester City and Chelsea, ending his career in 2003. 

'King George'

President Weah’s humble origins, paired with sporting prowess and an international celebrity status, have earned him mass support, especially amongst the nation’s young, poor population. In the December election, Mr. Weah cruised to a relatively easy victory over then Vice-President Joseph Boakai, taking 61.5% of the vote.

“His background as a sportsman made his victory possible,” Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, a Liberian environmental and human rights activist, told The World Weekly. “His generosity is also an important factor.”

However, the transition from pitch to politics was not seamless. In 2005, Mr. Weah made his first, unsuccessful bid for the presidency as part of the Congress for Democratic Change party. Outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the presidency that year and subsequently served two six-year terms. 

Ms. Sirleaf, a Harvard University alumna, spent time working for the World Bank and the UN. In comparison, the ex-footballer seemed under-qualified and inexperienced. 

Mr. Weah has since earned a business degree from a US university and occupied a Senate position. Many Liberians now seem confident of his ability to rule, but he may have to do more to prove his credibility on the international stage.

“It remains to be seen whether Weah will be able to use his celebrity status to raise additional funds abroad,” says Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk and strategy consultancy. “Surpassing Nobel laureate Johnson-Sirleaf in this regard seems unlikely.”

The first elected female head of state in Africa, Ms. Sirleaf obtained the cancellation of billions of dollars of foreign debt and secured millions in aid. She is widely credited for bringing stability to Liberia following two consecutive civil wars. 

From 1989 until 2003, Liberia was one of West Africa’s more unstable nations, ravaged by internal conflict and clashing with neighbouring Sierra Leone. Now there is a more positive, if fragile, political trajectory in Liberia and the wider region.

Indeed, Mr. Weah seems to have gained the support of fellow West African leaders. Presidents from Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Togo were all present at his inauguration.

Democracy in West Africa

Military regimes, civil wars and long-term leaders used to stifle democracy across much of West Africa. However, in recent years, peaceful transitions of power have become the rule, rather than the exception.

Ghana is one of the most stable democracies in the region. Ghanaians have had a functioning multi-party system since 1992. It remains a model for others to follow. Democratic breakthroughs have occurred more recently in Guinea and Guinea Bissau, with each country gaining a democratically-elected leader for the first time in decades.

Sierra Leone, like Liberia, suffered civil wars until the early 2000s. In 2012, the country held its first elections without UN supervision in years. Although Liberia and Sierra Leone have a turbulent history, relations appear to be improving following a 2007 non-aggression pact.

In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2015 marked the first peaceful transfer of power to the opposition party since the end of military rule in 1999. However, he is also remembered for his role in the 1983 military coup. In Togo, President Faure Gnassingbe came to power through familial succession, but has since been re-elected in elections recognised by the African Union.

Liberian democracy is neither as new nor as fragile as that of some of its neighbours. Ms. Sirleaf steered the nation away from conflict and showed no signs of attempting to exceed her two-term limit. However, the Liberia that Mr. Weah has inherited faces serious problems.

Liberia’s economy has suffered since commodity prices dropped in 2011. The 2013 Ebola outbreak caused further damage, killing almost 5,000 people. The percentage of Liberians living below the poverty line is now as high as 64%.

Allegations of misconduct plagued Ms. Sirleaf’s presidency. Persistent accusations of corruption went uninvestigated and multiple logging companies are believed to have operated illegally in the country. Ms. Sirleaf also came under fire for nepotism, having appointed three of her sons to top government positions.

The task ahead

Disillusioned with the ruling elite, many saw a vote for Mr. Weah as a ticket for change.

The economy is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the new president. Mismanagement of the country’s economic woes could put a serious dent in his current popularity, alienating the young, unemployed Liberians who make up much of his voter base.

In order to stand by his supporters, observers say, President Weah must generate more jobs and better training opportunities for the country’s youth. Investment in the private sector, especially in Liberian-owned businesses, would help the economy, but some fear a focus on business growth could sideline social issues.

“Maximising corporate earnings and improving quality of life do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive,” wrote Mr. Siakor in an article he co-authored with Liberian academic Robtel Neajai Pailey, “but in Liberia the former has always trumped the latter.”

Corruption remains a hot topic. If Mr. Weah is to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor, experts stress the need for transparency surrounding government ministry budgets, as well as investigations into individual acts of corruption.

“He has to make a shift,” Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian researcher and political analyst, told TWW. “He has to introduce radical reforms and a system in which individuals who are alleged to have participated in corruption are investigated and prosecuted to the fullest.”

However, President Weah’s choice of Jewel Howard-Taylor as vice-president has raised eyebrows. Ms. Howard-Taylor is the ex-wife of former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. Mr. Taylor is now serving a 50-year prison sentence, accused of crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone's armed conflict.

On Tuesday, President Weah announced other cabinet appointments. “The list so far is clearly tilted towards repaying political and personal debts of gratitude,” says Mr. Liewerscheidt, “suggesting continuity rather than a new dawn in Liberian politics.”

Liberia has taken significant steps forward in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. As a footballer and then politician, Mr. Weah forged his own path towards success and prosperity. Millions of Liberians hope that this time he will take them with him.

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