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Liberia and challenges of a Weah presidency

Former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah, completed a stunning transformation from an extraordinarily talented sportsman to an accomplished politician after he was declared winner of Liberia’s presidential election late on Thursday. With 98.1 per cent of the votes counted and Weah leading by 61.5 per cent, the Liberia National Elections Commission declared him the winner of the run-off. He takes over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female president of an African country.

Campaigning on the platform of economic empowerment for a people still scarred by two bitterly-fought civil wars that lasted for 14 years, and the devastating outbreak of Ebola virus disease that threatened to wipe out entire communities, Weah was able to defeat the incumbent Vice-President, 73-year-old Joseph Boakai, who thought he could continue from where his boss, Sirleaf, ended.  It is a triumph for courage and doggedness that has seen the former ace footballer claw his way back after a previous failed attempt.

At a time when Africa is dotted with dictators who are plotting tenure elongation and how to plant either their wives or children as successors, it is heartening that Liberia is gradually building the foundation of a civic democratic culture that will ultimately lead to stability and development. The last election was the third since the end of the civil war and the ouster of the warlord, Charles Taylor. Taylor is currently serving 50 years imprisonment in Britain for crimes against humanity. It is now left for Weah to build on the 12 years of peace and stability bequeathed to the country by outgoing President Sirleaf.

Fresh from retirement as a footballer, Weah had his first shot at the presidency in 2005 and led in the first round of voting, just as he did during the last election. But confronted with the quality of a Harvard-trained former minister and World Bank executive, the then school dropout suffered a debilitating defeat. A return later as vice-presidential candidate also ended in defeat by his nemesis, Sirleaf.

Not willing to accept defeat, Weah would later claim, after defeating Sirleaf’s son, Robert, two years ago to win the senatorial seat, that he was a “born winner.” He said, “I have always won the elections, but my victories were stolen from me.” This time, he was better equipped academically after earning a degree from DeVry University, Florida, in the United States. Weah was determined to use his senatorial election victory as a stepping stone to the ultimate diadem.

But becoming the president should not be seen as an end in itself or a mere political trophy.  Still regarded by his traducers as politically inexperienced to occupy the presidential mansion, Weah should be guided by national interest at all times in running the nation’s affairs. Though criticised for cronyism and corruption, Sirleaf reasonably succeeded in rebuilding a country ravaged by civil war and saddled with crippling debts. Yet, most of Liberia’s almost five million people are mired in poverty.

An International Monetary Fund report says the lingering effects of the Ebola epidemic, the commodity price decline and the withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Liberia are delaying the economic recovery. While health care and education systems remain in a shambles, roads and electrical grids are only starting to pick up.  Driven by the relatively fast pace of the depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the U.S. dollar,  headline inflation rose from 7.3 per cent to 12.4 per cent in the first half of 2017. Other challenges include shortage of inflows of foreign exchange, rising cost of living, especially the cost of food, which is mostly imported, and gnashing unemployment.

Weah’s patriotism and love for his country’s downtrodden masses have never been in doubt. As a UNICEF ambassador, he went around preaching to the youth and erstwhile combatants, despondent as a result of the civil wars, about the need to go to school. The man who will soon be addressed as President Weah collaborated with musicians to produce records to lift the mood of his people during the Ebola Virus outbreak. But patriotism and philanthropy alone are not enough to survive the harsh realities of modern day governance; this requires a good grasp of issues bedeviling the economy and understanding of how to maintain the political stability of a country witnessing a democratic transition of power for the first time in 73 years.

Sirleaf has done so much to lay the foundation required for political consolidation and economic growth.   Weah will have to work more on the infrastructure, most of which were destroyed during the wars. He faces the challenge of fighting corruption as the country occupies the 90th position out of 176 countries surveyed by Transparency International. Weah should keep his government clean and incorruptible.

There is a serious problem of youth unemployment, which Sirleaf described as “a major threat to peace and security in Liberia.”  Weah, therefore, has to recruit the best hands he can find anywhere in the world, to help him in the mission of nation building. He should not forget to tap from the experience of the outgoing president, who has demonstrated a lot of maturity and patriotism in the handling of the elections. Quite unlike other African leaders, she refused to come out openly to campaign for Boakai, who represented her own party, the Unity Party, asking him to earn the presidency on merit. She is one of the people Weah can rely on to succeed. The former footballer-turned-politician has won the battle to the state house. Greater battles lie ahead and in these he cannot afford to fail.


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