George Weah

It is like a fairy tale story – poor kid who grew up in a slum becomes a world class footballer before going on to become president of his country. We’re talking of course about George Weah, former AC Milan and Chelsea striker, who was elected president of Liberia at the end of last month, writes Adwoa Korkoh

George Weah

In a country still limping from the wreckage of war and the ravages of ebola, the peaceful transition to power is seen as a cause for optimism, a feeling buoyed by Weah’s own supporters who regard him as a true son of son who can liberate them from their poverty.

“You’ve got a very marginal, small group of people who are doing exceedingly well and then a large majority who are just barely scraping by,” Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying.

“And a large population of that majority is the under 35-year-olds who showed up in large numbers to elect Weah.”

Weah in his Chelsea strip

But nobody expected such a wide margin of victory, she pointed out. Weah, 51, earned 61.5 percent of vote in the December 26 poll against his rival, vice-president Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party, who received 38.5 percent.

The reason for this might lie in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who has presided over the country’s affairs since 2005 following elections that marked the end of more than a decade of brutal civil war.

Making history as Africa’s first female head of state, the no-nonsense technocrat with a background in the World Bank and the UN was expected to return Liberia to the comity of nations. She did but at the price of opening up the country to foreign investors, who took over key industries like iron ore forestry, palm oil and rubber as well as, according to estimates, around half of the nation’s common land as well.

While a minority of well-connected Liberians have benefited from this, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 177th out of 188 countries on the human development index scale, which measures life expectancy, access to education and standard of living, according to the UN Development Fund. About 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line, and 1.3 million citizens live in extreme poverty, the World Food Programme estimates.

Charles Taylor during his warlord days
Vice-president elect Jewel Howard Taylor

The ebola epidemic of 2014/15 hit Liberia the hardest with almost 5,000 lives lost, exposing just how little public money had been invested in basic services like health. The fall in international commodity prices and rocketing inflation have further depleted government finances and, while Liberians celebrated Sirleaf’s joint Nobel Peace Prize award in 2011, many were equally dissatisfied with her failure to root out endemic corruption within the government.

“I think people are just tired of the status quo,” said Pailey. “They’re tired of President Sirleaf, they’re tired of Joseph Boakai.” Weah tapped into a yearning for change and widespread discontent.

For many of his supporters,Weah “represents their story. The ethos of his winning is that there is hope he will remember those hard times that he spent in Clara Town as a poor aspiring [football] player,” she added, referring to the slum in the capital Monrovia where he was raised.

Established by the US as a colony for freed American slaves and declared Africa’s first independent republic in 1847, Liberia has had a chequered history. Dominated by one party rule, a bloody military coup in 1980 represented a revolt against the Americo-Liberian elite, the descendants of slaves who though only representing around 5 per cent of the population had held sway since the country’s founding. The turmoil laid the seeds for the emergence of rival warlords and the outbreak of civil war in 1989. By 2003, when peace was finally declared, an estimated 250,000 people had been killed.

Weah’s ascent to international football stardom coincided with the country’s descent into anarchy when he was signed to Monaco by Arsene Wenger in 1988 aged 21. By 1995, having played for a number of top flight European clubs, he was named FIFA World Player of the Year, the only African ever to receive the honour.

He entered politics after his retirement from the game in 2002 and, having unsuccessfully contested the 2005 and 2011 presidential elections, is currently a senator in Liberia’s parliament. He will be sworn in as president later this month.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, rebuilt the country but on weak foundations

Weah’s resounding victory was readily conceded by Boakai, who called on his supporters to rally behind the new government, a sign of the country’s “readiness for democratic development”, said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst.  The country is “no longer an international pariah, but … a country with national institutions that are credible”, he added.

During his campaign, Weah pledged to create more jobs, provide free education and free healthcare, but details on how these are going to be achieved were sketchy. It has also been noted that members of the country’s old guard, including a number of Sirleaf loyalists, have positioned themselves in Weah’s camp, calling into question just how many of the promised changes will actually take place.

Lawrence Yealue of the Monrovia-based campaign group Accountability Lab, believes tackling corruption needs to be a government priority. “It’s a long road, but Liberians are really up for some actions [to be taken] against people who economically have really stolen from this country,” Yealue told Al Jazeera. He said the country will be closely watching what Weah proposes when he takes office.

More worrying, given Liberia’s continued political and social fragmentation, is Weah’s choice of running mate, Jewel Howard Taylor, ex-wife of former warlord turned president Charles Taylor. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2012 for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Sierra Leone civil war. In the early 1990s Taylor led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a guerilla army that took control of a large swathe of the country before ousting the government. Following a peace deal, he was elected president in 1997 and, according to the indictment of a UN special court, used his position to support a brutal rebel militia in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Although behind bars, Taylor continues to enjoy huge support and remains a divisive force in Liberia via his National Patriotic Front (NPP) party, which his former wife now leads. That’s why Weah’s decision to team up with the NPP has been described in some quarters as the  “jewel in his crown” – without Jewel Howard Taylor as his deputy he would not have won so decisively.

According to the BBC, the coalition between Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party (CDC) and the NPP came just before a phone call from the former warlord was broadcast to a gathering of his supporters on his birthday in January last year.

The call was made from inside a high-security prison in Durham, UK, where Taylor is being held. He is heard saying that “this revolution is his life” and advises his people not to betray the party: “Go back to base and everything will be fine.”

He adds: “I have become a sacrificial lamb for the republic – I forgive you Ellen Johnson Sirleaf  for what you did to me.”

Howard Taylor  divorced her husband in 2006 while he was on the run but remains allied to him politically. In an interview with Liberian journalists outside a campaign rally, she said that the country needed to get back to the “agenda” outlined by Taylor when he was president, the BBC reported. Prince Johnson, a notorious Liberian rebel leader turned politician, also backed Weah ahead of the vote, it added.

How the proximity of these divisive figures to a future Weah administration will affect efforts for national reconciliation or calls to root out corruption, remains to be seen, Nyei said.