Liberia: Is it finally George Weah’s time?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

I have been quite surprised, former world star footballer, George Weah, is yet to become president twelve years after he first vied for the office in 2005. (He was the first African player to win both the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or in 1995.) There are not many things that could make one easily popular in African countries than being a master of the round leather game. And if Like Mr Weah, you rubbed shoulders with the world’s best, god-like status is almost assured. Mr Weah’s elusive ambition is partly because despite Liberia’s history of poverty, misery and war, the upper echelons of its society is largely elitist: Mr Weah did not have formal education early in life. (He has since corrected this lapse, earning a graduate degree in public administration from an American university in 2013.) When Mr Weah first contested against departing Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and lost, his lack of education was touted as one of the reasons why (President Sirleaf is Harvard-educated). Mr Weah claims intimidation and vote-rigging were the actual reasons. Clearly, though, Ms Sirleaf was better prepared: she was already finance minister when Mr Weah was in his teens. Besides, she had the backing of the establishment: an uneducated Mr Weah had to start from scratch, forming his own political party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), just to contest. Even so, he proved to be a strong competitor, securing a place in the second round and garnering 41 percent of the vote to Ms Sirleaf’s 59 percent. Thereafter, Mr Weah contested as a vice presidential candidate in the 2011 elections and lost again. Finally in 2014, he won a senatorial seat, beating Robert Sirleaf, the president’s son.

Last chance
With Ms Sirleaf finally departing the scene after 12 years of mixed performance, Mr Weah now has a fighting chance of becoming the president of Liberia in elections scheduled for 10 October. Considering there are 20 candidates on the ballot, an easily recognizable Mr Weah may be ideally placed to benefit from the overcrowding. And he could not be accused of inexperience this time around: he has an almost 4-year senatorial stint under his belt; and representing Liberia’s most populous county at that. There is also evidence of some political maturity on his part: his running mate is Jewel Howard Taylor, the influential ex-wife of jailed former warlord, Charles Taylor. Unsurprisingly, she is a controversial choice, with some arguing she could be a drag on the ticket. I disagree. In most post-conflict transitions, the protagonists in the preceding war or crisis tend to retain their influence. And even as Mr Taylor languishes in an English prison for war crimes, he is still able to exert considerable influence back home.

Cold shoulder
Most permutations put Mr Weah against incumbent vice president Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party (UP) in a likely second round. Mr Boakai, who a friend just back from the country refers to as mild-mannered, has not enjoyed the support of his principal. Ms Sirleaf did not show up for any of his campaigns, for instance. At least his principal is not being hypocritical about it: there are not many cases of warmth between African presidents and their deputies. Considering Mr Boakai’s major selling point is that he is best placed to continue Ms Sirleaf’s legacy, her aloofness suggests she does not necessarily think so; a point voters are not likely to miss. Mr Weah has not been without troubles of his own; lately fending off accusations he has been in touch with Mr Taylor. He denies the allegations. I think he is lying. There is no way there could not have been some sort of communication between the two; probably by proxy, though. That is, even as he probably did not need to deny having contact with a man that one of his compatriots recently remarked would be accorded red carpet treatment were he to return to the country today. It may be no matter, really. More importantly, people just desire that the polls be peaceful. Besides, times are hard. Liberians simply want someone that would improve their fortunes.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/liberia-finally-george-weahs-time/

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