George Weah: From national hero to leader of the nation

by Dr. Eamonn McConnon, Research Fellow at IICRR

Question: Name the only person to win FIFA World Footballer of the year, the Ballon D’Or and to be elected president of their country? Answer: George Weah.

On December 29th 2017 the results of the Liberian presidential elections were announced with George Weah beating incumbent Vice-President Joseph Boakai in a run-off vote. This election is historic for a number of reasons: the first peaceful transfer of power in Liberia for 70 years, the first independently run election in Liberia since the civil war and the election of a president from outside of the political elite. While some have framed Weah’s election as part of wave of electoral success for “outsider” candidates such as Donald Trump in the USA, Weah does not fit this stereotype and it is worth reflecting on his unique path to the presidency and the challenges he faces.

The “pride of Africa”

For readers un-familiar with Weah’s career as a professional footballer it is difficult to communicate just how good he was. But his famous goal for AC Milan against Verona in September 1996 where he ran the length of the pitch to score is a good starting point. Over twenty years on,  this one goal alone is still celebrated.

In European football African players have to overcome many negative preconceptions before they can prove themselves. So to place Weah’s success in receiving the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year awards in context,  at his peak Weah was not only the best player in the world but he was so good that he could win an award entirely dominated by European and Latin American players. George Weah’s success as a player reverberated beyond the football pitch. During the 1990s Weah projected a positive image of success and empowerment for Liberia on the world stage at a time when the country was only associated with the brutal violence of civil conflict. Nelson Mandela referred to Weah as the “pride of Africa”. His retirement from football came after a failed attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. It was a fraught campaign with the country still at war and players scattered throughout nine different countries. As captain and coach, Weah invested his own money to provide basic resources for the team to compete. Against the odds Liberia managed to get close to qualification, an achievement in itself. Following defeat to Nigeria in January 2002, Charles Taylor disbanded the national team and Weah moved to the US.

“Sport is politics by other means”

Weah’s first foray into politics was the 2005 election which he lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Dismissed by political elites for his lack of formal education Weah responded by pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management and a Master’s degree in Public Administration both at DeVry University, Florida. Weah was running mate to Winston Tubman in 2011 when Sirleaf was re-elected President. In 2014 he formally entered public service following his election to the Liberian Senate.

What kind of leader will Weah be? His election promises have been big including introducing free education and healthcare, creating jobs and tackling corruption. But he has been unclear on exact policies summed up by his vague campaign slogan “change for hope”. While his pursuit of education and election to the Senate shows a respect for the demands of political office, Weah has been criticised for his poor attendance at parliament over the past 3 years and his failure to introduce or back any legislation.

George Weah’s connection with civil war politics in Liberia is complicated. During the Liberian civil war, Weah lived outside the country firstly in Europe and then in the US following retirement leaving him untainted by the conflict. Furthermore he was openly disliked by President Charles Taylor due to his popularity and Weah accused cohorts of Taylor of burning down his house in Monrovia. Prior to his final match for the national team a training camp was arranged in Ivory Coast to avoid the possible threat to his safety that a return to Liberia may have posed. However, his running mate is Charles Taylor’s ex-wife Jewel Howard-Taylor and he has received the backing of former rebel leader turned politician Prince Johnson. Weah has not been above playing on civil war divides too, accusing his rival Vice-President Boakai of being a General in the Lofa Defense Force rebel group during the civil war. A claim that is not supported by any other witnesses and is denied by Joseph Boakai.

Future challenges

However Weah proceeds he faces enormous challenges. Liberia is ranked 177th out of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index and is still recovering from the Ebola crisis of 2014-2016 which claimed over 4,800 lives. While President Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure has been criticised for corruption and a widening inequality gap between an increasingly wealthy elite and the rest of the population, she leaves behind the most valuable legacy – peace. The phone call made by defeated candidate Joseph Boakai to Weah conceding the election and wishing him well may seem a small gesture. But it is unprecedented in Liberian politics. It means that Weah’s Presidency can begin without the instability and rancour which goes with the refusal to recognise election results seen during the 2017 elections in Kenya and 2016 elections in Gambia. It sends out the message that politics in Liberia is not a zero-sum game and that power can be won through elections. Weah has made political capital out of playing on social divides within Liberian society and the dissatisfaction of the most marginalised. His challenge will be to deliver on the promises he has made to these groups. To achieve this will require a disruption to the political status quo without a return to violence

 

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