Weah Presidency: The Challenge of High Expectations
By Paul Ejime
Apart from not playing in the World Cup finals, the dream of every football player, George Manneh Oppong Weah, has won virtually all there is to win in world football. In a career that spanned almost two decades, across six countries in three continents (Africa, Europe and the Middle-East), Weah demonstrated that personal focus and determination can break barriers of small beginnings in life.
One of 13 children of William Weah, a mechanic and his petty trader wife Anna from Liberia’s south-eastern Grand Kru County, young Weah was raised by his paternal grandmother in Monrovia’s Clara Town slum. He and his siblings had to endure the separation of their parents, and later circumstances led to him dropping out of High School. But with the dogged determination of a world class striker always aiming to score goals, Weah would not let his life’s game plan to be derailed. Prophetically starting his football career with the local Survivors Youth club at the age of 15, he soon moved to Cameroon after working briefly for Liberia’s Telecommunications Corporation as a switchboard technician.
From that humble beginning, Weah rose to become arguably one of Africa’s greatest players of all time. In 1995, he was named World Player of the Year by the sport’s governing body FIFA, the first non-European to clinch that award, and he also won the coveted Ballon d’Or the same year, becoming the first and to date only African player to win those awards. Before then, Weah was the African Footballer of the Year for 1989, 1994 and 1995, and in 1996, he was named African Player of the Century.
In recognition of his phenomenal speed, dribbling, goal scoring and finishing abilities, netting 84 goals in 218 matches between 1988 and 2001, Weah has been described by FIFA as “the precursor of the multi-functional strikers of today.” Apart from excelling at clubs and country, Weah is also a philanthropist, supporting young players in his country and the Football Association of Liberia, sometimes paying for the national teams’ participation in international engagements.
The rest they say might be history, but Weah’s football career involving about 10 different clubs such as Monaco, Paris-Saint-Germain and Marseille in France, Milan in Italy, Chelsea and Manchester City in England and Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates towards the end of his career, is a classic success story.
To his credit, it was Frenchman Claude LeRoy, the self-professed “White witch doctor” of African football, who introduced Weah to his compatriot Arsene Wenger, then Manager of Monaco in 1988. Before then Weah was with Tonnerre Kalara Club (TKC) of Cameroon, and fearful of the political crisis in his home country, had actually applied for Cameroonian nationality, but was denied. Perhaps, to underscore the saying that success has many relatives, the same TKC recently on its website celebrated Weah, as the “player it trained,” who won many accolades and went ahead to become the President-elect of Liberia.
How can Weah replicate his football success on the national political stage? Before winning the presidency in Liberia’s 26 December 2017 run-off vote under the platform of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), Weah might have discovered by himself that the rules of engagement on both theatres differ drastically, not just in content and context but also in complexities.
While football, the world’s most popular game continues to entertain and thrill players, managers and fans alike, and is even considered a unifying sport full of emotion, excitement and disappointment in equal measure, politics on the other hand remains a divisive and enigmatic enterprise, which continues to defy the understanding of both actors and spectators.
With all his contributions to football one would expect Weah to claim a bragging right to the leadership of Liberia’s Football Association. But because of the politics involved, all his efforts to secure the chairmanship position of the FA never materialised. Weah had also vied for Liberia’s presidency in 2005 under the Congress for Democratic Change but lost to out-going President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the second round balloting after leading the pack in the inconclusive first round. He tried again in 2012, then as a presidential running mate to Winston Tubman but that venture also fell through. Still undeterred, Weah changed focus to the Senate and won the Senatorial seat in Monrovia’s Montserrado County in 2014. Now at 51, Senator Weah has clinched the highest office in his country, defeating out-going Vice President Joseph Boakai by 61.5% to 38.5% vote.
Weah’s patriotic zeal and determination to contribute and lift his country from the ashes of a decade-long devastating civil war, has never been in doubt. But from the lonely Executive Mansion after his inauguration on 22nd January, it would dawn on him that political governance and the task of national reconstruction is a different ball game, compared to soccer.
The road to the delivery of democratic benefits in post-conflict Liberia is strewn with landmines in the form of human capital deficiency, a weak economy compounded by high youth unemployment, run-down infrastructure and a socio-political environment characterised by ethnicity and inequality from a history of dichotomy between Settlers and Native Liberians. The inequality was so bad at a point in the country’s history that Natives resorted to changing their names to American-sounding ones in order to enjoy benefits of citizenship.
Like Weah, Liberia is a country of several firsts. It is the oldest African Republic founded by freed slaves from America and the Caribbean in 1847. President Charles D.B. King of Liberia is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having won an election in 1927 with more votes than the actual number of registered voters. But still on the positive side, Liberia in 2005 produced the first democratically-elected woman president in Africa in the person of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Nobel Laureate.
In some senses, Liberia’s two-stanza civil war provided the opportunity for the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to earn its reputation as a trail blazer in conflict resolution and regional integration. What started in December 1989 as a rebellion against President Samuel Doe’s regime, by former war-lord Charles Taylor, later escalated into a bloody civil war. It took the intervention of the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), deployed in August 1990, to bring an end to that war. Taylor who was the presidential election in 1997 is now serving terms in England for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. By the time ECOMOG was replaced by the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in 2003, the Liberian civil war had killed more than 250,000 people and rendered more than two million others refugees in the country of some 4.5 million inhabitants.
But it was not all gloom and doom in Liberia from the beginning. Under the 26-year administration of President William Tubman, who died in office in July 1971, the country experienced a period of relative prosperity marked by policies that attracted foreign investment. Regarded as the “father of modern Liberia,” Tubman had strong ties with Washington, which was expected given Liberia’s political history. But he also partnered with other African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on the unification and de-colonization of Africa. In 1961, Tubman hosted a Pan-African conference in Monrovia, where a consensus was reached between the “Moderate Monrovia” and “Revolutionary Casablanca” Groups of African leaders resulting in the formation in May 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which transformed to the African Union in 2002.
But following an assassination attempt on his life in 1955, Tubman was accused of brutally repressing the political opposition and becoming increasingly authoritarian. In his defence, Liberia’s constitution then had no term limits, but critics still accused him of overstaying in office, and engaging in patronage appointments.
Still, Tubman will be remembered for his National Unification and economic “Open Door” policies, under which he tried to reconcile the interests of the “Natives” with those of the “Americo-Liberian” elite. In the 1950s under Tubman, Liberia was reported to have had the second-highest rate of economic growth in the world, and by the time of his death in 1971, the country reportedly had the largest mercantile fleet, the largest rubber industry, and was the third-largest exporter of iron ore in the world, attracting more than US$1 billion in foreign investment. However, by the time he was succeeded by his long-time vice president William Tolbert, political disaffection had mounted with new interest groups struggling to share of the nation’s success, culminating in the overthrow of the dominant True Whig Party in 1980 by the military Redemption Council, led by Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe.
No doubt, the devastating civil wars, ethnic divisions and marginalisation of the Natives by the Americo-Liberian (Settler) administrations, which dominated political power for more than a century, destroyed the economic prosperity of Liberia’s golden age.
Charles Taylor, the former war-lord, was literally handed power in 1997 under the erroneous notion that “he who destroyed it should fix it.” But that dream did not materialise, until he was forced out of office by a fresh rebellion in 2003 and later taken to The Hague for trial.
So much hope was placed on candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won the presidency in 2005, to use her international connections as a former World Bank and UN official to make a difference in Liberia. But she too struggled for much of her 12 years in power, which ends with Weah’s inauguration this month. The result is that the resentment harboured by Native Liberians against their powerful Americo-Liberian compatriots persists.
To a very large extent and without undermining his popularity, Weah won the presidency this time because of a combination of factors, especially the widespread disappointment of the Natives with the prolonged political dominance of Americo-Liberia elite, who constitute barely 5% of the population, and the overwhelming feeling among the Natives that it is now their turn to govern Liberia.
There is also the deeply-rooted ethnic division that defines Liberian politics. When Samuel Doe, a Native Liberian from the Krahn ethnic group seized power in 1980, killing Americo-Liberian President William Tolbert, many thought the Natives would rally behind their man. Doe went ahead to organise a controversial election and transmuted to a civilian President, and was later accused of brutalising people from other ethnic groups, especially the Mano and Gios. This resulted in the Taylor-led rebellion and Doe’s death in the hands of a fellow Native and former war-lord Prince Yormie Johnson, now a senior Senator in the Liberian Senate.
By their comportment, Liberia’s political class whether Natives or Americo-Liberians are complicit in the country’s sorry state. For instance, Liberian lawmakers are among the highest paid in the world, with each Senator or member of House of Representatives receiving an average monthly salary of between 14,000 and 17,000 US Dollars including all manner of allowances. This is in a post-conflict country with an annual budget of less than USD 630 million, where the minimum wage is less than 180 US dollars, and the President’s salary is under US 8,000 a month.
The national economy, cushioned by huge capital outlay for the maintenance of the UN Mission UNMIL, which has been in the country for the past 14 years, operates a dual legal tender system of the US dollar and the local Liberian dollar (Liberty). The result of the artificial exchange rate regime is hyper-inflation. Most Americo-Liberians have dual citizenship and even the Natives, all look up to America as an Eldorado.
Meanwhile, it rains in Liberia for much of the year but agriculture is neglected with the country relying on massive importation, especially of rice the national stable food. It is therefore obvious that Weah’s government will face the challenge of living up to unusually high expectations from various segments of the local population and the international Community.
There is also the formidable task of reorienting the largely illiterate and unskilled Liberian youths, the majority of whom are only familiar with their country’s violent history. They are largely uneducated, unemployed and nurture a volatile sense of “entitlement” compounded by a dependency syndrome, as if the society owes them a living. To make a difference, the new government must revisit the unfinished business of unification of Native and Americo-Liberians began by the Tubman administration. Also, the post-war Peace and Reconciliation efforts didn’t go far enough. Given their weak economic and political position, the Natives cannot go it alone, and in spite of their years of dominance even with their small number, the Americo-Liberians must have realised that both groups need each other as partners in Liberia’s progress.
Nation building is a collective responsibility. Every political actor or stakeholder, government, civil society, faith-based groups, security agencies, the judiciary, media and ordinary citizens, all have a stake in the success or failure of the Liberian project.
UNMIL has since begun a gradual drawdown with its complete pull out fixed for March 2018, so the responsibility for the survival of Liberia as a nation rests squarely with Liberians themselves.
True, Liberia still requires international support. And after helping to end the civil war and facilitating the recent successful elections in that country, ECOWAS cannot turn its back on Liberia. But to earn stained international support, Liberians must themselves do the heavy lifting. They must sink their differences and rally behind the Weah administration. The challenge may be daunting but not insurmountable. And to make a difference or replicate his exploits in world soccer on the political landscape of Liberia, Weah, the prolific striker must pull his political booth straps; assemble a bi-partisan winning team in a manner devoid of parochial political, ethnic/tribal or historical considerations.
*Paul Ejime is an International Media & Communications Consultant