Former international footballer faces the challenges of a depressed export economy
MONROVIA: Former international footballer George Weah was sworn in as Liberia’s new president Monday, a landmark moment that marks the troubled country’s first peaceful democratic transition since 1944.
Weah will become the 25th president of the West African nation, taking power from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf after 12 years, with expectations running sky-high among Liberians that he will deliver on his promises of jobs and better schools.
The inauguration was due to begin at 9.45am (0945 GMT) in Samuel Kanyon Doe stadium near the capital, Monrovia, with heads of state from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo expected to attend along with friends and former colleagues from his football years.
Weah played for a string of top-flight European teams in the 1990s and was crowned the world’s best player by Fifa and won the coveted Ballon d’Or prize, the only African to have achieved this.
After losing his first run at the presidency to Sirleaf in 2005, he has spent the last 13 years attempting to gain the political credibility to match his wild popularity at home, becoming a senator in 2014.
Volunteers were putting the final touches to decorations and giving the streets a final lick of paint on Sunday, and many expressed hope the everyday difficulty of their lives would change.
“It’s my very first time to see Liberia transferring power peacefully. People expect real democracy,” said Samuel Harmon, 30, a street trader.
“The expectation of the people and the country is all up to him [Weah]. Everybody believes that if he fails us, the majority will be disappointed with politics,” he added.
Sirleaf will be remembered for maintaining peace after the harrowing 1989-2003 civil war left an estimated 250,000 dead. But extreme poverty remains pervasive and Liberia ranks near bottom in international rankings for health, education and development.
At a church service attended by Sirleaf and Weah on Sunday, the pair presented a united front following a bruising election campaign in which Sirleaf’s longtime vice-president Joseph Boakai failed to convince as her successor while alleging fraud had marred the ballot.
Legal proceedings lodged by Boakai delayed a run-off vote and the transition period, meaning Weah has had less than a month to prepare for government rather than the three months initially scheduled.
Sirleaf said the inauguration “implies continuity; it implies meeting the challenges,” as she left the event.
Weah faces the challenges of a depressed export economy highly reliant on rubber and iron ore, and outsize expectations he can turn the country around within months and provide jobs for the overwhelmingly young population. More than 60 per cent of Liberia’s 4.6-million citizens are under 25, and many voted for Weah in the expectation he would quickly boost employment.
He told journalists on Saturday at a football game — a friendly with the army — that his first priority was keeping the peace, and hit out at critics who say he is unqualified for the position.
“I am a human being, I strive to be excellent, and I can be successful,” Weah said.
“When I work hard I believe what I believe in and I showed I could persevere,” he added, referring to early disbelief among his countrymen that he could make it in the top European leagues.
Experts are concerned however that hopes of tackling rampant corruption and bringing technocratic expertise into his cabinet are at risk from the need to repay favours.
“He is under pressure from various constituencies and unlikely to nominate a cabinet of experts as he claimed he would do shortly after his electoral success,” said Malte Liewerscheidt, Senior Africa Analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
The rumoured names were “clearly tilted towards re-paying political and personal debts of gratitude, suggesting continuity rather than a new dawn in Liberian politics”, he wrote in a briefing note.