George Weah, 51, is Liberia’s President-elect. He will take office mid-January, succeeding outgoing Eillen John-Sirleaf who defeated Weah in 2005, his first atempt at the presidency. In that election, he led in the first round but lost the runoff to incumbent Johnson-Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace laureate. His second attempt also went into a runoff, on Dec. 27, against Johnson-Sirleaf’s deputy, Joseph Boakai. With 98.1 percent of the vote counted, Weah led with 61.5 percent to Vice President Boakai’s 38.5 percent, according to National Elections Commission Chairman Jerome Korkoyah. Weah swept 14 of the country’s 15 counties in the runoff election in which turnout stood at 51%. The U.S.-based Carter Centre and National Democratic Institute have noted considerable “improvements” in the handling of the run-off, so have other international observers.
Weah’s inauguration, this month, marks Liberia’s first democratic transition for over 70 years. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic. But the last democratic transfer of power occurred in 1944, a military coup took place in 1980 and a 14-year civil war ended only in 2003.
Weah’s popularity as a former international footballer was a factor in his Dec. 27 win. He is the only African to have won the FIFA World Player of the Year, starring for AC Milan, Paris St Germain and Chelsea. That home popularity fueled his failed 2005 run for president. This time, it is a case of two tries, one lucky. At his party headquarters outside Monrovia, tears streamed down Weah’s face as he greeted supporters from a balcony. Below, hundreds of young people sang and danced to a live performance of Hipco, Liberian hiphop music popular with the country’s impoverished youth.
Weah faces “great expectations” from this base of young supporters, “who want him to fix rampant unemployment and poverty”. He has responded, promising “change is on”.This is an allusion to Johnson Sirleaf’s failure to curb corruption in political high places and rein in rising youth unemployment during a 12-year-rule, in spite of bringing peace to the country.
Liberians anxiously wait for Weah to translate his popular mandate to tangible results that they can see and touch like jobs. However, his critics are sceptical, saying that he lacks experience. They say his policy proposals are opaque. The President-elect has pledged to fight corruption, create jobs and boost an economy blighted by “low prices for chief exports rubber and iron ore and dwindling foreign donor support”, but they complain that Weah hasn’t offerred any concrete proposals. Another minus they see is his choice of vice president, Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia who is serving 50 years in a British prison for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.
However, for most Liberians, these are later day worries. For the moment, they are satisfied that they have their new “King George”.