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.
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.
Paul Ejime is an International Media & Communications Consultant and can be reached on Paulejime@outlook.com