Monrovia – The last time George Manneh Weah felt the weight of Liberia hoovering over his shoulders, he ended up having to pay a hefty price.
Africa’s oldest republic was in striking distance of the 2002 World Cup, needing only a victory over the Black Stars of Ghana in their bid to land a spot in South Korea and Japan.
Liberia lost 2-1 to Ghana and Weah endured the wrath of a football-loving nation whose fans rained insults at him and his mother for the team’s failure to reach football’s promise land.
"I have played European soccer and the fans have never insulted the coach's mother. I don't think I deserve what went on after the game. My mother is precious to me and I'm not going to give the fans a chance to do it a second time", Weah told the BBC.
Nearly sixteen years later, the only man to have ever won the FIFA World Footballer of the Year, the Ballon d’Or and the African Footballer of the Year in the same year, has been unveiled as President of the Republic of Liberia, a nation on the rebound from war in the midst of its first peaceful transition of power since 1944.
In his inaugural address Monday, Mr. Weah sought to assure the world that Liberia is open for business even as local businesses struggle to survive under a rigid tax regime that has seen many shut down and countless containers rot at the port, dubbed the Gateway to Liberia.
Said Mr. Weah: “We want to be known as a business-friendly government."
"We will do all that is within our power to provide an environment that will be conducive for the conduct of honest and transparent business. We will remove unnecessary regulatory constraints that tend to impede the establishment and operation of business in a profitable and predictable manner.
As we open our doors to all foreign direct investments, we will not permit Liberian-owned businesses to be marginalized. We cannot remain spectators in our own economy.
My government will prioritize the interests of Liberian-owned businesses and offer programs to help them become more competitive and offer services that international investors seek as partners.”
Lifeline for Marginalized Businesses?
The reality for some like Eyvonne Bright-Harding, chief executive officer (CEO) of Sharks Enterprise, an ice cream producer, who has over the past few years been engulfed in a major controversy over who should manufacture and retail ice cream in the country.
Despite her fight, two other ice cream owned by foreigners have surfaced dealing a major blow and illustrating the complications that could come when the Weah-led government attempts to implement some of the points raised in his speech Monday.
Mr. Weah, who rode to the helm of state power on a populist movement, has big shoes to fill.
The departing Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of the Unity Party became Africa’s first female head of state in 2005 when she defeated Weah and in a hotly contested election, an election which Weah and his political characterized as fraudulent.
Six years later (2011), Weah, still dogged by criticisms and skepticism about his readiness to lead, took a back seat to veteran diplomat Winston Tubman, bowing to pressure and playing second fiddle as Tubman’s running mate.
The CDC again fell prey to Sirleaf’s UP but claimed that the election was rigged and the party boycotted the runoff.
The electoral process was thrown into chaos leading to at least one death from police shooting at the election protestors.
Two failures in two election years put Weah and his party’s backs against the wall. The 2017 elections were seen as a make or break.
Another loss would have made it nearly impossible for Mr. Weah to mount a comeback in 2023.
But even before the ballots were cast, murmurs in the air suggested that 2017 would be Mr. Weah’s last attempt at trying to win the presidency.
The victory did not come on a silver platter and one that has been nearly a decade in the making. Following his 2005 loss, Weah took a giant leap in his quest to address his education lapses and lack of leadership experience.
He went to college (mixture of classroom and online), receiving a bachelor’s degree in Business management in small business and entrepreneurship from Devry University on June 25, 2011.
Two years later, in 2013, he followed up his undergrad degree with a Master of Public Administration Degree (MPA) from the Devry University in Miami, Florida the USA, fortifying a major lapse in his quest for the Liberian presidency.
Mr. Weah is quite aware of his limitations and the criticisms that have dogged him over the past few years when he averred, “My greatest contribution to this country as President may not lie in the eloquence of my speeches, but will definitely lie in the quality of the decisions that I will make over the next six years to advance the lives of poor Liberians.”
Speech vs. Reality
The speech itself is being heralded by critics and supporters as a well-delivered message outlining Mr. Weah’s vision for the future.
But despite the improvement, critics continued to question his perceived inability to lead.
And last year, he faced more questions about his education credentials when the US Federal Trade Commission announced that it was mailing out 173,000 refund checks, totaling $49 million, to DeVry students to compensate for the school's misleading advertisements, which allegedly deceived students about the likelihood of finding jobs related to their majors. The checks reportedly average about $280 per student.
Defenders of Mr. Weah charged that the settlement did not mean that the education attained from Devry was illegal or substandard, sticking to the crux of the charges that the college simply failed to fulfill its pledge to find jobs for graduates.
In spite of the argument over the quality or authenticity of his education, armed with an undergrad and graduate degree, Weah moved to address another issue, his leadership and government experience.
His acceptance of a post in the Sirleaf government as a’ peace ambassador’ was short-lived, as he stepped down from the post in a move that would pave the way for the next chapter in his political life.
In 2014, Mr. Weah won the Montserrado County seat that includes the capital, Monrovia, with 78% of the vote defeating Robert Sirleaf, the son of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Mr. Weah’s strongest support base is amongst the slum dwellers of Monrovia, who see him as one of them and a political leader they are banking on to lift them out of poverty.
In the Senate, Mr. Weah took a gamble by accepting a post as a member of Liberia’s legislative delegation to the ECOWAS parliament, a job which saw him spend most of his time away from his core grassroots base, raising even more questions about his readiness to lead.
The Expectations Reality
Mr. Weah’s election and inauguration comes with great expectations. He is inheriting a country in the middle of an economic meltdown.
The latest International Monetary Fund review of Liberia states that the country remains fragile due to the impact of the commodity price decline, withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Liberia and uncertainties surrounding the political transition.
For the past two years, Liberia GDP growth has been negative or zero, with World Bank predicting that GDP will grow to 2.6% in 2017, compared to the 7.8% in 2006 when Sirleaf assumed power.
The report notes: “While not the baseline expectation, potential exists under a downside scenario for the transition to lead to a worsening of the security situation, disrupt domestic economic activity and investor sentiment, and create policy slippages, especially on the fiscal front with implications for arrears.
In addition, although the probability is small, the recurrence of Ebola cannot be excluded.
Conversely, a peaceful transition of power in January may release pent-up investment demand, lead to some repatriation of capital, and provide a boost to growth in 2018.”
Mr. Weah will be hoping on the latter even as Liberia faces mounting calls to eradicate its controversial dual currency system where both U.S. dollar and Liberian dollar are legal tender.
More importantly, Mr. Weah will be hoping to avoid the Haiti comparison, the one that saw a populist, Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, campaign as a champion of the poor, to an overwhelming victory , only to run into trouble due to what many political observers saw as his own intransigence and difficulties to work with the political elites.
Both diplomatic and political observers say a Weah-led government has its work cut out and will do itself well by not alienating political forces and allies.
So far, he appears to be off to a fine start. The lower house of the national legislature will be led by a polarizing but controversial figure from his own party. Rep. Bhophal Chambers is no pushover.
He was a strong advocate behind an unsuccessful impeachment effort of the departing president, Sirleaf.
Because of his strong opposition to Sirleaf and his disagreement with Sirleaf over many of the concessions awarded to foreign companies, Rep Chambers resigned from Sirleaf’s Unity Party and joined Weah’s party.
For the immediate future, many are looking forward to the make up of Mr. Weah’s cabinet which many say will set the tone of what kind of government Liberia is likely to see post-Sirleaf presidency.
The Corruption Reality
Additionally, Weah, like his predecessor faces enormous challenges in curbing graft.
Sirleaf, in 2006 vowed that if elected, she would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced.
“We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing or yet another attempt by another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice.”
Toward the end of her reign, Sirleaf would reluctantly acknowledge that her administration had lost the war in the fight against corruption.
Mr. Weah appears to be trumpeting similar refrain in what will no doubt be a closely-watched issue. Following his election, he charged: “Those wishing to cheat the Liberian people will have no place in my government.”
He has repeatedly said that his singular but very important mission in seeking the presidency is positively impacting the lives of his grassroots base.
“I declare publicly that transforming the Lives of all Liberians is the single mission…of my presidency.”
That may be a tall order for a man who left his mark on the football pitch, now hoping to leave an indelible mark on a nation and people eager for change but one he is also mindful, as was the case of that failed world cup bid in 2002, have a reputation for running out of patience if promises are unfulfilled.
Addressing the issue on Monday, Mr. Weah said: “We owe our citizens clarity on fundamental issues such as the land beneath their feet, freedom of speech, and how national resources and responsibilities are going to shift from this capital to the counties.
The people expect better cooperation and more action from their government. We can do better, together.” He added: “It is my belief that the most effective way to directly impact the poor, and to narrow the gap between rich and poor, is to ensure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of Government officials.
I further believe that the overwhelming mandate I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service. I promise to deliver on this mandate.”
The Free Speech Reality
Unlike 2005 and 2011 elections where Weah and his party, the Congress for Democratic Change, went it alone.
The 2017 election was different. Mr. Weah formed a coalition with former President Charles Taylor’s party and carried Taylor’s wife, Jewel Howard Taylor as his running mate.
A third leg of the coalition is the party of ousted speaker, Alex Tyler, who stands indicted on corruption charges on the basis of the investigative report produced by London-Based Global Witness, an international anti-corruption campaigner.
Former officials of Sirleaf’s government and several failed presidential candidates and their party leadership also joined Weah’s coalition in the runoff elections, including former officials of Senator Prince Y. Johnson, former war-lord and senator from the second most populated county in Liberia.
How Mr. Weah balances the interests of these disparate groups, while at the same fighting graft and improving the lives of Liberians could be his biggest challenge.
For now, the incoming government finds itself entering a territory its predecessors struggled to navigate but somehow managed to win itself high marks for exercising some degree of tolerance regarding human rights and freedom of speech.
It is a boundary Weah hoped to appease those still unsure about what to expect as he paid homage to his predecessor.
“We could not have arrived at this day without our voices been heard loudly, and all our views, no matter how critical, being freely expressed in an atmosphere void of intimidation and arrest.
This was only made possible by the tolerance of my predecessor, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who protected the right to Freedom of Speech as enshrined in our Constitution.”
“Now, in my turn”, he said: “I will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly.”
For the foreseeable future, critics are cautiously hoping that both Weah and the CDC avoid the pitfalls of Liberia’s recent past as it ventures into an unchartered territory buoyed with a lot of expectations and eclipsed by the political realities of the relatively unknown.