Church Leaders Say Soccer Star Has Work to Do as New President of Liberia
Crux || By Ngala Killian Chimtom || 11 January 2018
Soccer legend George Weah will be sworn in as president of Liberia on January 22, 2018.
Replacing Africa’s first female president – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in 2006 – Weah’s surprise win is due to his “perseverance,” according to the secretary general of the country’s bishops’ conference.
“His victory can also be seen as a reaction to the status quo,” Father Dennis Cephas Nimene told Crux.
“After 14 years of civil unrest [the Liberian civil war took place from 1989-2003] and the elections of Madam Sirleaf, Liberians wanted ‘so much’ from the government. Not meeting their perceived aspirations ultimately led to the change of government,” the priest said.
The 51-year-old former striker – who earned the title African Footballer of the Century after playing for teams in the 1990s such as Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, and AC Milan – defeated incumbent vice president Joseph Boakai, a former World Bank official on December 26, 2017.
Liberia – located on the west coast of Africa – was settled by freed American slaves in 1822. Declaring independence in 1847, it is the continent’s oldest republic.
In 1980, a military coup began the country’s decline into ungovernability, which culminated in civil war and the violent rule of warlord Charles Taylor.
After Taylor was driven from office in 2003, the United Nations helped oversee a transition which led to the 2005 elections won by Sirleaf.
Weah contested those elections – just two years after retiring from soccer – and lost.
In 2009, he won a senatorial seat, before a failed campaign for vice president in 2011.
After his December win, Weah called on Liberians living abroad to return to the country, announced corruption will no longer have a place in Liberia, and told foreign investors that “Liberia is open and ready for business.”
Nimene told Crux Weah’s victory is a sign the country is yearning for change after years of conflict, and an Ebola outbreak that killed thousands of people and worsened economic conditions.
Franciscan Sister Barbara Brillant, an American living in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, said young people especially wanted change, and that is why the voted for Weah.
“But the hope for a short-term improvement is scarce because the national economy is in pieces,” she told Fides, a Catholic news agency.
Briilant is right to be concerned: Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 85 percent, and the Liberian dollar has been falling against the U.S. dollar, and now trades on the streets at 130:1.
The country is also suffering a liquidity crisis, and the scarcity of cash means that commercial banks are reluctant to cash government checks or provide credit lines to government contractors.
Shortly after signing the 2017-2018 budget into law, Sirleaf discovered the government didn’t have the money. She later decided to freeze all payments of bonuses, severance allowances, and incentives to executives at state-owned enterprises, commissions, and other autonomous agencies of the government of Liberia.
Despite leaving Weah an economic mess to sort out, Sirleaf did give her successor one important piece of progress: Political stability.
Nimene said Weah can build on this to improve the country.
“I believe he should continue rebuilding the broken-down infrastructure, especially road connectivity, restoration of electricity, and pipe-borne water,” the priest said.
But Nimene added that for the new president to make any headway, he must “take the fight against corruption seriously.”
Under Sirleaf, corruption festered, despite efforts to end it.
In addition to his promise to end graft, Weah has pledged to promote “pro-poor” policies, in order to lift millions of Liberians out of poverty.
It is estimated that 85 percent of the country’s population of 4.5 million people live below the poverty line.
“Those chosen to serve will and must be dedicated to the ideas of grassroots, social transformation. Persons looking to cheat the Liberian people through the menace of corruption will have no place in my administration,” Weah said in his acceptance speech.
But Nimene said for the new president to succeed, he will need the support and cooperation of the Liberian people.
“Liberians should give their best collaboration to the new president within the confines of the rule of law and the respect of the dignity of each and every Liberian and those living within our borders,” the priest told Crux.