If the Boot Fits: Former FIFA Star George Weah Steps into Role as Liberia’s Next President

By: Sydney Wright

It’s been 70 years since the last peaceful transition of power in Liberia.[1] On December 28th, 2017, Liberians elected former FIFA star George Weah as their next president.[2] Called “King George” by his backers, 51-year-old Weah’s rags-to-riches story draws support from the young and poor, but will Weah have the political prowess necessary to maintain peace in a country marred by back-to-back civil wars and entwined with political corruption?

 

The History of George Weah

Much of the Liberian population favors Weah over other candidates due to his humble upbringing and lack of involvement with social or political elites.[3] Weah was raised by his grandmother in the slums of Monrovia, the nation’s capital.[4] After dropping out of high school,[5] Weah left Liberia and went on to play professional soccer in the 1990s.[6] He began his soccer career at Monaco, later moving on to play at Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea, and Manchester City.[7] While with AC Milan in 1995, Weah won FIFA World Player of the Year and is the only African player to date to receive the award.[8]

 

After retiring from a successful soccer career in 2003, he became involved in Liberian politics. In 2005, Weah ran for president, but was defeated by outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party.[9] In 2011, Weah again ran for office, this time as vice-president alongside presidential candidate Winston Tubman, losing to Sirleaf a second time.[10] Although the 2005 and 2011 races resulted in losses for Weah, he gained valuable campaign experience and was later elected as senator of the Coalition for Democratic Change Party in 2014, defeating Sirleaf’s son Robert for the seat.[11]  Over the span of his political career, Weah amassed support from Liberian voters, many of whom stated that it was “Weah’s turn” for presidency leading up to the 2017 race.[12]

 

Weah’s Decisive Win over Boakai Despite Similar Political Platforms

Weah’s opponent in the runoff was Vice President Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party.[13] Boakai received just 38.5 percent of the vote compared to Weah’s 61.5 percent.[14] Of Liberia’s population of 4.6 million people, the younger generation accounts for a majority of the country’s registered voters.[15] Of the 56 percent of registered voters who turned out for the 2017 presidential runoff, Weah drew much of his support from younger voters and those who are dissatisfied with the past 12 years of governance from the Unity Party under outgoing President Sirleaf.[16]

 

Weah ran as a member of the Coalition for Democratic Change Party and soundly defeated Boakai of the Unity Party, but the two candidates had predominantly similar political platforms.[17] Under the Unity Party, Boakai’s platform focused on increasing job opportunities, improving infrastructure and road networks, and aggressively tackling corruption.[18] Weah, backed by the Coalition for Democratic Change Party, also centered his platform on increasing jobs, improving infrastructure, and making education more accessible.[19] While the platforms of each candidate were comparable, the Unity Party’s history of political corruption may help explain the disparity in percentage points between Weah and Boakai.[20]

 

 

Widespread Corruption and Mismanagement Within the Unity Party

Leading up to the 2017 race, some Liberians believed outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity-Party-linked regime was corrupt, had mismanaged government resources, and had failed to keep its promises to the Liberian people.[21] In 2005, Unity Party Candidate Sirleaf was elected as President of Liberia, thus becoming the first female head of state elected in Africa.[22] Sirleaf has served two six-year terms as Liberia’s president and took over following back-to-back civil wars that plagued the country from 1989-2003.[23] In 2011, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in restoring peace following those civil wars.[24] She also steered Liberia through an Ebola outbreak in 2014 that claimed the lives of 5,000 people and stunted the nation’s economy.[25]

 

While outgoing President Sirleaf has done much to stabilize Liberia despite many obstacles, she has simultaneously been widely criticized for failing to tackle corruption and poverty.[26] In 2012, several corruption scandals were uncovered within Sirleaf’s administration.[27] Government officials failed to declare their assets to anti-corruption authorities, resulting in Sirleaf suspending her own son and 45 other officials within her administration.[28] She has also faced accusations of nepotism for placing her sons and relatives in powerful positions within government agencies including the state oil company and central bank.[29]

 

Liberian voters’ suspicions of the Unity Party manifested in the 2017 election, with Boakai himself admitting that the Unity Party had “squandered” many resources that could have been used to improve the economy and eliminate poverty.[30] This distrust of the Unity Party opened the door for Weah as a fresh face uninvolved with the current administration and granted him a decisive win, despite having a similar political platform to Boakai.[31] Some have directly attributed Boakai’s loss to the corruption within Sirleaf’s administration, claiming that the outcome of the election is a result of Boakai paying for Sirleaf’s “sins” against the Liberian people.[32]

 

Looking Forward

With Boakai defeated and Sirleaf stepping down to culminate the end of her two constitutionally mandated six-year terms, the Unity Party is no longer in control of Liberian politics.[33] The question is whether Weah will be up to the task in further cementing the peaceful state of the nation, as some critics believe his limited political experience and education will make it difficult to fill former president Sirleaf’s role as peacekeeper.[34] Others see him as a success story from the slums of Monrovia and a champion of the young and impoverished.[35] Only time will tell if Weah and the Coalition for Democratic Change will be able to remedy the shortcomings of the Unity Party and regain the trust of the Liberian people.

 

[1] Wamsley, supra note 1.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Agence France-Presse, Could George Weah Be Liberia’s Next President?, Mail & Guardian (Dec. 24, 2017, 11:14 AM), https://mg.co.za/article/2017-12-24-could-george-weah-be-liberias-next-president.

[5] Associated Press, Soccer Legend George Weah Elected President of Liberia, N.Y. Post (Dec. 29, 2017, 11:33 AM), https://nypost.com/2017/12/29/soccer-legend-george-weah-elected-president-of-liberia/ (noting that Weah returned to school in 2005, obtaining his high school diploma and a college degree from Illinois-based DeVry University).

[6] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[7] Wamsley, supra note 1.

[8] Wamsley, supra note 1.

[9] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[10] Id.

[11] George Weah Declared Winner of Liberia Vote, Al Jazeera (Dec. 29, 2017), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/12/boakai-concedes-defeat-george-weah-liberia-vote-171229122812783.html.

[12] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[13] George Weah Declared Winner of Liberia Vote, supra note 14.

[14] Id.

[15] Associated Press, supra note 8.

[16] Supporters of George Weah Storm Monrovia’s Street to Celebrate Victory, Front Page Africa Online (Dec. 28, 2017), https://www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/politics/6511-supporters-of-george-weah-storm-monrovia-s-street-to-celebrate-victory.

[17] Unity Party Releases Manifesto for 2017 Elections, Front Page Africa Online (Aug. 29, 2017), https://www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/politics/5296-unity-party-releases-manifesto-for-2017-elections; Agence France-Presse, supra note 6.

[18] Unity Party Releases Manifesto for 2017 Elections, supra note 20.

[19] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[20] Edward McAllister, Liberia’s Weah under Pressure to Deliver After Election Win, Reuters (Dec. 29, 2017, 7:11 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-liberia-election/liberias-weah-under-pressure-to-deliver-after-dominant-election-win-idUSKBN1EN0ZT.

[21] Supporters of George Weah Storm Monrovia’s Street to Celebrate Victory, supra note 19.

[22] Wamsley, supra note 1; George Weah Declared Winner of Liberia Vote, supra note 14.

[23] Associated Press, supra note 8.

[24] Edward McAllister, supra note 23.

[25] Associated Press, supra note 8.

[26] Edward McAllister, supra note 23.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Reuters Staff, Liberia’s Sirleaf in Party Row over Nepotism, Reuters (June 27, 2012, 9:09 AM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-liberia-sirleaf/liberias-sirleaf-in-party-row-over-nepotism-idUSBRE85Q0SD20120627.

[30] Kpanbayeazee Duworko, The Beginning of the End of the Ruling Unity Party in Liberia?, Front Page Africa Online (Oct. 9, 2017), https://www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/op-ed/5720-the-beginning-of-the-end-of-the-ruling-unity-party-in-liberia.

[31] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[32] Supporters of George Weah Storm Monrovia’s Street to Celebrate Victory, supra note 19.

[33] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.

[34] Wamsley, supra note 1.

[35] Agence France-Presse, supra note 7.