For ‘Mr Football’, a daunting task

Former World Footballer of the Year, George Opong Weah, 51 takes over as Liberian President in a historic and seamless transition never witnessed in 74 years, with so much expectations that he may turn around the fortune of Africa’s oldest independent country, writes TONY IYARE.  

Even as he savours the revelry of his colourful swearing-in ceremony as the country’s 25th President, at the capacity filled stadium in Monrovia, George Opong Weah was apparently transfixed on the seemingly overwhelming challenges confronting his new administration.

Dispelling the idea of offering “quick fixes”, the football legend promised to revolutionise education in a country where half of school age children are out of school, rebuild decrepit healthcare facilities, tackle corruption and create thousands of jobs to bring succour to majority of the citizenry who perceive him as one of them. Also crucial is the need to douse the prevailing gloom and despair, underscoring part of the reasons that drove the people to war, which the out gone government did little about.

His daunting tasks for now will be to fight corruption which Transparency International say is “endemic and permeating most sectors of society”, pay civil servants a “living wage” and make Liberia “open for business” in order to boost its economy particularly to respond to the aspirations of an estimated 63 per cent of the country’s population who live below the poverty line.

Like a new sheriff, Weah is already singing a new song. “As officials of government, it is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people”.  “For those who do not refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the people, the law will take its course”, he said. But beyond what in Liberia is called “floor show”, there’s a need for a more coordinated and aggressive anti-corruption drive to elicit the genuine support of the people. Importantly, Weah needs to lift the anti-corruption campaign outside the bubble gum and Russian roulette that his predecessor confined it.

“There’s a lot of expectation but we will meet the expectation…because this a global world we want to create…where you will come to help our people”, Weah who grew up in the slummy Clara Town, just ear shots to the plum Executive Mansion in Monrovia told the BBC.

There was hardly a space to swing a cat as Weah, the only African to have won the prestigious FIFA World Footballer of the Year took the oath by 1300hrs on Monday, January 22nd before an estimated 35,000 people at the Samuel Doe Stadium in the country’s first transition since 1944. The feeling of ecstasy saw many on the queue for hours before getting access to the arena.

While effusively thanking his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 78, Africa’s first elected President for bringing peace to Liberia and stabilising the polity after 14 years of civil war, Weah conveyed the feelings of his country men and women that this undoubtedly has been her major achievement. “Thank you for laying the foundations on which we can now stand in peace”, he says as he poured encomiums on Sirleaf.

Prominent amongst those who watched the historic event was Cameroonian football star, Samuel Eto’o and former Chelsea star, Didier Drogba. The Presidents of Ghana, Nana Akufo Addo,  Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba and Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma were also at the event. Nigeria also graced the handing over ceremony with former President Olusegun Obasanjo leading the delegation that included the Senate President, Dr Olusola Saraki and Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha.

Weah who grew up in the slums of Liberia, won fame as a star of European football moving from Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Olympic Marseilles. His path to fame and riches began when he was signed by Arsene Wenger to Monaco from his Camerounian club, Tonnerre Yaounde.

Many however say it is a different kettle of fish being an international football star and running a country. How will Weah wean a new Liberia that can address the rising poverty? How can his government put food on the table for majority of the citizenry whose hope of making a living is dimming daily? How does he thread on the political minefield to re-engineer Liberia from the grips of former war lords who seem to lurk every where?

There are fears that Weah may be a minder of the interests of the incarcerated former President, Charles Taylor whose former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor is his deputy. Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) took its roots from the Taylor led National Patriotic Party (NPP). “The CDC was created out of the NPP and so the alliance with the CDD is a natural alliance”, says Howard Taylor.  Weah is also closely linked to another former war lord, Prince Yormie Johnson, now a king maker.

But it’s pretty difficult to really shred off any links to the war lords who plunged Liberia into civil strife for close to 15 years. Apart from Weah and his now Vice President, Howard Taylor who before now were elected Senators, Prince Yormie Johnson, whose Independent National Patriotic front of Liberia was culpable in cutting former Military Strongman, Samuel Kanyon Doe into pieces is also a Senator.

Even out gone President Sirleaf cannot be exculpated from links to the war lords. She was accused of giving the Charles Taylor led National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPLF) $10,000 at its founding stage. And that’s why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) resolved in its recommendations in 2009 to ban Sirleaf and 50 others for their sordid roles in the war that rendered the country ungovernable.

For now the new President appears to have taken the gauntlet, concerned with immediately putting his trusted officials in charge. In a change of musical chairs, the former Senate pro-tempore Gbezohngar Findley, a close ally of Sirleaf has been named Minister of Foreign Affairs. The former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Major Gen Daniel Ziankahn has been appointed Minister of National Defence while Brig Gen Prince Johnson takes over from Ziankahn as the new Chief of Staff of AFL.

The Chairman of the now ruling CDD, Nathaniel McGill is now Minister of State for Presidential Affairs. A long time member of the CDD, Samuel Tweh, who worked as economic consultant at the Millennium Challenge Corporation under the Ministry of Finance is now Minister of Finance and Development Planning. Weah has also appointed Charles Gibson as Minister of Justice.

“You only look at me as a former footballer but I’m a human being”, Weah who was believed to have lost his first presidential bid in 2005 on account of his little education says. “I strive to be excellent. I can be successful. I was successful before in my career”. He later finished high school and picked up a degree at an American University before he was elected as a Senator for Montserrado County in 2014, defeating Sirleaf’s son, Robert by a landslide.

Will Weah deliver as President? “When I left here people asked me the same question. “Will you be successful in Europe?”  I told them that when I work hard and believe in what I believe in, I show I can persevere”. “I believe that with the help of the Liberian people I will be successful”, he told the BBC.

Haven won all laurels football could offer except playing at the World Cup, Weah certainly must now play the political cards and put the noses of his key officials to the grindstone to ensure that he turns around the fortune of Liberia and steer it away from relapsing into any skirmishes.

Moses Kollie Garzeawu in his incisive piece titled, “Who is George Weah?” published by goal.com seems to have put the image in the minds of many aptly. “The World at Large may recognise Weah as an inspirational figure who has made the transition from sporting to political life, but the perception of Liberia’s most famous son is not so clear cut in his homeland”.

Iyare, Editor in Chief, The Gleaner News Online is an International Relations Analyst and Communications & Development Consultant.

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