By Owei Lakemfa
GEORGE Oppong Weah is the story of an African child who rose from the slums of Clara Town, Monrovia to glittering heights in Europe and America but never lost his sense of purpose. Rather, after he had become quite rich and famous, he returned home to give back part of his wealth, and overcame serious obstacles by entrenched local and foreign interests to lead Liberia.
He is holding his head high in the process of exiting the Presidency; leaving yet another positive example to be emulated, not just by Liberian youths, but also people all over the continent.
Weah, son of a mechanic, William T. Weah Sr, was raised by his paternal grandmother, Emma Klonjlaleh Brown and began playing football at 15 for the Clara Town Young Survivors. He was a switchboard operator when he signed for Cameroun’s Tonnerre Younde in 1987.
He went on to play for Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea, Manchester City and Marseille. He scored 18 goals playing for the Liberian National Team; was in 1995, FIFA World Player of the Year; the African Footballer of the Year in 1989 and 1995; and in 1996, was named the African Player of the Century.
He was UN Goodwill Ambassador and formed a political party, the Congress for Democratic Change under which he ran for the Liberian Presidency in 2005.
Weah won the first round of the elections and a vicious local and international campaign against him was launched. One of the issues raised was that he had no formal education compared to his Havard-trained opponent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But those who voted for him knew this before giving him higher votes. Weah had retorted on the formal education issue: “With all their education and experience, they have governed this nation for hundreds of years. They have never done anything for the nation.”
A second campaign was that he lacked experience in public office. The point was that the experience Sirleaf had was a toxic one which should have disqualified her in the first place. She had for four decades been part of the decadent system which led to two civil wars. She indeed was one of those indicted for war crimes.
Liberia had been in crisis since the 1970s and Sirleaf was part of every government in the country. She was Assistant Minister in 1972 under President William. R. Tolbert Jr. When in 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe killed President Tolbert in a bloody coup, Sirleaf served the coup plotters as the Finance Minister in the Doe dictatorship. When Charles Taylor led a rebel army against Doe, she raised funds for the rebels. After Doe was killed, she became a presidential candidate in 1997, losing to Taylor who won 75 per cent of the votes. Later, she left for exile in Cote d’Ivoire and returned after the second civil war.
In 2003, Sirleaf was the Head of the Liberian Governance Reform Commission charged with overseeing the transition to democratic governance. Two years later, she defeated Weah in a run-off which the latter was convinced he won and protested alleged rigging. But Weah was convinced to drop his opposition; after all he was young, and the elderly Sirleaf had promised she would serve for only a six-year term. However, in 2011, Sirleaf ran again and Weah, who was a Vice Presidential candidate, lost.
Sirleaf virtually ran the country aground, making underdevelopment, subservience to the West, corruption and nepotism, the highlights of her government. For instance, her son, Charles Sirleaf, was made the Governor of the Liberian Central Bank; her second son, Robert Sirleaf, was chief executive of the National Oil Company of Liberia; while a third son, Fombah Sirleaf, was head of the National Security Agency, the body responsible for internal security.
So, when Weah ran in the 2017 elections against Sirleaf’s Vice President, Joseph Boakai, he was virtually on a rescue mission to save Liberia from ruination.
Contesting with former First Lady, Jewel Taylor, as running mate, he defeated Boakai with 60 per cent of the votes. Charles Taylor himself is being held hostage in Durham, England due to Western conspiracy and the connivance of Sirleaf and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.
President Weah was obviously unaware of the damage the Sirleaf gang had done to Liberia, and in my analysis, was not prepared to introduce the radical measures necessary to make a change. He promised: “Transforming the lives of all Liberians”, including lifting one million or a fifth of Liberians out of poverty. It turned out to be an uphill task, more so when the country had not fully recovered from the effects of the Ebola outbreak and there was a drop in the prices of commodities, including rubber and iron ore.
President Weah took a populist pay cut, revised the school curriculum, capped salaries of government officials at $7,800 and passed the Land Rights Act on September 19, 2018. The Act delineates various categories of land and the means they can be acquired.
Inflation, which hovered over 20 per cent, salaries delays and an increasingly frustrated citizenry, led to street protests.
In 2020, he told Liberians: “Give me small chance, yah, so I can fix it” and went borrowing at the International Monetary Fund. Eventually, Liberians got weary of Weah who was stuck in the Sirleaf path of managing or mismanaging mass poverty.
In the rerun elections on November 14, 2023, with the opposition in a comfortable 28,000 vote lead, Weah elegantly conceded defeat. He said: “The Liberian people have spoken and we have heard their voice”.
George Weah by accepting electoral defeat even when the votes were being counted, and calming down the electorate, scored perhaps the most beautiful goal of his life. He taught politicians in the United States like Donald Trump and in Africa like Alhassan Qattara how to put their countries and people first, rather seeking or holding on to power even at the risk of setting their countries ablaze.
Also, in a sense, Weah conceding defeat is like a propitiation of a past that saw Liberia holding the record for the most rigged election in human history. It happened when President Charles D.B. King, the 17th President of Liberia ran for re-election in 1927. The registered voters were 15,000. The opposition candidate, Thomas Faulkner, secured 9,000 votes which would have meant a balance 6,000 votes. But the number of votes announced for President King was 243,000 votes! King scored over 16 times the number of registered voters!
The final tally this week was Joseph Boakai: 50.89 per cent and President Weah: 49.11 per cent. President Weah has lost the match in the Liberian elections to 78-year-old Joseph Boakai, the same man he whipped at the polls in 2017, but who knows, there can be a return match