This month marks the first anniversary of Liberia’s President George Weah winning the presidential election in the West African republic. It’s been an unusual series of events for a country which has very particular origins. Weah is in many quarters still best known for a stellar international football career, and is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest African football players ever. During his international career, Liberia itself suffered 14 years of civil war, and emerged peaceful but very poor. The post-war country had an internationally celebrated female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize.
Weah is 52 years old now, and as an international soccer star was named FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d’Or in 1995. He has been hugely popular in his home country, especially with the young. This is a country where half the voters are under the age of 33. He has been active in Liberian politics for over a decade. He ran without success in two previous presidential or vice-presidential elections (2005 and 2011) which saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf returned to office. While celebrated internationally as the first female head of state elected in Africa, she was not as popular at home, where corruption and poverty continued to undermine quality of life for so many. She served two full terms of office but was barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.
Weah continued to pursue his political ambitions and was elected as a Senator in at the end of 2014, but only rarely attended parliament. His modest educational achievements were highlighted during election campaigns, but the poverty he had grown up in gave him real credibility among voters tired of elites and corruption.
In the October 2017 presidential elections he topped the poll with 38% of the vote, going to a run-off with the outgoing Vice-President Joseph Boakai. The second round was delayed by a legal challenge by another candidate. When it was held on 26th December 2017, George Weah won comfortably with 62% of the vote.
His platform included tackling corruption, raising living standards, and economic reform. This is popular with the many people still waiting to see decent services or economic opportunities more than a decade after the war ended. At his inauguration on 22nd January 2018, he announced that he would cut his salary by 25%.
A unique past
Liberia has a most unusual history, and is the oldest modern republic in Africa. It was founded in 1847 by freed slaves from the United States, and retains strong links with America. Although it escaped traditional European colonialism, the structures recreated unfortunately meant the indigenous population was seriously marginalised. A civil war from 1989 to 2003 left more than 200,000 people dead. Since then, elections have been peaceful but the country continued to struggle with rebuilding itself after the war, and poverty is stubbornly high. As the country continued to rebuild its weak health and state systems, Ebola emerged in 2014. It took nearly 5,000 lives in Liberia, and the same number in neighbouring countries, in the worst outbreak ever seen.
In a population of nearly five million people, the median age is less than 18 years. It is still near the bottom of the Human Development Index, which combines health, education, and income, at 181 out of 189 countries ranked. Life expectancy is 63 years, and the literacy rate is 43% for the over-15s. GNI per capita is US$667.
The country’s economy has been struggling, and the government deficit is more than 5% of GDP. The Liberian dollar lost a quarter of its value last year, and a further quarter since Weah took office. One of the factors affecting the economy has been the withdrawal of the UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which once numbered 15,000 troops. It completed its task in March, having taken over from the regional peace operation ECOMOG at the end of the civil war 15 years ago. The country is still affected by the economic consequences of the Ebola epidemic, which saw significant restrictions on daily activities.
Despite his strong and well-received stand on corruption,some were disappointed with his early appointments. Only two of his ministers were women, halving the number in the Sirleaf cabinet. The woman he chose to be his running mate for Vice-President, Jewel Howard-Taylor, used to be married to the former President, Charles Taylor, who started the war and whose forces were linked to atrocities during the conflict. He was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2012 for his role in that neighbouring country’s war, and is currently serving his 50-year sentence in a UK prison. He is still popular in Nimba county especially, and his former wife helped to bring in votes from the region.
In another first, President Weah made a surprise return at the age of 51 to Liberia’s national football team in September, in a game against Nigeria organised in his honour.
Besides the economy, there are many challenges to face. President Weah has been non-committal about whether a war crimes court should be set up, as recommended by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2010. Corruption, food production, and poverty are long-term problems. However, new land ownership legislation was passed in September, recognising community land rights, and helping to protect the 70% of the country’s population which lives in rural areas. Previously the state claimed ownership of all land, sometimes allocating parts of the country to foreign investors without community involvement.
Expectations were high at the time of his election, and a sector of the population not used to feeling it is heard was energised by his campaign and victory. As always, the gap between expectations and results will be difficult, especially since many of the problems are structural and will need long term solutions.