George Weah: from poverty to football hero and Liberia presidentSat, 07 Oct 2023 05:42:11 GMT

From Liberia’s swampy slums to superstar footballer and national president, George Weah is running for a second term in elections on Tuesday, defending a controversial record in office and facing determined opposition.His election victory in 2017 sparked high hopes of change in one of the least developed countries on the planet, still reeling from civil war and disease.Weah had spent the previous decade building political credibility, including three years in the Senate, to match his sporting icon status.Today, the 57-year-old is campaigning hard to convince Liberians he can still improve their lives.”During our first term, we laid the foundations for peace, freedom of speech, macroeconomic stability, and restoring confidence in the national educational system,” Weah told his Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party’s national campaign launch last month.”I can guarantee that the years 2024 and beyond will be better for all Liberians,” he said.Posters of Weah and his running mate Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of jailed former president and warlord Charles, are all over the streets of the capital Monrovia.Weah has said he is fighting for a “first round victory”.In the capital’s Clara Town, where he was born, youngsters still idolise the first African player to win both FIFA’s World Player of the Year trophy and the Ballon d’Or.”I’m 100 percent behind George Weah,” said Marcally J. Mulbah, sat on his motorbike chatting to friends. “He’s a man of peace.”Twenty-two-year-old student Godgift Pewee sports CDC party bracelets and recalled Weah playing soccer with him at the opening of a sports complex in the area.Pewee said Weah is tolerant and has jailed no one for political reasons.Janga Kowo, a long-time friend of Weah and now Comptroller General of the West African country, told AFP that Liberians still love their president.”President Weah is the most approachable Liberian leader ever,” he said.”Even at the time he was playing professional soccer he was always back home — four times a year.”Socially this is a man who connects with the Liberian people, that is why the Liberian people will continue to show love to him.”- ‘Worsening conditions’ – But on a nearby street strewn with plastic rubbish, Saturday Gbalah, 42, said the president had lost his “connection” to the people.”I loved George Weah,” he said, and went to vote for him on crutches. But today “conditions are worse”, with the price of rice and other basic foods spiralling, Gbalah said.Weah is Liberia’s 25th president after taking over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who had maintained a peace desperately needed after a war that killed an estimated quarter of a million people.He was largely absent from Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil wars, playing for a string of top-flight European teams including Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, and later Chelsea.But as president, Weah has not set up a war crimes tribunal despite international and domestic demand.- Pledges, critics – A member of the Kru ethnic group, Weah was raised by his grandmother in the Gibraltar district, a reclaimed swamp and one of Monrovia’s worst slums.He had pledged to govern for the poor, to create employment and invest in education. Critics say he has failed.He came under fire at the end of last year after a prolonged absence from Liberia — 40 days at conferences and summits as well as time at the World Cup where his son turned out for the United States.Bad governance is another opposition leitmotiv. Despite the president’s pledges to tackle corruption, it has increased on his watch.Liberia sits 142nd out of 180 on Transparency International’s 2022 corruption index.”There is a mismatch between words and action,” noted Ibrahim Nyei, director of the Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research.Despite legislation introduced in July, opponents accuse Weah of failing to halt drug trafficking.At the campaign launch, Weah said he had built more roads and hospitals than anyone else in Liberia’s history, pays secondary school students fees and opened parks and sports facilities.And he vowed: “This will be replicated throughout the 15 counties (of Liberia) after you have given us a new mandate.”