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President-elect George Weah: What’s next for Liberia?

A peaceful transition of power in Africa’s oldest republic is cause for optimism, according to analysts, but major challenges lie ahead for Liberia’s president-elect George Weah.

A former international football star, Weah tapped into a yearning for change and widespread discontent to win this week’s presidential run-off in a landslide.

Boosting the economy will be especially important for the new president, since many of his supporters – young, perennially unemployed or underemployed, and struggling financially – are those most in need of opportunities, said Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic.

“You’ve got a very marginal, small group of people who are doing exceedingly well and then a large majority who are just barely scraping by,” Pailey told Al Jazeera.

“And that large majority, a large population of that is the under 35-year-olds who showed up in large numbers to elect Weah.”

Weah, who will take office next month, earned 61.5 percent of the December 26 vote. His rival, Vice-President Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party, garnered 38.5 percent.

This second round of voting was delayed after a legal challenge, filed by the third-place party, alleged that voter fraud and irregularities had taken place.

But the country’s top court ruled it did not have enough evidence of fraud, allowing the run-off to proceed.

Those electoral and judicial processes are a testament to Liberia’s “readiness for democratic development” and demonstrate that it is “no longer an international pariah, but … a country with national institutions that are credible”, said Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst.

“We are now being taught that we can take power through the legal processes and by going through electoral [processes] … not necessarily taking power through the power of the gun,” Nyei told Al Jazeera.

Peaceful transition

Boakai, who served as deputy to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for 12 years, accepted his loss with grace.

On Friday, he reportedly called Weah to concede defeat after the provisional election results were announced.

In a speech later to his supporters, Boakai said he offered the president-elect “a hand of goodwill, friendship and gratitude” and urged Liberians “to work even harder to promote reconciliation”.

Nyei said Boakai’s behaviour was uncommon.

“Boakai is the first presidential candidate … since the introduction of multiparty democracy who has come out to concede defeat and congratulate his opponent and call for his supporters to rally behind the government,” Nyei said.

“This is a signal that electoral democracy is not a zero-sum game.”

Politics in Liberia, which declared its independence in 1847, were dominated for decades by one-party rule, before a military coup in 1980.

A period of uncertainty followed, eventually leading to back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 which left an estimated 250,000 people dead and the country’s economy and infrastructure in ruins.

This year’s elections were the third since the end of the devastating conflict 14 years ago, while Weah’s victory marks the first peaceful transition of power in the country since 1944.

Pailey said while “all the signs were pointing” to Weah beating Boakai, the margin by which he won was more surprising than anything else.

In the first round of voting for a new president in October, the results were closer between the top two candidates: Weah earned 38.4 percent of the vote, compared to 28.8 percent for Boakai.

“I think people are just tired of the status quo,” said Pailey. “They’re tired of President Sirleaf, they’re tired of Joseph Boakai.”

Elected president in 2005, Sirleaf was the first woman to be named head of state in an African country. She served two, six-year terms, the limit under the Liberian constitution.

Economic opportunities

The end of Sirleaf’s era finds the country facing several challenges.

Last year, Liberia ranked 177th out of 188 countries on the human development index scale, which measures life expectancy, access to education and standard of living, according to the UN Development Fund.

About 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line, and 1.3 million citizens live in extreme poverty, the World Food Programme estimates.

Inflation skyrocketed in recent years and economic mismanagement resulted in massive inflation, while the Ebola crisis of 2014 and 2015 also hit the economy hard.

During his campaign, Weah promised to “create more jobs, provide free education and free healthcare, but there were limited details on how those are going to be achieved”, Nyei said.

But despite the often broad, thin-on-details promises, the footballer-turned-politician’s message for change struck a chord with young Liberians who see in his meteoric rise an expression of their dreams for a better future.

For many of his supporters, Pailey said, Weah “represents their story”.

The president-elect grew up in the Clara Town slum in the capital, Monrovia, where he honed his football skills to eventually go on to international sporting stardom.

“The ethos of his winning is that there is hope he will remember those hard times that he spent in Clara Town as a poor aspiring [football] player,” she said.

“People are dancing in the streets because they have this hope that he will level the playing field.”

Divisive figures

Still, Liberia remains a politically and socially fragmented nation, Pailey said, noting that it will be important to invite “those political forces who were not necessarily huge supporters or die-hard Weah fans” into the political conversation.

But she pointed out that several Sirleaf loyalists have positioned themselves in Weah’s camp, which begs the question of “how much change will actually take place in his administration”.

Nyei added that members of the country’s “old guard” have also appeared close to the president-elect.

Weah’s running mate, vice-president-elect Jewel Howard-Taylor, is the ex-wife of former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor.

Taylor was a central figure in the country’s first and second civil wars, which were waged between 1989 and 1997, and from 1999 to 2003, respectively.

Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone.

Prince Johnson, a notorious Liberian rebel leader turned politician, also backed Weah ahead of the run-off vote. Johnson had previously spoken out against the president-elect, however, telling a Monrovia radio station in September that a Weah victory would send the country “back to war”, GNN Liberia reported.

But with many loyal supporters, Johnson’s endorsement was ultimately seen as a boost.

Fighting corruption

How the proximity of these divisive figures to a future Weah administration will impact efforts for national reconciliation or calls too root out corruption, remains to be seen, Nyei said.

Lawrence Yealue is a Monrovia-based representative at Accountability Lab, a group that works on education and community outreach to promote accountability in public office.

He said he remains concerned about what “the beginning of this [Weah] administration is going to look like”, especially on the issue of corruption, which he said is a big concern for many Liberians.

“It’s a long road, but Liberians are really up for some actions [to be taken] against people who economically have really stolen from this country,” Yealue told Al Jazeera.

He said the country will be closely watching what Weah proposes when he takes office in January.

“How can we start prosecuting people? How can we get the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission the full power to prosecute people?” Yealue said.

“He has to really show from his inaugural speech that he means business.”—Al Jazeera

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