Monrovia, capital of Liberia, was agog last week with heartfelt jubilation as thousands of citizens took to the streets to celebrate their president-elect, George Oppon Weah, after he was declared winner of the 2017 Liberian presidential election.
Indeed, it seems George Weah’s spiritual visit to renowned Nigerian Prophet TB Joshua sometime in October this year yielded the desired results as he defeated incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai in the just concluded presidential election in Liberia.
The National Election Commission (NEC) said Weah had won an insurmountable 61.5 percent of Tuesday’svote, which was delayed several weeks after a legal challenge from Boakai.
Weah had topped the first round of voting in October with 38.4 percent of ballots but failed to win the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff.
How Weah won the election this time around is a lesson most African presidential hopefuls need to learn and understudy. Weah, the only African ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, lost to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in a 2005 election as a political novice after a football career that took him to both Chelsea and Manchester City, even though he was a popular figure in Liberia. Opponents cited Weah’s lack of formal education as a handicap to his ability to lead the country, in contrast with his Harvard-educated opponent, Johnson-Sirleaf. Weah had dropped out of school in his final year to pursue a promising football career.
While his lack of education became a campaign issue, Weah was highly critical of those who said he was not fit to govern.
“With all their education and experience, they have governed this nation for hundreds of years. They have never done anything for the nation,” he had said.
He initially claimed to have a BA degree in Sports Management from Parkwood University in London. However, Parkwood was said to be an unaccredited diploma mill which awards certificates without requiring study.
According to reports, analysts also referred to his lack of experience, calling him a “babe-in-the-woods”, when compared to Sirleaf who has been in politics and grown through the ranks of the Liberia political strata.
Another factor that played against him during his first attempt was the fact that Weah had become a French citizen in his footballing career in Paris St Germain, but these complaints were rebuffed by the electoral commission in court and Weah was allowed to proceed.
After Johnson-Sirleaf was declared winner in 2005, Weah had challenged the election results citing rigging, while his supporters raged and protested. The African Union under the chairmanship of Alpha Oumar Konare urged him to accept defeat in the polls, fearing that further protests by Weah’s supporters could undermine peace.
During one of the protests, Liberian police clashed with Weah’s supporters after Weah had given a speech, saying Johnson-Sirleaf would not be sworn in as planned.
But Liberia’s electoral commission dismissed charges of electoral fraud brought by Weah.
“The statistics provided by the CDC [Mr Weah’s party] in their complaint do not constitute massive fraud,” said National Electoral Commission’s (NEC) presiding officer Joseph Blidi.
“The evidence adduced was grossly insufficient. There were some errors but they were not wilful or intentional acts that would constitute fraud,” Blidi said.
Weah’s determination to be president of Liberia drove him to return to the classroom in 2007, where he pursued a degree in business administration at DeVry University in Miami, all the while raining active in Liberian politics.
In the 2011 elections, he ran unsuccessfully as vice president alongside Wiston Tubman. Weah was subsequently elected to the Liberian Senate for Montserrado County in the 2014 elections.
“For my entire life so far, and my career, I’ve been following Liberian politics and I’ve been involved, even on the international scene. I’ve been actively advocating against the war that ravaged my country. I spoke out, so sanity would return to Liberia,” Weah had said in an interview with Nigeria’s Daily Trust.
“When I saw the child soldiers, and the lives they led, I decided to help them. I helped get them disarmed, and many of them even went to school, and are today doctors, lawyers and so on. I played a major role. And I was called on board, as I said earlier, by the people and they gave me their mandate. Even after all that has happened over the years at the polls, I still have that mandate
“After achieving all that I have in my soccer career, I decided not to go the coaching route, because I wanted to help my country in a different way. I also went back to school, up to Masters’ level and I’m currently a serving Senator. When I was joining politics, some people thought I was joking. But here we are today, and I have the people’s mandate,” he said.
The 51-year-old former World Footballer of the Year will become Liberia’s 25th president, succeeding Johnson-Sirleaf. But Weah has never been known for his political prowess, rather as a master in the round leather game, which earned him being named by Pele in the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest African players of all time, Weah in 1995 was named FIFA World Player of the Year and won the Ballon d’Or, becoming the first and to date only African player to win these awards. In 1989, 1994 and 1995, he was named the African Footballer of the Year, and in 1996, he was named African Player of the Century.
Known for his acceleration, speed, and dribbling ability, in addition to his goalscoring and finishing, Weah was described by FIFA as “the precursor of the multi-functional strikers of today”.
Weah, who was born in one of the poorest areas of Liberia, became involved in politics following his retirement from football, forming the Congress for Democratic Change.
George Weah, being one of the youngest democratically-elected presidents in Africa, may well set a new awakening in a country like Nigeria, with its competitive spirit and current discomfort with the present status quo where the same old hands in politics are recycled.
Now that Nigeria’s electoral body has approved independent candidacy, Nigerians clamouring for a difference in the country’s political space should take advantage of it, screening and asking the right questions from those who want to rule them.
Whether we believe it or not, the educational qualification of a candidate matters, along with his contributions to the country as a whole while not in government, as these same passions will be needed to run the country if and when elected.
From what George Weah has been able to do with many young child-soldiers, ensuring they become schooled and better citizens, it is obvious that his priorities while in office will be along those same lines.
In all that was said about Weah’s political journey, no godfather was mentioned. He got to the highest office in Liberia by sheer determination and focus, and with his integrity intact.
As chronicled by Celebrating Progress Africa (CPA), “George Weah of Liberia first sought for Liberian presidency (2005, aged 39), he failed; obtained his SSCE (2006, aged 40), his first degree (2011, aged 45), and masters (2013, aged 47). He won election to the Liberian Senate (2014, aged 48). He has just been declared the country’s president (2017, aged 51); all under 12 years interval. When you make up your mind to succeed you must also be willing to act on your convictions”.
Noreen Makosewe, CEO, Radicalleap.com, put it succinctly when she said, “What an interesting year for Africa. Mantles keep shifting! From Angola to Gambia, Zimbabwe to South Africa. Now Liberia’s new surprise president, George Weah. African leaders should not sleep on a young generation that wants change and will keep pushing boundaries until they get it.”
CHUKS OLUIGBO & MABEL DIMMA