Liberia pins hopes on man with Midas touch

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On Monday, former football superstar George Weah was sworn in as the new president of Liberia, marking the first democratic transfer of power in the country since 1944.

Thousands of adoring fans turned out to celebrate the moment, with several attendees remarking that Weah would bring their country the same glory he brought the football teams he played for.

Weah’s popularity stems not just from his footballing prowess but also from his background. As the 24th Liberian president, he is only the second ever “native” president to come to power. This distinguishes him from African American slave descendants who make up just 5% of Liberia’s population but who have typically held the most power in the country.

Weah grew up in Gibraltar slum, in one of the poorest parts of Monrovia, where some of his relatives still live today. His supporters hope that his experience of poverty will encourage him to implement policies benefitting the 64 percent of the population who live on less than US$1 per day.

The new president’s inauguration speech suggests they will not be let down. Weah has promised to improve the lives of the poor and reduce corruption within the government. This is something that outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been heavily criticised for, particularly after repeatedly appointing her sons to senior level positions.

Change for Hope?

Weah’s policies are slowly becoming apparent after his rather un-catchy and uninformative campaign slogan “Change for Hope” left most observers befuddled. But there is still some confusion over which direction he will go in.

He has talked of policies to open the country to foreign investors and to encourage the private sector by reducing regulations. Although this is not mutually exclusive with helping the poor, Liberia, which is rich in rubber and iron ore, is a country where significant foreign direct investment has often done little to improve the lives of the many.

Will Weah, who has next-to-no political experience, be able to maintain this delicate balance, so elusive for leaders of resource-rich countries? His critics argue that his minimal education and his lack of genuine interest in the finer details of policy-making will cause him difficulties.

Certainly, Weah’s refusal to participate in any presidential debates in the lead up to the Liberian elections suggested he was less willing to discuss difficult policy decisions than to ride the wave of optimism surrounding his personality.
But perhaps it was the president’s lack of policy-certainty that was part of his overwhelming appeal. Amid widespread corruption and a political scene dominated by tainted elites, he appeared to offer a break from the past.

New beginnings

However, this new beginning that the population voted for may not be quite as forthcoming as Liberians had hoped. Weah’s vice president is Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s president from 1997-2003.

Taylor is now in prison for war crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war, which finally ended in 2003.

Jewel Howard-Taylor has publicly pledged to renew some of Taylor’s former policies, a startling claim for those who witnessed his unrelenting repression and violence.

But there are many who say that, unlike during Sirleaf’s tenure, people could at least afford to eat while Taylor was president. In the absence of strong policy direction from Weah, it may well be Howard-Taylor pulling the strings for Weah’s first six-year term.

Although Howard-Taylor claims she played no role in crimes committed by her former husband, her eagerness to continue to implement his policies suggests she cannot be seen as a completely distinct politician.

This is worrying. Yet, among the cheers of joy and excitement at Weah’s inauguration, a return to any of Taylor’s tyrannical policies and Liberia’s darkest days seems a long way from modern-day Liberia.

Unlikely though it seems, given his serious shortage of political or management experience, perhaps Weah, the man with the Midas touch, will prove to be the right man for the job.