By Pauline Bax and Festus Poquie
Retired soccer star George Weah is a solid favorite to become Liberia’s next president as voters go to the polls Tuesday in the West African nation.
The 1995 world soccer player of the year, Weah won the first round on Oct. 10 beating Vice President Joseph Boakai, 73, by a 38 percent to 30 percent margin. They’re battling to succeed Harvard-educated former banker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who’s due to step down in January. Commonly known as Ma Ellen, Johnson Sirleaf defeated Weah in two previous elections.
“We want a better future for our children,” Annie Ballah, a 35-year-old mother of two, said at the Kendeja voting center in Paynesville, a suburb of the capital, Monrovia. “I want my next president to provide free education and build roads that will increase trade.”
Initially set for Nov. 7, the final round of voting was delayed after two candidates, including Boakai, asked the Supreme Court to look into allegations of fraud in the first round. The court dismissed the accusations.
Weah has pledged to fight corruption and bring “change.” He’s promised to create jobs in a country where more than half of the population is under 35, and to pursue a more open style of leadership than that of establishment politicians such as Boakai and Johnson Sirleaf.
When Weah, 51, first declared his intention to run for president in 2005, opponents derided his lack of education and political inexperience. A high-school dropout who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood of Monrovia before playing soccer for professional teams in Italy and England, he wielded his rags-to-riches story as one of his key credentials, drawing thousands of soccer-loving boys to the green Hummer that became his trademark on the campaign trail.
But he had few allies among Liberia’s political elite, and many of his fans were too young to vote.
This time “the dynamics are quite different,” said Ibrahim al-bakri Nyei, a Monrovia-based political analyst. “Weah has an army of young people who are very exuberant and very active, and many of them are first-time voters and they think he can be president.”
After earning a business management degree from the DeVry University in the U.S., Weah won election to Liberia’s Senate in 2014. Critics say he didn’t introduce or co-sponsor a single bill during his time in the legislature.
“His only political experience was as a senator, and his performance was dismal,” said Nyei. “As leader of a major opposition party, he hasn’t inspired the confidence that he could be president.”
Weah say his critics are prejudiced against him because he was a soccer player.
His most strategic decision was his choice of running mate: Jewel Taylor, the ex-wife of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor who’s been a senator for her former husband’s NPP party since 2005 and is from the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Kpelle.
Charles Taylor, a charismatic strongman who hinted at possessing supernatural powers, is still revered by many Liberians. Taylor unleashed a civil war in 1989 and became notorious for using child soldiers before winning tense elections eight years later. He’s currently serving a 50-year prison sentence imposed by a special United Nations court for his responsibility in atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Jewel Taylor’s support helped Weah win in key counties in the first round, and there’s a chance that her ex-husband’s political allies, many of whom have stakes in the country’s largest companies, will return to wield power behind the scenes, said Ben Payton, head of Africa research at Bath, England-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
“Weah is not known for his ability to pay attention to detail and he tends to defer to his advisers on policy specifics,” Payton said. “This suggests that he could be easily manipulated as president. There are few signs that he is well-equipped to handle the complexities involved with running the government of one of the world’s least developed countries.”
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