In some ways, this is the story of how a former striker for the Chelsea Football Club went on to become the President of Liberia. But, in more ways, it’s the story of Liberia itself.
As George Weah prepares to take office later this month, Liberia is preparing for one of the most important moments in the nation’s history. This inauguration will mark the first time Liberia has had a peaceful transfer of power since 1944, and the first transfer of power from one democratically elected party to another since the 19th century.
Of course, to truly appreciate all of this, one must go back to the beginning.
As a colony, Liberia was populated by freed slaves and people of color who were relocated from the American south. Starting in 1821, thousands of free blacks traveled from the United States to Liberia. The colony continued to grow for decades until, in 1847, they declared their independence.
According to Thomas Kaydor’s book “Liberian Democracy“, the political parties began to split along racial lines quite quickly. The Republican Party of Liberia were lighter skinned settlers, and the True Whig Party were generally darker-skinned settlers. The Republican Party began as the ruling party but, following the Liberian exodus of 1878, the True Whig Party (TWP) dominated every election.
The TWP’s rise to power was described by Historical Preservation Society of Liberia as “a revolt against [political] domination by lighter-skinned free-born blacks”. They would remain in power for over a hundred years.
During this time, the True Whig Party would oversee their nation’s own system of slavery. This began in the early 1920’s, after politicians leased land to the Firestone Natural Rubber Company.
Complaints began to surface that Firestone were shipping laborer to plantations in Equatorial Guinea to work under conditions analogous to slavery. Firestone and the Liberian government were accused of supporting forced labor practices on the island of Fernando Po. In 1930, the League of Nations commissioned a report by Dr. Cuthbert Christy to investigate these claims. The government was implicated in the practices and the scandal led to the resignation of the 17th President of Liberia.
Yet, the True Whig Party remained in control. While opposition parties were not outlawed, the country essentially functioned as a one-party state until there was a military coup in 1980. Various Military leaders and transitional governments remained in power for the next 25 years, during which time there were two Liberian civil wars.
The first civil war started in 1989, when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, waged a war against the military government run by Samuel Doe. The civil war would continue for most of the decade and roughly 250,000 people would die.
Throughout all of this, the Firestone Natural Rubber company continued to their relationship with Liberia. According to journalist John Harper
, Firestone’s plantation featured “a nine-hole golf course, a fishing club, bars and other entertainment for the company’s American management… [while] the workers lived in company shanty towns without running water”.
In 1991, in the midst of the civil war, executives from Firestone met with Taylor to negotiate a deal. Firestone agreed to make a $35 million investment that would reopen their plant and provide support for Taylor’s army.
The war ended with a general election in 1997. 13 candidates ran for office, including a woman named Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but Charles Taylor was declared victorious with 75% of the vote.
Taylor was officially named the 22nd president of Liberia and then, only two years later, a second civil war broke out. Estimates say between 150,000–300,000 were killed during the conflict. Several international task forces were assembled and the UN eventually intervened.
In 2003, President Taylor was forced to resign from office. After a lengthy and drawn out trial, he would eventually be convicted of war crimes. He’s currently in prison, but allegedly remains involved in the nation’s politics from behind bars.
The 2005 general election was the country’s first since Taylor’s victory almost ten years earlier, and it was George Weah’s first foray into politics, as a representative for the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).
As The New York Times wrote back in 2005, Weah was popular in Liberia not just because of his charity work, but because “in a city of rickety jalopies”, Weah drove a black Toyota Land Cruiser with a vanity license plate that read “2 Phat”.
Liberia was a country that had only recently revived democracy, and Weah was the nation’s first celebrity politician. His opponent was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
At this point, Sirleaf was a former World Bank economist with a long history in Liberian politics. She had supported Taylor during his revolution in the late 80’s, but had since run against him and been spoken out against Taylor’s treatment of his political rivals. In the end, she won with 59% of the vote.
While Sirleaf’s victory was historic, becoming the first woman elected to lead a government in Africa, her legacy is mixed. Internationally, she’s known as a Nobel Peace Prize winner who presided over a period of peace and economic revival. But domestically, many see her time in office as a collection of broken promises. Sirleaf was never able to fully fix her country’s economic woes, and after making corruption “public enemy #1“, her administration faced allegations of rampant corruption and nepotism.
In her final Annual Message
at the joint chambers of the Legislature in 2017, Sirleaf told listeners:
“We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006. It is not because of the lack of political will to do so, but because of the intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance. We could not reap – you cannot reap – in government what has not been instilled in families, schools, churches, mosques and society in general.
Nevertheless, our efforts to fight corruption were recognized as Liberia met eligibility requirements for compact, under the Millennium Challenge Account, by consistently passing the rigid corruption index.”
12 years later, Sirleaf’s reputation was not the only thing that had changed. Back when Weah first ran for President in 2005, he was criticized
for his “lack of education and political inexperience”. But, the former footballer learned from that experience.
In preparation for a senate run in 2014, Weah got a business management degree from the DeVry University, a for-profit college which was most recently
in the news for “allegedly misleading students about their chances of getting a job and increasing their income after graduation”.
Of course, DeVry was good for Weah. He won his a seat in the Senate. And, in 2017, Weah ran for President again, this time against Sirleaf’s former Vice President, Joseph Boakai. And, even though his degree was suspect and he didn’t attended parliament very often, he had now addressed two of his biggest criticisms as a candidates.
Plus, Weah’s biggest strength was his popularity among the youth. He was also proving himself somewhat adept at building coalitions; by mid-August, President Sirleaf was endorsing Weah
as her replacement.
In December, he won the election with 62% of the vote.
During a discussion with Jillian Kestler-D’Amours
, Liberian academic Robtel Neajai Pailey explained Weah’s spporters were overwhelmingly young (under the age of 35), and struggling financially. As such, creating economic opportunities will be the primary goal of the Weah administration – but it won’t be easy.
Firestone laid-off over 400
Liberian workers last year. It will be interesting to see what role they play in Weah’s agenda, and what additional deals can be made to solve the nation’s financial problems. Like his predecessor, Weah’s campaign on tackling “entrenched corruption
“; but, as Sirleaf said, countries can become dependent on corruption. And one must only look to Weah’s Vice President to see those forces at work once again…
“The incoming vice-president, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is a popular senator who once tried to make homosexuality punishable by death. She is also Mr Taylor’s ex-wife, which helped attract voters who still support the former tyrant (who is now in prison in Britain for war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone).”
Weah’s inauguration will take place on January 22, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been invited to attend the ceremony.