Liberia: Where there’s a will…
George Weah’s victory in the second round of Liberia’s presidential elections on 26 December upended an old certainty: the candidate of the ruling party always wins, guaranteeing continuity and a sense of stability. A former international soccer star, Weah has been a prominent figure in the political landscape since he created the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) to contest Liberia’s first postwar elections in 2005.
Sworn in on 22 January, Weah left many Liberians wondering how the populist politician with just a few years experience as a senator would deliver on his campaign promises to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, fight poverty, bust up corrupt networks and launch an agricultural revolution.
Since winning, Weah has been trying to temper expectations. On 2 January, Weah told journalists that he will be surrounding himself with an experienced team of advisers, including prominent economists, to “put us on track.” He added: “They will look at what is in the coffers and then work out how to move forward.” He avoided tying himself to specific policies and said his government will prioritise agricultural programmes so that Liberians are “able to grow their own food”.
Hanging on promises
But the youth enthusiasm that Weah’s campaign tapped into risks boiling over. Thousands of young people showed up to the CDC party headquarters when Weah said he was looking for 2,000 volunteers to help out in cleaning up Monrovia. Some of those who showed up said that they were expecting to be paid, while others said they heard that Weah would halve the price of staple foods like rice. And in the months when the Supreme Court was evaluating claims of fraud in the running of the first round of the presidential vote last year, hundreds of students in school uniforms waited in the sprawling compound in the hope that Weah would come and hand them money for their school fees. This was triggered by his vague populism: he had promised Liberians free education without spelling out how his government would pay for it.
Other politicians are sounding alarm bells. In a radio interview, Amos Sawyer, the chair of the Governance Commission, warned that though Weah’s youthful supporters “have every right to have expectations”, he needs to manage those expectations quickly “because if people expect that there will be more jobs, that prices will come down, then there should be a programme in place to meet those expectations.” The underlying anxiety is justified: in December 2011, thousands of students rioted in Monrovia, destroying government vehicles, offices and schools because of the mismanagement of a vacation job scheme run by the Monrovia City Corporation to employ students.
Until his presidential win, Weah’s peers widely viewed him as an outsider. Since crushing Robert Sirleaf, son of the former president, in a senatorial by-election in December 2014, Weah had been an unremarkable senator, with no major speeches or legislation credited to his name. During the campaign, Weah shunned many political conventions, failing both to issue a detailed manifesto and to participate in two debates.
Aaron Weah, the Liberia country director for peace organisation Search for Common Ground and a longstanding political and transitional justice activist, tells The Africa Report: “His work in the Senate offers no clue because that work is unknown […]. Weah was still associated with soccer, which the elite think is for dropouts. There are people who believe quite strongly that Weah’s rise in politics is something of a disgrace for Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic. This is why, for many of his supporters, Weah’s victory will forever be considered a crowning achievement whether he is able to deliver on his promises or not. He has been able to humble the book people who have disenfranchised them and kept Liberia poor.” Professional licensed plumber in Moreno Valley CA
Heroes and villains
These supporters are mostly young people, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Liberia’s voters. Their votes delivered Weah the presidency, winning 61.5% and trouncing former vice-president Joseph Boakai, the governing Unity Party’s candidate – the first time in 140 years that an opposition politician defeated the incumbent party’s candidate.
Weah’s winning strategy involved forming a controversial coalition with the National Patriotic Party of war criminal and former president Charles Taylor, and the Liberia People Democratic Party (LPDP), formed by ex-speaker Alex Tyler, who is facing criminal charges.
In the inner circle of the new president are some respected old hands, however. Two of the most prominent are Toga McIntosh and Charles Gibson. McIntosh, a former foreign minister, surprised many in September 2016 by joining the LPDP. Gibson, a prominent lawyer who previously worked for the United Nations (UN), is the rule of law focal point on Weah’s transition team.
While Weah took a majority of the vote in the presidential race, his coalition won only 21 seats in the 73-member house of representatives. The lower house of the legislature showed early signs of support by selecting the coalition’s Bhofal Chambers as speaker on 15 January. The disparate constituencies in parliament could be an obstacle for the new government’s legislative agenda if team Weah is not able to keep his allies on-side.
Liberia is not the fully renewed nation with reordered social systems that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf promised after she became president of the war-ravaged country in January 2006. Much less is it an economically buoyant one that can pay for ambitious populist programmes. Corruption is still common and other problems dissuade investors. The legislature stymied Johnson Sirleaf’s attempts to implement land reform, and the government has not been spending much on infrastructure, as civil servant salaries and other recurrent spending account for more than two thirds of the national budget.
The Monrovia government relies heavily on foreign donors, and there are worries that aid commitments will drop as Liberia is removed from the global crisis map and the 14-year-old UN mission in the country withdraws in April 2018. With estimated economic growth of just 2.5% in 2017, Weah’s campaign-trail bravado – “Everything I do, everything I touch is successful” – will rapidly be put to the test.
This article first appeared in the February 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine