After weeks of high-drama legal scrutiny over Liberia’s first round of voting, carried out amidst a backdrop of shifting allegiances undoubtedly hammered out over cold beers on muggy nights, the end is drawing near. This coming Tuesday, just one day after celebrating Christmas with their families, Liberians will head to the polls and – finally – select their next president. It’s a watershed moment in the country’s history, though its significance has sometimes felt oddly submerged in collective uncertainty over how, or if, life will be any different in the post-Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf era.
In point of fact, a peaceful transition of power in Liberia will be an achievement that deserves no small celebration. Sirleaf’s three most recent predecessors either met their end violently, or in the case of Charles Taylor, the infamous, sharp-tongued avatar of dapper warlordism, now languishes in a British prison cell. Sirleaf herself, whatever her flaws, has earned a gilded pedestal in the history books as Africa’s first elected female leader, and will almost certainly join the pantheon of Liberian presidents who are appreciated more in their absence than they were during their reign. Darling of the West, forgiver of debt, and signer of contracts, the “Iron Lady” held the mantle of international celebrity, and her lapa will be hard to fill.
But filled it will be, either by her vice president, the septuagenarian statesman Joseph Boakai, playfully nicknamed “Sleepy Joe” by Liberians for his propensity to fall asleep during state functions, or by her political archrival George Weah, football star-turned-senator, former FIFA World Player of the Year and one of Liberia’s most improbable success stories. In an unforeseen twist, a bitter personal dispute between Sirleaf and Boakai over the past year prompted her to quietly offer her support to Weah, and her talent for cloak-and-dagger politics – along with a series of high-profile recent endorsements by prominent figures – has made it appear increasingly likely that once the votes are counted, the former AC Milan striker will become the 25th president of the Republic of Liberia.
This begs a question that, as of yet, doesn’t have a clear answer: what will a Weah administration look like, and how will he govern?
Both icons of Liberian public life, Weah and Sirleaf traversed wildly different paths towards the halls of power. Sirleaf was raised and educated in the sanctums of elite Liberian life, obtaining a Harvard education and serving as Minister of Finance in the waning days of one-party rule, nearly twenty-five years before beginning her twelve-year stint as president. Weah, on the other hand, was born in a winding maze of shacks called Clara Town, one of Monrovia’s ubiquitous working-class slums, where he rode his raw athletic talent into the impossible fantasy that so many young Liberians conjure when they close their eyes at night – fame, fortune and cosmopolitan mobility.
Where Sirleaf entered the Liberian presidency with the support of the Clintons, Tony Blair and the World Bank, her glittering resume imprinted upon the red carpet they rolled out for her, Weah will likely be assuming office with his international audience nervously fidgeting in their seats, whispering disapprovingly to one another about his limited qualifications and thick colloqua accent.
But it’s precisely this dichotomy that most excites Weah’s base of young, perennially underemployed Liberians, many of whom see his haloed rise as a precious expression of their own frustrated ambitions. For all her successes in keeping the peace, the Sirleaf era was infused with the kind of sterility that’s inherent to international development culture. Progress is measured by GDP graphs and strategy documents, delivered via powerpoint in a style that prompts applause in conferences held in Brussels, but this form of progress never really spoke to average Liberians struggling with dysfunctional services and limited economic opportunities. Weah’s perceived proximity to their plight has lent itself to an expectation that he’ll share the spoils of power more equitably than she did, and a hope that they’ll finally supplant the international community as the primary constituency of their president.
After soundly losing the 2005 election to Sirleaf – which his most dedicated supporters still resolutely claim was rigged by her friends in Europe and the United States – Weah bolstered his leadership credentials with a masters degree from DeVry University, an American for-profit college. In 2014, he won the senate seat of Monrovia and its surrounding suburbs, crushing Sirleaf’s son Robert by nearly 70 points in a campaign that served as an obvious precursor to a second run at the presidency.
By all accounts, Weah’s political success is a product of his personal style as much as his iconic status. Even supporters of his rivals describe him as warm, personable, and generous – invaluable qualities for garnering trust in a country accustomed to venality and selfishness in its elected officials. One Liberian I spoke to who campaigned for a candidate that lost in the first round of voting said Weah personally called to console him over the defeat, in contrast to the candidate he’d supported, from whom he says he’s yet to receive a word of thanks. Over the years, Weah’s developed a reputation for offering financial and moral support to people he may know only in passing, and in Liberia those kinds of stories travel fast and far.
But while Weah possesses admirably gracious personal qualities, he’s thin on concrete ideas, at least in public – which is a big reason why he’s received such lukewarm support from Liberia’s professional and educated classes, many of whom worry that his limited grasp of the policy challenges the country faces could prove dangerous. The policy platform of his party, the Coalition for Democratic Change, reads like the boilerplate development strategies that the Sirleaf administration periodically rolled out, but there isn’t much by way of a coherent explanation of how things will be any different under his guidance. In this, his Obama-parodying campaign slogan, “change for hope,” seems apt in its puzzling vagueness. Weah is liked, but thought of as an unknown quantity, and if he does become president he’ll be inheriting a tough hand.
Inflation in Liberia has skyrocketed over the past few years, partly due to a questionable economic strategy pursued by Sirleaf and backed by international experts who preached the transformative magic of foreign investment. After commodity prices tanked in recent years, most of the iron ore conglomerates that constituted the backbone of the government’s growth strategy pulled out. Neither Weah nor Boakai have proposed a convincing solution to get the economy back on track or shift course to a more just distribution of resources. The blue helmet-clad UN security blanket is packing its last suitcases, and should he win, Weah will enter office with expectations from his base that will likely prove difficult to meet.
The wildcard, as is generally the case with charismatic political figures who are relative novices to the rigours of governance, is who he chooses to surround himself with. Here there is cause for concern. While corruption is far from the most pressing structural challenge Liberia faces, it certainly doesn’t help, and some of Weah’s close confidants and supporters have a history of eyebrow-raising behavior. Alex Tyler, the former speaker of the house and a key Weah ally, has been accused by Global Witness of taking bribes from a mining company and having lucrative ties to illegal logging.
Weah’s choice of running mate, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is the ex-wife of former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, who remains immensely popular in broad swaths of the country. While the international media’s breathless alarmism over the prospect of Taylor manipulating Weah from his prison cell is overblown and silly, Jewel is a force in her own right, and not necessarily for good. In recent years she’s attempted to criminalize homosexuality and have Liberia formally declared a Christian country. She is likely to be a vocal, powerful member of Weah’s circle, and while she possesses a reputation for competence, as a senator she was also known to be vindictive towards her rivals.
Weah’s most attractive personal qualities may, in the end, prove to be liabilities, as there will be intense competition for his ear and it remains to be seen whether he will be willing to be harsh towards those who abuse his favor for their own personal gain. He will also be inheriting a vibrant, critical civil society and press, and he will have to resist the temptation to silence voices that will inevitably attack his leadership. The honeymoon won’t last long, and there’s no sign that Weah has a workable plan to fix the dysfunction that seems to exist in nearly every corner of Liberian social service delivery.
Still, there is reason for cautious optimism. Despite his lack of ideological clarity, by all accounts Weah’s fondness and concern for average Liberians is genuine and rooted in shared experience. He will enter office with a rabidly supportive base – at least at first – which, should he prove skillful, will afford him the political strength to exert control over his circle and pressure his advisors to perform. For many young Weah voters, his ascendancy to the executive office will represent a joyous rejection of the notion that their leaders have to emerge from behind barriers they can’t cross, potentially marking a new era of politics – regardless of whether he’s able to live up to their lofty projections.
Whether Weah can harness his popularity to advance an agenda that improves the lives of all Liberians, rather than a fresh cadre of well-connected elites, remains to be seen. The arena he’ll step into if he wins on Tuesday isn’t one for games. But like so many times in his charmed life, it will have a crowd on its feet, cheering and praying for him to bring them victory.