MONROVIA: International football stars and Liberians on Friday (Saturday in Manila) celebrated George Weah’s presidential victory in the West African country’s first democratic transfer of power after two devastating civil wars, as the former ace striker vowed to usher in change.
Idolized in Liberia as “Mister George”, Weah is set to replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 took over the country founded by freed US slaves. He will be sworn in on January 22.
The 51-year-old, who grew up in grinding poverty, starred at European giants Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s, before briefly playing for Chelsea and Manchester City toward the end of his career.
He entered politics after retiring from football in 2002.
Weah easily beat Vice President Joseph Boakai in Thursday’s run-off vote, gaining 61.5 percent of the ballot against 38.5 percent for his rival and winning in 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties.
“My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on,” Weah said on Twitter.
Appeal for unity
Boakai conceded defeat on Friday and said he had called Weah to congratulate him. He also appealed for unity, saying: “My love for the country is far (more) profound than my desire for the presidency.
“I reject any temptation of imposing pain, hardship, agony and uncertainty,” he said. “My name will not be used as (an) excuse for one drop of human blood to be spilt in this country.”
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the ex-star striker’s victory, saying: “Congratulations to Mister George for this election! Great moment for Liberia!” He also invited Weah to visit France and the invitation had been accepted, Macron’s office said.
His former club Paris Saint-Germain tweeted: “We knew George Weah way before he became President-elect of Liberia. Congrats to the PSG and world football legend on the latest chapter of his brilliant career!!!”
Tributes poured in from former Chelsea star Didier Drogba, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure and Marseille’s former Cameroon midfielder Stephane Mbia.
AC Milan offered their congratulations “to the Red and Black legend” who starred for the club over four seasons.
Weah was already facing pressure Friday to improve the lives of millions of Liberians living in abject poverty.
“I think the Liberian people will expect… Weah’s presidency to (have a) pro-poor, pro-growth policy that will put the people at the centre of national development. Wherein that power is given to the people; the provision of education, youth training for disadvantaged and vulnerable youths that are on the streets and who see themselves in him,” said political analyst Vita Ishmael Tue.
Clinton Taryor from Weah’s CDC party added: “Mr. President, don’t forget your roots. We are not behind you because you’re handsome or because you are a star…. Some of us are behind you because we know that you walked in our shoes.”
The tumultuous events of the past 70 years in Liberia, where an estimated 250,000 people died during back-to-back civil wars between 1989-2003, have prevented a democratic handover from taking place since 1944.
Sirleaf’s predecessor Charles Taylor fled the country in 2003, hoping to avoid prosecution for funding rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Two presidents who served prior to Taylor were assassinated.
The Sirleaf administration, elected in 2005, guided the nation out of the ruins of war and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, but is accused of failing to combat poverty and corruption.
Boakai, who served in Sirleaf’s government for 12 years, was “riding on a ticket with excess baggage,” Liberian daily Frontpage Africa said Friday.
“In the eyes of many, nepotism, corruption, waste, and a messy educational system have dogged the government’s legacy, and its by-product is a shrinking economy,” it said.
Weah, the only African ever to have won both FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the coveted Ballon D’Or, missed out on the presidency in a 2005 bid.
Weah’s latest campaign was not without controversy, however.
He has drawn some criticism for picking Jewel Howard-Taylor, the powerful ex-wife of former warlord and president Charles Taylor, as his vice-president. Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in a British jail for war crimes.
Weah also had the backing of a notorious former warlord Prince Johnson who sipped a beer as his men brutally tortured former president Samuel Kanyon Doe to death. He was also allegedly supported by President Sirleaf.