Liberians on Friday feted former football star George Weah’s presidential victory in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in seven decades scarred by civil wars, political assassinations and an Ebola crisis.
Weah, idolised in Liberia as ‘Mister George’, is set to replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took over in 2006 at the helm of the west African state founded by freed US slaves. He will be sworn in on January 22.
The 51-year-old starred at top-flight European clubs Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s, before briefly playing for Chelsea and Manchester City toward the end of his career.
Weah, who entered politics after retiring from football in 2002, easily beat vice-president Joseph Boakai in Thursday’s run-off vote, gaining 60.5 per cent of the ballot against 38.5 per cent for his rival. Weah won 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.
Congratulations poured in from all quarters. French president Emmanuel Macron hailed the former star striker’s victory, saying: ‘Congratulations to Mister George for this election! Great moment for Liberia!’
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!!!’
Hundreds of his supporters took to the streets of the capital Monrovia, singing, dancing and embracing each other as news of his victory spread.
‘I’ve never been so happy in all my life. We were in opposition for 12 years. We’re going to make history, like the children of South Africa did,’ said Josephine Davies, vice-president of the youth wing of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change.
Ahead of Thursday’s result announcement, armed and helmeted police deployed outside the poll body’s headquarters as Weah supporters gathered and began rejoicing.
Sirleaf’s office said it had set up a team ‘for the proper management and orderly transfer of executive power from one democratically elected president to another,’ adding that it included several ministers.
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 UN and regional bloc ECOWAS hailed the peaceful nature of the vote, with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres praising ‘the government, political parties and the people of Liberia for the orderly poll’, which the EU said ‘generally respected constitutional rules’.
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 former 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.
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