The former football star talks a good game when it comes to speaking to Liberia's poor. But Weah faces the challenge of showing that he is still as connected, and can deliver, to the Liberia of his underprivileged childhood.
George Weah, the international footballing icon and Ballon d'Or winner, finally took over the leadership of his country 12 years after launching an ambitious political career.
After failing in 2005 and 2011 (then as running mate) Weah was overwhelmingly elected by what seemed to be a national consensus in December 2017 gaining 60 percent of the popular vote in a run-off election against the incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai.
The football star turned politician also carried the youth vote yet his premiership will be judged in a markedly different way to the way he was judged by fans on the pitch.
As a footballer he was expected to score goals, win games and keep his fan cheering. Yet for many Liberians, success during his tenure will be a matter of life and death. Unlike the football pitch, a failure to score goals will affect people’s livelihoods, security, and the stability of the country he once fled from.
Weah represents a generation of Liberians caught in the middle of a long power struggle that reached its height with the assassination of the country’s president in 1980, and ended a dynasty of Americo-Liberian rule.
He was just a 23-year-old athlete when Liberia imploded through a violent civil war (1989–2003) that killed nearly 250,000 people.
With roots in an underprivileged community, many Liberians who feel let down by the established political order associate themselves with Weah’s life successes, and through him, they see a humble and honest leader who can transform their world.
Arguably, Weah’s life over the last 30 years brings to question his claimed connection to the country’s underprivileged population. He has been a global icon earning millions of dollars, a charity Ambassador for UNICEF, a resident in Europe and the US, and most recently a crowd-pulling politician - all of which come with privileges the ordinary Liberian can only dream of.
An estimated 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line. For them, the system of economic development and redistribution has never worked towards their interest. Bad policies and poor management of the country’s vast resources coupled with years of instability have seen the goal-posts shift regularly for many Liberians. Weah has promised to change all of this.
During his inaugural address he reassured his compatriots, “I have taken an oath before you and before almighty God. Rest assured I will not let you down.”
Far beyond the sloganeering, his policy proposals that involve some concrete populist actions.
During the 2017 campaign, he made big promises to fight corruption - an issue his predecessor conceded she had failed on. He also promises a robust and practical approach for delivering basic services, particularly in free education and healthcare.
But these promises are not new to Liberians.
At the moment questions remain about his readiness and ability to deliver on such grandiose promises. He was widely criticized during the electoral campaign for being inexperienced and politically unprepared to take over a country in such a complex political and economic transition.
He inherited a jobless economy and a faltering currency. His predecessor’s government was heavily financed by foreign aid, but by the twilight of her administration, much of that was waning; the UN Mission which has supported recovery in nearly all sectors for more than a decade was packing off to leave in March 2018.
Under normal circumstances – like in the case of Liberia – waning foreign aid and the closure of the UN Mission are indicative of increasing political and social stability. Logically this implies that Weah is inheriting a peaceful country with stable institutions capable of maintaining law and order, and delivery of basic services. But beneath this glossy veneer is the harsh reality of poverty and acutely inefficient state institutions, as evidenced by the under-resourced hospitals and clinics and the below-standard schooling (public and private) across the country.
The main challenge for Weah's administration is to infuse energy and resources into state institutions and increasing the credibility and efficiency of these institutions. To succeed in this, Weah must commit to his ‘pro-poor’ agenda and mobilise a credible and well-trained cadre of Liberians that command respect both locally and internationally.
So far, his cabinet picks have been controversial, albeit promising. He has reappointed some officials from the last government to key positions including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Information, and stalwarts in his party have accused him of appointing inexperienced and unqualified people to government. He however seems committed to robust and practical solutions for poverty.
Among his ‘Critical Pro-Poor Projects’ to be implemented in the first 150 days of his administration are projects to foot the bills of public examination fees for grade school students, delivery of critical hospital supplies, clearing the civil service of ghost workers, empowering Liberian-owned businesses, and spurring entrepreneurship among young Liberians. Reports on all these issues over the years have been unflattering, particularly in the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic that led to a near collapse of the economy.
The Ebola epidemic pointedly showed how inefficient healthcare delivery was in Liberia as up to the point of the outbreak, hospitals lacked basic materials like sanitary gloves and the entire country had around just a dozen functioning ambulances.
Weah’s planned short-term interventions proactively engage the issues that matter in the daily lives of the majority of Liberians. But Weah must be reminded that running a state and delivering recurrent services is far more demanding and requires sustainable measures.
Thus, while the short-term populist measures are commendable, there remains the need to institutionalise measures at alleviating poverty and getting the economy working for the masses. Direct policy and legal reforms to empower state institutions and reduce bottlenecks are needed to spur economic growth and development.
Weah’s main policy measures announced at his first State of the Nation address towards seems completely off target: he is seeking to amend citizenship laws to allow dual citizenship and grant Liberian citizenship to “non-Negroes” as solutions to the country’s economic woes and poverty conditions.
He considers the citizenship question as the ‘most urgent and imperative agenda’ of his presidency, but this has been received with criticism from many sectors, and rightly so because the issue of citizenship has a very tenuous link to the country’s poverty problems.
It is still never too late for Weah to recalibrate his main ‘urgent and imperative agenda’ in line with his pro-poor objectives. A pro-poor government is largely understood as a government driven by the primary objective of reducing poverty. A pro-poor government thus takes direct actions that alleviate the sufferings and reduce the number of its citizens living in poverty through sustainable and long term interventions managed by both the state and the private sector.
Perhaps the most sustainable institutional measures would require empowerment for local self-governance, decentralisation of the management of resources, and credible financing mechanisms, and securities for investment.
For the goal of ending poverty in Liberia, Weah as a football legend must see the above measures as free kick opportunities which cannot be missed. Scoring a goal on each of these will add up to an eventual victory for his team at the end of the most important match of his career.
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