Apart from not playing in the World Cup finals, the dream of every football player, George Manneh Oppong Weah, has won virtually all there is to win in world football. In a career that spanned almost two decades, across six countries on three continents (Africa, Europe and the Middle-East), Weah demonstrated that personal focus and determination can break barriers of small beginnings in life.
One of 13 children of William Weah, a mechanic and his petty trader wife Anna from Liberia’s south-eastern Grand Kru County, young Weah was raised by his paternal grandmother in Monrovia’s Clara Town slum. He and his siblings had to endure the separation of their parents, and later circumstances led to him dropping out of High School. But with the dogged determination of a world-class striker always aiming to score goals, Weah would not let his life’s game plan to be derailed. Prophetically starting his football career with the local Survivors Youth club at the age of 15, he soon moved to Cameroon after working briefly for Liberia’s Telecommunications Corporation as a switchboard technician.
From that humble beginning, Weah rose to become arguably one of Africa’s greatest players of all time. In 1995, he was named World Player of the Year by the sport’s governing body FIFA, the first non-European to clinch that award, and he also won the coveted Ballon d’Or the same year, becoming the first and to date only African player to win those awards. Before then, Weah was the African Footballer of the Year for 1989, 1994 and 1995, and in 1996, he was named African Player of the Century.
In recognition of his phenomenal speed, dribbling, goal scoring and finishing abilities, netting 84 goals in 218 matches between 1988 and 2001, Weah has been described by FIFA as “the precursor of the multi-functional strikers of today.” Apart from excelling at clubs and country, Weah is also a philanthropist, supporting young players in his country and the Football Association of Liberia, sometimes paying for the national teams’ participation in international engagements.
The rest they say might be history, but Weah’s football career involving about ten different clubs such as Monaco, Paris-Saint-Germain and Marseille in France, Milan in Italy, Chelsea and Manchester City in England and Al-Jazira in the United Arab Emirates towards the end of his career, is a classic success story.
To his credit, it was Frenchman Claude LeRoy, the self-professed “White witch doctor” of African football, who introduced Weah to his compatriot Arsene Wenger, then Manager of Monaco in 1988. Before then Weah was with Tonnerre Kalara Club (TKC) of Cameroon, and fearful of the political crisis in his home country, had actually applied for Cameroonian nationality, but was denied. Perhaps, to underscore the saying that success has many relatives, the same TKC recently on its website celebrated Weah, as the “player it trained,” who won many accolades and went ahead to become the President of Liberia.
How can Weah replicate his football success on the national political stage? Before winning the presidency in Liberia’s 26 December 2017 run-off vote under the platform of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), Weah might have discovered by himself that the rules of engagement on both theatres differ drastically, not just in content and context but also in complexities.
While football, the world’s most popular game continues to entertain and thrill players, managers and fans alike, and is even considered a unifying sport full of emotion, excitement and disappointment in equal measure, politics on the other hand remains a divisive and enigmatic enterprise, which continues to defy the understanding of both actors and spectators.
With all his contributions to football one would expect Weah to claim a bragging right to the leadership of Liberia’s Football Association. But because of the politics involved, all his efforts to secure the chairmanship position of the FA never materialised. Weah had also vied for Liberia’s presidency in 2005 under the Congress for Democratic Change but lost to former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the second round balloting after leading the pack in the inconclusive first round. He tried again in 2011, then as a presidential running mate to Winston Tubman but that venture also fell through. Still undeterred, Weah changed focus to the Senate and won the senatorial seat in Monrovia’s Montserrado County in 2014. Now at 51, Senator Weah has clinched the highest office in his country, defeating out-going Vice President Joseph Boakai by 61.5 percent to 38.5 percent of the total vote.
Weah’s patriotic zeal and determination to contribute and lift his country from the ashes of a decade-long devastating civil war, has never been in doubt. But from the lonely Executive Mansion after his inauguration on 22 January 2018, it would dawn on him that political governance and the task of national reconstruction is a different ball game, compared to soccer.
The road to the delivery of democratic benefits in post-conflict Liberia is strewn with landmines in the form of human capital deficiency, a weak economy compounded by high youth unemployment, run-down infrastructure and a socio-political environment characterised by ethnicity and inequality from a history of dichotomy between settlers and Native Liberians. The inequality was so bad at a point in the country’s history that Natives resorted to changing their names to American-sounding ones in order to enjoy benefits of citizenship.
By their comportment, Liberia’s political class whether Natives or Americo-Liberians are complicit in the country’s sorry state. For instance, Liberian lawmakers are among the highest paid in the world, with each Senator or member of the House of Representatives receiving an average monthly salary of between US$14,000 and US$17,000 including all manner of allowances. This is in a post-conflict country with an annual budget of less than US$ 630 million, where the minimum wage is less than US$ 180, and the President’s salary is under US$ 8,000 a month.
The national economy, cushioned by huge capital outlay for the maintenance of UNMIL, which has been in the country for the past 14 years, operates a dual legal tender system of the US dollar and the local Liberian dollar (Liberty). The result of the artificial exchange rate regime is hyper-inflation. Most Americo-Liberians have dual citizenship and even the Natives, all look up to America as an Eldorado.
Meanwhile, it rains in Liberia for much of the year but agriculture is neglected with the country relying on massive importation, especially of rice the national stable food. It is therefore obvious that Weah’s government will face the challenge of living up to unusually high expectations from various segments of the local population and the international community.
There is also the formidable task of reorienting the largely illiterate and unskilled Liberian youths, the majority of whom are only familiar with their country’s violent history. They are largely uneducated, unemployed and nurture a volatile sense of “entitlement” compounded by a dependency syndrome, as if the society owes them a living.
To make a difference, the new government must revisit the unfinished business of unification of Native and Americo-Liberians began by the Tubman administration. Also, the post-war peace and reconciliation efforts didn’t go far enough. Given their weak economic and political position, the Natives cannot go it alone, and in spite of their years of dominance even with their small number, the Americo-Liberians must have realised that both groups need each other as partners in Liberia’s progress.
Nation building is a collective responsibility. Every political actor or stakeholder, government, civil society, faith-based groups, security agencies, the judiciary, media and ordinary citizens, all have a stake in the success or failure of the Liberian project.
*Culled from Pambzuka News; Paul Ejime is an International Media and Communications Consultant. He can be contacted at [email protected] and @paulejime5