By Muyiwa Olayinka
The future belongs to the risk takers, not the comfort seekers
It is not news again that George Opong Weah is now the democratically elected President of Liberia. The only African to win FIFA World footballer of the year in 1995, is now the President in waiting. Come January 2018, he will be taking over from the first African female President and a Nobel Prize Laureate, Mrs Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
George Weah is the only professional Sportsman about to become the head of a country in the whole world!
This is good news coming from Liberia, a country ravaged by protracted civil wars and Ebola disease that almost decimated the nation.
Weah did not achieve this feat by happenstance or providence, but by painstakingly planning and working towards his dreams. As a result of this, he remains a beacon of hope to the traumatized and marginalized African youths. Weah has joined youthful leaders like Barrack Obama (USA) and Emmanuel Macron (France) to lead their countries.
A little peep to Weah’s history attests to his tenacity of purpose and adroitness of this youthful African phenomenon.
Weah was born in the Clara Town slum of Monrovia, capital city of Liberia . He’s among thirteen children raised by his paternal grandmother. His parent were separated when he was a baby, educated up to high school before he dropped out of school in his final year of studies.
He began to play soccer locally until finally spotted by the current Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger who took him to Europe. Weah moved to PSG in 1992 where he won Ligue 1 in 1994 and became top scorer of the 1994-95 UEFA Champions League. He signed for AC Milan in 1995 where he spent four successful seasons and won the Italian Seria A twice. His most notable goal in Italy saw him run the length of the field against Verona.
He moved to the English Premier League playing for Chelsea Fc and Manchester City, before returning to France, playing for Marseille in 2001. He subsequently ended his professional football career with Al- Jazira (UAE Arabian Gulf League) in 2003.
Unfortunately, despite all football laurels won in Europe, he was unable to replicate his giant strides for his country, Liberia. As one of the smaller nations in the world football, and as an underdog, he did everything he could to support the national squad, aside being the team’s star player. He at a time, coached the squad and funded the national side to a large extent.
In total, Weah played 60 games for Liberia for over 20 years, scoring 22 goals. He was the African footballer of the year three times.
Despite his efforts, he was unsuccessful in helping Liberia qualify for a single FIFA World Cup. Yet, he remains one of the iconic African players and a legend.
As a top footballer in Europe, he did not forget his root. He was involved in many humanitarian activities back home in Liberia, most especially initiatives concerning youths.
Though Weah established a home in New York City (USA), he maintained close ties with Liberia. He’s known as ‘King George’. He retired from football when the national team, the Lone Star, performed poorly at the African Nations Cup.
Weah returned to Liberia as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Liberia fought 14 years of civil conflict that claimed many lives. As a Goodwill Ambassador, he assisted in settling internally displaced children, building health centers, through UNICEF. George Weah was involved in a $6m ‘UNICEF’s Back to school’ initiative that returned more than 300,000 out of the 750,000 targeted children to basic learning.
Following the ouster of President Charles Taylor, in 2003, George finally joined politics at the age of 37. In 2005, he ran for the President of the country as a member of Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party. After winning the first round, but failing to get the constitutional requirement (51%), he was forced to a run off. He was defeated by the current President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, of the Unity Party in the run off election in 2005.
Education played a major role in Weah’s defeat, after he admitted publicly that he was not a high school graduate. A true life confession that would cost him dearly politically. How could he measure up to Madam Ellen Sirleaf educationally, a Harvard trained public servant and ex World Bank accountant.
Following the 2005 election, he took an ambitious journey to acquire formal education. He sat for Secondary School Certificate Examination in 2006 at the age of 40. His determination to be involved in public service made him to acquire a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Devry University in Miami, USA in 2012. He capped it all with Master’s degree in Public Administration from the same University.
Weah came back to contest as the running mate of Winston Tubman on CDC party, against the incumbent, Ellen Sirleaf. Both emerged with substantial votes but none had the majority.
Less than a week before run off, Tubman complained of irregularities and withdrew from the race. Sirleaf was re elected with a wide margin.
In December 2014, Weah ran for the position of senator of Montserrado county on CDC. He won against Robert Sirleaf (one of the President’s son) taking 78% to Sirleaf’s 11%.
Two years later, in an effort to consolidate opposition, CDC merged with two other parties to form Coalition for Democratic Change. He became the sole Presidential candidate with the ex wife of the ousted President Taylor, Jewel Howard Taylor, a his running mate. She is a senator representing Bong county.
Weah had 38% in the October 10, 2017 election, more than any of the 19 candidates, including his main and closest challenger, current Vice President Joseph Boakah who had 29%. Not meeting the constitutional requirement, the run off election of December 26 made Weah the President in waiting.
Weah won with an easy victory with more than 60% of the vote, surpassing the constitutional requirement.
The role of the youth cannot be underestimated, the youths had more than 60% of the voting power. Could this be the reward of lavishing cash on scholarships, soccer training programs and vocational training of former child soldiers?
He was more involved in humanitarian activities during the ruinous period of the Presidency of Charles Taylor, who ruled from 1997 to 2003, the darkest period of debilitating civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
For the generation that grew up in the civil war, Weah was the only known figure famous for something other than killing, limb-chopping and cannibalism during the civil war.
With grit and consistency to realize his lifetime ambition, that is, election to the topmost job, he has challenged the youths of Africa. He re awakens the African youths that, they can rise above challenges and difficulties, in achieving their dreams, ably supported with education, careful planning, doggedness, identifying opportunities and forthrightness.
Fears and challenges
Liberia has its numerous challenges after years of civil wars. Liberian fought two civil wars (1989-1997; 1997-2003). The nation is still grappling with uniting the ethnic and warring groups. Uniting the nation is a big task so that gains recorded these past few years will not be reversed.
George Weah rode on popularity of his humanitarian work but getting the job done is another thing entirely. He’s stepping into a big shoe of President Johnson Sirleaf, who has managed to ensure post conflict peace, integration and stability. She will be handing over to Weah on January 22, 2018 a much more stable polity than Liberia’s pre conflict era. With her connection with the Bretton Woods Institution, Sirleaf, she got external debt cancelled for Liberia.
Ebola disease almost ravaged the small West African country, and she managed to curtail it.
How Weah manages these challenges and more, will determine his success in office and his political future.
Some of his critics accused him of lacking political experience and maturity, bearing in mind he has not held major political appointments, apart from being a serving senator. He’s been called an absent Senator representing Montserrado County. The Liberian press labeled him ‘chronic absenteeism Senator’.
But Weah replied ‘Everything I do, everything I touch is successful, defending his term. I co-sponsor bills and I represent my people well’.
Weah could also become a jet-setting playboy, going by his past lifestyle, and could seldom be seen in Liberia, something he enjoyed as a US and French citizen.
Having another Taylor as his Vice President calls for anxiety in Liberia.
Weah admitted earlier last year to Liberian media that he had spoken to Charles Taylor. He said someone nearby was on the phone with Charles Taylor , who had heard his ( Weah) voice in the background and asked to speak with him.
‘I think there’s nothing wrong with that- to speak to a former President. Even though I know the President we are talking about’ says Weah.
But again, it’s not a friendly call. Just I want to say hi to him, so I said hi to him. That was it’
The whole world is watching with bated breadth, how he’s going to use his popularity to drive the course of his nation to sustainable peace and progress.
Congratulations ‘King George’!