Liberia Swears In George Weah, Its Soccer Star President

Liberia Swears In George Weah, Its Soccer Star President


Despite the recent political tumult, Liberians were euphoric on Monday at the prospect of change and the chance to leave behind the rocky history of politics in a nation founded in the early 19th century by freed American slaves. Two of its past presidents were assassinated, and the nation has endured two civil wars that left scores dead.

Mr. Weah’s rise to the presidency resonated with the poorest citizens in a country where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. Mr. Weah himself came from poverty. During his teenage years in the 1980s, he shared a bedroom with 10 other boys in West Point, Monrovia’s largest slum.

Support for him in West Point is evident in a painting of the former soccer star, bespectacled and solemn looking, that hangs outside a corner shop on the road that runs through the community. “Liberia’s Hope” is written underneath. People have nicknamed him King George.

West Point has long been a political stronghold for Mr. Weah. With poor infrastructure and sanitation, regular outbursts of mob violence and rural migrants searching for opportunity, it is a microcosm of the challenges throughout the country that await the new president.

Photo

Mr. Weah leaving the field earlier this week after a friendly soccer match between the Weah All Stars and the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Credit
Carielle Doe for The New York Times

Mr. Weah rode a wave of disappointment into office, propelled by voters upset that Mrs. Sirleaf’s government never managed to tackle endemic poverty or successfully fight corruption.

His challenges are formidable. He must govern a nation with a broken education system, high levels of unemployment and an economy hit hard by falling rubber and iron ore prices.

Mr. Weah must also maintain security and stability in a postwar society without the support of peacekeepers. The United Nations mission in Liberia is sending the last of its troops back home.

Like his predecessor, Mr. Weah has vowed to fight corruption, saying anyone looking to cheat the public will have no place in his government. He has pledged to promote free education and health care, while also providing tax breaks for investors.

But his critics say he is too inexperienced to address the mammoth problems the nation faces. His political experience consists of three years as senator and a limited stint as an ambassador for a reconciliation initiative.

Photo

Children playing by fishing canoes in West Point, the largest slum in Monrovia, Liberia.

Credit
Carielle Doe for The New York Times’

“The economy is doing very badly and will be a big challenge for him to turn it around,” said Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, an environmental activist.

And he must operate in the shadow of Mrs. Sirleaf, who despite being criticized for nepotism and failing to address endemic corruption, is often credited with Liberia’s postwar turnaround.

“She took over at a time when things were so bad and she had so much money flowing in that she was able to show progress very quickly,” Mr. Siakor said.

Mr. Weah is not expected to enjoy the same levels of foreign donations, and he has focused on Liberia’s business potential, saying he wants to relax constraints on companies in hopes of creating jobs.

Faith Caranda, 18, who is in her final year of high school, said she hoped his first priority would be improving access to education.

“A lot of my friends don’t have money to go to school, so they sit down doing nothing,” said Ms. Caranda, who hopes to study medicine. “I know he will bring change in our country.”



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