George Weah: Beyond Soccer

Guest Columnist: Issa Aremu

Guest Columnist Issa Aremu

Liberia has recorded another first; the first nation to produce a footballer-President, George Weah, just as the first to produce first democratically elected two-term successful female President in Africa, the outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I should add, Liberia is also the oldest Republic in Africa with less than five million people, a quarter of Lagos state! Lest we also forget, President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 was the first President to disclose that Nigeria spent whooping $12billion to liberate Liberia from its senseless civil war of attrition in which Nigeria lost one thousand troops and countless thousands of civilians.

A visitor from the outer-space reading and watching the global (mainstream and social media) coverage of the announcement of new Liberian President elect, George Weah would have been misled to assume that the great footballer “dribbled” his political opponents to the Executive Mansion in Monrovia. Watching the NTA Sport parliament edition of Monday, 28th of December, I saw ace-anchor, our own “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami in lamentation recalling his bold intention to contest for FIFA presidency and the typical Nigerian cynicism which trailed his legitimate ambition. Reflecting on Weah’s ascendancy for me raises same nostalgia of the hysteria on the trail of the ascendancy of the out- going Liberian President, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf.

I can vividly recall the somewhat patronising headlines: “First female President in Africa”!, “The Iron-Lady takes charge in Liberia”!! “Age of Women”!, “Women are coming”,!! ad infinitum. Of course Mrs. Ellen Johnson is certainly a woman and a proud mother of four and grandchildren too. It was saying the obvious that Ellen Johnson is truly the first female democratically elected President in Africa. But the obsession with gender dimension of Johnson’s Presidency exposed our readiness to undervalue the participation of women in governance and belittle their achievements made in spite their gender. This is understandable.

This is Africa, a continent in which it is easier to transfer power and wealth to male child (witness Togo and Democratic Republic of Congo!) than to a wife (Mugabe miserably and happily failed!) and female child. A female presidency understandably captured our imagination, and I dare say, has a rather sexy appeal. But even at that narrow perspective, the point cannot be overemphasised; Ellen Sirleaf’s democratic victory and two term successful tenures was a product of her direct political engagement of trial and error spanning decades, political contestation and cooperation, imprisonment and exile, national commitment and international exposure rather than her gender credentials.

Hers is fallout of earned and deserved victory than an ascribed gender. Thus other women and indeed men who are eager to follow her footsteps must realize that there is a long walk to political victory. The point being made here is that we must assess George Weah’s emergence as a president beyond a man running around leather ball to include a critical assessment of a citizen who has decidedly opted for political activism and engagement in almost three decades. I agree with Odegbami that George Weah “was a footballer and a successful one at that”. But it is remarkable that he also observed further that “it was his concern about the plight of his poor compatriots and his audacity to lead which “accorded him that recognition by giving him their mandate”.

His profile is as instructive as it is inspiring for African youths. George Oppong Weah was born October 1, 1966, Monrovia, Liberia. His soccer imprints are indelible; named African, European, and World Player of the Year in 1995—“an unprecedented achievement”. He shared a lot in common with the legendary Pele ( Edson Arnates Do Nascimento) who started playing with borrowed “bunch of socks tied together” in the poorest neighbourhood. “Too poor to afford anything” including a ball, but he transfigured into a football legend of all times.

Like Pele, Weah also learned football “on the dusty streets of Monrovia”. Later in life there has been enough Godliness in the details of his remarkable successes. He led Young Survivors, a team without a coach, into the first division, signed a three-year semiprofessional contract with top Cameroonian club Tonnerre of Yaoundé, which won its league in his first season (1987) with the team. “In his five seasons with Monaco (1987–92), he scored 57 goals, and the team won the French Cup in 1991. Subsequently he transferred to AC Milan (1995–2000) in Italy’s Serie A, helping the club win the 1996 and 1999 league titles. In January 2000 AC Milan loaned him to Chelsea of London, where he made an important contribution to that team’s Football Association Cup triumph. At the end of his career, Weah scored more goals and played in more matches than any other African professional in Europe.” But Weah’s match to presidential victory can hardly be televised as its soccer goals were beamed live. It takes more than “exceptional dribbling and shooting skills” to be a President of Africa’s oldest Republic! It takes a great of equipment of political personality to lead a nation.

First it’s about values that endeared him to his compatriots. He also works hard work and has tremendous compassion for the nation and the poor. He is one of the few Western African patriots still standing. Weah’s longstanding commitment to humanitarian activities, especially in Africa, earned him the admiration of all. Nelson Mandela called him the ‘African Pride’. “In June 1997 while in Liberia to coach the national team, he promoted vocational training schools where former child soldiers and other war-affected youth could learn new skills.

He played in a football match between teams of former child soldiers. He also visited a health clinic, one of more than 50 primary healthcare facilities that have been revitalized by UNICEF”. Weah was once a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Indeed there were scores of political reversals and failures for him more fatal than loosing a football match but he never gave up. President Charles Taylor was out of power by 2003. And in 2005 Weah ran for president of the country as a member of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party. After winning the first round of voting, he was defeated by Jonson-Sirleaf of the Unity Party (UP) in the runoff election in November 2005.

Weah initially challenged the election results in court, but he later dropped the matter . He also faced Johnson Sirleaf again in the October 2011 presidential election, but this time he ran on the ticket of the CDC as a vice presidential candidate; the presidential candidate of the CDC was Mr. Winston Tubman. But he also lost to Johnson Sirleaf. Johnson Sirleaf again defeated him, who got re-elected by a wide margin. In December 2014 Weah ran for the position of senator of Montserrado county under the banner of the CDC paradoxically defeating his nearest opponent, Robert Sirleaf, a son of the incumbent president. Weah is riding to power on the crest of alliance of political forces waving a flag of national unity. Weah’s election is an outcome of complex coalition with political support from the outgoing President Ellen Johnson.

In sum, beyond romanticising soccer, the emergence of George Weah is a victory for democratic process in West Africa in general and Liberia in particular .

And many thanks to the Liberian electorate for keeping faith with democracy which has made a footballer from a humble background to become the 25th president of Liberia.

• Comrade Aremu is a member of the National Institute, Kuru Jos.

  • remm ieet

    Our lawmakers need to start with some sports to feel some real bodily pain before aspiring to politics. From there they will know whether politics is really their thing. They have never suffered before so they can never know what the masses go through. George Weah excelled in football. Who knows he could end up doing something worthwhile in Liberia. I’m not placing my bet on that though, as politics is a different terrain and a fiercer sporting activity. Weah did not feel inferior at all and he took his chance. He appears fully built for the pugilistic aspect of politicking, which our untrained Nigerian legislators have often embraced, to resolve their salary disputations.
    That being said, many of our politicians could have excelled in athletics or football or in the energetic game of SQUASH. They will never know as they have doggedly refused to develop the sports sector in Nigeria.

  • Fidelis A.

    Since there are no more good news in Nigeria, Liberia is now the new frontier for you and Reuben. You columnists in Nigeria will someday have your day in court…..Good luck to you people writing on this backpages.

  • Don Franco

    Dear Issa Aremu:

    As a respectable senior citizen; your inability to contextualize your articles within the political and socio-economic realities on ground in Nigeria qualifies you for a refund on any degree that you may have received from the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, (NIPPS), Kuru.

    At a time when individuals whom have been deceased for over 36 months are being nominated by the APC government into board positions; when many travelers couldn’t travel home this yultide, for being stuck at the Utako Station due to fuel scarcity; and power failure across Nigeria, including unpaid salaries, for months on end; you regal Backpage readers with tales of Soccer and the European league and prosaic goals scored by George Weah.

    Last week, ignoring the mounting defeat of our troops by Boko Haram, and the carnage upon carnage by President Buhari’s herdsmen across the Middle Belt and Southern parts; you espoused your very biased personal view about the Palestine-Israel conflict, portraying Israel as an oppressive Imperial state when in reality Israel is a refugee state for the Jewish people, not only from Europe, but from Muslim countries that expelled Jews. You know, fully well, that this conflict is religious, not political. What do Arabs and Jews care about black people?

    Mr. Aremu, without getting into the 1st and 2nd temples, King David’s unification of Israel 3000 years ago and the 700+ mentions of Jerusalem in the Torah (as opposed to 0 in the Quran), Israel is an independent state. You deliberately failed to mention that it is Israel’s right to choose its own capital, just as it is the right of every independent state in the world. Especially in the Middle East, where powers respect strength above all else, the most foolish thing Israel could do is stand down to the demands of terrorist organizations, like the Nigerian government is doing by releasing terrorists in exchange for Chibok girls. Israel is clearly morally superior to the Palestinian Authority and not recognizing this, because of threats from terrorists is an assault on human dignity.

    Alas, I digress……but as we go into the campaign season, leading up to the 2019 election; Mr. Aremu, it would help if you write op-eds that speak to the current affairs of Nigeria, and stop with your verbose histrionics and platitudes on these Backpages that doesn’t in any way stimulate or enrich intellectual harvest; write-ups that discounts the gravity of the implosion and fire next time that is starring the Zoo in the face.

  • Daniel Obior

    As inspiring as the George Weah story of footballer to president is, it has been disappointing that none of the regular ThisDay back page columnists saw it worthy for their commentary. It took a guest columnist who also occasionally looks outside the Nigerian box, to do what should have been done. Apart from the remarkable transformation of Weah from footballer to president, it is worth mentioning the role the youths in Liberia played in the election of this relatively youthful man in his 50’s, against the former vice president who is in his 70s. The youths in Liberia largely made Weah’s election possible. It is hoped our youths here are taking note. This country badly needs fresh blood and fresh thinking. This we cannot get from the geriatrics we continuously parade as leaders.

    • tobias

      Do you have one in mind that the youths can rally round; what does he espouse? and can what he espouses make a dent in the myriad of problems that we have? And most importantly will what he espouses be inspirational enough to convince the youth to go along with him, other than just supporting him for no other reason than because he is a youth?

      • Daniel Obior

        You ask very good questions, some of which I honestly do not have answers to. But surely, there are some good youthful persons out there, either waiting to be discovered or preparing to hit the limelight. The message is to give them a chance with support, when they emerge.

        • tobias

          How do you mean “give them a chance with support”? George weah was not ‘given’ a chance or ‘supported’. He evolved over time to become what he is today you know. And the political space is open for anybody to participate. Or don’t you agree? Talking of ‘some good youthful persons’ being out there, I can name one; pat utomi. Or he is not ‘young’ enough? But I can assure you that there are very few youths out there who either understand or appreciate what he is about. Not to talk of overcoming our geopolitical divide to make him president!

          • Daniel Obior

            George Weah was not given a chance with support? Did he also ‘evolve’ the votes that made him win the election? He got those votes from those who gave him a chance and supported him. I used to admire Pat Utomi until his rather shameful support for Buhari, leading to the last election. If he could not see through Buhari for the disaster that Buhari was, I concluded he lacked the right level of vision required.

          • tobias

            If your meaning of given chance and support is to vote for him, well fine and good. But the point I was trying to make is that George weah did not just spring up from absolute obscurity, then liberians including the youths say, ‘hey george, come here, you are a youth take this chance and onward to the presidency’. he had to do all the normal things a politician vying for a post has to do; do his grass-root prep work, express interest, forge alliances, canvass votes, etc. you talked about being discovered; weah was not discovered. he was already popular and in the limelight before he contested for the first time; and we shouldn’t forget that this is his 3rd attempt. along the way he had to first go back to school, obtain certificates, become a senator, etc. so you see, it was not a walk in the park but a long and slow journey to the top. that’s where the ‘evolution’ came in. there is no ‘free chance’ anywhere. so don’t expect that any youth will be discovered, given a chance and supported without some real hard work. that’s my take.

          • Daniel Obior

            What I said was, “But surely, there are some good youthful persons out there, either waiting to be discovered or preparing to hit the limelight.”. Firstly, my subject in that sentence was some good youthful persons, not George Weah. Secondly, I indicated two options; “waiting to be discovered” and “preparing to hit the limelight”. Great that George Weah worked to get his recognition thereby falling in the category of those who prepared to hit the limelight. This does not in any way indicate that there aren’t politicians that get discovered, particularly in this country. My point this time is that there isn’t this need for this play with words. If you do not believe a youthful leader can emerge by chance, good for you. As far as I am concerned, nothing is impossible in Nigeria, where most of the politicians were “discovered”.