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.