MONROVIA. – Liberians revelled yesterday in former football star George Weah’s presidential victory, in the country’s first democratic transfer of power in seven decades scarred by civil wars, political assassinations and an Ebola crisis.
Weah, idolised in Liberia as “Mister George”, is set to replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took over in 2006 at the helm of the west African state founded by freed US slaves. The 51-year-old starred at top-flight European clubs Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s, before briefly playing for Chelsea and Manchester City toward the end of his career.
Weah, who entered politics after retiring from football in 2002, easily beat his rival Vice President Joseph Boakai in Tuesday’s run-off vote. With almost all ballots counted, National Election Commission (NEC) president Jerome Korkoya said final results would be released on Friday (yesterday). But Weah wasted no time in acknowledging his win.
“My fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measure the importance and the responsibility of the immense task which I embrace today. Change is on,” he posted on Twitter late on Thursday.
Hundreds of his supporters took to the streets of the capital Monrovia, singing, dancing and embracing each other as news of his victory spread.
“I’ve never been so happy in all my life. We were in opposition for 12 years. We’re going to make history, like the children of South Africa did,” said Josephine Davies, vice president of the youth wing of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the ex-star striker’s victory in a tweet yesterday. “Congratulations to Mister George for this election! Great moment for Liberia!”
The NEC said Weah won 61.5 percent of the run-off vote, which was delayed several weeks after a legal challenge from Boakai, following October’s first round. It said that with 98.1 percent of all votes counted, Boakai had only secured 38.5 percent support.
Ahead of Thursday’s result announcement, armed and helmeted police deployed outside the poll body’s headquarters as Weah supporters gathered and began rejoicing. Weah, the only African ever to have won both FIFA’s World Player of the Year and the coveted Ballon D’Or, missed out on the presidency in a 2005 bid.
He was similarly frustrated when he ran for vice-president in 2011, but his CDC party repeatedly urged its young and exuberant supporters to keep calm. Weah’s latest campaign was not without controversy, however. He has drawn some criticism for picking Jewel Howard-Taylor, the powerful ex-wife of Charles Taylor, as his vice-president.
Meanwhile, Liberia’s vice president Boakai conceded defeat in the presidential election run-off yesterday, easing the country further towards its first democratic transition of power in decades.
Boakai’s concession avoids the kind of protracted legal challenge that followed the first round of the election and delayed the run-off by over a month. Weah will succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president next month.
“Even though I will not be the captain of the ship, it is my fervent desire that the ship of state always sails smoothly,” Boakai, dressed all in black, told about 100 supporters at his party headquarters in the capital Monrovia.
“I called George Weah to congratulate him as winner in the presidential contest,” he said, speaking softly to muted applause. “We must work to unite our people because Liberia is bigger than all of us.”
A falling out with Boakai’s supporters, which saw Johnson Sirleaf’s own Unity Party accuse her of interfering in the first round of the election — charges she denied — has also left lingering bad feelings.
“Ellen corrupted this country,” said Victor Smith, an IT consultant and Boakai supporter, after the concession speech. “It is a bad thing that Weah was elected. He lacks the experience. He never gave a platform. He doesn’t have the skills to be a leader.”
On Thursday, Johnson Sirleaf’s announced plans to form a joint presidential transition team with the president-elect. It will coordinate the democratic transfer of power, Liberia’s first since 1944, and ensure Weah is provided with regular national security briefings. – AFP/Reuters