BLOOMBERG – Former soccer star George Weah took office as the new president of Liberia with pledges to fight corruption and revive the economy of the small West African nation that was hit by the worst-ever Ebola crisis only a decade after ending a protracted civil war.
“I promise to be the agent of positive change,” Weah, 51, told a packed stadium in the capital, Monrovia, following Monday’s swearing-in ceremony. “We owe our citizens moral clarity on fundamental issues including civil liberties and accountability of national resources. My popular mandate is a mandate to end corruption.”
Weah replaces Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who steps down after completing two six-year terms in office. While the inauguration marks Liberia’s first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected head of state to another in decades, Weak takes the helm of the nation of 4.5 million people with little experience in governance other than three years in the Senate.
Dressed in a traditional white gown, Weah said Liberia was “open for business” and pledged to invest in agriculture and infrastructure.
When Weah first ran in elections in 2005, he was defeated in the second round by Johnson Sirleaf, who received international acclaim as Africa’s first elected female president. Over the course of her reign, a series of corruption scandals within her administration and an acute economic crisis gradually eroded her popularity. This month, Johnson Sirleaf was expelled from her party for violating its rules by not supporting its candidate, former Vice President Joseph Boakai.
Weah “promised to give us free education and free health care,” said Musu Tah, 45, who lives in a zinc shack in one of the capital’s slums known as West Point. “My entire family voted for him.”
In the October elections, Weah rode on a wave of support from young Liberians in the country where more than half of the population is under 35. A high-school dropout who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood of Monrovia before playing soccer for professional teams in Europe, he promised a radical break from the leadership style of the old-school political elite. He enlisted Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, as his running mate to sway voters from the majority Kpelle ethnic group.
Charles Taylor unleashed a civil war in 1989 and became notorious for using child soldiers and trading diamonds for weapons before winning tense elections eight years later. He’s currently serving a 50-year prison sentence imposed by a special United Nations court for his responsibility in atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.
After the end of Liberia’s civil war in 2003, the government resumed rubber exports and attracted investment in iron-ore mining.
Weah will face a tough task reviving the economy. It contracted 1.6 percent in 2016 following a slump in iron-ore prices and the fallout from the Ebola crisis, which at its peak in 2014 isolated the country and claimed thousands of lives. While economic growth recovered last year to an estimated 2.5 percent, an inflation rate of 11 percent meant that prices for staple foods such as rice and oil continued to climb, according to the central bank.
Other challenges include mobilizing resources and hiring qualified personnel within the government bureaucracy, said Julius Kanubah, a policy analyst based in Uppsala, Sweden.
“He wants every Liberian household to afford satisfactory food on their table during the first 100 days of his presidency and onward,” Kanubah said. “He also seems to have some level of urgency in ensuring that every Liberian has access to affordable healthcare. However, it’s not really clear where and how this will be funded.”
Young Liberians have high hopes for Weah, said Theo Bardio, a 35-year-old who lives in the Logan Town neighborhood.
“Some of us here are high school graduates,” he said. “Weah will create skill programs and jobs that will take us out of this ghetto.”