17 December 2012

Liberia: George Weah's Challenge - Healing a Divided Party and Broken Nation

George Manneh Oppong Weah greatly succeeded being a world footballer and a successful UN (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador for years, but his bid to clinch to state power on the political field has failed twice. As footballer, Weah won the highest award--World Best, once, and the Continents' best twice, besides putting Liberia on the map and helping to take it to the African Cup of Nations. As UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, among others, Weah was very instrumental in the disarmament of tens of thousands of Liberian youth and children, many of whom were drugged to take arms against their country and destroyed it during the 14-years Liberian civil war--1989-2003.

The world's soccer legend and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador however resigned from both portfolios in 2005 to seek the presidency of Liberia after he had been robbed of ascending to the leadership of the Liberia Football Association--where many still argue he would have done better at the time. A high school dropout, Weah was defeated as presidential candidate at the polls in 2005 by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the ruling Unity Party. Before last year's elections he had completed both high school and college education, but seconded himself as Vice Presidential Standard-bearer to Harvard-trained lawyer and former UN ambassador Winston Tubman. Many of his supporters were angry with the decision, but a good number of them said that would take him closer to the main position. Again, unfortunately, the party was defeated by the UP. Tubman resigned afterwards, and Weah remains the political leader of the CDC, which many believe is destined to win the country's next presidential election in five years, but not in the absence of putting its house in order and defeat detractive internal wrangling.

Weah has already been petitioned to run for the pending mid-tern (2014) senatorial election for Montserrado, the CDC's strongest hold. Though he has yet to accept or deny the petition, many observers are of the conviction that that's what Weah should have done first before thinking of the presidency. It is certainly obvious that no candidate can stop Weah should he decide to contest the midterm election. He will unequivocally flog any opponent.

Meanwhile, the country's most popular politician has flipped a new page of history, after accepting to become the country's newest peace ambassador after Nobel winner Leymah Gbowee gave up the task in October. It is no hesitation that the former world soccer idol and Liberia's soccer king (no one has taken his place) has accepted a very hefty challenge, a responsibility many of his kinds--politicians--will not want to undertake as they prepare for another political battle in just five years. Even so, his acceptance of the role has sent a wedge of division in his party, the biggest and strongest opposition political camp in the country.

The news of Weah's appointment to lead the country's reconciliatory drive was broken by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently when she held talks with opposition political leaders on the country's visioning exercise at the Executive Mansion. "...President Sirleaf informed the political leaders that with the National Conference Committee launching the Reconciliation Roadmap, Ambassador George Weah has consented to work with the government as "Peace Ambassador," and will assist with the reconciliation efforts," a statement read.

Weah, the statement noted, will put together his own Plan of Action as to how he will proceed. The President said that, over several months, the National Steering Committee, with technical assistance from the United Nations system and others, has put together the Reconciliation Roadmap with much more specifics as to how it will be achieved.

Weah last week officially accepted the challenge, following a meeting with President Sirleaf, reminding Liberians and himself that it would not be an easy journey. "I greatly accept the appointment as Ambassador for Peace for the country that I love so much," he stated at the close of the Vision 2030 Conference in the central Liberian capital of Gbarnga, Bong County. Weah realized that he will not succeed unless with the cooperation of "all Liberians" and the "full support" of the government.

Unquestionably, reconciling Liberians has remained one of the toughest challenges of the Sirleaf administration. Many Liberians argue that less was done during her first term of office to reconcile the people of Liberia after 14 years of destructive and divisive civil war, and that the road to reconciliation is getting even dimmer in her second term, with reports of nepotism and corruption in reportedly comfortable seats. The opposition including the CDC (Weah's party) and Liberty Party has alleged that President Sirleaf has not sufficiently involved the opposition in reconciling the country and its people, and that her administration's failure to implement recommendations of the defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the greatest backlash to uniting Liberians.

The erstwhile commission, two years ago, submitted a controversial recommendation calling for barring of President Sirleaf and 40 others from holding public office for 30 years for allegedly financing the Liberian civil war; it recommended the prosecution of another group for economic crimes and another for war crimes. Most of those the TRC accused are either officials of the current or immediate past Legislature, or holding top government positions, while others are "money people" with big influence on a poverty entrenched society like ours. The chairman of the defunct TRC, Jerome Verdier, has gone bitter with President Sirleaf and the National Legislature for apparently kicking the commission's recommendation into the dustbin. But President Sirleaf has argued that the TRC recommendation has some good aspects--the palaver hut discussions--and those ones would be applied to reconcile the Liberian people.

After her reelection last November, President Sirleaf established a reconciliation commission, appointing her co-Nobel laureate winner Leymah Gbowee as chair. The commission was to lead Liberia into total reconciliation, first after the blistering election, but in October Gbowee fell off with President Sirleaf on ground of nepotism and corruption and resigned, casting a greater doubt on the country's reconciliation efforts.

My foster father, before his death, usually told me that a usually burns where it is lighted before it spreads to other surrounding. As I grew up, began to understand this first by observing the movement of the fire when we used to go "burn" our farm. There, I used to observe the menacing fire gnawing the dry leaves and fell trees and in minutes several acres of land would be "burned" (cleared).

This exactly applies to what Weah's challenge will entail. Weah will first have to reconcile his own CDC before he can even begin the national task. His appointment has already caused a stir in his party. Jefferson Koijee, the youth league Chair many regard as one of the last remaining strongholds linking the party and its core youth base, fell in trouble with the party's executive Committee, triggering another level of bitterness in the CDC. Koijee was suspended indefinitely last Wednesday for what the party's chair George Solo described as "grave offenses" found to be incompatible with the guiding principles and constitution of the party. "The party informs the public of the immediate suspension of Mr. Koijee, pending investigation, consistent with Part II Bye Laws; Chapter I, Codes of Conduct, Rule 14 of the Bye-Laws and constitution of the CDC," read a statement signed by Solo.

Koijee's suspension came into being when questioned the appointment of Weah as peace Ambassador. For the young political activist, he sees Weah's appointment to such a portfolio as an attempt by the Sirleaf administration to take away from the CDC its years of consistency in holding the government accountable. Koijee prefers to see the President change some of what he calls undemocratic tendencies of her government, in order to prove that she is sincere when it comes to moving the country forward. "We cannot be real in our desire to unify Liberians if we name one opposition leader as a peace emissary, no matter how loved he may be, if the public still see one person being named to three prominent governmental positions only because he is the son of the President," said Koijee. "We cannot hide behind qualifications real or imagined. If my mother were President I would be very qualified in her eyes. But my mother loves Liberia and its citizens too much to appoint me to three positions above public uproar and discontent," he was quoted as saying by Front PageAfrica.

Reacting to the news of his suspension after he was contacted, according to FPA, Koijee laughed off the suspension and termed the action as bogus adding that he does not think it can be the official position of the party. "I am investigating; I don't believe it is an official decision of the executive committee. However, it is a sheer mockery; so until I conduct my investigation, I will be able to respond." What this means and what it could result into is anybody's guess, but it poses an undeniable need for reconciliation in a party that is still dusting itself from the dust of last year's ferocious, frenzied and frenetic elections. A group of partisans suspended during the 2005 elections are still calling for their reinstatement while breakaway groups are finding their way back. Only a true reconciler with strong influence like Weah could lead the mending process.

On the national scene, the challenge is even more turbulent, if I should not hasten to say politically ingrained. Here, though it ios not about Weah as an individual, the challenge it will be about his success or failure; it will be about support by the government both financially and morally or lack of support. Not only that. There will be the question about the public's support and attitude, about distractions and unnecessary criticism to dissuade the young man. I believe is aware of this and that is why Weah did not hide these points in his acceptance statement.

"This special appointment implies many challenges on the road ahead to securing sustained peace and security for our country and our future. We are mindful of this historical necessity, and aware of the delicate nature of the assignment, Weah stated, and added, "...to overcome the challenges, the government must have the political will to support this initiative to the fullest and facilitate the implementation of programs and recommendations that will be put forward in the interest of peace and reconciliation for our Nation - Mama Liberia. Reconciliation is not just the seeking of peace. It entails the search for peace through social justice, equal opportunities, equitable distribution of the national wealth and increased political participation."

To signal that Weah will adopt a holistic approach in doing his job, he went on: "All Liberians have the responsibility to show, by examples of tolerance, forgiveness and mutual respect, that we are committed to the search for sustained peace and guaranteed security based on these tenets. I have consulted my family and the political party I represent. During these consultations we all agreed to put Liberia first than any individual interest, because, this is a noble service to the Liberian people and of great historical significance."

Weah made Liberians to understand that the machineries of aggression and coercion must be replaced by a system based on opportunities in which ALL the people have a stake in the prosperity and challenges of their country. "It is this road map we will follow in fulfilling our responsibility. It is with great honor and privilege that I humbly accept the appointment as Ambassador for Peace for the country that I love. The common ground we share is that we are all Liberians and want to see our nation grow and develop to its fullest potential. We can achieve this only through peace and reconciliation."

As Peace Ambassador, Weah says he will endeavor to seek full cooperation of all Liberians and the support of the international community. The roles of traditional leaders, religious leaders, civil society organizations, student and youth organizations, women's groups, UNMIL, the armed forces of Liberia, The Liberia National Police, former warlords, former child soldiers, market women, pem-pem boys (commercial motorcyclist rider) and the disabled among others, are crucial in the reconciliation process.

"I have had the privilege in my professional and private life to advocate for peace and unity. My commitment to our youth and to the reconciliation process is unwavering. I have been a partner in peace for a long time and am glad to stand side by side with my fellow citizens and help to forge for a common ground. There is more that unites us than separates us. Liberia is ready to move forward to a brighter future and we can all get there through peace, unity and reconciliation."

Weah, clearly stated that "this is not an easy task, but as stated in our National Anthems, I believe 'in union strong success is sure we cannot fail!'" Blatantly, it will never be an easy task in healing a divided party and a broken nation, and Georgie needs the commitment of every Liberian and a non-superficial support from the government.

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