1 November 2017

Liberia's Presidential Runoff - On the Strange Appeal of George Weah

analysis

Why do so many people want the inexperienced and untested former footballer to be president?

Back in 2005, when Liberia held its first elections since the end of the devastating civil war, George Weah won the first round of the presidential poll. The young and world famous footballer garnered a substantial 28.3% of the votes. However, that year, the dream ended there.

In the second round run-off, Weah was convincingly defeated. Liberians showed their love for the footballer, but they were not yet ready to gamble the future of their fragile nation on his untested leadership. Faced with a choice between two very different paths, nearly 60% voted instead for the veteran politician and Harvard economist Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Two terms of President Sirleaf later, Liberians are now voting to elect her successor and Weah is in the running once more. In the 10 October 2017 poll, the 51-year-old came first again, this time with 38.4%. With no candidate reaching 50%+1, he is set to enter a run-off against Vice-President Joseph Boakai, 72, who came second with 28.8%.

On 31 October, the Supreme Court ordered that preparations for the second round, originally scheduled for 7 November, be halted pending a legal challenge from Charles Brumskine. The third-placed candidate's Liberty Party alleges "massive systematic irregularities and fraud" in the first round, an accusation that Boakai's Unity Party also backs.

This could lead to a delay and it is as yet unclear what the outcome of the challenge will be. However, if and when the contest goes ahead, Liberians are likely to be faced with a similar choice to 12 years ago.

Back then, they ultimately shunned Weah and opted for what was seen as the safe pair of hands. But when voters return to the ballot box this time around, there is no guarantee they will make the same choice.

"Only problems"

Liberia is in a different place to where it was in 2005. Sirleaf and her Unity Party government are credited with overseeing a period of much-needed stability in Liberia. But many argue that this stability has not improved the bulk of people's lives.

"Today, we have problems only," says Elizabeth Brown, a Weah supporter during a party rally. "We are suffering, our rice is too dear, our daughters are prostitutes, our sons do drugs. We want change."

Compared to 2005, Weah also provides a slightly different offering. Since that contest, the former footballer has responded to accusations of being uneducated and inexperienced by getting a business management degree from a US university and becoming elected as a senator in 2014.

His 2017 campaign meanwhile has been impressive and well-funded. The candidate has been touring the country by helicopter. At his gigantic headquarters, there are two stages for artists to sing his praises and get paid for their efforts. And there is always enough food and drink to maintain a cheery mood amongst activists.

The presence of luxury 4x4s with darkened windows and burly bodyguards show another side to the campaign, but his supporters are unanimous in their hopes. "He will give us affordable food. He will give us education. He will give us jobs. Liberia will be better," they say.

Rice politics

Given the absence of clear policy proposals, it is difficult to know how Weah and the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party plans to achieve this change if elected. The awkward Obama-esque campaign slogan "Change For Hope" does not give much away. Nor does the candidate's record as a senator. Weah has rarely attended senate sessions and has never shown much interest in the nuts and bolts of designing policies, let alone making them work.

However, for many voters, this is beside the point. Despite the oft-praised competence of the previous government, they know that costs - most crucially of rice - have risen and made life more difficult. They will be voting with their bellies, and their bellies are unhappy.

The cost of rice has long been a politically-charged issue in Liberia. Back in 1979, William Tolbert's government increased the price of imported rice in a bid to encourage local production. The idea was sound in principle, but - partly spurred on by the knowledge that the imported rice industry was controlled by a cartel directly linked to the Tolbert family - the announcement by Agriculture Minster Florence Chenoweth sparked the worst riots in Liberia's history.

The lesson from this episode was heeded by former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, who kept rice affordable during his otherwise disastrous regime. But under Sirleaf, prices have risen. A rice cartel is still in place, while in 2009, Sirleaf even brought Chenoweth back to the same position from which she had been forced to resign 30 years earlier.

The economy may be growing again after the Ebola-caused recession, but Liberians are looking for someone who can turn this good news into more money in their pockets. With Weah, many think they have found that person.

Enough of experts

For Weah's supporters, the candidate's lack of experience and eye for policy detail is not only immaterial. It may even add to his appeal. For many in Liberia, technocratic expertise has come to be synonymous with elite arrogance.

Through the election campaign, many have asked the rhetorical question, "Da book we'll eat?", questioning how the apparent policy competence and experience of the previous government has not led to improvements in their lives. The government's failure to root out corruption during two terms in the office, alongside rising socio-economic inequality in Liberian society, add to this desire for a new direction.

Like in the UK and US, where voters dismissed warnings from the establishment and opted for uncertain and chaotic change - in the form of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump respectively - a similar thing may now be happening in Africa's oldest republic.

As in the UK and US, Weah's campaign also contains elements that hark back to a glorified past. The opposition candidate made a daring if astute choice in picking Jewel Howard-Taylor as his running-mate. She has said publicly that if elected, the programme of her ex-husband Charles Taylor, who was president from 1997 to 2003, would resume.

More educated Liberians - the "book people" - emphasise Taylor's catastrophic economic governance and merciless repression of dissent. But the former president still garners substantial support in some areas. For all the tyranny and mismanagement, his supporters insist that one could at least afford to eat during his reign. For them, the fact that Weah is aligning himself with some of the most destructive, venal and violent individuals in Liberia's past is of little concern so long as he reduces basic costs.

Change at any cost

If and when the run-off goes ahead, Liberians will likely be faced with a choice between two different men embodying two opposing narratives.

On the one hand, Boakai, from Lofa County, worked his way up through careers in agriculture and management before developing a reputation for integrity in politics. As vice-president for 12 years, he is associated with the current government - despite a seemingly fraught relationship with Sirleaf - and the status quo. Depending on where you stand, he either represents technocratic competence and experience, or aloof and arrogant elitism.

On the other hand, Weah, who was raised in the Clara Town slum in Monrovia, clawed his way out of poverty by exploiting his unique sporting talent. To his detractors, his election could mean the return of Taylor hardliners and the inauguration of an inexperienced and ill-informed government. But to his supporters, he is a true champion of the people and an emblem of much-desired change.

Around the world, the latter option has proven more appealing in the last couple years. When Liberians go to vote, they will decide on whether they want to follow or buck this trend.

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