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22.01.2021 Europe

State of play in Liberia: Half-time whistle goes on George Weah’s presidency

By Daniel Finnan - RFI
© RFI - Daniel Finnan
LISTEN JAN 22, 2021
© RFI - Daniel Finnan

Liberia's President George Weah marks half-time in the country's top job on Friday, as he continues to face numerous challenges, not least delivering on his promises and turning around support for his government after an embarrassing defeat in recent elections.

Despite this, support for the ex-footballer has not completely waned and his unique populist brand of politics still holds sway for many Liberians.

“He's been doing well," said Veronica Weah (no relation). She, like the president, grew up in Monrovia's Gibraltar neighbourhood.

"When the virus came, we were not doing anything. He did well, more than well, he tried his best."

President Weah has taken care of those in his old neighbourhood like Veronica. Gibraltar is no longer the same slum. He has improved dirt roads and alleyways and has also provided new corrugated iron roofs.

At the same time, his personal support for certain communities in Monrovia must be set apart from his record on the pledges for his “pro-poor” agenda he made when he swept to victory in 2017, replacing Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Empty promises?

Analysis by the Liberian non-governmental organisation Naymote strikes a significantly more sober tone.

Weah and his government have delivered on few of the promises they made when they came to power.

“Based on available data and records, only nine of the 113 promises were completed, constituting 8 percent of all promises,” said Naymote, a watchdog group supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

Almost half of Weah's promises are ongoing and another 44 percent have not started or there is little data to provide an assessment, according to Naymote, which carries out regular reviews called the “Weah Meter”.

Voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the president during December's elections for senate seats and overwhelmingly voted against eight proposals on changing the country's constitution, which were supported by Weah.

“They voted against the government to send a message that they weren't happy,” said Alexander Cummings, leader of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), an opposition coalition.

Weah's Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party took three senate seats out of 15, with the CPP securing six senators, according to the electoral commission, with a turnout of 37 percent.

Lost referendum

The referendum was also resoundingly rejected by Liberian voters, who did not support proposals such as reducing term limits for the president from six to five years and allowing dual nationality.

“Many of the proposals being made would have made sense,” said Cummings. “But this isn't the issue. Liberians were not educated about what they were being asked to vote for,” he added, referring to high numbers of invalid ballots and the need for 12 months of voter education.

The changes to the constitution, especially on term limits, were viewed by some critics as an attempt by Weah to pave the way for a third term in office, as seen in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea.

The opposition contends that Weah would have used the constitutional change to argue that it resets the counter on his number of terms in office. The ruling party rejects the allegation.

“It's just not a conceivable possibility because you have to understand that the Liberian constitution is very blunt. It is fixed on the term limits of the president,” said CDC Chairman Mulbah Morlu.

“Other leaders are trying to increase limits, are trying to expand their hold on power. In Liberia, the president is trying to reduce his term,” added Morlu. “He's doing that because he's thinking about the future.”

Successes and challenges

Weah's administration can boast of policies such as free university tuition and road building initiatives as examples of bright spots during the first three years.

At the same time, the country is struggling with a shortage of banknotes, a problem which traces its roots back to a scandal over alleged missing banknotes spanning the end of Sirleaf's term and the start of Weah's mandate.

Other news making headlines over recent months has been the deaths of four auditors, including Emmanuel Nyeswa, the head of the Internal Audit Agency.

The deaths have prompted questions in the Liberian press over whether they are linked to a plot to cover up corruption.

On a personal level, Weah, who won the prestigious Ballon d'Or during an 18-year playing career, has been dogged by accusations from critics, saying he is using the Liberian presidency to enrich himself through property and construction projects.

Weah the populist

His foray into music and singing – Weah released four songs during the course of his presidency has also been cited by detractors, arguing he is distracted and not focused on the job of running the country of some 4.8 million people.

“Music is a good thing and the president should be encouraged whenever he has leisure time. He wants to communicate methods through music,” said Nathaniel McGill, minister of state for the presidency.

“The president should be given the right to do that. If the president isn't doing his job then you can complain. I love to hear the president sing,” Weah's right-hand man added.

Weah has additionally taken to the pulpit to preach at his newly constructed place of worship, Forky Klon Jlaleh Family Fellowship Church.

Liberia's president mixes his unique brand of African popularism with his fame as one of the country's most successful exports, who played for European football clubs, including Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan.

Putting aside political mudslinging and accusations of corruption or lack of transparency, the opposition suggests Weah is not cut out for management of a country, regardless of his international prestige.

“The president needs to look at a whole array of things to improve performance and it starts with the team,” said opposition leader Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive, referring to his cabinet.

“When the team is not doing well, you make changes. You don't keep the same team hoping for some magical improvement and so clearly that's one thing he should look at,” he added.

(Additional reporting by Darlington Porkpa)

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