Liberia: George Weah’s property empire fuels distrust over asset declaration
Criticism by Liberia's opposition and investigative reports into alleged corruption over George Weah's assets have dogged him since he became president in 2018. Has the Ballon d'Or winner misused his office to enrich himself? Or is he simply a wealthy ex-football star investing in his country? RFI investigates the allegations and looks at new evidence.
“This government has spent the last three years on an undeserved holiday, building massive mansions around Monrovia, having endless parties,” says Menipakei Dumoe, vice chairman of the Council of Patriots, a political activist group.
Weah's assets in Liberia and the US are widely reported and indeed have been declared in submissions to electoral authorities when he stood for the presidency in 2005, then for 2014 polls making him senator for Montserrado county.
Although no declaration has been made public since he came to power in 2017, Liberian authorities say a declaration has been submitted to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and there is no legal requirement for this to be published.
“Declaring his assets is required by law, that has not happened, at least in the level of detail that is required,” says Alexander Cummings, head of the Collaborating Political Parties opposition coalition, making the case for transparency.
“It's a fact that the president has acquired properties, has built properties since becoming president, so there are all of these allegations of corruption, of unjustifiable wealth being acquired,” adds Cummings.
In Florida, Weah owns real estate worth $1.4m, plus a residence valued at $0.9m, according to the 2014 disclosure form seen by RFI. In Liberia, he possesses two residences in the Sinkor and Paynesville neighbourhoods of Monrovia.
In addition to Weah's declaration in 2014, two other properties in Montserrado county are commonly referred to as owned by the president – Jamaica Resort in Thinkers Village and land in Baptist Seminary community, off the Robertsfield Highway, the road linking the capital to the international airport.
As these were not listed in 2014, presumably either Weah had not purchased them yet, or they are owned by someone else. RFI asked the Liberia Land Authority how to conduct a search in the land registry, a map recording plots of land, to look at title deeds, but was given conflicting information on procedures.
Some rumours claim Weah owns more than the four properties outlined by RFI, but there appears little to back up these assertions, although we cannot completely dispel them.
The land purportedly owned by Weah in the Baptist Seminary community boasts the most significant construction with 17 apartment buildings, a church, theatre with recording studio, plus a building handed over to the Female Journalists Association. All of the construction work took place in 2018.
Weah's beneficial interest in the Forky Klon Jlaleh Family Fellowship Church, where he has preached, and Unification Theater of Arts, thought to be where he records music, is not clear and how construction was funded is unknown.
No significant construction work has been undertaken at his residence in Paynesville or at Jamaica Resort. His other residence in Sinkor neighbourhood, closer to the capital Monrovia, was considerably redeveloped in 2018, with a swimming pool added at the rear.
Nevertheless, the redevelopment in Sinkor and extensive construction in the Baptist Seminary community have nothing to do with Weah's role as president, according to the ruling party, saying such projects started well before he was inaugurated.
The multimillionaire footballer
“George Weah is a wealthy man, and he didn't earn his wealth from the public sector, he played football proudly,” says Mulbah Morlu, chairman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party.
The 54-year-old's assets abroad are more clearly defined with publicly available documents in the US, casting light on his property in Florida and New York.
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Weah and his wife Clar Weah bought a house in the gated Pembroke Falls community, north of Miami, for $374,900 in 2004, according to records from Broward County.
The Weah family previously owned a house in the nearby town of Davie which sold in 2011 for $740,000. It had two mortgages secured against it. Another property in Plantation, in the same Miami area, was bought in 2002 and sold 11 years later.
Supermarket and soul food
A commercial property near Fort Lauderdale cited in George Weah's asset declaration has a title deed in the name of Clar Weah, and currently appears to be rented to a car garage specialising in customisation and alloy wheels.
The building, bought in 2002 for $460,000 with a mortgage, had a zoning agreement for it to be used as grocery store or delicatessen. However, Clar Weah was cited in 2004 with non-compliance of city ordinance for vacant or abandoned real estate.
In May 2005, she took out a loan worth $100,000 from Associated Grocers of Florida for the business Flavors Supermarket & Jerk Center, of which George Weah was a director. The address listed for this company was their property, but the supermarket business was dissolved by state authorities in 2006 for not filing an annual report.
The property was in 2009 leased to a company running a restaurant specialising in southern US cuisine. But just a year later Jamaican-born Clar Weah started eviction proceedings, saying the tenant had not paid rent. The tenant 4J's Florida Holding Corporation argued that Weah had not fixed a leaking roof.
The court ruled in Clar Weah's favour and ordered the tenant evicted. Clar Weah appears to manage the building, her name appears on property tax records, and was fined once in 2011 and later in 2018 for breaking Broward County local regulations. She also filed a notice to repair the roof in 2013.
Liberia's First Lady plays a role in her husband's presidency and during the first three years has been allocated $0.5m for humanitarian outreach, according to the government's budget for 2017-2018.
The Big Apple
The Weahs have interests in New York City and Clar Weah rented commercial space in the Jamaica neighbourhood, signing a lease agreement in December 2011. The contract ran until 2016, but she vacated the premises in 2012, breaking the conditions of the lease.
She was taken to court and ordered to pay $15,000 in damages to the landlord. Clar Weah argued that her attempts to use the property for a restaurant business were thwarted, but the judge ruled in the landlord's favour.
Her name also appears on a mortgage foreclosure in 1998 of a residential property in the Queens borough of New York. Then George Weah himself signed over his power of attorney in 2005 to Michael Duncan, Clar's Weah brother, before the same property was sold to Amelia Duncan-Fagon and Orvin Fagon. Perhaps again related to Clar's family, her maiden name was Duncan before she married Weah.
George Weah had a property in Staten Island which he sold in 2005 and another in the Queens neighbourhood with ownership transferred from his football agent Alaji Sidibay to him in 1993 while he played at Paris Saint-Germain.
This last property is currently the subject of court proceedings for unpaid property tax bills of more than $10,000 as of September 2020. Several summons have been served on the address.
Weah's other brush with the US legal system came in 2016 when Meapeh Gono-Glay, a former minister who was dismissed from Sirleaf's government, filed a case against him in the state of Georgia for failure to pay child support, forcing him to make monthly payments. The lawsuit emerged during his presidential campaign.
'Bring It On'
The former footballer is still loved by many in France who call him Mister George, and he reportedly holds French citizenship. He started a business called Weah Sports with his former press agent Caroline Angelini in 2014 with each holding 50% of the shares.
The company, based in the town of Pacy-sur-Eure, Normandy, sold sporting apparel, promising to be a new brand targeted at both the African and European markets with the slogan, “Bring It On”.
The store opened to fanfare with media coverage, but ultimately failed and went through a judicial liquidation procedure in 2015, before being struck off the company register in 2019. Weah Sports did not make it into Weah's asset declaration in 2014, probably owing to the timing.
Asset declarations that have been revealed do not immediately suggest any wrongdoing. Questions remain regarding the ownership of two additional properties in Liberia, including one extensively developed.
“The law does not provide that the president publish his asset declaration in a newspaper,” says Natheniel McGill, minister of state for the presidency. “The law provides that he submitted his asset declaration to the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, which he's done.”
His assets and those of his wife in the US and France, tell the story of failed businesses and several legal cases, and perhaps a certain complacency in the management of his family's affairs.
Other Liberian politicians
Liberia's former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf published her assets and has several interests in the country. She had bowed to pressure to make public her assets, and called on other members of the government to do the same.
Few members of Liberia's legislature file their assets with the corruption watchdog. According to an analysis published by the LACC in March 2020, compliance was noted for the executive branch and judicial branch of government, but not the legislative body, in a project funded by the EU.
Besides the Liberian president's personal property, Weah's use of a private jet owned by Burkinabé Mahamadou Bonkoungou has also drawn the ire of commentators questioning a conflict of interests and his links to the businessman.
The president uses a Dassault Falcon 900EX jet registered in France to Bonkoungou's company EBOMAF, a pan-African construction firm that has branched out from construction into insurance, banking and air transport. Weah is regularly seen arriving on the jet for state trips.
At the same time, the Falcon jet's owner, Bonkoungou, entered into an agreement with the Liberia government in 2019 for a $30m investment into a milling plant, to process wheat into flour. EBOMAF also signed a $420m financing deal with the government to fund road building.
Criticism from the International Monetary Fund over a lack of transparency in the finance agreement encouraged the government to cancel the big road building deal, saying it will seek finance elsewhere for its infrastructure agenda.
The terms of President Weah's foreign travel arrangements are not public, but he spent $776,000 on foreign travel transportation, according to the 2018-2019 budget, compared to $804,000 for Sirleaf's in 2015-2016.
Carrying out construction works at his properties is by no means illegal, and there is no suggestion that Weah is linked to corruption. His affairs outside of Liberia do seem to be a bit of a spider's web of mortgages and legal action.
Should construction works stop?
“Are you saying he should stop a continuation of a project that he started only because he's now president,” asks CDC party head Morlu. “Of course not,” he answers rhetorically, dismissing enquiries about how construction works were funded and exactly which properties the president owns.
“He has investments everywhere, whether in Florida, whether in Ghana, whether in Liberia, he has substantial infrastructure leverage,” adds Morlu. Weah attracted transfer fees worth $16m during his football career, according to the TransferMarkt website.
Opposition politicians cannot point to specific illicit profits from property, instead suggesting the key is transparency - a lack of it is detrimental to the development of Liberia.
“No foreign investor will bring significant investment into a country where the leadership cannot explain the use of its own resources,” says opposition leader Cummings.
Champions of transparency would urge making it easier for Liberians to search title deeds, as well as forcing asset declarations by all politicians.
Publishing that declaration remains opposed by many in power and the government has no legal obligation thus far to make it public. But keeping the status quo can only continue to fuel speculation and distrust.