100,000 march to proclaim Weah as Liberia's 'Messiah'

Dancing through the capital, Monrovia, they waved palm fronds and placards - one reading "George Weah is the Messiah".

Mr Weah is leading the field of 22 candidates promising to move the West African state on after decades of civil war and corruption. In tomorrow's polls he will face a handful of Ivy League graduates, including a former World Bank economist, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, his nearest rival, and some of the warlords responsible for the conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and robbed the diamond and timber-producing nation of millions of pounds.

A high-school dropout with no political or diplomatic experience, George Manneh Oppong Weah, 39, has ignited the nation of 3 million people, especially the youths who make up two-thirds of the electorate. At his final campaign rally on Saturday, massed ranks of young people ran through the streets in T-shirts emblazoned with the face of their hero, chanting his name and slogans such as "He no kill my ma. He no kill my pa. I vote for him," in an allusion to the war cry used eight years ago to back the warlord Charles Taylor.

For Taylor - who is wanted for 17 counts of war crimes at a UN-supported court in Sierra Leone, but who lives in exile in Nigeria - they chanted: "He kill my ma. He kill my pa. I vote for him," a chilling tribute to the 150,000 people thought killed in Liberia's wars.

Many of the young supporters of Mr Weah had fought for Taylor, and remain allied to their commanders amid rumours they are being recruited as mercenaries for the simmering conflict in Ivory Coast or to help destabilise Guinea to the north. These former combatants represent one of the many challenges facing Liberia and its elected government as well as the international donors who have poured more than $1bn into a UN peacekeeping mission since 2003.

There is no running water anywhere in Liberia, and Monrovia, home to 1 million people, is rife with diseases such as cholera and malaria. The electrical grid was destroyed in the mid-1980s, and humming generators are used for the offices of the UN mission and non-government agencies; the citizens make do with kerosene lamps and candles.

Roads linking the seaside capital to the interior, where an embarrassment of mineral riches, are in shambles, many of them impassable during the rainy seasons from August to November and March until May.

Liberia also has an 85 per cent illiteracy rate, while unemployment beyond the informal agricultural sector surpasses even that; mostsurvive on less than $1 per day. But Mr Weah has promised to change that. And his supporters believe he alone, untouched by Liberia's corruption, will be able to do so.

But linking the future of a country to a man they consider to be surrounded by sycophants and opportunists is a dim prospect for those who back Ms Sirleaf, 66, a veteran of Liberian politics with international experience that also includes stints with Citibank and the UN. "Ellen is smart and righteous, and knows how to act in the international world," said Naomi George, who tends a market stall in the capital.

"We love George Weah. All of Liberia loves George Weah. But Ellen would be a better president."