Premiership class - but is Weah fit to run a country?

"He know book, he don't know book, I'll vote for him," they called, stopping to dance around in a circle and hug each other. "Weah, Weah, Weah, he hold the mansion key. Degree holders, how you manage? George Weah got the mansion."

The striker once described by Ron Atkinson as "the big librarian" is almost the country's only hero. While warlords were tearing Liberia apart, George Weah was Africa's first football superstar, scoring goals for Monaco, Paris St Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and AC Milan, where he was named World Player of the Year in 1995. Modest, affable and a Unicef goodwill ambassador, he is widely admired outside Liberia too. But does that equip him to be President? Enough Liberians think so for Mr Weah to be leading the race in Tuesday's election.

Many of the young people heading towards the headquarters of Weah's Congress for Democratic Change were conscripted into militias and armies and drugged to fight in successive conflicts that killed an estimated 150,000 of the tiny nation's three million people. And many laid down their weapons at the behest of the man they call King George.

"Weah, I would die for him. Weah, I would take arms for him. But Weah, he wants no sacrifice," said 24-year-old James Mulbah, whose nom de guerre when he was part of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy was Jungle Blood. "He is the bravest man. He don't use war to get what he wants."

A comprehensive peace agreement in August 2003 sent warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor into exile, setting the scene for this week's presidential and parliamentary elections. But whether the footballer's thunderous popular support will translate into votes is another issue.

Many of the youth sporting Weah bandannas, carrying laminated Weah badges and chanting Weah slogans have not reached voting age and there are fears that they will cause unrest if their icon does not get through to a second round. Those who support one of the other 21 candidates are more worried about what will happen if the high school dropout and political novice does become President.

"Liberia has too many problems to risk them in the hands of someone who is uneducated," said Varney Kollie. He is voting for Mr Weah's main rival, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank and United Nations executive who has also served in several Liberian governments. "We need water. We need electricity. We need schools and we need jobs. We love George Weah, but he is not the man to lead the country."

Certainly, the challenges facing Liberia are vast. The unemployment rate is estimated at 85 per cent, and fewer than one in five people can read and write. An average Liberian's life span, even without the threat of war, is 47, due to rolling outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and lassa fever, not to mention malaria.

Security remains tenuous, despite the presence of 15,000 UN peackeepers whose mandate has been extended until next March, and aid agencies report the spread of armed gangs through the capital's poorest neighbourhoods, even though Monrovia was declared weapons-free following the end of a disarmament campaign in December last year.

But Mr Weah remains untainted by corruption, which, more than war, has ruined the economy of what was once one of Africa's most prosperous nations. Rich in resources, including diamonds, gold and iron ore, Liberia has been looted of hundreds of millions of dollars, often by governments that have acted in their own interests rather than those of the country.

"He does not need our money. He can eat at his own table, not at ours," said Augustine Sele, twirling the lanyard bearing both his voter registration card and a laminated picture of his idol. "Weah is the only thing in this country that is not broken," chimed in Raymond Williams, who lost his wife, his brother and both his sons to Taylor's war. "We need him more than he needs us."

Comments