George Weah, Liberia’s newly elected President chose France for his first official trip outside Africa. There was a warm welcome for the former PSG soccer star and welcome pledges of support from the President of France, Emmanuel Macron. Report by Christine Holzbauer, our correspondent in Paris.
It was not surprising that for his first trip outside Africa, Liberia’s new President, George Weah should choose to visit Paris, late in February, where he still commands legendary status as one of Paris Saint-Germain’s (PSG’s) greatest football stars.
PSG are strongly tipped to win this year’s UEFA Champion’s League and the return of ‘King George’ to the scene of his many triumphs is seen as a good omen.
Paris rolled out the red carpet for its adopted son and President Emmanuel Macron rolled out a slew of pledges to support the West African country’s struggling economy.
“France will always be at your side,” promised Macron. Earlier, anticipating Weah’s visit, Macron added Liberia to the list of priority countries receiving French development aid in Africa. France will support Liberia in negotiations with the IMF over its debts and boost bilateral trade.
The Élysée also announced the launch of a €15m initiative to finance sports training and equipment supplies in Africa. “Today we have launched a platform, ‘Transformation through Sport’, which will apply throughout the African continent,” President Macron said. He added that FIFA, the NBA and several foundations created by sportsmen and women supported the initiative.
During a press conference on 21 February, Weah said that it was sport that had “disarmed child soldiers” during his nation’s 14-year civil war and had helped bring the conflict to an end.
It was also sport that changed his own life, propelling him from a life on the mean streets of Monrovia to the pinnacle of international football stardom.
“I am out of the streets because I had the opportunity to get involved in my sport and today I am President of the Republic of Liberia, thanks to sport!” the former PSG and Monaco striker added.
The “platform for transformation through sport” will be overseen by the French Development Agency (AFD) with the help of the African Development Bank (AfDB). It will be used to finance projects for the creation of infrastructure and equipment, and support former professional sportspeople wishing to invest in economic sectors in Africa, whether or not related to sport.
During a working lunch with Weah and his delegation which included players like Kylian Mbappé and Didier Drogba, Macron underlined the urgency of the initiative by saying he wanted a full list of projects during the first quarter of this year and the first projects on the list to have been developed during the course of the year.
Macron also promised to tap leading French companies to help build some 1,500km of roads that Liberia desperately needs and to finance youth training and development in the country.
“We will invest in training and youth employment, transforming Liberia’s raw materials, especially its agricultural potential, and we will support promising projects and investments in transport infrastructure,” the French President said, announcing a first tranche of €10m to support these initiatives.
Weah’s visit comes three months after Macron’s trip to Ghana, reinforcing his determination to renew Franco-African relations by focussing on youth, innovation and entrepreneurship. He is also keen to make inroads into the currently neglected Anglophone sphere in Africa – something that French business and investors have been demanding for decades.
Liberia, closely bordered by Francophone Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, welcomed the renewed interest from France. “We need to integrate more in Africa,” Weah said.
Regarding Liberia’s traditional relations with the US, he commented: “Liberia will always be grateful for the continuous help that the US has given us since independence. They are not to blame if this money was wasted through corruption. It is up to us now to change that.”
The power of sport
At the press conference at the Élysée, Macron said sport offered young people “the opportunity to find a role in society” and “develop sectors and thus emancipation through entrepreneurship”.
George Weah emphasised that without the discipline and determination that sport had taught him at a young age, he would not be President of Liberia today. Since sport had “helped to disarm the youth and contributed to the peace agreement” at the end of the civil war in Liberia, he insisted on the importance of sport in the rebuilding of his country, tested by years of war. “We see how powerful sport is. Young people are happy when they have activities and are happy to get out of the street.”
Born on 1 October, 1966, ‘King George’ grew up in a slum in Liberia’s capital Monrovia and knows, from first-hand experience, just how difficult it is to rise up from the bottom. His election as leader of one of the poorest countries in Africa has raised expectations among the working class and youth, who make up 60% of the population.
Weah will be able to count on active support from Côte d’Ivoire’s former striker Didier Drogba, and also from Kylian Mbappé, the 19-year-old who has become the new French football star, as they have both promised to invest in African sport.
During his playing days, Weah won a sheaf of awards including the Ballon d’Or, several Confederation of African Football (CAF) awards, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and is so far the only African player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
His 17-year old son Timothy is following in his father’s footsteps, having recently signed a three-year contract with his father’s old club, Paris Saint-Germain. George Weah joined PSG in 1992 after four years with Monaco. He left PSG to play for Milan in 1995 before completing his European stint with Chelsea, Manchester City and Marseille. He retired from football in 2003 at the age of 37.
Meanwhile, after just a week in power, Weah gained plaudits from the public by slashing his salary and benefits by a quarter, ignoring establishd custom. He has also pledged to change Liberia’s land ownership rules, currently restricted to citizens only – saying that no foreign investor can work in a country where they cannot buy land.
Finally, he has put education at the top of his agenda, saying his government will pay all university examination fees for every student, though it is unclear how he will fund the plan after describing the government as “broke”.
But then, Weah’s ambitions always seemed impossible given the circumstances, until he made them possible.