When one of Africa’s greatest footballers, George Weah won the Presidential election a year and a half ago, Liberians were ecstatic, believing they had found their saviour. Things are very different today, as Julian Lahai Samboma reports.
Halfway into his second year as Liberia’s national leader, footballer-turned-President George Weah is facing his most serious crisis to date, as disaffection with his government has galvanised sundry critics to organise massive protests, scheduled to take place in Monrovia on 7 June, which some pundits predict could turn violent.
If the man whom adoring football fans dubbed ‘King George’ believed his prowess on the soccer pitch could be readily replicated on the political stage, then he has received a rude awakening. His government has been accused of corruption, political ineptitude, and being clueless as to how to rescue an economy that is in freefall.
Under Weah’s stewardship, opposition politician Wilmot Paye says, poverty and unemployment are rising, while high-level corruption has become even more entrenched. Paye, chairman of the opposition Unity Party, says Liberians have become “spectators in their own economy” and “bystanders in the affairs of their country”.
It would be an understatement to say that ordinary Liberians are disappointed with Weah’s performance. The footballing legend – who is the only African to ever win FIFA’s coveted World Player of the Year award, as well as the first-ever footballer to become a head of state – became President in January 2018 after campaigning to revive the economy, create jobs for the hundreds of thousands of young adults that make up his electoral base and, as he put it, to ensure that
“public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials”.
But rather than tackling the issues on which he and his Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) were elected, critics charge, the government is going out of its way to maintain the status quo that prevailed under the previous government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who also made history as Liberia and Africa’s first-ever female President. Incidentally, Sirleaf is a former World Bank functionary whose disastrous economic legacy after two Presidential terms belied her so-called technocratic pedigree.
As well as presiding over a corrupt machinery of state, Weah stands accused of personally engaging in corruption. Critics point to the many properties Weah owns, or is developing in the capital Monrovia, as proof.
The President and his supporters claim he is an independently wealthy man who made his money in international soccer. But, in a child support case brought by the US-based mother of his daughter just two years ago, the then Senator Weah swore in a US court that his only source of income was his monthly salary of $1,000.
If the president was claiming in 2017 to be a man of limited means who could not afford to pay child support, how can he now afford all those properties? That is the question to which opposition politician Yekeh Kolubah would like an answer.
The Executive Mansion is yet to respond to the related question of whether the erstwhile Senator had lied to the US court in order to escape paying child support.
Mysterious disappearance of cash
Others are asking why the President’s interest in prime real estate did not develop during his years as a footballing hero or senator, but suddenly blossomed after he assumed high office – and after the mysterious disappearance of massive amounts of state funds.
The latter is a reference to the scandal of the $100m worth of Liberian banknotes which went missing just after the Weah administration took office. “How can we trust a government that’s said three different things about the missing money?” asks Martin Kollie of a group appropriately called Concerned Citizens United to Bring Our Money Back (COCUBOMB).
Opposition legislators are also trying to solve the mystery of how $17m of $25m – injected into the economy after last year’s monetary crisis – was dispensed.
These allegations of corruption have been compounded by claims of abuse of power, including in the awarding of government contracts. Sources report that major building contracts have been awarded preferentially to companies which are owned by business associates of Weah’s, and which are also engaged in construction on some of the President’s real estate projects.
Perhaps the most alarming of these developments is the ‘creeping repression’ of the Weah administration, as perceived by many political pundits and independent journalists in the country. “The president does not like criticism,” said Henry P. Costa, a popular radio broadcaster and owner of Roots FM. “And because we are critical of some policies, our offices have been attacked on two occasions by armed men and our equipment damaged and some stolen.”
Last year Weah openly accused BBC stringer Jonathan Paye-Layleh of being against his government,
causing the reporter to flee the country over fears of being attacked by the President’s supporters. In another case, journalist Tyron Brown’s corpse was dumped outside his residence by a mysterious dark jeep in the dead of night. Although a man has confessed to killing Brown in self-defence, many reporters see the murder as a coded message to them to mind their words.
The government’s attempts to muzzle the media have also allegedly seen them refuse to pay tens of thousands of dollars in advertising bills in a bid to starve media outlets of cash, and so cause their closure. Mae Azango, a reporter with Front Page Africa, told New African: “One Minister said since the media does not write anything good about the government, it won’t pay debt owed. Some media houses have not paid staff for up to eight months.”
In a clear sign that the authorities would climb the highest mountain to silence criticism, Front Page Africa was recently fined $1.8m in a libel suit brought by a friend of President Weah’s.
Carrot and bullet
In the case of Roots FM’s Costa, both the carrot and the bullet have been deployed. According to Costa, as well as the aforementioned attacks on his transmitters, he has been followed around by government supporters and his car has also been shot at. Then they tried to bribe him. “They call you to offer deals, to [suggest you] take money, to be on the payroll,” he said to New African. “The Minister of State calls me all the time on WhatsApp. But I say to them, when you were doing well, I was supporting you free of charge.”
The broadcaster is one of the organisers of the massive demonstration to be held in Monrovia on 7 June. The ‘day of action’ will see opposition parties, civil society organisations, ordinary people, and human rights and other stakeholders take to the streets to demand that the government makes good on its election promises. If he does not know it now, ‘King George’ will definitely know then what his ‘subjects’ think of his performance so far.