Current Affairs

A tale of two emotions: Fear and hope in Liberia

A tale of two emotions:  Fear and hope in Liberia
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2018

What does the election of George Weah mean to the country’s youth,  a demographic that makes up the majority of the population? Ahmed Konneh, a student at the African Leadership University in Mauritius and Co-founder of SMART Liberia, gives his views.

If the 19th-century, British writer Charles Dickens visited Liberia during the country’s elections and reflected on his time, he would look no further than the opening passage of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven; were all going direct the other way…”

The election of George Weah inspires both hope and fear throughout Liberia. To some, his ascendancy represents significant progress, a dramatic departure from a period of elite presidency to an era of ordinary, everyday Liberian presidency; others see it as a setback, a devaluation of the presidency that signals a troubled future for Liberia.

Whether you are with the former group or the latter, one thing is clear: we are in uncertain times, for better or worse. What the country becomes at the end of George Weah’s presidency will reflect as much on him as the people who put him there.

It is insufficient to state the obvious about George Weah: that he is a global football legend who would not have become president without this underpinning. While this cannot be entirely denied, it does not explain the whole story. There is more to Weah’s ascendancy to the presidency than just soccer fame.

He embodies everything that resonates with the average Liberians who made him President. He is an ordinary, ‘half-educated’ man who rose from ‘grass to grace’. He is a perfect product of a broken system in a seemingly hopeless country who defied the incredible odds against him, in this case through soccer.

Most people in Liberia see their story, not as it is, but as they dream it could be, in George Weah. His ascendancy to the Presidency is a confirmation that they, too, have a chance at greatness.

“At least now my son can become a musician and one day be President,” a middle-aged woman who I rode with in a taxi from Ganta (a county in the northern part of Liberia) to Monrovia said. “He does not need to go to Harvard first or geh (get) all the big big degree[s] before he can be President,” she added.

To these people, the President- elect’s story is proof that elite education is not the only route to the nation’s highest office and that other non-traditional paths such as sports or even music can now take you there.

“He [Weah] even used to sell for his grandmother in Duala public market,” shouted a young man from the rear of the taxi. “Oppong [another name for Weah] gives me hope for a better Liberia. He knows the pain and suffering of the people because he’s one of them. I have no doubt he will make a better president than Ellen,” he added as he looked through the window and pointed to a giant-sized campaign image of Weah emblazoned with his Change for Hope slogan.

For this group, mostly poor, uneducated and under-represented in the national formal economy, Weah is God’s blessing to Liberia, Heaven-sent. Given his poor background, his ‘love for Liberia and compassion for Liberians’, they think Weah, like Jesus ‘was sent by God’ to solve all the problems of the country.

Rough ride ahead

Others believe Liberia is in for a rough ride. At best, these people are convinced, nothing will change in the country except the people in power. They compare Weah to Donald Trump, a populist, famous for actions that have nothing to do with politics but who successfully tapped into voters’ anger with the failure of conventional politicians, to get elected.

At worst, they believe Liberia will slip back into its painful past – anarchy and civil war. They think Weah lacks both the education and the requisite public sector experience to make a good President. 

This group is largely represented by the ‘educated class’. Ethnic divisions aside, the Liberian society is mainly stratified along the ‘educated’, ‘semi-educated’ and ‘uneducated’ lines.

Most of the educated class believe the country’s presidency should not have been gambled with, should have been given to someone who is not only qualified academically but also possesses the leadership experience and international connections.

For many Liberians, the best way to get a feel for the country’s vibes and reconnect with the people is to visit the ‘intellectual exchange centres’ known as Attayee shops. This is where you get the raw, uncensored feelings of Liberians about important national issues, away from polished international media reports and local tabloids.

I had been studying away from Liberia and wanted to know what was really going on.

“Nothing will change in Liberia for the coming six or 12 years,” quipped Joseph Jallah, a civil servant holding forth at the Attayee shop on Career Street. “Weah is not qualified to do anything good as a president,” he added.

According to Morris Togba, a private banker, we are in for tougher times. “We all know Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf] did not perform to many people’s expectations but a George Weah presidency will make us miss Ma-Ellen [Liberians attach ‘Ma’ to the names of elderly women out of respect].

“Just like Charles Taylor [the former Liberian President now imprisoned in The Hague for 50 years for crimes against humanity] is now appreciated by Liberians due to Ellen’s failure to salvage the country, George Weah will do the same for Ellen to [make her]look good. I’m afraid he will drag our country into the mud. Watch and see,” he predicted on his way out of the Attayee shop.

So much uncertainty is in the air. A lot of hope has been pinned on George Weah, who promised Liberians free education, free health care and more jobs to get elected. But transforming Liberia after decades of civil war, economic mismanagement and more recently, Ebola, will be a Herculean task.

Wrong turns and false starts

For a largely inexperienced man like George Weah, whose feet are not firmly planted in the international political and donor cycles, to skilfully negotiate favourable deals for Liberia, we should not expect much, at least not in the first few years of his presidency.

There will be a lot of wrong turns and false starts. There will also be some good turns and true starts. Given his a popular mandate (61.5% of the votes), I believe he will be under pressure to represent the ‘Messiah’ and ‘Country Giant’ – a fatherly figure who loves his country with all his heart – image that average Liberians see in him.

He has his name, his fame and his legend to protect now, his dignity to uphold. He also has a chance to silence his critics by working to improve Liberia. However, the key is managing expectations and rallying Liberians around him to deliver the essential public goods for the nation.

George Weah may mean well for Liberia but running a country takes more than a compassionate heart for its people. It requires an enormous social scientific knowledge and policy experience: all missing qualities on the President-elect’s CV.

But he has a good chance of improving the lives of Liberians and transforming the country if he has the humility to surround himself with those who have more expertise than him and love the country equally.

Whatever the case, Liberia has already been through a lot. Some say we have developed resistance to pain and suffering from our near-death experiences, such as war, Ebola and extreme poverty. We are a resilient people. So even if the experiment with George Weah goes wrong, it will be nothing new. As one of the local songs on the radio echoes: “We will still survive, no matter what happens!” NA

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