Former international soccer star George Weah will be sworn into office Monday as Liberia’s new president, taking over leadership of this post-war, impoverished West African nation from Africa’s first female president.
The 51-year-old, who was FIFA’s 1995 player of the year, won the runoff vote on Dec. 26 against the outgoing vice-president.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served for 12 years, lifting Liberia from the destruction of back-to-back civil wars that ended before her tenure and facing the challenge of the Ebola crisis that killed thousands here.
Weah, who has run for the presidency before but is relatively new to national politics, inherits a weak economy along with poor health and educational sectors.
Liberians held prayer services for 48 hours leading up to Monday’s inauguration of Weah, who served three years in the senate more than a decade after retiring from a glittering international football career in which he played in France, Italy, the U.K and elsewhere.
Many of Weah’s critics are still skeptical about his ability to deliver in a country that is faced with youth unemployment and other challenges. His running mate, Vice-President-Elect Jewel Howard-Taylor, has political experience that surpasses his. She was married to the nation’s former leader Charles Taylor during his time in power. After they divorced, she was elected senator in 2005, building a political career in her own right.
Evangelical preacher Nathanial Zarway prayed, asking God to grant George Weah “the grace and favour he needs to make a significant difference that will surprise the world.” He was giving an opening prayer at Sunday’s service attended by Weah, his wife Clar and Sirleaf at the Centennial Memorial Pavilion in downtown Monrovia.
The congregation responded with a resounding “amen” when the preacher shouted “God, don’t let him fail you and don’t let him fail the Liberian people who have reposed their confidence in him.”
A similar prayer service was held in a leading mosque on Friday. Weah, who once went by a Muslim name Ousman, attended.
In the lead-up to the inauguration, Weah played in a pre-inaugural exhibition soccer match Saturday, featuring his Weah All Stars team, which was comprised of his former national teammates. Weah scored the first of two goals against Liberian army’s soccer team.
“Her Excellency Madam Ellen (Johnson Sirleaf) will be bringing down the flag, while I raise the flag; it is a new day for Liberia,” Weah said of Monday’s activities. “It is a smooth transition, no-one (is) running around the streets,” he said.
Weah said he was happy about the calm that has characterized the transition process so far.
“This tells you that we came from a war to peace,” he said.
The swearing in is to be at midday at Liberia’s international football field, the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex, about 7 miles southeast of Monrovia. This is the first time such an event will take place there.
About 10 heads of states have said they will attend, according to Chief of Protocol Javis A. Witherspoon. The U.S. will be sending a delegation.
“When you look at his legacy as a star, where he ascended to the level of a celebrity, it actually started on the football pitch,” Witherspoon said, adding that Weah asked for the inauguration to take place there so that his supporters could also attend. “We want to give everybody an opportunity to watch this historical inauguration ceremony.”
Thousands of people stormed the field early Monday to get a chance to see the new president sworn in.
Weah’s new government should launch a “self-sufficiency in food program” to boost agriculture and tackle the problem of unemployment, said James Mulbah, an agricultural extension expert.
“Any country that does not feed itself, you are at the mercy of those that will feed you, that has been the problem in this country and it has continued to exist,” he said.
Liberians should not see Weah as “a magician” who can solve all Liberia’s problems alone, said Florence G. Dukuly , a public administrator.
“Liberians have this dependency syndrome,” depending on the government to do all, she said. “We have to help him make it.” She said the Weah government should “work toward stabilizing the economy.”
The Weah government was urged to ensure “continuation of the programs that have been put in place by the outgoing government so that we remain on the path of development,” said Julia Duncan-Cassell, former Gender, Children and Social Protection minister.
The stadium’s playing pitch has been transformed into a huge, raised platform from where guests will be entertained by live performances. The nation’s red, white and blue colours adorn the VIP block of the field, and giant-sized portraits of Weah and Taylor are planted along the perimeters.
Young supporters of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party carried out a national clean-up ahead of the ceremony.
“We are all overwhelmed with joy,” said Janjay Jacobs, a former midfielder and now coach who played soccer with Weah on Saturday. He said Weah can bring growth and development to Liberia.
“He has been a very inspirational person, very much motivating, never gives up in any situation,” Jacobs said. “If all odds are against him, he still stands up for what he believes in.”