Why Liberia’s President Weah must go (democratically)
Liberia’s disaffected citizens are more than justified in hoping that the 10 October election brings change.
If a blind man threatens to stone you, assume he already wields the first pebble.
This local adage permeated national politics in Liberia six years ago when George Weah, the proverbial “blind man” in question, was elected president amidst a tidal wave of anti-intellectualism. Since then, the football-phenomenon-turned-politician has pelted my country and its people with subpar leadership. Were he to secure a second mandate in Liberia’s fourth post-war general and presidential elections on 10 October, there will be nothing left of the country to salvage. It will shrink into a hollow shell of its former self.
During his inaugural speech in January 2018, President Weah vowed to transform “the lives of all Liberians”, yet he failed to convert his clunky campaign slogan, Change for Hope, into concrete wins. Liberia’s disaffected citizens are now hoping for (regime) change through the democratic process and they are justified.
Weah’s gaffes are so numerous that a member of the opposition urged voters to issue him a red card for abysmal performance. The president refused to publicly declare his assets upon taking office and ignored calls for his political appointees to follow suit. He prioritised loyalty over competence by populating key government agencies with sycophants who have no track record of delivery, particularly in the strategic areas of finance and economic planning, foreign and maritime affairs, port management, commerce and industry, public works and energy. And rather than confronting Liberia’s decades of “negative peace” President Weah neglected to establish a war and economic crimes court despite empty pledges to do so.
His administration’s mismanagement compelled Liberia to adopt IMF-backed austerity measures, euphemistically referred to as “harmonisation“, that slashed civil servant salaries. Even before the economic shocks catalysed by COVID-19 and Russia’s war in Ukraine, Liberia’s ballooning debt and currency depreciation left most citizens in the lurch.
Although our cash-based national budget increased from $570 million in 2018 to $783 million in 2023, the lion’s share was earmarked for recurring expenditures such as government salaries and operations, with most growth projections based on resource extraction without value addition. Weah’s administration defied environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles by pursuing dubious contracts shrouded in secrecy, the most recent being a proposed carbon credit deal with the United Arab Emirates that will pawn 10% of the country’s territory.
He promised to “weed out the menace of corruption”, however greed and graft have become the hallmarks of his presidency. For example, Weah’s ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) is fronting two candidates for the national legislature who were sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury for “ongoing public corruption” during their stints as heads of government agencies. Auditors have died mysteriously under Weah’s watch and he conspired with members of the legislature and judiciary to unceremoniously impeach a dissenting Supreme Court justice, thus holding the highest court captive.
In effect, Weah has weaponised the Supreme Court and National Elections Commission (NEC) against Liberia’s citizenry. It is no wonder, then, that the top four opposition presidential candidates I interviewed in July have lost faith in the neutrality and credibility of these two so-called arbiters of electoral disputes.
Acquitted by the Supreme Court for starting voter registration without demarcating electoral constituencies as stipulated in a 2022 national population census, the NEC has proven to be nothing more than a personalist mouthpiece of the president.
Questions continue to linger about the validity of a biometric voter registration (BVR) process marred by severe delays and technical glitches, especially after the NEC’s decision to uphold manual voting in October. Equally concerning was its announcement about funding gaps for a probable rematch between Weah and former vice-president Joseph Boakai in a run-off. Long before the NEC came under fire for stalling the release of a final voter registration roll prior to elections, which is a statutory obligation, public confidence in the institution had already waned.
The electoral referee’s antics may indicate Weah’s intention to use the power and purse of the presidency to massage election results in his favour.
Tellingly, we have witnessed how the recent spate of coups in West and Central Africa reveal a rot from the top, of leaders who cling to power illegitimately when they should bow out gracefully. Yet, while military takeovers rarely end well, the machinations of an embattled head of state in Liberia could be equally destabilising, as political coups in neighbouring Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have demonstrated.
Amidst electrifying euphoria, Weah’s die-hard supporters expected him to transform his fancy footwork on the football field into a presidency that fulfils promises. They expected him to translate the rhetoric of being Liberia’s first self-professed “feminist-in-chief” into advancements for women and girls. They expected him to take one for the team by admitting his errors and reversing course, especially after bruising losses in mid-term senatorial elections and a botched referendum.
Instead, President Weah squandered practically every opportunity to score the country’s most important goal of socio-economic transformation. He heaped all of the challenges inherited from predecessor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a controversial darling of the West, and dug Liberia into a deeper hole of poverty and inequality.
Weah is a cautionary tale of the dangers of populist leaders who have emerged across the globe and the disastrous consequences of Africa’s governance deficits. Although Liberia’s opposition failed to coalesce under one ticket to defeat the incumbent decisively, they all agree he is undeserving of a second term. With rhetorical vows to “rescue”, “fix”, “sweep”, and “renew” Liberia, these candidates have characterised Weah as an existential threat.
And, so, there is little doubt that 10 October will be a referendum on the president. While on the campaign trail, he boasts of his “pro-poor agenda for prosperity and development”, touting successes such as the elimination of high school exam and public university fees, the paving of roads and building of hospitals. Yet, Weah has consistently evaded public debates about his overall record in office, no doubt because he would be found wanting.
A popular song in Liberia, “Dumyanea”, aka “that’s my area”, celebrates individuals’ proficiencies in specific domains of life ranging from the mundane to the consequential. Weah demonstrates an aptitude for sport and music, yes, but the presidency is clearly not his area.
I hope Liberians remind him of this on 10 October. Because when a blind man threatens to stone you, he most likely will.