George Weah emerged from Liberia’s slums to become a superstar footballer in the 1990s, and has leveraged his status as a revered figure among the country’s young and poor in his second run for the presidency.
Weah faces Vice President Joseph Boakai in Tuesday’s presidential run-off, the culmination of 12 years spent building political credibility to match his huge popularity.
“You know I’ve been in competitions ?- tough ones too and I came out victorious. So I know Boakai cannot defeat me,” Weah said ahead of the vote. “I have the people on my side.”
The first African player to win both FIFA’s World Player of the Year trophy and the Ballon d’Or, Weah was largely absent from Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil war period, playing for a string of top-flight European teams including Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan.
After running unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2005, when he was defeated by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Weah says he has “gained experience” since becoming a senator in 2014.
Another fruitless run for the vice-presidency on the ticket of presidential candidate Winston Tubman in 2011 brought him to further prominence among the nation’s voters, many of whom say this time it is “Weah’s turn”.
Weah, 51, has put education, job creation and infrastructure at the centre of his platform — in line with Boakai — and won 38.4 percent of votes in the first round election on October 10, while Boakai came second with 28.8 percent.
– Beloved by young and poor –
Younger voters overwhelmingly favour Weah, who is idolised in his country as “Mister George”.
A member of the Kru ethnic group, Weah was raised by his grandmother on a reclaimed swamp in one of the worst slums of the capital Monrovia.
“Grassroots citizens identify with George Weah, considering that he is close to their day-to-day experience,” explained Ibrahim Al-Bakri Nyei, a Liberian political analyst at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
His critics say the high school dropout, who later completed a degree, is unprepared to lead a country.
“George Weah is a good, humble and respectful person that should not be given the Liberian presidency, because he is being controlled by an evil hand,” said Benoni Urey, a losing presidential candidate who switched his allegiance to Boakai.
Urey and others say Weah is being manipulated by Sirleaf so she can continue to push an agenda when she steps down after 12 years in power.
But many voters see a poor boy from the slums who made good against the odds.
“I believe that whenever we give him a chance, he will be able to give a better Liberia to the youth and the homeless,” Andrew Janjay Johnson, a shoeshiner in a Monrovia market, told AFP.
– ‘Vague’ platform –
Critics also accuse Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) of having too vague a political platform, and have challenged his long absences from the senate since being elected in a race he won over Sirleaf’s son.
Weah has also fended off barbs over his vice-presidential pick, Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of jailed former president and warlord Charles Taylor.
Howard-Taylor however is also a respected senator in her own right, bringing him important votes in the key county of Bong, and along with Sirleaf is one of few powerful women in Liberian public life.
Weah is married to Clar Weah, and his son, Timothy, signed a professional football contract with Paris Saint-Germain in July.